Forgiveness Is Not An Option


2017-Honda-Civic-ReviewI read a friend’s blog post today about forgiveness and I realized anew how little we talk about or understand forgiveness. Our speaker Sunday said something that also struck a nerve. Actually he was quoting Charles Spurgeon. He said the fall caused us to cling to grievances and to forget benefits.

Cling to grievances. That’s a lack of forgiveness.

Scripture has a lot to say about forgiveness. Here’s a re-post of an article I wrote on the subject, taking a look at one particular Biblical example.

– – – – –

New cars come with options. When I bought my car, it didn’t have a lot of perks. Those I could add if I chose. In most cases, I decided to go with the basics because the options cost extra.

Some time ago I heard another sermon on forgiveness, and it drove home a point I have learned and re-learned: forgiving others is not optional. It’s a product of having been forgiven. It’s not a means to forgiveness and it’s not an accessory that can be dispensed with at will. But for the Christian, it’s part of the basic package.

This is one of the areas that flies in the face of all other religions and anything the secular culture believes. As a matter of fact, it flies in the face of us Christians, too. It is not natural to forgive — but being forgiven makes it possible.

Once you’ve experienced the weight of guilt inexplicably removed through no effort of your own, two things happen. One is a sense of relief and gratitude. The second is a sense of kinship. You see someone else in the throes of justified condemnation, you see yourself and you understand, that was you once upon a time.

Interesting that the Apostle Paul, from time to time, reminded the people he wrote to of just this fact. Take his letter to the Colossians, for example, in which he wrote

Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you once walked when you were living in them. (3:5-7 – emphasis mine)

It’s good that Scripture reminds us to look at what we were — exactly what people without Christ are. We were the prodigal, squandering our inheritance, we were the eldest brother, too jealous and judgmental to go inside and welcome his brother home.

But those two brothers illustrate the difference between being forgiven and not. The prodigal was a mess and knew it. He came to his father with nothing but the hope that he could serve because he had no way of making amends. When his father ran to him, hugged him (before he’d had a bath), restored him to his place as son, and set in motion a celebration, he knew he didn’t deserve any of it.

The brother coming in from the field, however, thought he deserved better than he got. He should have a celebration thrown for him, he reasoned, because he’d earned it. What’s more, he wasn’t about to join in a celebration for a wayward brother.

One son, contrite and humble, the other son, bitter and condemning. Which one had experienced the father’s forgiveness?

Jesus’s story doesn’t say that the prodigal son forgave his brother for not coming to his celebration, or anything like that. But it does tell us that the stay-at-home brother had an angry heart toward his brother and toward his father.

So who did he hurt by holding onto his anger? His brother? His father? They, I suspect, had a great time at the welcome-home feast. Only the bitter brother was left out.

So it is with us. Those who have experienced forgiveness aren’t in a position to shake our finger in anyone else’s face, reciting all their misbehaviors. Our eyes are downcast, or closed in worship, or fixed on the face of Jesus.

Those who have not experienced forgiveness feed their anger and jealousy, and end up missing out on the joy and rejoicing they could be a part of.

It’s a nasty thing, unforgivingness. It eats away at joy, contentment, gratitude. Certain names, we don’t want to hear; certain pictures, we tear up and throw away; certain places we no longer visit; certain days, we dread.

Can a forgiven person act that way? Only until the Holy Spirit comes along and says, And you once walked in those same sins when you were living in them. At that point, we realize forgiveness isn’t an option.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in 2010 and was republished in February 2012.

Published in: on September 5, 2016 at 7:18 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Christian, the Church, and Love for the “Brethren”


Elmhurst_CRC_1964_(3)When I was growing up, we used to reference love for “the brethren and the sisteren,” and I always thought that was such a fundamental Scriptural principle it didn’t need special attention.

That was before I started seeing the way some Christians treat others online. Eventually I ran into a group that defended unkind words directed at other Christians with whom they disagreed. I was floored.

Their central point was that false teachers need to be treated harshly, and to make their case they used several places in Scripture that talk about apostates and those spreading heresy. From there they looked to the way Jesus talked to the Pharisees, calling them snakes and white-washed tombs. Then there’s Paul telling the Galatians they are foolish and confronting Peter for his hypocrisy.

So are they right?

