Christian Fiction Must Be . . . You Know, Christian; Or, The Shack Is Back


This past week, I saw the TV add for the upcoming The Shack movie. I’d seen the trailer some time ago, but was dismayed that the promotion was reaching a TV audience. And in LA. We don’t often hear about “Christian” projects here.

There’s no doubt that The Shack positions itself as Christian. After all, Jesus shows up, albeit in imaginary form. But is it Christian?

What constitutes “Christian fiction”? That’s a question we at Spec Faith have answered and revisited since our inception some ten years ago (see for example this early post by one of the founding members of Spec Faith).

Not only have writers and readers debated what constitutes Christian fiction, and particularly Christian speculative fiction, we’ve debated the rightness of and the need for good doctrine in our fiction (see for example “Reading Choices: Realism, Truth, And The Bible“). “Doctrine” encompasses both theology and beliefs concerning morality, and we’ve discussed those too (see for example “Marcher Lord Press and the Hinterlands Imprint“).

On top of these generalized discussions, we’ve also posted articles and comments specifically about The Shack. But that was eight years ago, when the book was still on the top of best-selling lists and Christians and non-Christians alike were passing it around from one person to another and discussing it over coffee.

Now the movie version of Paul Young’s book is about to come to a theater near you, and the question no one could answer back then is bound to resurface: Is The Shack truly Christian?

There are some specific issues that came under scrutiny concerning the book.

Some people stumbled over the most glaring issue right from the gate. I mean, isn’t it blasphemous to depict God the Father as anything but a Father?

I understand how portraying God as other than how He portrays Himself, can be troublesome. At the same time, I can see how others accept “God’s” explanation: that He needed to reveal Himself to the main character in a way he could receive Him.

That being said, I suggest one of the central problems of the story surfaces within the discussion of this rather peripheral issue. The Shack has little use for the Bible. Hence, God the Father is easily replaced by the needs of the character.

There are other major issues—the attitude toward the Church and universal salvation and an understanding of the Trinity.

Yet more than one Christian has reported how life changing The Shack was for them, how they wept as they read it, how they understood God’s forgiveness in a way they never had before.

So . . . is it Christian?

Can it be Christian if it shows God in ways He does not show Himself? If it does not point people to His word or His body, the Church? If it falsely claims universal salvation?

On the other hand, how can it not be Christian if it gave many believers renewed faith and deeper love for God and a deeper understanding of forgiveness?

On one hand, The Shack may not tick all the intellectual, theological boxes, but on the other, it more than makes up for that lack by the emotional, spiritual juice it provides.

In thinking about the “what makes something Christian” question, I have to look at the object itself, not the results that may come from it.

The Apostle Paul did just the opposite when he was imprisoned in Philippi and a bunch of so-called Christian brethren started preaching. Paul identified their motives as envy and strife and selfish ambition (Phil. 1:15, 17), but he basically said, so what? As long as they preached Christ, who cared that they had bad motives?

the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. (vv 17-18a)

Paul was only concerned with the bottom line: the result. These “brethren,” false or true, were telling people about Jesus.

So, isn’t that the best test? Shouldn’t we be applauding The Shack, if the movie is successful, because it is bringing people to Christ?

I said above that I have to look at the object itself, because my question is, Is The Shack truly Christian? Lots of things can bring people to Christ. War has been known to do so. A friend of mine came to Christ by reading a novel. Others look at the heavens and know they need to find the One who made them. After 9/11, here in the US any number of people turned to God in the midst of their fear and uncertainty.

Would we say war is “Christian” because some soldiers reported coming to Christ when faced with their own mortality? No, certainly not. God can and does use whatever means He wishes, but His use of the thing does not baptize it as emblematic of His Good News.

So I reject the idea that The Shack must be Christian because people report a deeper relationship with God after having read it.

When Paul talked about those so-called brethren in Philippi, he gave no indication that they were preaching anything but what was true about Christ. Elsewhere, however, he addressed those who were not preaching the truth.

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds. (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

In writing to the Galatians he also brought up the matter:

But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. (Gal 2:4)

Clearly, Paul was not hesitant to call out those who were not preaching the gospel but who were masquerading as if they were fellow believers. The same is true throughout the Bible about false teachers and false prophets. Jesus Himself made some of the strongest statements about “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” about false prophets misleading many, even about false Christs.

