Jesus And Suffering


I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering of late because, as I mention earlier this week, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Joni Eareckson Tada’s diving accident that left her paralyzed. And, “coincidentally” a friend lent me a book that Joni wrote twenty years ago on the subject of suffering.

I checked out the book on Amazon the other day when I wrote about it for this blog, and I was stunned to find a one-star review. Stunned, I tell you! I think of Joni as the quintessential expert on the subject of suffering. I mean, fifty years a quadriplegic, but on top of that a cancer survivor and now one ravaged by the pain of a body suffering from its own immobility.

So, yes, I think Joni knows what she’s talking about when she addresses the subject of suffering.

But even what she has endured pales in comparison to what Jesus experienced.

His whole life was a kind of suffering because He “emptied Himself” when He took the likeness of Man (see Phil. 2). Scholars debate the meaning of that phrase, but one thing we can be sure of—it ain’t positive. He wasn’t enriched by the experience, He wasn’t having a picnic, He wasn’t going on vacation. In some way, the incarnation cost Him. From the beginning.

People will sometimes reference Christ’s humble surroundings at birth—the feeding trough, the stable, with the presumed accompanying smells and sounds. But I think that’s kind of missing the point. God was now a baby boy. He did all the normal things that babies do. He likely spit up, maybe sucked His thumb, slept a lot.

This is God we’re talking about—the One who sustains the universe with a word. But now His words were baby sounds. Now those are humble beginnings. And a type of suffering we can’t know.

Things never got easier for Jesus. He went from insignificant to misunderstood, rejected, betrayed, and denied. Oh, and then He was crucified.

Jesus knew all about suffering. He’s the one who shows us how God can use suffering.

I think of the Christians in Syria who are persecuted for their faith, and to the surprise of many in the West, more and more people are coming to Christ. Would they have done so it their lives were easy?

Think about the start of Christianity. After that initial response to Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, suffering set in. Persecution. Martyrdom. Exile. And things only got worse. Certain Roman Caesars set out to eliminate Christians from their empire. Their ways of killing them were horrific and painful.

Did all that suffering stop the movement of God in the hearts of people? Not at all. In truth, those who had nothing, whose very lives hung in a balance spoke out boldly and pressed themselves to the Father’s side. The only comfort and joy and peace came from Jesus, not their circumstances. And they simply couldn’t be silent.

Joni Eareckson Tada reminds me of that. Her joy and peace and contentment have little to do with her physical life. Oh, sure, things could be worse than they are. I mean she could be homeless and without the necessities of life.

Oh, wait, there are Christians like that, too, and they still exhibit the joy of the Lord. How can that be? It’s not an issue of mind over matter or us pulling ourselves up by our own positive thinking. It’s actually all about the reality of Jesus Christ—His supremacy and His sweetness.

John Piper explains in this 8-minute video entitled “What Is the Secret of Joy in Suffering?”

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No One Can Earn Heaven


The second tenet of the Reformation is “sola fide,” or faith alone. Of course atheists have a field day with such a statement. So many believe that Christians simply decide to believe in God because they like the idea of salvation or heaven and we have no actual reason behind our faith.

Nothing could be further from the truth. And though I’ve had numerous discussions about the difference between faith and blind faith, the conviction seems entrenched: Christians believe in pie-in-the-sky with no supportive reason behind their decision to do so.

In truth, faith is far from this simplistic understanding. In reality, Christians trust the source that informs them about spiritual things: the Bible. The Bible has been proved to be reliable, and in it we learn about faith that is assurance, faith that provides the means to grace:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9; emphasis mine)

Spiritual things. Christians believe in things not seen. We believe in spiritual beings and a spiritual world that is beyond our physical senses. I know for those who don’t believe in the spiritual, they consider such belief to be akin to superstition. But here’s the difference. Our faith is not in ourselves or what we can do.

That’s the “sola” part. We can’t give any amount of money to a church or a ministry, to the poor or the orphaned. We can’t say enough prayers or memorize enough Bible verses. We can’t stand against social injustice or for life or preach about what makes a healthy marriage, or any number of other things, as a means to buy our way into God’s grace.

No. God gives grace. We can’t earn it. We can never be good enough. We can never do enough. It’s simply not possible for us to deal with our bent toward rebellion against God all by ourselves. We can’t curry His favor. We can’t change our circumstances.

We simply must believe that God meant what He said—that He has provided for us what we could not provide for ourselves.