I don’t think so—not the way they use these verses as permission to mock or malign others. The handful of examples they give must be balanced by the preponderance of instruction telling Christians to treat each other, our enemies, all men, with love and/or consideration.

Some years ago, as I worked my way through the New Testament, I noticed over and over this theme of treating one another with love. In the gospels, the emphasis is on loving our neighbors and loving our enemies until we get to John. Jesus then makes His strong statements about Christians loving Christians so that the world will know we follow Christ.

John then drew the conclusion that love for the brethren (and sisteren😉 ) is one sign that a person does in fact truly follow Christ:

  • By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another
    – 1 John 3:10-11 (emphases mine)
  • We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.
    – 1 John 3:14
  • Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
    – 1 John 4:7-8
  • Starting in Romans Paul fleshes out what it means to have love for the brethren, and for all men:

  • Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
    – Rom 12:11-18 (emphases mine)
  • Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
    – Rom 13:10
  • He gives a more lengthy explanation to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13), then includes instruction to love other Christians in a number of his other letters:

    • to the Galatians – “but through love serve one another”
    • to the Ephesians – “and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”
    • to the Philippians – “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment”
    • to the church in Colossae – “Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.”
    • to the church in Thessalonica – “and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you”
    • to Timothy – “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion”

    The writer to the Hebrews continues the theme:

      “Let love of the brethren continue.”

    As does James

      “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,’ you are doing well.”

    And Peter

      “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart”

    Believe it or not, these passages are nothing more than a representative sample. How can a Christian miss the fact that love for one another is central to true discipleship? As Paul said in 1 Thessalonians “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another.”

    Does Scripture tell us to stand against false teachers? From my study, I believe it does, but not to the exclusion of the clear command to love believers and all men, to be kind, to restore others with gentleness, to pursue peace with all men, to refrain from speaking against one another and many, many more similar indisputable relational instructions.

    So how did Christians bashing Christians or Christians bashing the Church or Christians bashing sinners—on the Internet or by letter or face to face—become something we believers seem to think is just fine?

    This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2010.

    Survivor


    I’m a fan of Survivor. I saw the very first show over ten ago when it was a summer fill-in that broke out as one of the most popular game shows of all time. Yes, game shows. It isn’t “reality” TV by any stretch of the imagination. It is all about competing against a group of strangers by trying to outwit, outplay, and outlast each of them.

    The twist, of course, is that the contestants are also living side-by-side with these same people, and to a certain extend, are dependent upon them for food, shelter, fire, water, and victories so they don’t have to face the dreaded “Tribal Council” where they might be voted out of the game.

    The game changes from season to season, but recently the producers pitted the men against the women, with a twist: both teams were camping on the same beach, so they were neighbors. Because of an accident that sent one of the women out of the game with a broken wrist, the men were declared the winners of the first challenge, winning the reward—flint so they could start fire. They had been given a choice. They were in the lead when the girl hurt herself and the game was stopped, hence, by rule they were the winners, but they could choose to play it out and win “fair and square.” They chose to take the win in hand.

    But here’s the amazing thing: the women were shocked by their choice! They thought for sure the men would do the gentlemanly thing and let the game play out.

    As if!! My first thought was, Do none of those women have brothers? Are they so clueless about the competitive nature of the men who sign up to play Survivor? I also thought, How entitled of them. Not only did they think the men should have let the game play, they then thought the guys should share fire with them when they got back to camp. They even tried to steal some embers during the night but couldn’t keep the coals alive.

    Lest you think too badly of the women, the men pulled the first unethical trick. When they reached their launch spot, they had 60 seconds to unload a truck of whatever gear they thought they could use. One of the women grabbed an ax, and one of the guys preceded to steal it. Let’s say, the guys showed their true colors right there—they were playing a no-holds-barred game. But later in camp the women were still expecting chivalry. Really!?!

    During nearly every season, someone makes a point of playing the game with integrity and someone else gets their feelings hurt when they get stabbed in the back—betrayed by tribe mates who promised to take them all the way to the end. Some years the one who engineers the betrayals is considered a mastermind and ends up winning the million dollar prize. Other seasons, the leader of all the manipulation is considered a villain and despised for using those he betrayed.

    The whole thing is an interesting study in human nature. Who believes whom, who leads, who follows, who works, who whines. One thing I noticed in a recent season: when a leader talks “trust” and “honor,” then pulls the strings to betray someone, the contempt others feel for him is greater.