So determining who is and who isn’t a Christian, what is and what isn’t true Christian teaching, seems like an important aptitude.

Yet I know people will hold back for fear of judging. We aren’t supposed to judge each other, are we?

We’re not.

But that doesn’t mean we’re to put our brains on hold, either. We can still think. We can still look at the story on the screen and compare it with what the Bible says. Which is, after all, the unchanging, authoritative Truth by which we know what “Christian” means.

This article is a re-post of the one I published today at Speculative Faith.

Published in: on February 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

There IS a God


his_temptation007It seems to me that denying God’s existence is the main strategy Satan is employing in Western civilization.

Ironic that Satan’s rebellion centered around wanting to be like God—Humankind’s too—but since that didn’t happen, and never will, never could, his ploy shifted to bringing God down.

It dawned on me a number of years ago when I read the three specific temptations Satan gave Jesus, recorded in Matthew and in Luke, that he was really bringing into question Jesus’s divinity. In other words, he was trying to reduce Jesus to the status of a mere man. And of course that failed.

So it seems his ploy for the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first has been to kill God off, or make Him irrelevant, or non-existent. I mean, no need to do away with what never existed. Enter evolution and modern philosophy with its reliance on empiricism, followed by postmodernism with its relativistic view of truth. God might be “true for you,” but that certainly doesn’t mean he actually exists.

The sad thing is, as Western society has realized the vacuous nature of these beliefs, there has not been a return to what was known before, but a forging ahead into what is new. Or rather, what has the appearance of “new.” Specifically, these are non-god entities that promise to satisfy the spiritual hunger we humans have begun to acknowledge.

“Non-god entities?”

One such would be the idea that each person has the resources we need for wellness. We just need to learn how to tap into the secrets that will release our amazing potential. With all the verbiage, it’s not easy to recognize, but this is all another way of saying, “You, too, can be like God.”

“Non-god entities.” This would also include “spirit guides,” more commonly known as demons; elements of the earth or of the universe or Mother Nature herself; ancestors; prophets; saints and popes; healer-preachers. In other words, anyone or anything we elevate to the position God alone rightfully possesses.

God is a jealous God, not an attribute we find attractive in humans, and consequently one we don’t often talk about in connection with God. But Satan has been all about stripping God of His Personhood, about denigrating Him, discrediting Him, dredging up doubts about Him. Who can defend God in the face of such assaults?

Well, God can. God should. He’s like a loving husband who cares for his wife’s well-being. On top of this, God knows. He knows what Satan is all about. He knows how easily fooled we are. He knows what His own nature and power and character are.

The truth is, one day we will all stand before Him, in His splendor, and every knee will bow, every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Satan’s best efforts, for all time, will crumble to nothing. All doubts removed. Questions answered. There IS a God.

This post is a revised and edited version of one that first appeared here in November 2007.

Published in: on February 10, 2017 at 6:14 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

God At His Best


hubble-view-of-stars_and_spaceSome doubtlessly will say God was at His best in His redemptive work at the cross. That’s where He outsmarted Satan and beat death, where He extracted triumph from defeat, where He displayed His matchless power and glory.

But a good case could be made that God was at His best when He brought the universe into being. No wonder the statement “In the beginning God created” has come under such fierce attack.

You see, the act of, the fact of, creation displays God’s character. From my point of view here’s one of the most powerful passages of Scripture. It’s the section in Isaiah 40 leading up to the “mounting up with wings like eagles” passage we know so well:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand,
And marked off the heavens by the span,
And calculated the dust of the earth by the measure,
And weighed the mountains in a balance
And the hills in a pair of scales?

Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD,
Or as His counselor has informed Him?

With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding?
And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge
And informed Him of the way of understanding?

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
And are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales;
Behold, He lifts up the islands like fine dust

Even Lebanon is not enough to burn,
Nor its beasts enough for a burnt offering.

All the nations are as nothing before Him,
They are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless.

To whom then will you liken God?
Or what likeness will you compare with Him?

As for the idol, a craftsman casts it,
A goldsmith plates it with gold,
And a silversmith fashions chains of silver.

He who is too impoverished for such an offering
Selects a tree that does not rot;
He seeks out for himself a skillful craftsman
To prepare an idol that will not totter.

