A Closer Look At Faith And Prayer


1397392_mount_rainier
Here’s another in the series of Evangelical Myths

– – – – –

I’ve thought a lot about the Pharisees and the traditions that they allowed to take over their belief system—to the point that their religious practice served their greed and their lust for power. Can the same thing happen today? In evangelical churches? Why not? It happened in Christianity before there ever was a Protestant/Catholic divide.

So what are some of the evangelical myths that could potentially start professing Christians on the road away from God and toward religious traditions that serve our greed and lust for power?

This position, included in an article by another blogger, seems common: “if I have enough faith, God will do it.” I’d even suggest we’ve taken this idea a step farther: if I have enough faith, God will HAVE to do it.

Certainly this idea of faith has its seeds in Scripture. In fact Jesus Himself said this to His disciples when they could not cast out a demon from a boy brought to them for that purpose:

Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not drive it out?” And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” (Matt. 17:19-20)

Later Jesus said much the same to His disciples:

And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree [curse it so that it withered], but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” (Matt. 21:21-22)

Certainly, from those passages, the issue seems to be the faith the disciples had. It was all up to them. If they believed, they could have sent the demon away or cursed the fig tree, but they didn’t have enough faith—not even the size of the smallest seed, or else they could move mountains.

The problem is, this passage is not the only one that addresses faith or asking things of God. So here’s an important principle: one way that myths become established is when believers take passages of Scripture in isolation and believe them “literally.” While I believe the Bible to be true—each word and in total—I do not believe each word alone communicates the intent of the whole.

My favorite example is the passage in Psalm 14: “There is no God.” Yes, that’s what verse one says . . . in part. The intro is, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” What a difference putting the line in context makes.

So too the teaching of Scripture about faith and prayer. What we need to do is look at the various passages on these subjects together—things like God promising to give good gifts to His children (necessitating an understanding of what He means by “good”); saying if we “abide in Him,” and His words abide in us, we can ask whatever we wish and it will be done (necessitating an understanding of this “abiding”); and promising if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us (necessitating an understanding of “His will”).
Vending Machine 2

In other words, these passages can’t be taken in isolation from their context or from one another. Prayer is NOT a vending machine—put in the appropriate amount of faith and out comes the answer; too little faith and the prayer machine gets stuck with nothing shooting into the retrieval slot.

In fact, one of the greatest passages about asking God for something comes from the man whose son had the demon the disciples couldn’t cast out:

But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” And Jesus said to him, ” ‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes. “Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” (Mar 9:22b-24)

His great confession was that even belief comes from God—it’s not something he could generate on his own.

James adds a couple different pieces to the faith puzzle. First he said it was great for someone to say he believes in God, but the reality is, the demons also believe. So there’s obviously more to “belief” than a mental ascent.

Secondly, he addresses the issue of asking God for what we need: “You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives so that you may spend it on your pleasures” (see James 4:2b-3).

Certainly this look at faith and prayer is not exhaustive, but by reviewing the various promises, commands, and instruction in Scripture, I draw these conclusions:

  • there is no prayer formula;
  • God wishes to give His people good gifts, but we mistake what we think is good for what He thinks is good;
  • believing God for the things we know to be His will should be our default prayer position.

Here’s my own personal conclusion: I don’t ask God for enough stuff or for big enough stuff—the things consistent with His will. I get wrapped up in “small ball,” the stuff that would make my life easier or more pleasant. So often God graciously gives me what I ask for, but I wonder—if I asked for more, for bigger, wouldn’t He be pleased to give that, too?

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in June 2013.

Advertisements
Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 4:54 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

Which Comes First? – Thoughts On The Psalms


A few years back my pastor at the time discussed a study of the book of Psalms by Walter Bruegemann in which he categorized the various psalms in three groups: Orientation, Disorientation, or Reorientation.

The Orientation psalms view the world based on an orientation toward God. They praise Him all-out. They speak of His mercy, His wonders, His glory. There are no shadows in those psalms. Psalm 100 would be an example of an orientation psalm, I believe.

Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.
Serve the Lord with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing.
Know that the Lord Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.

Enter His gates with thanksgiving
And His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
For the Lord is good;
His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations.

They “express a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” They “give expression . . . to the reality that God is trustworthy and reliable.” (Quotes from Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Bruegemann).