    Which makes me think of the Church and today’s society. When we broadcast the good news of God’s love and forgiveness, people will listen—who, after all, doesn’t want love and forgiveness? But when we who lift high the banner of Christ, turn around and behave in an unloving, unforgiving manner to our fellow Christians in front of the watching world—to our neighbors, co-workers, even our enemies—the contempt spewed upon us is great.

    Deservedly so. Christ Himself told the parable of the forgiven servant who turned around and would not forgive, and Jesus concluded by giving a dire warning.

    And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” (Matt 18:34-35)

    Not that our forgiving others earns us forgiveness, but our having been forgiven causes us to be so grateful, we want to pass on what we have received.

    And if we don’t? Chances are we’ve missed the essence of forgiveness. Like the Survivor contestants who turn against one who talks honor but plays dirty, those who watch a professing Christian proclaim forgiveness, only to turn around and withhold it, will despise him and what he stands for.

    Some people despise Christians for what we believe, and some people despise Christians for what we’re rumored to be or do. Some people despise Christians because they despise Christ. But woe to us if we earn the disrespect of others because we withhold love and forgiveness.

    This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in February 2012.

    Published in: on July 29, 2016 at 7:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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    Christ’s Return


    whaleSome things we Christians believe seem extraordinary. Probably because they are. I mean, a big fish swallowing a man who lived in its stomach for three days, and also lived to tell about it? Or a type of sweet cake that appears with the morning due six days a week, for forty years! And then one day stops because a new source of food is available. How about a man born blind suddenly able to see? Or a gold coin lodged in the throat of a fish—the exact fish Peter “just happened” to catch after Jesus told him what to do.

    There are so many others, but none ranks higher than Jesus rising from the tomb He’d been buried in. This was not a resuscitation or even the kind of resurrection Lazarus experienced. Jesus came alive and received a new, glorified body—one that transcended the laws of physics and would never die again.

    His model 2.0 is the precursor to His return. It’s also the proof and precursor to our own resurrected bodies which we’ll receive one day, but that’s a topic for another day.

    What I’ve been thinking about is a question that recently got me thinking. Are Christians expecting Jesus’s return to be a surprise that will catch everyone off guard, in the same way that a thief who comes in secret surprises a homeowner? Or are there clear prophecies that mark out what must happen before Christ will come again?

    I’ve always thought the answer is, Both!

    After all, Scripture says more than once that we are to be ready, to be alert, to be like the servant awaiting for his master’s return, like the wedding attendants ready with the extra oil for the bridegroom’s appearance. And yet, Jesus gave a list of things that would happen that He called the beginning of the end: wars and rumors of wars, false prophets and persecution, earthquakes and famine, the darkened sun and the darkened moon.

    Paul seems to reinforce the idea that the day of Christ’s return will be sudden and yet will follow a set, recognizable series of events. He said in his first letter to the Thessalonian church that believers should not be like everyone else:

    For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. (5:2-6)

    So, like a thief, but it won’t overtake believers like a thief.

    In some ways this makes perfect sense. Christians who know the Bible will know the signs that indicate Christ’s return is imminent. Those who do not know the gospel of God will miss those signs or will poo-poo them when they’re told what is to take place.

    Of course, convincing unbelievers that signs do exist is all the harder because Christians don’t agree. A quick Internet search uncovered articles that named ten signs, seven signs, fourteen signs. So which is it?

    Some theologians concentrate on the signs mentioned in the New Testament. Besides the things Jesus said, we have Paul’s list in his second letter to Timothy:

    But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. (3:1-6)

    Of course, there’s also Revelation, but the discussion about this book of prophecy is more of what scholars say about the prophecies from the Old Testament: how much is fulfilled prophecy, how much future; how much is literal and how much figurative? In these disputed passages we find such things as nations ganging up against Israel, the establishment of a worldwide government, the gospel of God preached to every tribe and tongue, and the re-institution of the Jewish sacrifices in the temple. Oh, and the rise of the Antichrist.

    A segment of evangelical Christianity solves the question, will Christ come back like a thief, surprising us all, or like the final chapter of a well-orchestrated drama, with His triumph as the beginning of all things new, by suggesting two returns. Well, it isn’t worded that way, but that’s the essential idea. First Christ returns to take believers out of this world, then Christ returns to bring judgment on those who remain. And on the world, the universe, everything corrupted by sin, it would seem.