The thing is “belief” is not enough. The book of James states that the demons also believe (and tremble). They aren’t saved for their belief. Why not? Because they persist in their rebellion against God.

The faith that saves is not faith alone. James calls that kind of faith useless and likens it to the body without the spirit—in other words, a corpse, a lifeless corpse.

Instead, the faith that is the conduit of God’s grace, is faith with teeth, faith that signs us up, that puts us all in. We can’t simply say the words. We have to live the life. So believers are people who do what Jesus said, not just give passing agreement to the idea that He was a wise teacher.

No. Jesus specified two commands: love God with all of you and love your neighbor as yourself.

The guy who approached Jesus about how he could please God did a follow-up: who is my neighbor? Jesus replied, as he often did, by telling a story. The essence of this parable which we call The Good Samaritan, is that our neighbor is whoever is in need that crosses our path, be it friend or enemy. We aren’t to step over a fallen traveler along life’s way because we want to keep ourselves from getting our hands dirty. We need to serve others sacrificially.

That’s the kind of faith James is talking about—faith in action. That’s the kind of faith that changes a life, that turns us from living for ourselves to living for God and for others. It’s no accident or coincidence that Christians were at the forefront of the establishment of hospitals and the leaders in medical practice, founding universities and pioneering nursing, advocating for abolition and any number of other social issues.

Of course, there’s a temptation to take the cart without the horse—to do the works as a replacement for the faith that God asks of us. In other words “sola fide” is not simplistic. It’s not a “say this prayer then live how you want” affair.

Paul says it in Romans 6: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?”After all, the more I sin, the more God has to forgive, so lots of people will see His grace.

Paul goes on, though, and says, “May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”

The next verses show our relationship with Christ, that our identification with Him means we died with Him so that, as He was raised from the dead, we might have newness of life.

Newness of life! That’s why old things have passed away. That’s why we can set our minds on things above, not on things on the earth.

In short, faith is the conduit of being “born again.” That phrase has fallen into disrepute of late, but the Bible uses the term and the concept more than once. Jesus, for example, tells Nicodemus he must be born again. Being a literalist, apparently, Nicodemus asked how he was supposed to pull that off since he couldn’t re-enter his mother’s womb.

Not that kind of birth, Jesus seems to say. This is spiritual birth, the kind that revives dead bones. “I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life (Ezekiel 37:14a)

Published in: on October 24, 2017 at 5:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Sex And The Bible – A Reprise


Samson004I’m not sure where the idea has come from that Christians are prudish as opposed to moral. I don’t see the two meaning the same thing, and neither does the New Oxford American Dictionary. But what about the Bible? Is it prudish?

Not quite. No sooner does the writer of Genesis recount the creation of Adam and Eve but he reports, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25).

Some people unfamiliar with the Bible have the strange idea that the first sin had to do with sex. I think that myth is reflective of a sex-crazed society, because it has nothing to do with reality.

Sex was part of creation which God declared to be good. In addition, His first command, even before “From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,” was “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” Translated, that means, Have sex with your wife and have kids.

After Man sinned and God removed humans from the garden, sex remained as much a part of the historical record as any other human activity. In Genesis 4, for example, the Bible notes that Lamech took two wives—presumably the first to have bigamist relationships.

After the flood, when Noah and his family landed on dry land, the Bible notes that Ham, his youngest son, “saw the nakedness of his father” while Noah, drunk from wine, was passed out. Something happened, clearly, because when Ham’s brothers learned what he’d done, they “covered the nakedness of their father.” Noah awoke and “knew what his youngest son had done to him.”

Not a clear picture of what kinky thing happened in this family, but the event is not omitted either. Neither are the homosexual desires of the men in Sodom and Gomorrah who wanted to rape Lot and the two angels who had come to take him out of the city.

The Bible doesn’t shy away from revealing Sarah’s attempt to “help God out” with the son He’d promised Abraham by giving her husband Hagar, her servant, as a mistress, since she herself was beyond child-bearing years.

Then there’s Jacob and the trickery of Laban which put Leah in the wedding tent the night Jacob thought he was having sex with Rachel. A week later, after completing his sexual obligation to his first wife, he then married the woman he loved. But throughout the years, Jacob’s sex life is about as open as . . . oh, say, David’s.

First, though he loved Rachel, he continued to sleep with Leah, as evidenced by the four sons she birthed. Rachel, on the other hand, was barren, and demanded Jacob give her sons. He responded by saying, Am I God who has closed your womb? Notice, he didn’t say, OK, I’ll move back in with you. Apparently, Rachel’s barrenness was not due to a lack of sex between her and her husband.