As you might guess, then, the Disorientation psalms view the world as broken. They are the psalms that Job might have written at his lowest point. They could be considered laments. They mourn for what is lost and plead for God to hear and answer. And then they end. Psalm 88 is an example of a Disorientation psalm, ending with these lines:

They have surrounded me like water all day long;
They have encompassed me altogether.
You have removed lover and friend far from me;
My acquaintances are in darkness.

Then come the Reorientation psalms. These are songs that begin with questions, with a focus on the broken world, and then reach a turning point in which the psalmist sees the world more completely because he’s now taking God into account. Psalm 73 is a good example of a Reorientation psalm:

When I pondered to understand this,
It was troublesome in my sight
Until I came into the sanctuary of God;
Then I perceived their end. (vv 16-17)

The Reorientation psalms seem clearly to begin with a problem—affliction by enemies or an observation of the prosperity of the wicked or an unanswered prayer. As the psalmist cries out to God, he finds the answer to his situation in God.

But what about the Orientation and Disorientation psalms—which comes first? The implication from what my pastor said was that Orientation came first, then “reality” set in—or at least hardship did. In other words, all is well, so people praise God unreservedly. Then all hell breaks loose and people lament. At some point there’s a realignment of perspective that takes into consideration both the greatness of God and the disappointments of life.

But must it be so? Why couldn’t the order be Disorientation, brought on by the Fall, Reorientation, when the truth of God sinks in, and Orientation, when all is seen as under His sovereign ordering, so praise is not dependent upon circumstances in the least.

I’m mindful of this because of something I read by the late literary agent Lee Hough who was battling cancer for a year or more. As he awaited learning the effect of his latest treatments, he wrote in part

So, again, the cancer is back. Now what?

Whether I’m healed of cancer in this life or not – God is good.

Whether I’m healed of cancer in this life or not – God is faithful.

Whether I’m healed of cancer in this life or not – God is merciful.

Whether I’m healed of cancer in this life or not – God is loving.

His life was disoriented, but his faith was firmly oriented. What private laments did he and his wife express? I couldn’t say. But God was the hero of Lee’s story since he first began writing about his experience with cancer.

It is in reading his praise of God, his unswerving trust in God, his undiminished confidence in God’s character that my faith grows. Obviously, Lee did not write out of a naive trust in God when all was bright and sunny, with his future here on earth looking rosy. He wrote from the unknown, from the valley of the shadow, caught between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea. He wrote as one “going, not knowing.”

And his words make me think of Paul’s:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)

It seems to me, the clearer we see God—when we no longer put our eyes on the enemies chasing us or the friends betraying us or the cancer, the famine, the lost income, or the prosperous cheats—when we see God without distractions because we know nothing can separate us from His love, I think our praise will be like Orientation psalms, like the praise of the angels around God’s throne. The more nearly we understand Him, the more clearly we’ll sing His praise—not because of ignorance of suffering or out of naiveté. Rather, because of an awareness of suffering and evil, knowing that God is greater than all of it. Therein lines the purest praise, I think.

This post is a revised edition of one that first appeared here in February 2013.

Published in: on January 10, 2018 at 5:37 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , ,

Worry And Mrs. Job


I tend to be hard on Job’s wife. I mean, who takes a vow “for better or worse,” then when the worst happens, says, “Just give up. Deny God and end your life.” It’s a brutal response to someone who has lost everything. But I tend to forget: Mrs. Job had lost everything, too.

Scripture gives us the impression that, though many of the Jewish patriarchs practiced polygamy, she was Job’s only wife. Hence, the seven sons and three daughters who died where her seven sons and three daughters, too. We can postulate as well that when Job was stripped of his wealth, Mrs. Job was also plunged into poverty along with him.

It really ought not to be surprising, then, that Mrs. Job looked at the sudden destruction of all that had given her security and happiness, and fell into despair. What was she to do? Her husband was so sick he could do nothing but sit in the ashes and scrape his skin with a bit of a ceramic pot.

What did that mean for her future? Her children were gone, so there was no one she could count on to provide for her day after day or care for her into her old age. She was bereft of all that had given her stability.

In her mind, apparently, God had done this to her husband. Interesting, I think, that she didn’t curse Job, as if he was at fault. She had to have known that he was a man of integrity who revered God and turned away from evil. So the fault was God’s, she figured.

But what does all this have to do with worry? At its heart, worry is nothing more than fear of the future. What if X happens or Z doesn’t materialize? How will we make it if A turns into B? Mrs. Job was faced with the biggest questions of her life: how was she going to survive now that she was poor; how was she going to care for a sick husband; how was she going to live another day with a God who had turned against her?