    There’s reason to believe this idea, chiefly given in 1 Thessalonians when Paul is explaining that those who already died will receive their resurrected bodies first, before those who are alive at the time of Christ’s return. The latter, he says, will be caught up and meet Christ in the air.

    I have to admit, I’m not convinced that this meeting in the air is a precursor to Christ’s return and not a part of it. But how it all works, I don’t know.

    I don’t know if we’ll be able to see the rise of the Antichrist and know that it is he. Some believers think Christians will be long gone by then, but I believe Scripture says there’s going to be persecution during this time, so I tend to think Christians will still be here.

    But that’s a guess. As educated as I can make it, but still a guess.

    The one thing I’m sure of is that no one will know when Christ is going to return. Jesus made that fact very clear, so from that standpoint, His return will be a surprise. Which is why we must be alert.

    But can we see that men are lovers of selves, of money, boastful, arrogant, disobedient, and all the rest? Sure. Can we see the increase in wars and rumors of wars, in famine and earthquake and disease? Absolutely. Can we see the political forces lining up against Israel and the growth of a global economy that could lead to a global government? You bet.

    So what does all this tell us about Christ’s return? I think we’re back to BOTH. We can see the signs Scripture laid out crystallizing, yet we know we won’t know the day or hour when Christ will come back. We know it’s sooner today than it was yesterday. We know it’s sure. We know we need to be alert and to be about our Father’s business, being the ambassadors for His kingdom He wants us to be.

    Published in: on July 18, 2016 at 6:13 pm  Comments (3)  
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    The Difference Between Religious People And Christians


    horse_and_carriageThis is not rocket science. In fact, I’ve written about the difference between people of other religions and Christians on other occasions, but I’ve generally left the door open when someone professes to be a Christian. I mean, I can’t look into their hearts. I don’t know what their relationship with God is. If they say they have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, then who am I to say they haven’t been?

    Some time ago on the radio broadcast Truth for Life, Pastor Alistair Begg gave the clearest, simplest way of identifying the difference between religious people and Christians.

    Someone who is religious believes and obeys in order to be accepted by God. A Christian, on the other hand, believes in order to be accepted by God, and obeys as a result. Put in slightly different terms, a religious person works to be justified with God, whereas a Christian works because he is justified with God.

    The differences seem small and even hard to tell apart, but the two positions actually are diametrically opposed to one another. It’s the cart before the horse idea. One man has a cart and a horse, the other man has a horse and a cart. What’s the difference? Everything. The first man goes nowhere. The second has a wonderful conveyance that takes him wherever he wishes to go.

    So too the religious person is stuck with his own inadequate efforts trying to make himself acceptable to God. It will never happen, in the same way that a cart will never pull a horse. The Christian, on the other hand, confessing his inability to measure up to God’s standard, and accepting the completed, redemptive work of Jesus Christ, receives a full measure of God’s grace and is accepted by the Father. As a result, he obeys God in the strength and through the power of that grace.

    So who’s a Christian? Not the person who believes his work is in any way meritorious in bringing reconciliation between him and God. It really is that simple.

    Why Did God Make Us As We Are?


    Freedom-watch-protestIn any number of online discussions I’ve had with atheists, a couple questions eventually surface. One purports to get at the root of sin—basically, it’s God’s fault because He made us capable of sin.

    In response I’ll generally say that God made us with free will, to choose Him freely, not as a puppet with no options of our own. But the comeback then gives rise to the question: why did God make a law in the first place? Why did He “invent” something that He could hold against us?

    Another way of asking this, of course, is, Why did God make right and wrong? Why did He determine wrong needed to be punished? Why didn’t He simply make us so we could choose whatever we wanted, without any consequences?

    That kind of libertarian freedom seems to be what many atheists want.

    In essence, this approach judges God. He was wrong to make a law we had to obey. He was wrong to judge those who broke the law. I suppose in the one element of consistency, the conclusion of such a view is that a wrong God is no God at all; thus the conclusion that God does not exist.

    The argument, of course, hinges on the rightness or the wrongness of 1) God creating humans with the ability to choose; and b) God determining right and wrong.