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been declared to you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in

He it is who reduces rulers to nothing,
Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless.

Scarcely have they been planted,
Scarcely have they been sown,
Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth,
But He merely blows on them, and they wither,
And the storm carries them away like stubble.

“To whom then will you liken Me
That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One.

Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
And the justice due me escapes the notice of my God”?

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth
Does not become weary or tired
His understanding is inscrutable (Isaiah 40:12-28; emphasis mine).

God’s power is matchless, His understanding inscrutable, His ways unsearchable. From eternity, He is.

Simply put, He is over all of nature—that which is here on earth and that which is in space. He is greater than the nations, which He also made, sovereign over their rulers, Judge of their judges.

Creation establishes Him as Greater.

And Satan can’t stand that.

Why wouldn’t he bend his might to undermine the fact of God’s work of creation?

Let them believe in God, he seems to say, but a god stripped of his essential power. Let him be relegated to a cheerleader, watching from the sidelines, cheering Humankind along on his journey through life. Let them think god is kind and good and loving … and powerless.

Powerless to impact the world in a meaningful way—so it’s up to people to take things into their own hands and do what they can to clean up this mess. God? He can give them a shoulder to cry on, an occasional thumbs-up atta-boy, a timely “well done” to let them know how important they are to his plans.

After all, what would he be without them? A myth, a mirage, a bit of undigested cheese.

NOTHING, NOTHING can be further from the truth, but it all starts with accepting the Word of the One who can testify about where the world came from: In the beginning, God.

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

Published in: on February 9, 2017 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , ,

Creation And The Bible


fullmoonovermountains-benjamin-child
Nothing might be more controversial today than creation. Atheists and liberals will collectively begin scoffing as soon as they read the word. Or mocking. Idiot right-wing Trumpite. She believes in creation. Ha-ha-hah! She probably believes in the Tooth Fairy, too. Or the White Rabbit.

For the record: not a Trumpite. And while I’m a fantasy writer, I have a pretty keen ability to discern what is make believe and what is true. You might even say I lean toward the skeptical.

But here’s the thing. Once you have confidence in the source of truth, you don’t need to constantly check it’s reliability.

For instance, in the course of my writing/editing day, I look up a lot of words using the Oxford-American Dictionary app on my computer. I do not immediately switch to the Internet so I can find that same word on Merriam-Webster or one of the other online dictionaries. I trust the source I’m using.

I have confidence in the Bible for a multitude of reasons which I’ve written about before (here’s one such post, the beginning of a short series, and here’s another).

I don’t mean, by saying that I have confidence in the Bible, that I don’t ask questions. I do. In fact, I’ve asked a lot of questions about the Genesis account of creation. For instance, when did God create the water that covered everything before He created the earth and all that is on it? And how did He create light before He created the sun and the moon and the stars? And the one that consumes so many people’s attention, did God really create everything in six days—the 24-hour days we know?

In some cases, in all my question asking, I come up with what I think might be the answer, but in most instances, the Bible hasn’t made a definitive statement, so I have to be content with what seems reasonable—given that God is omnipotent and sovereign and good.

What can I say about creation, then? What is categorically and uncompromisingly clear according to the Bible? Only this one thing: God created the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that is in them, the heavenly host, those who fell and those who serve him in joy and obedience. There simply is not anything made that was not made.

The Bible does not equivocate on this point. Right from the start, this is the point the Bible makes: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

God’s work as Creator is not a minor point. The Bible actually makes it clear that His work as Maker of the heavens and the earth set Him apart from pretend gods. Psalm 115 is a classic comparison between God and idols:

Why should the nations say,
Where now is their God?
But God is in the heavens.
He does whatever He pleases.
Their idols are silver and gold,
The work of man’s hands.

Then towards the end:

May you be blessed of the LORD,
Maker of heaven and earth.
The heavens are the heavens of the LORD,
But the earth He has given to the sons of men.

The verse of course implies that the earth is the Lord’s to give. Which makes sense if He is the Maker.

Other passages confirm this understanding, particularly the distinction between God and other gods or idols:

For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
But the LORD made the heavens. (Psalm 96:5)

Or how about Psalm 146:

How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
Whose hope is in the LORD his God,
Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and all that is in them (vv 5-6)

The passage goes on to name an impressive list of things we can praise God for, but it starts with his work as the maker of the heavens and the earth.