But that was the critical issue. Had God turned against her? Some might argue that no, she just got caught up in the backwash of God’s dealing with Job and Satan. But that idea minimizes God’s omniscience, sovereignty, and lovingkindness for each person He created. Did He forget that what happened to Job would have repercussions on Mrs. Job? Unlikely.

So did God turn a blind eye to her? Not in the least. She and Job, I suspect, were much more of a package deal than we realize. Not until after Mrs. Job counseled her husband to curse God and die did he begin to rue the day of his birth (Job 3:1). True, his initial response to her was one of the great testimonies of faith:

But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 2:10)

But a week later he was questioning why he’d ever been born:

“Why did I not die at birth,
Come forth from the womb and expire?
Why did the knees receive me,
And why the breasts, that I should suck?” (Job 3:11-12)

Would he have reached that dark place of doubt without his wife’s suggestion? Impossible to know. But it seems clear they both came to a point where they were not looking at God and saying, in spite of their horrific circumstances, Blessed be the name of the Lord.

But that’s precisely where we all need to be, no matter what we have or what we’ve lost. God’s kingdom and righteousness are to be our focus, according to Matt. 6:33.

We aren’t to be seeking how to replace the 500 donkeys or to scrape up an army to go after the Chaldeans who stole the camels or campaign for storm-proof housing to spare our children—at least we aren’t to be seeking these things first. In reality, seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness might ultimately lead to a restoration of what we’ve lost. It did for Job. But first, he needed to see God as He is.

“I know that You can do all things,
And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand,
Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, now, and I will speak;
I will ask You, and You instruct me.’
I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear;
But now my eye sees You;
Therefore I retract,
And I repent in dust and ashes
.” (Job 42:2-6, emphasis mine)

I submit, the only worry-free zone is the space in which we are clinging to God rather than to our thousands of sheep, oxen, camels, and donkeys . . . or even to our children or our husband or our health. God calls us to make Him our focus, and one way or another, He’ll see us through, as He did Mrs. Job, to the other side of the dark valley in which we’re walking.

Apart from some slight editing, this article first appeared here in January 2014.

Published in: on December 28, 2017 at 5:10 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

Faith And The Rock


I am mystified when people who don’t believe in God refer to Christians as people who don’t think. Their argument seems to be, Since God is invisible, you are only imagining anything spiritual or supernatural. You have no proof—by which they mean, scientific evidence—so you simply believe a lie or a myth or something in your imagination.

It doesn’t matter how many times a clear demonstration is offered that “belief” is not blind, those opposed to God insist it is. And yet the Bible says just the opposite.

As one illustration of what the Bible says about faith (I couldn’t possibly enumerate every instance in which we learn more about faith—there are too many), Jesus told a story about a wise man who built his house upon the rock. When the wind and rain buffeted the house, it stood firm. However, another man, a foolish man, built his house upon the sand. The winds came and the rain, and the house fell.

Jesus had prefaced the story by saying that the wise man was the one who heard His words and acted on them. In contrast, everyone who hear His words and doesn’t act on them is like the foolish man.

The point is simple, “belief in Jesus,” the faith that undergirds a Christian, is reliant upon God’s word.

Oh sure, some false teachers have invented “other gospels” and some have twisted Scripture to say what it does not say, but in the end, the one who takes God at His word is building his house on the rock.

Romans spells out what God’s word is which leads to salvation:

the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (10:8b-9)

Pretty simple really. Jesus is Lord, Jesus rose from the dead.

Of course how can we KNOW those things? Romans gives us that piece of information, too.

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!”

However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, “LORD, WHO HAS BELIEVED OUR REPORT?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. (10:14-17; emphasis mine)

Clearly faith is not dreaming up something and hoping, hoping, hoping that it will come true. I could do that. I could imagine a billionaire philanthropist who wants to give away his millions, and he pulls my name out of the hat. He’ll come tomorrow with a check that will make me rich beyond my wildest dreams. Now that is pie-in-the-sky imagination.

Believing in God is nothing like that. To begin with, I don’t tell Him what He’s like. He tells me. I listen, is all. “Faith comes from hearing.”

Another important aspect of faith comes from Hebrews 11—“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (v. 1). Assurance, not guess work; conviction, not irresolution or doubt.

How can a person possibly be sure of what you hope for?