Rachel’s jealousy led her to give Jacob her servant as a mistress. He didn’t object and had two sons by that woman. Leah didn’t want Rachel to get ahead of her, so she gave Jacob her servant as mistress. In the course of time she delivered two sons as well.

But Jacob still loved Rachel and apparently was now living with her exclusively. Except one day Rachel asked Leah to share the mandrakes one of her sons had found in the field. Leah ended up agreeing . . . if she could sleep with Jacob that night.

And Leah once more got pregnant. And again. And again.

But at some point Jacob went back to Rachel because God opened her womb, and she gave birth to a son named Joseph.

Joseph—this would be the boy whose jealous brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt where he fended off the advances of his master’s wife and landed in jail because of it. Let me be clear. This was not some mild flirtation. The Bible says Potiphar’s wife approached Joseph day after day and said, Lie with me.

Then there’s Joseph’s brother Judah, whose daughter-in-law tricked him into sleeping with her (he thought she was a prostitute—so much more upright!)—and had twins by him.

Should I go on to the gang rape and murder Judges records or the mass kidnapping of women the Israelite leaders engineered so the men of Benjamin would have wives. Then there are Samson’s exploits with various women and David’s adultery.

I’m sorry. If someone thinks Christians are prudish it’s because a) they don’t know what’s in the Bible; or b) they’re talking about professing Christians who don’t read the Bible and are formulating their attitudes about sex from some other place.

Because, yes, many of the examples I mentioned above are not what we’d call ideal examples of a sexual relationship. But that’s part of the point. The Bible doesn’t pull any punches about sex or any other topic. Jesus Himself had some clear instruction about lust, and He didn’t shy away from telling the Samaritan woman precisely what her marital status was (You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t your husband).

He didn’t camp on her sexual failings, however. He didn’t tell her to marry the man she was living with and then come back to see Him. But He also didn’t hesitate to tell the woman caught in the act of adultery that she should sin no more.

Prudish? The Bible is not prudish. People who read the Bible will see the good, the beautiful, the disturbing, the vile within its pages. A Christian who pays attention to what God says about sex through the lives and decrees and admonitions in Scripture can hardly have a prudish attitude toward sex.

The Bible doesn’t shy away from the topic of sex, but it also never presents sex as mankind’s problem. But don’t take my word for it; read it yourself.

This post is an edited version of one that originally appeared here in May 2014.

Published in: on September 28, 2017 at 5:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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Loyalty To The King – Reprise


Some times a democracy can be harmful. I’m so happy the founders of the US established the kind of government they did, but the fact is, our right to vote has translated into a right to criticize. And criticism more often than not yields to grumbling and complaining, which in its turn can lead to slanderous invectives.

The US is in a unique period of our history. The nation is divided in a disturbing way—people on opposing sides have little respect for the individuals who hold a different view. The idea seems to be, only morons would not agree with my position, therefore you in the opposing camp are morons, and I don’t have to listen to you. If fact, I’d rather if you simply did not speak.

Nothing could be more detrimental to a country that depends on compromise between legislators, between the two legislative houses, and between the legislature and the executive branch of government.

Compare where we are with David, youngest son of Jesse, who found himself in the opposite camp from the king of the land. Though he did not harbor rebellion in his heart and only fulfilled the king’s every wish, David became King Saul’s enemy.

We’re not talking about Saul hurling insults at David. He hurled spears. More than once. He ordered his men to pull him out of his house and kill him. He murdered seventy priests because one, thinking David, the King’s son-in-law, to still be a loyal member of his court and on the King’s business, gave him food and a weapon.

Saul took an army of 3000 to hunt him down; he bribed and pleaded and cajoled and threatened to get people to disclose where David was hiding.

Sometimes his schemes seemed to work, and he closed in on David. Once when he was pursuing David in the desert, he took a break in a cave—a siesta, of sorts, in the middle of the day to get out of the heat. As it happened, David was hiding in the recesses of that same cave, but Saul never knew it.

David’s men urged him to put an end to the persecution once and for all by killing Saul. But David refused for one reason and one reason alone—Saul was God’s anointed. In other words, God had put Saul in authority, and David was not about to supersede God’s decision.

Later he had a second opportunity to finish Saul when he made a foray into his camp at night. As it happens, God put a deep sleep upon everyone, and David slipped in, grabbed a couple things belonging to Saul to use as proof that he did not plan evil against the man who sought to kill him, then slipped out. Even though his men urged him to do Saul in.