    The irony of the argument is that in declaring God wrong to do what He did, both in giving humans free will and a moral law to follow, the person standing in judgment of God is acting like God. He’s determined that his own value system is superior, that he knows what’s best for all of humanity, that life without moral judgment is best.

    This view, of course, exposes the greatest sin: pride.

    But it also reveals something else, something equally vile.

    God determined to make humankind in His own image, in His own likeness. To create humans without free will and/or without a moral compass would have violated God’s very nature. In essence, those who think God made mistakes or created the world wrongly are repudiating God’s very nature.

    They are, in fact, rebelling against their Creator. They are following in the steps of the father of lies:

    “How you have fallen from heaven,
    O star of the morning, son of the dawn!
    You have been cut down to the earth,
    You who have weakened the nations!

    “But you said in your heart,
    ‘I will ascend to heaven;
    I will raise my throne above the stars of God,
    And I will sit on the mount of assembly
    In the recesses of the north.

    ‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.’ ” (Isaiah 14:12-14)

    “Like the Most High.” I don’t think many atheists would acknowledge this is what they want. After all, they don’t believe in God. Why, they don’t even believe in belief! But behind all their spiritual anarchy—their pursuit of absolute individual freedom—is simply rebellion. It’s spitting in God’s face. Kicking against His moral demands. Turning their back to His right to rule.

    Professing Christians who doctor the Bible are in the same boat. They don’t like that God is the judge of all the earth, so they invent the belief that all people will be saved at some point. One school of thought is that everyone is already saved—they just don’t all know it.

    Some of these accept sin—it is pretty hard to ignore—but they reject the idea of Jesus Christ canceling the debt of sin by substituting Himself for us, by dying in our place to satisfy the requirements of the law.

    I presume this latter camp is divided—some believing that they must do good, like Jesus, in order to earn their own salvation, and some believing that God simply dismisses the charges because He’s just that kind of guy.

    No matter how these individuals identify, the reality is that denying God’s revelation of Himself is rebellion.

    No Christian can say, We believe in God, His great love for humankind, His Son Jesus and the example He set for us to follow—we just don’t believe in that wrath and judgment stuff. That’s not how I view God.

    As if we have a say in determining who God is.

    Just like the atheists who so often say that humans invented God, this progressive “Christian” view has humans determining what kind of God they are willing to believe in. In fact, they are trying to make God to their own specifications. They are unwilling to believe in Him as He has revealed Himself.

    Aside from the fact that they are wide of Truth, they are also missing a true relationship with God, who loves us and gave Himself up for us.

    Why did God make us as we are? Because He desires relationship with us. He desires to shower us with His love and grace and kindness and generosity and sense of belonging and security and purpose and wholeness. He wants us to talk with Him and walk with Him—not for His benefit, but for ours. That’s the way love is.

    God’s Not The Problem


    Peter008I read in Acts recently about Peter and John getting tossed into prison over night because they healed a man in Jesus’s name.

    Their response?

    Peter preached to those in authority. When they warned them to stop preaching and healing in Jesus’s name, they answered with a clear, bold statement:

    But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)

    True to their word, they continued to preach Christ and Him crucified. They continued to heal. In fact all the apostles did. Powerful things were happening, and the church was increasing in numbers, to the point that the Jewish leaders became jealous and decided to throw them into prison again.

    After consulting, with one another, they decided they’d flog them into obedience.

    Of course, they had to re-arrest the apostles because an angel had set them free! But they didn’t go into hiding or leave town. They went right back to the temple and started preaching again.

    So once more the Jews hauled them in front of the authorities and confronted them:

    “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

    Well, yeah! To be expected since Peter told them they had to obey God rather than men. He repeated it since they apparently hadn’t got it the first time:

    But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”

    After more consultation, the Jewish leaders decided to beat them into obedience. And here’s the point of this post. Steadily the hostility toward the apostles was turning into persecution. And how did they respond?

    So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (This and the previous two quotes from Acts 5)

    Rejoicing.

    Continuing to teach and to preach Jesus as the Christ.

    I find their reaction to be in such stark contrast to Christianity in the West. When we face soft discrimination, we’ve started playing the persecution card, as if there aren’t actual martyrs in the world today, dying because they believe in Jesus as their Lord, their Savior. We’ve begun to take the mantle of victim, and as a result we’re pulling back from opportunities to boldly speak the truth in love—the truth that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost.