Well, the assurance comes completely from the One in whom you put your trust.

For instance, if I want to know about basketball, I need to listen to someone who knows the sport, someone who has played the sport. I would not ask someone to explain the game whose credentials say he’s seen a game once, played between two elementary teams. “But I know baseball,” he adds. “I was a minor league pitcher for five years. So I can tell you want ever you want to know about basketball.”

Uh, sorry, but basketball and baseball are two different sports. If I want to know basketball, I have to talk to someone who is informed, who knows the game, who can answer my questions. Because I will have questions, undoubtedly. So I need someone to help me who I trust.

Faith is nothing more than taking someone at his word. And for the Christian, that someone is Jesus Christ.

Atheists take scientists at their word all the time. They do not observe space phenomena or record data or run experiences that lead them to believe in a big bang theory of the origin of the universe. Instead, they let someone else study and form opinions and postulate hypotheses, and they simply put their trust in what these individuals conclude.

Here’s the thing that is difficult for me to understand. These scientists, with their list of qualifications and all, admit they are fallible. Atheists admit that science has been wrong and is bound to be wrong again. But regardless, they trust the process, the results (which will be wrong in some unknowable way).

God, on the other hand, is infallible. He isn’t wrong about what He says. And yet His word is suspect and unreliable and can’t be trusted—because it requires faith.

That would be the assurance of things hoped for. The assurance. Why can there be assurance in an unsure world? Only if Someone trustworthy, reliable gives you His word. You know, a word that is rock solid.

Published in: on November 13, 2017 at 6:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

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)  
Tags: , , ,

What Atheists Don’t Understand About Faith


I’m not a physically violent person. I’m not even physically intimidating, but I have to say, there are times in my discussions in the FB atheist group I visit, I would like to shake one or two people.

The problem comes from their complete dismissal of faith. They simply don’t believe anyone should have faith. Ever. Because THEY certainly don’t. Oh, no, all their cherished beliefs stem from their reason and from science.

Never mind that I have said over and over that they haven’t done any of the scientific experiments or observations or mathematical calculations they are constantly trotting out as evidence. No! They are simply trusting that some scientist they’ve heard about has done the work and drawn the conclusions they parrot. In other words, they are simply putting their faith in a scientist rather than, say, in a pastor or mentor or in the Bible.

And horrors if you use the Bible as part of the discussion about how you know there is a God. Because that’s a circular argument. The Bible says there’s a God, so you look to the Bible to find evidence for God.

In other words, the Bible in its whole must be dismissed because it claims there is a God. You can’t look at the history, the testimony of any of the authors, the reports of miracles, none of it.

Basically, any evidence or documentation must be of the approved sort. No personal experience because that can’t be verified. No Biblical evidence because that’s circular. No supernatural evidence because that hasn’t been proven to exist.

So just cross out anything that leads to God and then claim that you don’t believe in God because there’s no evidence of His existence.

But faith is all around us. If you are sitting down, you have faith that the piece of furniture you’re on will hold your weight. When you drive a car, you have faith in the men and women who built the car. You also have faith in the drivers before and behind you, on your left and right, and the ones coming in the opposite direction. You have faith in the mechanic that put on your tires.

I could go on and on.

When I was in the hospital after my stroke, I put my life in the hands of the medical personal who cared for me. I took the medicine they gave me, ate the food they provided, followed the directions of the therapists. I was putting my faith in these people who I didn’t know because I believed they had knowledge I did’t.

Every passenger on an airplane does the same thing.

Faith is nothing more than believing that someone is not lying to you and that they really can do what you’ve been led to believe they can do. So the pilot is sitting in the cockpit, and no one is asking to see his credentials, or his flight record, or his medical record. Generally speaking passengers trust that the guy saying “Good morning ladies and gentlemen . . .” over the intercom, would not have access to the controls of the plane if he weren’t qualified. We let him do his job and we sit back and enjoy the flight, as we’ve been told to do.

Now that’s faith.

I’m going to trust the guy that’s flying the plane, not because I have proof that he’s able to do the job, but because . . . it’s his job. He wouldn’t be working with the airline if he wasn’t qualified. We assume. We trust. We believe.

We believed our teachers when they taught us that 2+2=4. We believed our teachers when they said that George Washington was the first President of the United States. We believed our teachers when they showed us how to write starting from the left and going to the right. (Who knew not every culture writes that way).