Here are other clear statements about God’s work as creator:

Psalm 33:6
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
And by the breath of His mouth all their host.

Psalm 148:5
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
For He commanded and they were created.

Jeremiah 10:11-12
Thus you shall say to them, “The gods that did not make the heavens and the earth will perish from the earth and from under the heavens.”
It is He who made the earth by His power,
Who established the world by His wisdom;
And by His understanding He has stretched out the heavens.

Jeremiah 32:17
‘Ah Lord GOD! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You,

John 1:3
All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.

Colossians 1:16
For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.

Revelation 14:7
and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters.”

This list is hardly exhaustive. More like it’s the first ray of morning light. But I think the point is clear: the Bible identifies God as the creator of all that has been created.

But here’s the thing: in these verses I quoted, there’s hardly agreement concerning the process of creation. The two Psalms say it was by His word and commandment. The earlier Jeremiah passage says it was by His wisdom and understanding. The second Jeremiah passage says it was by his power and outstretched arm. And the three New Testament passages made no statement about how God went about creating.

So does this difference constitute a contradiction—the Bible writers couldn’t agree with each other about the method of creation.

That, unfortunately, is how some read Scripture. They miss the poetic expressions that tell us more about God than about the creative process. He is so great that all He needed was to speak a word, but He is also so authoritative that His word was a command. All that He made was done as an expression of His wisdom and understanding, and His outstretched hand and power identify His sovereignty.

Rather than disagree, these passages of Scripture, written centuries apart in some instances, and by different men, in different circumstances, agree about the fundamental truth: God created. How, the Bible only gives us glimpses. It is not myth, but neither is it a text book, explaining the particulars one step at a time.

The big picture is crystal clear: God created.

His work as Creator sets Him apart from all other gods—all the pretenders and wanna-be usurpers, the idols that have mouths but cannot speak, and even from we ourselves and our thoughts of grandeur.

God created. God. Created. It’s the dividing line between people who believe and people who don’t.

Photo credit – Benjamin Child via Unsplash.

Published in: on February 8, 2017 at 5:32 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: ,

Satan – Is He Real?


wolf_on_alertIn discussing God with other people, I continue to come up against views about Him that contradict how He has revealed Himself. Where do those come from? After all, if I tell you about myself, you have no particular reason to think I’m distorting the truth. If I tell you I live in Southern California, I doubt if those visiting this blog automatically think, HA! a likely story! I suspect most people believe what I say about myself until I give them reason to believe otherwise.

So too with God … I would think. But a study of history shows this is not the case. From the earliest moments, there in Eden, Eve, when given a choice to believe God or not, opted for Not. Why?

Quite simply, a second source introduced a contradictory view, and Eve had to choose what to believe. One statement was true, the other false. One statement came from God, the other from a beautiful creature that told her what she wanted to hear.

Well, that last part is my interpretation. It seems to me that a good deal of temptation feeds into what a person would like to be true, with disregard to what actually is true.

So in Eve’s case, the beautiful creature before her asked for verification that God had put a restriction on what Adam and Eve could eat in the garden. Eve answered that they could eat from all the trees except for one, and that God said they would die if they ate from that tree.

The beautiful creature’s response? “You surely shall not die.” Essentially he promised her she could eat her cake and not suffer any consequences, although God had said just the opposite.

I suppose in part you’d have to say I’m taking God’s word for the fact that this beautiful creature, elsewhere described as an angel of light and the tempter and a roaring lion and a dragon, the serpent of old, really exists. The thing is, the truth of his existence explains a lot. Sure, the presence of sin in the fabric of Mankind’s nature also accounts for evil in the world, but the unanswered part of the equation is, How did the creation God made good, become tainted by evil?

I don’t know how atheists account for evil, or for good, for that matter. I mean, apart from believing in a moral right and wrong, behavior just is. No one judges an eagle for swooping down and gobbling up a field mouse. No one faults a shark for going after the nearest seal.

But clearly we humans believe in wrong.

Some years ago when the Lakers won an NBA championship, “fans” took to the street, looted a store, started fires, threw things at passing buses. Most of us shook our heads and said, That is so wrong.

CEOs run their institutions into bankruptcy but take for themselves million dollar bonuses, and most of us say, That is so wrong.

A state governor tries to sell an important appointment to the highest bidder, and most of us say, That is so wrong.