    Look at the balance of what Peter said to those standing in judgment over the apostles:

    The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

    He could have left out the “whom you had put to death” part in order to be less confrontational, but the truth is, part of their job was to expose sin. That’s what Peter did when Ananias and Sapphira pretended to present the church with the entire amount of money from the sale of their land. In truth, they were lying—to the Holy Spirit, Peter said. He called them out, declared their sin publicly, and in that instance, these pretenders paid with their lives on the spot.

    Things are different today. Christians, myself included, are very conscious that preaching Christ might offend someone. We don’t even like preaching in church very much any more.

    And should we experience ill treatment because of our faith, we’re much more likely to sue than we are to rejoice because we’ve been found worthy to suffer for His name.

    What’s more, we’re more likely to say, Why, God, when I’ve been serving you so faithfully? Why are you letting all this suffering happen to me? That’s the approach of the people of Israel when they were leaving Egypt. They didn’t rejoice in the power of God. They didn’t look forward to the promised land. They looked back to the familiar comforts of Egypt and treated God’s prophet and by extension, God Himself, as if He was the One harming them.

    News flash! God is not the problem. Suffering is a result of sin. So why are we so quick to blame God, to suggest that we could do a better job running things—from our health and finances to the Presidential elections and dealing with terrorism. We have lost sight of God’s sovereignty and His power.

    When we pray, James warns us about asking with wrong motives, more interested in our own pleasures. Jesus said we are to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. Is that what we’re praying for? Or are we praying for peace and comfort in our time, so that we will be safe and can do what we do in peace?

    I don’t know about others. I only know my own heart, and I confess, I’m a long way from the response the apostles exhibited. I can say, my heart is willing, but there’s that problem with the flesh! Maybe by the time I have to face some actual persecution, God, by His grace, will have shored up that weakness!

    Published in: on June 16, 2016 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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    Fiction Isn’t Lying . . . Until It Is


    booksSome Christians, apparently, don’t think it’s OK to read fiction because fiction is all about made up characters, places, and events. In other words, it’s all lies.

    I had never heard that point of view until I got on the Internet, and then mostly other writers said they’d been confronted by others who chastised them for their lies. I did read a post once by someone who took that extreme position, but it was new to me.

    For one thing, appealing to the definition of lie explodes that view, the key being the intention of deception. No one who writes fiction pretends their story is factual. No one who reads fiction is unaware that the story is pretend. So no one is deceiving or being deceived. So fiction isn’t lying.

    In addition, authors of fiction use the pretend to make statements about reality. In all my literature classes throughout college, we analyzed stories to determine, among other things, what the author was saying, what he wanted readers to take away or to believe about humankind or the world or God. Thomas Hardy, for example, wrote stories to show that humankind is pushed and pulled by fate. On the other hand, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol which showed that a person can change his ways and isn’t locked into beliefs by chance circumstances.

    Those two views which are in opposition to one another can hardly both be true. One might be truthful or they both might be false, but they both can’t be true.

    It’s still probably incorrect to say that one which is not truthful is therefore a lie. I’m certain Thomas Hardy believed he was truthfully showing readers the way the world worked, but he was wrong. In his made up stories Hardy revealed his own belief system, one that replaced God with the ‘unconscious will of the Universe’ (see Wikipedia).

    My question is this: ought not a Christian writer who knows the truth, reflect truth in any story he or she writes? I want to be clear: I do not think any story can tell ALL truth. For one thing, we don’t have all truth. The Bible, though complete, doesn’t show us all there is to know about God. It is our view of the world through that dark mirror I Corinthians 13 mentions. Second, ALL truth would not fit into one story, even one the size of The Grapes of Wrath or Gone With The Wind.

    So what “truth” is a novelist supposed to show in his or her story?

    That’s the beauty of writing. An author can open the door for readers regarding all kinds of important truths.

    I’m thinking of one novel, for instance, a fantasy, in which the God of that world was worshiped by both factions in an owner/slave society. Both believe this God figure provides for them. Which brings up all kinds of interesting questions: does God provide for the wicked as well as for the victimized? Are those enslaved believing in this God in vain? Is the ruling class worshiping in hypocrisy? Is there anything similar going on in our world?

    I could go on to discuss ways in which a novelist can show truth by developing their theme, but the point I want to make is this: a Christian writer, while not burdened to show all truth (an impossibility, but an attempt at such would clearly necessitate the entire plan of salvation), should show truth.