There is so much more. All these things in the past and the present are simply faith at work. Us believing someone we trust to the point that we do what they say or form a conviction based on what they taught.

So what’s the surprising thing about faith that atheists miss? First, that they too have faith, that they depend on it every single day. Second, that faith is placed in a source you believe to be trustworthy.

I might add that people who believe are not stupid for having faith (otherwise, you’d have to say everyone in the whole world is stupid). But further, if someone trusts a source you believe to be unsound, they still aren’t stupid.

There are people who put their faith in parachutes every day. I’m not one of them. But I don’t think they’re stupid for doing so. I simply have no desire to trust my life to the thing they are willing to trust.

Same with tightrope walkers or high wire acrobats. Same with platform divers. Same with window washers. All those people have lots of reason to do what they do. I don’t want to put my faith in the things they trust.

It’s self protection, I guess.

And I wonder if that isn’t what’s at the bottom of the atheists’ unwillingness to trust God. It’s not that there isn’t evidence, because there is. It’s that they don’t trust the source of that evidence as a means of self-protection.

From what?

My guess is, from God. From a sovereign authority who defines right and wrong. They’d rather be in charge because then they can move the lines whenever they want.

Apart from that guess, I have no idea why someone wouldn’t believe the source material pointing to God. It is comprehensive and coherent—logical and consistent—and the alternative seems to be chaos and chance. And at the end of life, annihilation. Really?

The atheist conclusions don’t fit the facts. Including the fact that they are just as dependent upon faith as the rest of us.

Published in: on October 19, 2017 at 5:20 pm  Comments (60)  
Tags: ,

Belief And What We Put Our Faith In – A Reprise


skydivingI believe that skydiving is safe. However, you aren’t going to see me getting into a plane with one of those flimsy parachute contraptions strapped to my back! 😉

Clearly, belief is not the same as putting our trust in that thing we say we believe. For example, see what James said to Christians: “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” (Jas. 2:19)

Believing and trusting are not the same thing. That’s a good principle to keep in mind when we look at extra-Biblical encounters with God. Yes, extra-Biblical.

God makes Himself known first in His creation.

Some time ago, I passed this liquid amber tree in full autumn colors (yes, here in SoCal, we do have the occasional tree that turns into gold and red and yellow and brown). As I slowed to admire the beauty, a woman walked by, never looking up, apparently oblivious to the glory swaying over her head. How sad, I thought, that God is so present and people can completely miss Him.

Because of His great love, of course, God went farther than simply showing Himself through creation; He revealed Himself through prophets, His law, His word, and His Son.

But that’s not all. He also revealed Himself through dreams and visions and angel visitations. The Bible records any number of these, and we’re especially reminded of them at Christmas time. Angels appeared to shepherds, wisemen discovered the birth of the King of Judea by studying the stars, Mary learned she would become pregnant from an angel, Joseph too, and then he had a dream warning him to take his family and escape to Egypt.

There’s more. The wisemen were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. The Holy Spirit revealed to a man named Simeon that he would not see death until he beheld the Messiah–which he did when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple on the eighth day. More amazing, the Holy Spirit also communicated something to Jesus’s cousin John, while he was still in the womb, and as a not-yet-born baby, he “leaped” when Mary entered the house and greeted Elizabeth, his mother who was carrying him.

So, yes, God reveals Himself in many ways. Some believe He no longer does so, but I find this position a stretch that doesn’t fit either Scripture or reports from various parts of the world today. From any number of sources, I’ve heard recently of people coming to Christ as a direct result of a dream or vision.

And yet . . .

I think a look at the Apostle Paul’s life in regard to visions might be instructive. Certainly he had an extra-biblical encounter with the living Christ. It’s why he made an about-face and stopped persecuting Christians to become one himself.

He also had a vision of what he referred to as the third heaven, though he left open the possibility that he’d actually been transported there bodily (see 2 Corinthians 12:2-4). But here’s the thing. Paul did not formulate his theology based on his vision.

His encounter with the living Christ was consistent with Scripture. Apparently his vision of the third heaven was just something for him—not something extra that informed Christians what to believe or do.

In fact, in his letter to the Colossian church, Paul was clear that visions were not a sound basis for deviating from Scripture.

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 (2:18 – emphasis mine).

Paul believed in visions. He had them. And yet here he is saying that things not consistent with Scripture—self-abasement and the worship of angels—were not to become part of the practice of the Church simply because someone had a vision that said those applications should be included. Visions weren’t enough in and of themselves to become the basis of doctrine.