So evil is here, in this world and in the human heart. Its presence confirms a source. The Bible points to Satan as the source.

Oh, yes, the Bible also identifies Satan as a liar and the father of lies. So the lie he told about Adam and Eve not dying … well, it was true to his nature, but it certainly was not true. Humans have died ever since.

Is Satan real? I suggest death proves he is. I suggest the fact that people tell lies, proves he’s real. I suggest the fact that any number of people question God’s existence, proves Satan is real.

Because, you see, he loves to delude people.

He also doesn’t want us to see he is behind the curtain pulling the strings. That’s why he appears as what he is not. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, for instance. A talking animal, for another.

Jesus had a face to face encounter with Satan, and the old liar even co-opted Scripture to try to use against the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus rebuked him and he backed off, but the encounter is another piece of evidence that Satan is real.

Satan is a rebel on top of everything else, and he does what he can to undermine and erode God’s plan and purpose. Death is his tool, but he also tries to accuse God’s people before the throne of grace.

Jesus answers every charge on our account.

But the war rages on. That’s why Paul tells us in Ephesians to put on the armor of God. We don’t war against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers—Satan and his followers.

If Satan weren’t real, wouldn’t God’s will reign on earth, here and now? Who could oppose the power of God’s Spirit?

Not that Satan is winning, though he undoubtedly wants to give that impression. But there simply would not be a fight. For His own righteous purposes, God allows Satan latitude here on earth. He can test and tempt and oppress and possess. He can manipulate events and people and even nature to do his bidding—all allowed by our sovereign God.

God created, Satan seeks to destroy. God breathed life into the humans He brought into being; Satan looks to kill and steal and destroy.

Yes, Satan is real, an adversary not to be taken lightly, but also one not to be feared because greater is He who is in you, Christian, than he who is in the world.

This post is an expanded and edited version of one that first appeared here in June 2009.

Published in: on February 1, 2017 at 5:14 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , , ,

The Purpose Of Prayer


I don’t understand much about prayer and its purpose. In fact, for years my prayer life was … sad.

For the longest time, I prayed pretty much for no other reason than that Scripture tells us to pray. From my experience, it seemed mostly like a crap shoot as to whether or not God would give me what I asked for.

When I was a kid, I prayed for things like a bike—didn’t get one until I was in junior high and then we lived where there was no place to ride.

As a young adult, I prayed for things like our friend who mysteriously disappeared one Sunday morning, never to be found again.

Later I prayed for a spouse. I’m still single. I prayed for people to get well who died, and for others, who lived. I prayed for families to stay together that split up.

As a teacher I prayed for my classes and my lesson prep and my work load, and I was never sure when God answered. When things went well, was it because of His provision or the natural course of things? When they went badly, was He telling me I’d neglected something I was supposed to be doing?

At some point, I pretty much stopped trying to figure prayer out. I knew what it wasn’t. It was not God’s vending machine—insert faith, push the desired prayer button, wait for answer to automatically spit out.

Prayer as vending machine had been my philosophy when our friend went missing. I knew God was powerful enough to bring her back, whole and healthy, even. I believed He wanted to protect her and to return her to her role as a pastor’s wife. I asked, believing she would be found. I fully expected it. But days turned into weeks, then years, and eventually it was clear God had not answered my prayer—at least not by giving me what I requested. Now I understand that’s not the way prayer works.

In fact, prayer doesn’t “work” as if it’s a tool to fix what’s broken. Rather, prayer is our “spiritual media” (in contrast to our ever demanding social media)—our means of communicating with God.

So I guess that defines at least part of prayer’s purpose. God wants us first and foremost to talk to Him. I mean, we’re in a relationship. Healthy relationships need healthy communication. Clearly, communication involves a lot more than simply asking for things.

I find it interesting that there were times in Scripture God said He wouldn’t hear His people’s prayers. In other places, however, He seemed to promise answers. If two or three are gathered in His name, if we have the faith of a mustard seed, if we pray without any doubt, if we pray according to His will.

That last point is a stickler. How are we to know His will? Does He want my friend to be healed of cancer or does He want to glorify Himself by how she approaches death? How am I to pray? Or is my every prayer to be, This is what I want God, nevertheless not my will be done, but Yours.