But David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him, for who can stretch out his hand against the LORD’S anointed and be without guilt?” David also said, “As the LORD lives, surely the LORD will strike him, or his day will come that he dies, or he will go down into battle and perish. The LORD forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the LORD’S anointed; but now please take the spear that is at his head and the jug of water, and let us go.” (1 Sam. 26:9-11)

In all this David did not rail against Saul or paint him as a monster. He didn’t brag that he himself was anointed by God, and he didn’t use his choice by God, carried out by the prophet Samuel, as a special reason for no longer honoring the King.

David lived out his loyalty to God by remaining loyal to His chosen King. He was willing to let God deal with Saul. This position is precisely the one the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter preached, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to Christians in the first century.

They happened to fall under great persecution because of their faith in Jesus Christ, but Peter wrote this in his first letter:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:13-17)

By doing right we may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Not by calling them names. Not by signing petitions or starting impeachment campaigns or painting Hitler mustaches on the government leaders we don’t like.

David was right to let God deal with Saul. He had to wait, and he got tired of waiting which led him into a bad situation, but he remained firm about not taking matters into his own hands. He would not move against Saul. He would let God take care of him.

His wait paid off.

When I see Christians treat our President—whether now or four years ago—with disrespect and accuse him unjustly, I am confused. God’s command in His word is clear: we are to honor our leaders:

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men (Titus 3:1)

Even more clearly, Paul said to the Romans, who would have had a front row seat to all the abuses of the Caesars and their minions:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. (Romans 13:1-6)

Notice Paul does not qualify his statements. He’s not saying be subject to authorities with whom you agree or to ones who aren’t corrupt.

David’s example shows, however, that being subject to the King didn’t mean to stand still so he could skewer him with his spear. David ran and hid and ran some more so that Saul wouldn’t kill him. But he didn’t assassinate his character or take the man’s life.

Would that Christians today had as much confidence in God’s sovereignty and His omniscient plans as David did all those years before. He didn’t have Scripture to direct him in his decisions. We do, and still we speak with such disrespect about our rulers.

Even though our democracy allows us the freedom to speak against our leadership and those with whom we disagree, I think our commitment to Christ should lead us to a different position.

This post is an edited version of one that originally appeared here in October, 2014.

Published in: on September 27, 2017 at 5:10 pm  Comments (9)  
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The Difference Jesus Makes


Moses010When God chose Abraham, He entered into a unilateral agreement, promising to give him land, make him a father of nations, and yes, the father of His chosen people.

Later this agreement expanded into a conditional one–if Israel did certain things, then God would bless them and make them fruitful, but if Israel did the opposite, then God would bring their actions down on their heads.

In part the conditional agreement was based on Israel keeping the Ten Commandments and participating in the sacrificial system God launched when Moses finally led the people across the Red Sea, ready to be on their way to the land God had promised.

After escaping a confrontation with the Egyptians and surviving the crises of no water and not any food, Israel spend at least a year on hold, waiting as Moses received instructions from God and then as they carried them out. Through Moses, God transmitted the plans for a worship center and laws about their relationship with Him, with each other, with their stuff.

Over and over in all those laws, His call for them was to be holy because He is holy. But the problem was, they weren’t. He knew it and they knew it. When Moses was getting ready to meet with God to receive His instructions, the people were warned not to come near the mountain where God’s presence would be. The place was cordoned off, but God had Moses retrace his steps and warn the people again that if they tried to break through and come up to God, they would die.

Yes, die.

Later, God spoke to the people, and He so terrified them, that they begged Moses to act as their intermediary from then on rather than dealing directly with God.

I have to admit, I find all this stunning. I understand how great God is, how awesome His power, how far above any human He is in might and majesty. I even understand Peter’s command for believers who call God, Father, to “conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth” (1 Peter 1:17b).

But understanding all this is purely head knowledge.

I know God to be a just Judge who will one day separate those who follow Him from those who reject Him and will mete out appropriate rewards for both. But my experience with Him is far removed from these things I know.

I shake my head and think, how can I be relating to God as one of the living stones who is being “built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices” when the people of Israel couldn’t even stand in His presence?

They wanted God to go with them, but in order for that to happen they had to abide by that elaborate system of sacrifices and purification. In contrast, I offer no sacrifices, undergo no purification rites, and have the Holy Spirit of God make His dwelling in me. Not with me. In me.