That approach to extra-Biblical information is a good rule of thumb, I think, and a means of escaping much false teaching.

This post is an edited version of one that originally appeared here in December 2012.

Children Believe


427707_boy_and_his_grandpaChristians believe Jesus was completely God and Jesus was completely a man. I realized how such an apparent impossibility must sound to a rational mind. Or perhaps to a grown-up mind stripped of its creative wonder.

Children have that creative wonder and believe easily. I remember believing that the earth is round long before I saw a photograph of our round earth taken from space. I remember believing that one day my daddy would be President, and I remember believing that my brother could score a touchdown by dragging me across the goal line while I had the football.

When I learned that my dad had no interest in being President, I was disillusioned, I have to admit. And when I learned that my brother had figuratively, as well as literally, pulled my leg, I was disillusioned in another way. But the point for this post in recalling these childhood memories is to illustrate that I believed without requiring proof or explanation.

I believed the teacher who said the earth was round because she was the teacher! I believed my dad would be President because he was Dad. And I believed my brother’s version of the rules of football because he was my brother. Children believe easily.

Jesus said as much when His disciples tried to get people to stop bringing their children to Him.

“Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” (Mark 10:14b-15; emphasis mine)

Jesus was not saying we need to be childish, but childlike. Trusting. Not skeptical. That isn’t to say that skeptics can’t come to Christ.

Of His twelve chosen disciples, one was a skeptic. Thomas determined that he wouldn’t believe Jesus had risen from the dead unless he personally verified the fact with his own eyes. Can you blame him? I mean, he saw Jesus die. Most likely he saw them wrap his body for burial, put him in the tomb, and roll the stone in front of the entrance. Who wouldn’t be skeptical about this “He is risen” message?

Well, little children wouldn’t—not when they hear it from someone they trust. And adults wouldn’t if they are willing to hear what God says in the same way children hear—with wide-eyed wonder, with hope and expectation, with confident dependence.

The thing is, this kind of childlike faith does not replace reason. I believed my dad would become President up until the day when he told me why that wouldn’t happen. I didn’t keep believing in the face of contrary evidence. But here’s the important point—I learned from the very father I believed in. I went to him and asked him. The answer he gave me wasn’t the one I wanted to hear, but I knew he was telling me the truth. I knew I could still trust him.

Interestingly, God deals with us in a similar way. When we trust Him, we can ask Him all kinds of questions. We may not hear the answer we wanted, but we can be sure He won’t lie to us. We can be sure He’ll give us what we need when we need it.

I’m reminded of the story Corrie ten Boom told. She was struggling about whether or not she could handle some difficulty in the future. Her father helped her understand, by comparing the circumstance to when he gave her the train ticket she needed–not too soon but right when she needed it—that God would give her what she needed when she needed it.

Children are great question askers. They believe easily, but they also want to understand why. When Jesus said we are to become like little children, I’m confident He knew precisely what that entails, including their curious minds that want to know why. The great thing about God is that He satisfies the curious minds. In fact He authoritatively states that He is the Truth–the source for the answers to all our questions.

For people who want to make up their own truth, that’s not a satisfying statement. But like my brother who was quite inventive in coming up with his own football rules to benefit himself, there will come a day when those who live by their own truth will meet Truth. There will be no way to escape the fact that all those points they said they were scoring by using their own made up rules, count for nothing.

This post is a revised and edited version of one that first appeared here in April 2013.

Published in: on April 3, 2017 at 6:14 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,

What Does “Believe In Jesus” Mean?


woman-praying-840879-mI’m glad I didn’t sit under some of the Bible teaching as a young person that I’ve heard as an adult. Don’t get me wrong. I respect the preachers and I believe what they say, but it’s not what I needed to hear as a young, immature Christian who often doubted my salvation.

The message these pastors are giving is undoubtedly intended to counter “easy believe-ism.” This false teaching wasn’t familiar to me, but apparently some people claim that as long as you say “the sinner’s prayer” you’re going to heaven no matter what you do thereafter. It sounds sort of like a “works” salvation, with “works” reduced to one—saying a prayer “accepting Jesus into your heart.”

I understand why pastors are standing against this approach to salvation. There’s so much it leaves out. Where’s the part about repentance, about taking up our cross and following Christ, about entering into a relationship with Him, about obeying God, loving Him first and loving our neighbor more than we do ourselves?