If so, aren’t we back to the crap shoot idea since I really don’t know how to pray or what God plans?

Here’s the shocking thing I’ve learned in the last few years. When it comes to asking for things, God has told us in Scripture what things He wills. Over and over He’s told us.

But silly me, I persist in asking for things without having a clue what God wants instead of asking for the enduring provisions God wants to give me.

Look at this one passage in the book of James, and think how life-changing it could be if I were to pray for these things that I know are God’s will:

Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts you double-minded.

Or how about this from Philippians:

Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intend 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.

And later in the same chapter:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.

Prayer changes things, I’m convinced. Until recently, though, I don’t think I understood what things God wants to change most of all.

Sure, in answer to prayer He could have changed Jesus’s status as the Suffering Servant who would die to redeem mankind. He didn’t because He knew the stakes. And Jesus knew to pray, “Not My will but Yours” because He knew the stakes, too.

He also knew His Father to be good, to be loving and merciful. So He put His trust in the Father’s will.

The purpose of prayer? First as communication between us and the Father. I think God wants us to pour our our heart to Him, to unload our burdens, to plead with Him for comfort or strength or even for change. We know God hears, but like a kind Father, He will only give us what is good for us.

But of equal importance, a key purpose of prayer is as a means for us to be involved with God to accomplish His will—things we know He wants because He has stated them in Scripture. These things we can pray knowing God hears and answers, though we may never see the outcome. God’s time is not ours, just as His ways are not ours. But praying with perseverance means we wait eagerly for God’s perfect answer.

This post is a an updated and revised edition of one that first appeared here in May 2011—because I still need to re-read thoughts on prayer.

Published in: on January 23, 2017 at 6:15 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

Prayer Changes Things?


praying_guy-429125-m

I don’t understand prayer. I’ve thought about it, written about it, heard sermons about it, studied it in scripture, participated in it corporately and individually, and I still don’t understand it. Not really.

Here’s what I do know—it’s a short list.

1. God doesn’t pay us for being righteous by answering our prayers. In other words, getting what we pray for is not in direct correlation to doing what God tells us to do. Somebody like Job lived righteously, but he lost everything. Daniel prayed and still got thrown into the lion’s den. Sure, he survived, but he still spent the night with the lions. Is that what he prayed for? I doubt it.

2. God doesn’t give us a formula to follow: Do steps A through F just exactly as I tell you to, then I’ll answer your prayer.

3. God will not be manipulated. He’s God. He does not move mountains at our behest! He moves them because moving them fits His plan and purposes.

4. God wants us to pray. He actually commands it, but He also promises to hear, wants us to ask without doubting Him.

5. We don’t receive from God because we don’t ask. And too often when we ask we do so with wrong motives. That’s actually what James say in chapter 4, but I recognize the truth of what he said in my own experiences.

I might also say, I also pray with impatience. I get tired asking for the same thing over and over, and I just give up. Am I to be more persistent or has God said no?

Paul asked three times that the thorn he lived with would be removed and God said no. One of the Old Testament prophets was apparently praying for God’s people, but God told him to stop because He determined to judge them for their disobedience.

But Jesus told parables about prayer, particularly about being persistent in prayer.

So how do I know if I am being persistent, faint-hearted, not willing to hear God say no, or filled with doubt?

I have this sense that prayer is more than what I make it to be.

On one hand, I don’t think I pray believing as I should. I mean, Jesus seemed to be making a huge promise in Mark 11:23-24 when He said

Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. 2Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.

He also told His disciples to “seek first [His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things [food and clothing] will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33).

So perhaps prayer should fit in with what we seek. If I’m seeking my own good and glory, that’s not seeking God’s kingdom and His righteousness. Don’t selfish pursuits fit into James’s “wrong motives” category?

Perhaps this motives question explains why repentance should be a part of prayer. Of course, not everyone thinks it must be. After all, believers in Christ have already been forgiven our sins. But I see David sorrowing for His sin in various Psalms, and James tells us to confess our sins to one another. David also says,

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way. (Ps. 13:23-24)

It seems such an approach to prayer would be perhaps the only way to have right motives.

But I come back to the basic point of prayer: what is it? Is it a way we can get what we want from God? Right there, that seems to shout, WRONG MOTIVE.

But Jesus, in response to His disciples’ request that He teach them to pray, modeled a prayer that included requests for both physical things (daily bread) and spiritual things (forgive us our trespasses, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil).