    Of course it’s possible to leave out any direct reference to God and still show truth. J. R. R. Tolkien did that. He had Christ figures, but not a direct reference to God or to Jesus.

    What Tolkien did not do was mislead people about those Christ figures. He did not have Gandalf decide to take the One Ring for himself. He did not have Aragon desert the forces of Gondor. The one who would sacrifice himself for the fellowship did not turn evil. The returning king did not forsake those who trusted him.

    Thus, what an author chooses to show about truth is really up to him, but he must do so faithfully. He would be lying to portray God or a God figure in his world to be selfish or greedy or blood-thirsty or immoral or weak. Any of those would be a lie. A Christian who knows God must portray some truth about Him if He or a representative figure shows up in the story.

    Non-Christians who turn God into an it with an unconscious will or who make Him out to be evil, as I understand Phillip Pullman did in his fantasy series, aren’t lying about God in the same way a Christian who knows the truth would be. Rather, they have rejected God and are trying to make sense of the world without Him. They are more to be pitied, though readers must beware so they see the ways their views deviate from the truth.

    In short, the Christian is really the only one who can lie in fiction. We know the truth. If we purposely misrepresent God, how can that be thought of as anything but a lie?

    What I DO Like About Church


    Church_ServiceI’ve said more than once that I’ve been spoiled. I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life in one Bible-believing church. Without a doubt, the teaching I received there and what I’ve learned from regular time in God’s word are the causes for any spiritual growth in my life. From what my church has done right and also from what it has neglected, I have developed a few items on my “this is what I like” list.

    First, Biblical, expository preaching. Many preachers use the Bible as their text. I’ve heard preachers who primarily retell the Biblical passage they’ve chosen, putting it in their own words and perhaps giving it a contemporary slant. I’ve heard other preachers who take the main topic of a text and discuss it, using all kinds of research and examples from literature or history or psychology or whatever. I’ve also heard preachers who take a topic and then find verses in the Bible to support what they want to say about that subject.

    None of these are necessarily wrong. They might provide the congregation with helpful knowledge and might facilitate their spiritual growth. But from my thinking, there’s a better way.

    A pastor, as I see it, should not pick and choose what parts of the Bible his congregation needs. In reality, we need the entire Bible, even the hard parts. Some hard parts, to be sure, might not seem to yield “good sermon material,” so a pastor needs to decide how to handle those sections of Scripture. I’m thinking, for example, of passages in Numbers discussing the dimensions of the tabernacle or the laws intended for the Jewish people or 1 Chronicles genealogies or even the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and in Luke. There are lessons to be gleaned from each of those, and a pastor may want to address those in a different way than he would a New Testament letter or a study of a book of prophecy or of history.

    But the point here is this: expository preaching intends to explain or describe a Biblical passage, going into some depth, and generally working through a section from start to finish.

    Expository preaching still uses cross references and still looks into the historical background of the text. But the primary element of expository preaching is to let God say what He said. Consequently we don’t dodge hard verses that say things that don’t square with our theology or that clash with our cultural proclivities. Expository preaching doesn’t chase trends in the church. It doesn’t camp on one topic and hit congregants over the head with the same “thou shalt” week after week after week. The Spirit of God might want to get someone’s attention that way, but the Bible has such variety, written from the perspective of so many different writers, it’s really hard to work through a passage of Scripture and not find something new and diverse.

    Second, singing that’s congregation oriented. I’m of the mindset that corporate worship should be different from a concert. Corporate worship is participatory. We should be engaged during sermons, checking the Scriptures to see if the things we’re being taught are true. We should also be engaged in any singing. Yes, there might be times when our engagement is within as it is when we listen to sermons, but I believe in congregational singing. Jesus sang a hymn with His followers the night before He was arrested, so we have His example.

    Paul says we are to teach and admonition one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16). That idea leads to a second point of emphasis: the purpose of the congregation-oriented music is that we might have doctrine reinforced. Yes, singing should also be for worship, but again this is a corporate activity, so we as a congregation should do this together—praising God for who He is, for what He’s done, for the beauty of His person, for the perfection of His plan, for His creation. In other words, praise should be focused on God, not on how I feel about God.