The truth is, though, I became a Christian by asking Jesus into my heart.

I was young, a small child. I don’t remember the specific time I first prayed to receive Christ (yes, first—I’ll get to that in a bit), but I do remember asking a Sunday school teacher how Jesus, pictured as a man on a flannel graph, could fit into my heart.

Chuckle if you must, but I think that’s a good question. It’s not normal to invite a person “into your heart.” Anyone who does so without understanding what he’s doing, very well might not actually be doing it.

That poor, dear, wonderful teacher did her best to explain that it wasn’t Jesus’s body that would come live inside me but His Spirit. So, I wondered, why don’t we say we’re accepting the Holy Spirit, but I don’t think I actually asked that question, possibly because the teacher explained that it was Jesus who died for me, Jesus who paid for my sins.

I got it. But I had another question. Again, I don’t have a clear recollection of the sequence of these events, but at some point when I was six or seven, I wasn’t so sure if I agreed that all had sinned and come short of God’s standard. I knew a few Bible stories by this time, so I figured if I could just think of one person in the Bible who hadn’t sinned, then maybe I could be like him. (I shared a little more about this incident in this post: “My Deceitful Heart.”) I mean, what evil had I done at six? Obviously I hadn’t yet learned about pride and self-righteousness.

I was probably in fifth grade, maybe fourth, when I came across John 3:18. I was playing alone in my room, pretending to be a preacher (I hadn’t learned yet what the Bible says about women and teaching in the church, either 😉 ). I opened my Bible to about the only passage I knew by heart, John 3:16, and started in explaining what it all meant to my pretend congregation. But when I got through that verse, I had more sermon I wanted to preach, so I went on to verse 17, then verse 18. And when I explained the part about Jesus not coming to condemn but that those who didn’t believe in Him were condemned already because they didn’t believe, I got it.

Salvation wasn’t about toeing the line, because none of us could. We were all condemned. Believing in Jesus gave us a pardon.

I was still confused about a lot of things—most particularly why I continued to sin. It gave me no end of doubt about my salvation and contributed to my “accepting Jesus” any number of times because I just didn’t know if it was enough that I meant it when I said it but later acted like I didn’t.

What was it I meant? That I knew I was a sinner, that I knew Jesus had died in my place, that He would forgive me if I believed in Him, and that I would have everlasting life, which meant I’d go to heaven.

I didn’t want to go to heaven particularly. Everything I heard about it made it sound kind of boring, but I knew I didn’t want to go to hell, so I pretty much just wanted to keep living on earth.

That changed, many years later when I read C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and came to understand that eternal life is Real Life.

I could go on and tell how one by one God added to my understanding and corrected my misunderstanding. But the point is, my “faith journey”—actually my walk with Christ—started because someone asked me if I wanted to pray to accept Jesus into my heart.

Are there false conversions, people who prayed “the prayer” and who have not continued with Christ? I’m sure there are. That’s what Jesus said in the parable about the sower and the seed. Some seed sprang up, but weeds choked it. Some seed fell on the side of the road and was trampled or the birds snatched it away (Luke 8:5-7). Jesus explained it this way:

Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. (Luke 8:12-14)

So who, then, believes in Jesus? I’m convinced I was “born again” when I first put my trust in Him as a small child. My faith wasn’t grounded in theology and it wasn’t mature. It didn’t need to be. It only need to be, because the work wasn’t mine. It was and is Christ’s.

After all, that’s what Scripture says:

but these [signs] have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:31)

And after [the jailer] brought [Paul and Silas] out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (Act 16:30-31a).

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in February 20011.

Why Shepherds?


Two distinct groups of people received notification that Jesus was born.

The wisemen we understand because… they were wise! And they had something to give the infant King. Three somethings: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, the fitting mineral for a king; frankincense, the fitting incense for worship; and myrrh, the fitting perfume for embalming a body. OK, the last one may have had Joseph and Mary wondering, but I digress.

In reality, despite the many manger scenes to the contrary, the wisemen, who had some distance to travel once they recognized that a king had been born in Judea, were late arriving. The first group to show up was a collection of local shepherds.

Shepherds in first century Judea were hired workers, poor men with little future. Which is precisely why the angel announced the Messiah’s birth to them, conventional wisdom says. They fit what we now understand as Jesus’s purpose for coming to earth. He’s for the Everyman.

Maybe. Maybe that’s why the shepherds received the angelic announcement that Christ had been born. Kind of a bookend from the poor side that, along with the opposite rich wisemen, would encompass people of every station in life. It’s a good theory.