So asking for things isn’t wrong in and of itself. But I can’t help but notice that the spiritual things in Jesus’s prayer outnumbered the physical ones three to one. And if you add in His opening: Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, then it’s actually a six to one ration.

But people in the Bible prayed for physical things. Hezekiah prayed that he wouldn’t die from his illness and God extended his life fifteen years. Gideon asked as a sign of God’s choice of him as the leader of the army, that dew would fall only on his fleece and nowhere else. Then the next day he asked for the opposite: dew everywhere except on his fleece. Both times, God answered. Then there was Elijah who prayed that it wouldn’t rain. God answered by sending Israel a three and a half year drought.

Were these prayers selfish? Hezekiah was clearly praying for something for himself, but Isaiah records his prayer and there is more to his desire than simply his own life extended:

It is You who has kept my soul from the pit of nothingness,
For You have cast all my sins behind Your back.
“For Sheol cannot thank You,
Death cannot praise You;
Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness.
“It is the living who give thanks to You, as I do today;
A father tells his sons about Your faithfulness.
“The LORD will surely save me;
So we will play my songs on stringed instruments
All the days of our life at the house of the LORD.” (Isaiah 38:17b-20)

These physical things, then, seemed to have a spiritual motive.

But there’s something else about prayer that I know I neglect: friends talk to each other. Prayer doesn’t have to be about asking for things. It can be communication for the sake of “getting to know you better.” I think it’s good to ask God questions: I don’t understand this passage of Scripture, God. What does it mean? Or, I have this dilemma and I don’t know which to choose. What do you think, God?

I think those kinds of prayers make me mindful of God’s way—what He values, how He looks at things. That’s the real key. Prayer is not me telling God what He should do. Prayer is me getting to know the heart of God and asking Him how I fit into His plans.

Published in: on January 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm  Comments (6)  
Tags: , , , , ,

Fooled Or Foolish


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

A few verses later he adds,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah sums this up nicely:

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts About Job, His Friends, And God


job003Today I finished reading the book of Job, which means I’ve been thinking about Job and his sorry friends of late. For one thing, the real subject of the book of Job seems to be God’s character. I’ve read snatches of commentary about the book and heard sermons and even read fiction based on Job’s story and much of it seems to focus on the “wager” between God and Satan.

Oddly, I don’t see a wager. That would reduce the exchange to a “betcha he will/betcha he won’t” argument. There is no “betting” when it comes to omniscience, as if God might actually be wrong in His assessment of Job.

Instead, He pointed out Job to Satan as an example of righteousness, and Satan turned around and accused God of buying Job’s loyalty. Job only loved God because of all the good stuff God gave him—wealth, a loving family, protection, health.

God basically said, See for yourself if that’s true, which it wasn’t

Here’s the part that I’ve come to understand. Job’s friends, perhaps the first health-and-wealth theologians, in essence agreed with Satan, though they came at it from the opposite side. They said, Job, you’re suffering because you did something wrong. If you will just do right (or stop doing wrong), God will reward you for it. Which is another way of saying, God pays people to love Him.

In other words, they were putting God in a box and telling Job he had the capacity to manipulate God into blessing him and prospering him.

Job countered by saying, No, he hadn’t done anything to bring down God’s wrath. He still loved God, still believed in doing what was right, but God was punishing him anyway.

Here’s where Job sinned. He accused God too. Accused Him of wronging Job, to the point that he justified himself at God’s expense. (God even asked him, “Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?” – Job 40:8b)

But the critical point comes when God spells out for all of them the truth about Himself:

Who has given to Me that I should repay him?
Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine. (Job 41:11)

Satan was wrong in his accusation of God. God doesn’t need to pay off His creatures to love Him. Job’s friends were wrong in their description of God. He can’t be manipulated into giving us good things as payment for our obedience. Job was wrong because He said God had turned against Him for no reason. He was measure God’s goodness by how He treated Job.

Of course, God also called Job to account for his pride.

His description in verses 12 through 33 of chapter 41 sounds like that of a dragon, the very term used of Satan in the book of Revelation. Then God adds verse 34:

He [the creature He’s just described] looks on everything that is high;
He is king over all the sons of pride.