    A third point here is that congregational singing should actually be intended for a congregation, not for a small group or soloist. So I really like congregational music when I don’t have to change keys to keep on singing or to stay quiet until the music comes back into my range.

    What else do I like about church? I like groups of people from our church working to serve others. We once had a vibrant ministry to prisons. I don’t hear about that any more, but maybe we still do it. We also used to participate in a program that provided prisoners gifts for their children at Christmas time. I like missions and short term mission opportunities. I like various activities and services for the poor and needy. Big churches, of course, can offer more varied ways of serving, but I like whatever effort a church makes to serve at home or abroad.

    Along with that, though, I like to see people speaking out boldly about Jesus Christ. Anyone can do a good deed. I think it’s important for others to know we love and go and work and serve because Jesus first loved us. We’re not trying to earn church brownie points or, worse, heaven brownie points.

    One last area I’ll mention today. I like churches that take care of one another. Churches are filled with people, and God designed us to pray for one another and to help one another and to comfort one another and to serve one another. In short, I like churches with people who develop relationships with one another—not always easy to do in big metropolitan areas in the fast pace of today’s society. But all the more necessary because of the disconnect we can easily feel away from family.

    God identifies His Church using a variety of metaphors. One is that we are His children, which makes us all brothers and sisters. That’s something vital I think the church must not lose. No one needs another bureaucratic entity in our lives just because. But we need the church, mostly because we ARE the Church. We need to be with like-minded people, not so that we can settle, but so that we can be empowered to go out and serve and preach and love those around us.

    Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:1-8)

    Published in: on May 5, 2016 at 6:10 pm  Comments (9)  
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    The Unprofessional Prophet


    Amos was a farmer. He grew figs and herded sheep, and yet he ended up delivering some scathing prophecy to Israel. At one point the priest for the idol Israel set up at Bethel tried to kick him out of the city, claiming that he was conspiring against the king and saying he should take his prophecies to Judah.

    With an open invitation to hightail it to safe territory, Amos stood his ground. He wasn’t a professional prophet. The king didn’t have him on retainer and no one had hired him to do freelance prophecies a la Balaam. Rather, God took him from his day job and said, Go, prophesy. So that’s what he did.

    I love his unwavering obedience. I also love his amateur status. It reminds me that God essentially takes believers in Jesus Christ out of our day jobs and tells us to go make disciples. That appointment is for fig growers and doctors and electricians and social workers and teachers and carpenters and writers. And yes, for some professionals, too.

    The other thing I’m mindful of is that Amos was commissioned to deliver bad news — Israel was to be judged and they were destined for exile. The Christian, however, gets to deliver good news — the way of escape from judgment and the hope of an eternal heavenly home.

    Amos didn’t mince words. He got right to it, telling Israel that God loathed their arrogance, that those most at risk were the ones comfortably rich who closed their eyes to the need for repentance. They cheated the poor, accepted bribes, and hated reproof.

    To Amos’s credit, he interceded for Israel and twice God relented of the judgment He had disclosed to Amos through a vision. But the third time, He said, enough.

    Then the LORD said to me, “The end has come for My people Israel. I will spare them no longer.” (Amos 8:2b)

    Still, Amos went to the people and pleaded with them to repent.

    Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
    And thus may the LORD God of hosts be with you,
    Just as you have said!
    Hate evil, love good,
    And establish justice in the gate!
    Perhaps the LORD God of hosts
    May be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5:14-15)

    They did not, and judgment came. But perhaps the harshest part was the famine God proclaimed:

    “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD,
    “When I will send a famine on the land,
    Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water,
    But rather for hearing the words of the LORD.
    People will stagger from sea to sea
    And from the north even to the east;
    They will go to and fro to seek the word of the LORD,
    But they will not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)

    That passage reminds me of Romans 1 where God says He gives man over to his sin because he rejects God, choosing instead to worship the creature instead of the Creator (vv 24 ff).

    It’s not a happy picture, but that’s the one Amos the unprofessional prophet was assigned to deliver.

    How much better is our assignment today! The unprofessional Christian gets to say, Guess what? The One you rejected is the One who loves you and who died to redeem you from your sins, if you will but believe.

    I’d say we have the better part, so I wonder why it seems so hard to do the work of evangelism.

    This post first appeared here in May 2012.

    Published in: on May 2, 2016 at 6:16 pm  Comments (2)  
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