I know Him as a child knows her father, as a sheep knows its shepherd, as a friend knows his best friend. How can this be???

It’s Christ.

He makes all the difference. God is still awesome in power, but I never have to fear that He will turn His vengeance on me because He turned it on Christ. I never have to fear God’s just judgment for my failures to obey Him because He already judged Jesus.

As a result, I can enjoy God’s presence–not as one trembling on the outside of a boundary line staring up at the top of a mountain in the hope of catching a glimpse of His glory. Rather, I have the Holy Spirit with me, guiding me in all truth, comforting me in sorrow and grief, producing His fruit when I feel inadequate and fruitless.

It’s such a dramatic difference, I can hardly comprehend what life must have been like for those who lived without the Holy Spirit in their lives day after day. Even during those times when I quench the Spirit or grieve Him, it’s not the same as not having Him in my life. It’s more like a fight with someone I love who I know I still love and who will still love me. It’s ugly and painful and sometimes costly, but it’s not permanent and it’s never complete separation.

What a difference Jesus makes!

This post originally appeared here in September, 2013.

Published in: on September 26, 2017 at 6:02 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Racial Divide In America


If you aren’t an American or a sports fan you might not be aware that President Trump made a comment recently about the National Football League players who chose to kneel during the national anthem. A small number of players have done what then San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick started doing last year as a way to protest current racial treatment of minorities.

I don’t know what prompted Mr. Trump to bring up in subject in a speech, but he doesn’t seem hesitant to say what he wants when he has a crowd he believes will agree with him.

Sadly our President used inappropriate language when talking about people with whom he disagrees. Even more egregious is his advocacy of punishment for people who exercise their Constitutional right of free speech.

In part, here’s what Mr. Trump said that stirred the pot.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still frustrated that the Supreme Court ruled that actions, such as burning the American flag are protected “speech.” An action and speech are two different things, and they carry two different impacts on the people around them. But that bridge has already been crossed.

The question the President raised is, should that small number of NFL players who chose to kneel during the national anthem be fired?

Such a response is not Constitutional.

It’s odd that President Trump should say such a thing because here in California, at least, maybe nationally, a child can refuse to say the pledge of allegiance. But grown men can’t take a knee during the anthem?

The real problem is this. We no longer care more for what unites us than for what divides us.

That’s not true in my church.

It’s not true in sports stadiums, either. The color jersey you have on is far more important than the color of your skin. Why? Because regardless of your race or ethnicity, you share a love for, a rooting interest in, the same team. You have a bond, at least for those hours that you are in the stands, yelling and screaming for Your Team.

Church goes deeper. Being a follower of Jesus Christ is greater than being a fan of the Dodgers or any other team. Why? Because we don’t simply admire Jesus or take pride in His accomplishments. His life changes us. And every believer has had the same essential experience. Sure, the details vary, but we all know we are family. And unlike the NFL players who will often say their teammates are their brothers, the family of God is eternal.

I got a wrong number phone call a few weeks ago. The woman started to leave a message to “Mary” about praying for her daughter who was in Florida. I picked up the phone and told her I wasn’t “Mary” though I was happy to hear she was praying for the daughter. Her next question was, are you a Christian?

We talked for at least ten more minutes, and she prayed for me before we hung up, happy to know that one day we will be in God’s presence together. I never thought to ask her what color her skin is. She didn’t ask me if I was of a particular ethnicity. We shared a bond simply because we both love our Lord and Savior.

That’s a unity that is unshakable, that no organization or President can bully into existence. No need for any coercion. True Christians are family because something far more important unites us than anything this world says should divide us.

The apostle Paul spelled it out to the church in Colossae:

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col. 3:9-11, ESV)

OK, so there’s a little more to Christian unity than simply having a shared belief. We also have a shared new nature. That’s the part that’s hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced the cleansing power of God’s forgiveness.

Of course we aren’t finished products, so Christian brothers or sisters can still sin against one another. But anger and resentment and revenge are sins, too, and we know that answering a wrong with another wrong helps no one.

In that regard, I think the NFL players handled their response to President Trump fairly well. But I think Christians have a chance to show the nation and the world what true unity is all about.

Published in: on September 25, 2017 at 5:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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No Thank You, Mr. Buffett


Suppose I decide I want to talk to Warren Buffett, the American business magnate. I hunt up a number, call, and wonderfully am answered on the first ring by one of his many assistants.

I explain I want to talk to Mr. Buffett himself. The assistant tells me he just happens to be on site and available. In seconds I hear Mr. Buffett’s energetic voice.