Did Job at that point see himself as a son of pride? as a son of Satan? Most definitely he saw God aright, and I think that must have also made him see himself aright. As a result he retracted his accusations and repented “in dust and ashes.”

One more cool thing. The message of Job seems clear: God doesn’t pay us for right behavior. He doesn’t owe us anything nor does He need anything from us. He is over all and owns all. But He juxtaposed this book with the book of Psalms, so full of promises like

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked …
He will be like a tree firmly planted by water
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.

So which is it? God doesn’t repay or God blesses the person who doesn’t hang with the wicked? Both.

It’s like the parable Jesus told about the landowner who hired workers at different times during the day. When those who worked all day received the same pay as those who worked only one hour, they were miffed and accused the owner of wrong doing. But he said, are you mad because I was generous?

God can be generous to whomever He wishes, to whatever degree He wishes.

The thing we too often miss is that His greatest gifts aren’t the external things that make this life more comfortable. The real gifts are the spiritual things that are eternal, and those we have no way of measuring here and now.

This post is a revised, updated version of one that first appeared here in January 2009.

Published in: on January 16, 2017 at 5:30 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , ,

The Clay Is Talking Back


But now, O LORD, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our potter

But now, O LORD, You are our Father,
We are the clay, and You our potter


“God did not make us.”

I hear atheists reject God’s work of creation all the time, but more recently I’ve heard people claiming the name of Christ reciting a companion falsehood.

Isaiah prophesied about the twisted thinking that creates these untruths:

You turn things around!
Shall the potter be considered as equal with the clay,
That what is made would say to its maker, “He did not make me”;
Or what is formed say to him who formed it, “He has no understanding”(Isaiah 29:16; emphasis added)

Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens popularized the first part of that prophecy: He did not make me.

And “progressive Christians,” who believe in universal salvation, are saying in essence, He has no understanding.

Their belief system questions God’s plan of salvation by implying that sending “billions and billions” of people to hell for eternity is beneath Him. Judgment of sinners doesn’t measure up to the progressive Christian’s idea of what God should be like. In essence, they are saying God must not judge and punish as He sees fit. If he does so, he’s a “monster” as one supporter of author and former pastor Rob Bell called it.

“We do these somersaults to justify the monster god we believe in,” [Chad Holtz, former pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina] said. “But confronting my own sinfulness, that’s when things started to topple for me. Am I really going to be saved just because I believe something, when all these good people in the world aren’t?” (from “Pastor loses job after questioning hell’s existence”)

In other words, if that’s the way God is, then he’s wrong. Their answer is to ignore the clear statements of Jesus about His children, His followers, His sheep, in favor of a few isolated passages taken out of context and made to say things they were never intended to say.

In addition, the fundamental error in the thinking of those who indict God comes out loud and clear. Man is good. It is God who is suspect.

The thinking seems to be, Since we know Man is good, and we want God to be good, then hell can’t possibly exist, at least in the form that the “traditional church” has taught.

The answer, then, is to re-image God. And hell. And even heaven. But our idea that Man is good? In spite of evidence to the contrary, we’ll keep that belief intact.

The truth is, Man is not good.

A just God warned Man away from the tree that would bring death and a curse. Man ignored God and succumbed to temptation. He has not been “good” at his core ever since.

As Man went his own way, God chose an individual to be His, from whom He would build a nation that would be an example to all the nations of what it meant to be God’s people.

When the chosen nation went its own way, God sent prophets to warn them not to forsake Him. When they ignored the warnings, He sent more prophets, and finally He sent His Son in the form of man:

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was in the flesh, God did, sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh (Romans 8:3)

God’s Son didn’t come to judge—He will take that role later, when the just penalty for turning from God will be handed out to sinful (not good) Man, condemned by his own choice to go his own way.

Though Jesus came to save when He first entered the world, He created a dividing line.

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

In summary, Man sinned, Man went his own way, Man rebelled, Man rejected God, his Maker. Clearly, by our nature we are not good.

The problem is ours, not God’s. God certainly does not need a make-over. He does not need progressive Christians to frame Him in a better light. Rather, we all need to stop going our own way, stop acting independently of God. We are but clay. Beloved by God, yes—not because we’ve earned His special consideration, not because we deserve His kindness and patience and love—but because of God’s own nature.

He is the potter. The clay really is not in a position to improve the potter, nor should it be talking back.

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