The shepherds also represented the people who weren’t doing all the religious ceremonies to make themselves acceptable to God. So some scholars have speculated that’s why they got picked.

They were lowly, they were without pretense as to their standing before God, they were poor.

All this might be true, but I think there’s something else more important, and it has to do with why these shepherds received the announcement and not another set, say from Bethel: they believed.

The angel of the LORD stood in front of them and God’s Shekinah, His glory, shone around them. Needless to say, they reacted like virtually everyone else who had an encounter with an angel: they just about passed out with fear. They may have fallen on their faces, covered their heads with their arms, ducked behind the nearest boulder. Anything to ward off this person of obvious power.

Before anything else, the angel calmed them down. They didn’t have any reason to fear him or his message. In fact he’d come to give them great news. And not just for them, but for, well, everyone. Then the announcement:

today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

He didn’t stop there. He went on to give them a sign. A strange sign, I think. I mean, God’s glory shining around them seems like a pretty powerful sign.

    More of that, please. Aimed at those owners of the vineyard just the other side of the plateau who chased away our flocks last week. They need a good dose of God’s awesome power, I’d think! Let them quake in their sandals for a few minutes. Or an hour. Just saying.

But no. The sign the angel passed along provided identifying features that would allow them to find the newborn baby. What would mark Him as different from any other baby that might be born that same night? Well, for one thing, He would be wrapped in cloths.

Some scholars say that was normal—babies in those days were all wrapped in cloths; no cute little baby outfits for them. Some say the cloths were akin to the strips used to wrap a body in preparation for burial—definitely out of the ordinary. Not sure, but I tend to lean toward the idea that this was uncommon. Otherwise, why mention it as an identifying feature? It would be like saying today, you’ll find the baby wrapped in a baby blanket.

    Well, thanks very much for all that help distinguishing this baby from all other babies!!

No matter, the second part of the sign the angel gave is irrefutably unique. The baby they’d be looking for was in a manger. Clearly, a feeding trough was not the normal bed for a newborn. Find the manger holding an infant, wrapped in cloths, and you’ve found the Christ Child.

The_Shepherds011What does all this have to do with the shepherds believing?

I mean, they saw the angel and God’s glory and then a host of other angels praising God. They were eyewitnesses.

To the announcement.

They still had to respond to what they heard. They could have sat around and debated what they’d just experienced. They could have discussed whether or not the message was true or whether any parent in their right mind would put a baby in a feeding trough.

Apparently they did none of those things. Rather they made the decision to track down this baby. They knew exactly what to look for.

So they’d need to knock on a few doors, make a few inquiries and find out what woman may have just given birth. Then they’d stop by and check out the sleeping quarters of the little guy. Shouldn’t be too hard.

I wonder how many doors got slammed in their faces. How many times they got yelled at, or ignored. But they persisted.

No matter how many people they roused from their sleep or disturbed with their questions, they needed to go to see “this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15b).

They determined to “go straight to Bethlehem.” They did not doubt that “this thing” had really happened. They didn’t dismiss the announcement as something not intended for them.

    Some mistake. The angels got the wrong field. In fact they were probably looking for the palace. It’s a few miles west. Up the hill. Can’t miss it.

No, the shepherds believed that Messiah was born that very day, that God had made it known to them, and that they could find this baby based on the sign given them by the angel. So they went. No hesitation.

They put feet to their belief. And when they found Jesus, “they made know the statement which had been told them about this Child” (Luke 2:17).

Two reactions to their announcement: “all who heard it wondered.” Let the debate begin!

“Do you think they really saw an angel?”

“How else would they have known a baby was born?”

“But they’re shepherds!”

“Yeah, but what they said matches what we’re seeing here—a baby in a manger! Who would make that up?”

“Maybe they saw the baby first and decided to claim some oracle told them about it.”

“But why would they do that?”

And on and on.

The second reaction was Mary’s. She treasured what they said, pondering it all in her heart.

She’d take this one bit of evidence, this second declaration that her child was special, this account delivered by shepherds who said they saw an angel, just as she had when she first learned about this little boy she’d just brought into the world.

She’d think about it all, and as the years went by, in the end, after Christ’s resurrection, she’d add her faith to that of the shepherds.

Published in: on December 23, 2016 at 2:36 pm  Comments (8)  
Tags: , , , , , ,