I eagerly identify myself, then move on to the reason for my call. “Thank you,” I say, “but Mr. Buffett I’ll have to say no. I just can’t accept a million dollars from you.”

He pauses, clears his voice, then says, “There must be some mistake. I never offered you a million dollars.”

As you know, this scenario is completely fictitious, but I think there are parts that are analogous to our perception of humankind’s relationship with God.

Jesus clearly said that

he who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18; emphasis mine)

As I understand this passage, there are only two camps—he who believes and he who has not believed. In other words, no one is in the state of my fictitious scenario in which no offer has been made.

We frequently talk about accepting Christ, yet we don’t take much time thinking about what rejecting the Son means. Instead, we assume that first a person hears about Jesus, then he “makes a decision.” That way of looking at things suggests the third category—those who have not heard.

I want to postulate that the decision to reject the Son of God has more to do with our heart attitude than it does with hearing the name of Jesus.

I realize I am walking a dangerous line here, one I think some of the universalists traverse. However, I hope I am coming at it from a Biblical perspective.

More and more, people claiming to be Christians speak of the “innocent” people who haven’t heard the gospel (as Rob Bell did some years ago in his ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos). At best that position is tapping into the “blank slate” theory, that man is born neutral and can decide to be good or evil. At worst, it aligns with the belief that man is good and something from the outside—society or government or Satan or an evil parent or traditional religion—drags him into sin.

The truth is, none is innocent. None is righteous. We are all in “reject” mode, dethroning God and enthroning ourselves.

Let me turn the page for a minute. When Jesus was teaching in the temple one day, He began a discussion with the Pharisees about who their father was. They claimed God was their father, but Jesus said no. Their father was the devil (see John 8:18-59).

Whether Jesus stood in front of them or not, their father would still have been the devil. He did not become their father because they rejected Jesus as their Messiah. The devil already was their father.

Jesus, of course, knew this about them because He is omniscient. He knew they were slaves to sin. The only thing that could free them would be His shed blood.

But today so many are coming to the issue of salvation as if it is a matter of imparting information—giving everyone a chance to hear the truth, and if they haven’t had that chance, then God is either unfair or He’ll give them that chance later or the information we thought they needed, they didn’t really need because their own belief system is a good substitute.

All of this rejects the idea that an omniscient, all powerful, good God who forms us in our mothers’ wombs can know our hearts and that He calls those who are His. It’s an uncomfortable idea.

We don’t know, can’t understand why God put us in America where we could so easily hear the gospel.

But we must marvel just as much about Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, who was kidnapped with the intent to be sold into slavery. As a result, he had the opportunity to learn about Jesus and escaped the plague that wiped out the rest of his people group.

Or how about Mincayani, one of the Huaorani tribesmen that killed Jim Eliot and the others martyred with him. His act of violence did not stop the truth of God from coming to his people and specifically to Mincayani himself.

The stories of people coming to Christ are many, varied, and no less miraculous if the miracle is about being born where the gospel is readily heard or if it is about one hearing the unexpected and unsought truth of God’s Son.

My point is this. I don’t believe anyone will be judged for rejecting an unoffered gift. God is not Warren Buffett.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in March 2011.

Truth And Love


Instead of starting with Love or even with Truth, I want to start with a discussion of post-truth.

Post-truth: adjective

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’

‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’ (English Oxford Living Dictionaries)

As it happens, the Oxford Dictionary picked post-truth as their Word of the Year for 2016. Fitting, some might say. Truth is having a hard time because so many politicians and media people and Washington insiders lie regularly.

But there’s more to that definition: in place of facts we’re apparently forming our opinions based on our beliefs. Which implies that our beliefs are already divorced from facts. So we’re believing something because . . . ? What’s the basis for our beliefs if not something we can label as True?

Are we believing what makes us feel good? I believe I’ll win the lottery. I believe it will not rain this weekend. I believe the Dodgers will win the World Series this year. I believe I’ll sell my fantasy series for a six figure advance. Silly stuff, that. Those aren’t beliefs, though they’ve been framed as belief statements. They would more accurately be called wishful thinking or pipe dreams—unattainable, unlikely, or fanciful desires.

Truth is not part of that kind of wishful thinking.

But clearly our society has moved belief out of the camp of truth and into the camp of post-truth.

Yet Jesus, standing with his disciples turned to Thomas, the doubter, and said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6; emphasis mine) He went on to say that if they’d seen Him, they’d seen the Father. So Jesus is Truth, ergo, God is Truth. Essentially He said, You’re looking at God, who happens to be Truth.

But God is also Love. As it happens, Jesus is the proof, the evidence, the tipping point that demonstrates God’s attribute of Love:

The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:8-10; emphasis mine).

In other words, when God sent Jesus, He demonstrated to the world that He is Love.

How so? Because He stood in the gap for the world, according to John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” We on our part must do nothing but believe. God, manifesting His Person as Love, sent His Son to do what we could not do for ourselves.

We could not deal with the sin in our lives and in the world. We could not bridge the gap between us and God. We could only suffer the consequences for sin: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

So why the big deal that God is Truth and that God is Love?

In our post-truth culture, we live as if the truth and love are mutually exclusive. If I have the truth and you disagree with me, then you are engaging in hate! Of course, my truth might not be your truth unless you say that your truth is absolute and unshakeable and eternal. Such a statement marks you as a hater because the only truth we can know for sure is that there is no absolute truth. How we know this has never been explained, but our post-truth society embraces it.

But what if we Christians step out and do the ministry of reconciliation in our communities and families—what if we Love in Truth and what if we speak Truth in Love? What if we show by our lives that God is Truth and God is Love; what if we, His children who house His Spirit, reflect His qualities by what we say and do?

Too often people look at Christians and see us at war with our culture. Or they see us withdrawing from our culture. We either embrace Truth and seek to stand by it or die trying. Or we embrace Love and shy away from anything that could offend or stir up ill will or that could be misunderstood. We want above all to clasp hands with our neighbors in hopes that they realize we love them because of God’s love (which we never talk about because *gasp* we might offend someone) in us.

Or we retreat into our own. We trust Team Jesus, and we’d just as soon keep all our dealings with the home team. No offense. We’d just rather not have to deal with, you know, The World. That’s one of the enemies, right up there with The Flesh, which we pretend has disappeared when we became Christians, and The Devil, which we must guard against. So, to avoid fighting battles on two fronts, we’ll separate ourselves from The World.

It’s not quite that simple.

The World doesn’t refer to the latest movies or songs on iTunes. It doesn’t refer to today’s fads and fashions in clothes or piercings or tattoos. It refers to the system by which the world operates. The system that opposes God, that denies The Truth about God, that lies about who we are and how we got here and why we exist.

We can only counter The World by submerging ourselves in The Truth and engaging those who need to hear it with the same love Christ had for us while we were yet sinners. In other words, we must be proactive, not reactive.

We must not play favorites with God’s nature. His Truth can’t be ignored. His Love can’t be ignored. Otherwise we’re representing a God who doesn’t actually exist. He’s not a kindly grandfather trying to give every boy and girl a lollipop and a pat on the head. His Love is radical and dangerous and transformative.

As is His Truth. But His Truth does not make God hard-nosed, unkind, or insensitive. He isn’t a drill sergeant waiting for recruits to mess up so he can send them on a night run as punishment. He isn’t playing some game of “gotcha.”

No. His Truth is fueled by His Love. And Jesus exemplifies both.

Now it’s our turn—those who believe in Jesus—to go out into the world and preach Jesus as The Turth which the post-truth generation needs, and to do so in The Love that will enable them to hear what we’re saying.

– – – – – –

For more on Truth and Love see this RZIM article, “Truth Or Love: What’s Your Choice?”

Published in: on March 13, 2017 at 6:26 pm  Comments Off on Truth And Love  
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Holy Habits


prayer handsWhen I was growing up, rebellion was the in thing. Teen angst, questioning the establishment, finding fault in every “meaningless” adult action–these were the norm.

A good number of us Christians didn’t buy into all these challenges to society, but culture seeped into my thinking regardless. One way this became apparent was in questioning the value of doing things by rote. Rather, everything was to be authentic, transparent, significant. And what was the worth of doing things over and over simply because we’ve always done them?

Significance, of course, is important, as opposed to doing something for show. Yet some things don’t reveal their value immediately. Unfortunately, my generation expected instantaneous results. If something didn’t have apparent worth right then, it was shuttled off to the side.

Note the word “apparent” in that statement. Unfortunately, if something is not perceived to have immediate value, then the conclusion is, it doesn’t have any.

When it comes to being a Christian, here are some of the things I grew up with: church, Sunday school, evening Sunday service, youth group, Wednesday night prayer meeting, Youth for Christ or Young Life, family devotions, prayer before meals twice a day (three times during the summers when we were home at noon), vacation Bible school.

Mind you, nothing is sacred about any of those things, except assembling with believers in worship, which Scripture tells us not to stop doing. Yet, there is an advantage in developing holy habits. Each of those activities I remember from my growing up years served to reinforce what I knew and was learning about God. That these activities were important to my parents said something too.

Sadly, for too many of the adults, they were simply going through the motions, or they could have answered the questions about purpose and significance their teens were asking. They could have demonstrated authenticity, had their holy habits carried real meaning.

Instead, those holy habits started to fade. First to go was prayer meeting, then evening church. Pretty soon, showing up for a church service once in a while seemed to become the norm. Happily Bible studies and fellowship groups have risen more recently to take the place of some of the other activities.

Through it all, I’ve learned that nothing substitutes for personal holy habits.

I wondered and questioned, more than I care to relive, the value of reading the Bible when “I wasn’t getting anything out of it.” My mind would drift when I prayed, and I felt frustrated when I found myself faced with the same requests week after week.

Yet here I am years later, with such a different attitude toward spending time in God’s word and in prayer. When did this change happen? Somewhere in the midst of the routine of pulling out my Bible first thing every morning. The change didn’t happen because of something I did, and there was no switch God flipped inside me.

Rather, the holy habit of spending time with God, even when I didn’t feel like it, had a transforming effect. Or more accurately, God’s presence in His Word and by His Spirit made the time with Him increasingly more significant.

Yes, holy habits can be routine and seem mundane, but like any other habit, the value comes with time. Establishing the habit may be hard, but enjoying it once it’s in place—that’s priceless.

This post is a re-print of one that first appeared here in December 2012—because I needed to re-read it.

Fooled Or Foolish


In Paul’s Colossians letter, he talks a little about his struggle on behalf of the Church—that believers will gain “a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself.” He goes on to explain why he’s putting such emphasis on Christ: “I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument” [emphasis here, and in the following verses, is mine.]

A few verses later he adds,

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. (Col. 2:8)

As if that’s not enough, he revisits the issue again:

Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head (Col. 2:18-19a)

Paul is making a case for Christians to focus on Christ and who He is so they won’t be fooled by the false teaching that had begun to seep into the Church.

It’s such a timely warning for today too. Health-and-wealth Christians or name-it-and-claim-it believers pull helpless, hurting people into their wake, but so do the universalists who promise no hell. Others, with arrogance, teach that Christians don’t sin. Another group wants to re-image Jesus or lose the “angry” God of the Old Testament, and a bunch more want to ignore the entire book of Revelation.

False teaching to the left, false teaching to the right, and so many Christians being fooled.

At the same time, there are Christians holding other Christians up to scorn because their work for Christ isn’t artistic enough or profound enough or nuanced enough or purposeful enough or missional enough. It seems we’ve forgotten what Paul says in 1 Corinthians:

but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, … so that no man may boast before God. (1 Cor. 1:27, 29)

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we should purposefully go out and do a bumbling job of the tasks God gives us so that He has a weak thing with which to work. The fact is, He already has a weak thing with which to work—humans.

Some time ago, I had what was at the time, an epiphany: I am small. I didn’t realize so much that I am a small, unimportant human among the powerful rich, famous, and politically connected. Rather, I realized my smallness in light of God’s bigness, His unfathomable bigness.

Then He makes it clear in His word that His plan is to use His people—all of us small ones. Jesus, the head, wants His body the church to hold fast to Him so that we can grow with a growth which comes from God (Col. 2:19b). With growth comes fruit and the fulfillment of the Christian’s directive to make disciples.

None of it happens because we are clever or eloquent or intelligent or personable or influential. The Church grows with a growth which comes from God.

Jeremiah sums this up nicely:

Thus says the LORD, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD. (Jer. 9:23-24)

It seems to me, the foolish, though they may be criticized by fellow Christians for their inadequacies, are the people God can use, and the fooled—those so enamored with the “traditions of men … the elementary principles of the world … inflated without cause by their fleshly mind”—simply aren’t available because they’re distracted or unattached from the head who is Christ. They are not “seeking the things above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). They haven’t set their “minds on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col 3:2).

The bottom line is that the Apostle Paul was right. Small, weak, and foolish though we be, our focus should be on Christ.

On the other hand, if we bypass Christ for the imaginings of men, we’ve been deluded, deceived, fooled.

This post is a revised, updated version of one that first appeared here in October 2011.