Meeting Expectations


In case I haven’t mentioned it recently, I’m a big sports fan. The problem with being a fan is that more often than not, an expectation exists to win, and the truth is, most teams lose a good percent of their games.

Sure, there are the teams like the Alabama University football team that can reel off a good streak, but when they lose the “big game,” the expectations of the fans are dashed. Or how about the Dodgers’ baseball? They held something like a 20 game lead in their division, clinched a playoff spot before any other team, and still didn’t even make it to the World Series.

Never mind all the mid-tier teams that probably have no realistic shot of even making the playoffs. Like my Denver Broncos in the NFL. When the season started, I expected them to be pretty good. And they are. But they have lost 4 games in the final minute of play, once by not scoring and 3 times by allowing the other teams to score. Four loses in football are highly significant. A team that is 8-4 in December has a legitimate chance at a playoff spot. But the Broncos are languishing at 4-8 instead. My expectations for the team aren’t being fulfilled.

But that’s really life. There aren’t a lot of times that our expectations in life are all met. Something tends to gum up the works. It might be a transfer from a comfortable location to one that is far from family. It might be a promotion that went to someone else, or a love interest that did not reciprocate the feelings. It might be a leaky pipe that requires hours of plumber work. It could be as disastrous as a tornado or blizzard or wild fire. I’ve heard people who lost their homes saying things like, Yes, this was our dream home and now it’s gone.

Or how about illness or injury? Or a son or daughter who doesn’t like the same stuff you love. You want to share your passion with them, but they just don’t care. Then there are new pastors who don’t handle the job the way we thought a pastor would, or should.

What about the program you worked hours and hours on, practicing, preparing, and the night of the big performance, the mic doesn’t work properly and no one can hear what the performers say.

I could go on and on. I probably have too long already. I think it’s pretty clear that all of us, in whatever walk of life, are acquainted with unmet expectations.

I can only think of one instance in which we are never let down. That’s spiritually. Jesus Christ never lets us down.

Oh, sure, people might expect the wrong things from Him. They might expect that He answer their prayer the way they want and according to their timetable. Well, in that case, they can just put “answered prayer” in the column of unmet expectation. God doesn’t operate according to our dictates. He doesn’t take orders from us, because quite clearly He’s the one in charge. And He works stuff out for our spiritual good.

Our spiritual good is not necessarily the same as our physical good. I think of the Christians who left such strong witnesses by their suffering and even their deaths, and I know that the “momentary, light affliction” of this life is in no way comparable to the eternal weight of glory we will experience through God’s work in our lives.

It’s like putting temporary on one side of the scales and eternal on the other side and seeing which weighs more. Yeah, not even close. The scales tip so drastically toward the eternal, that it’s not even a contest.

So when something in the temporary doesn’t meet expectations, but all things in the eternal always meet expectations, how are we to react?

Honestly, if we were looking at the whole picture, we’d see how silly frustration or disappointment over the temporary actually is. It’s a lot like not doing well in practice. We might try hard, but if we come up short, what have we lost? Maybe a start in the big game, maybe even a chance to play at all. But what have we actually lost? Our poor play in practice did not hurt the team, and it might have actually taught me what I need to know for the game. It might actually be for my good.

Shocking, I know. But that’s actually how God works with us in life. We might face failed expectations and have to endure suffering or hardship. But the experience will never be wasted. God will use it to prep us for eternity. He might even use it in the here and now: like He did for Corrie ten Boom or Elisabeth Elliot or Joni Eareckson Tada. Suffering and hardship in the here and now, but astounding accomplishment and success in the here and now, also.

But even that success is spiritual. I mean, any number of lives have turned to Christ because of the witness of people like these three, or like Greg Laurie who lost his son, but not his faith in the goodness of God.

So in among all the disappointed expectations, we will never see our faithful God fail us or forsake us. But who is “us”? Any and all who believe in the name of His Son, the promised Messiah, the Christ, who takes away the sins of the world. We can go to the spiritual bank with the capital of His shed blood, and we will be spiritual millionaires.

Published in: on December 2, 2019 at 5:14 pm  Comments (7)  
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I’m Thankful For Rain


I read a post this morning that started by saying good things about the sun and how the short days of winter are not inline with enjoying lots of sun. I love the sun, too. It’s easier for me to wake up when day breaks rather than when night has a couple more hours to go.

But here in SoCal, we don’t see much rain, so I treasure those days. Unless I’m driving in it. Not my favorite thing.

And, you guessed it, this Thanksgiving Day, we are expecting rain. The storm is due to hit tomorrow morning in the wee hours, so it might have been raining for a couple hours before I wake up. Then, as is typical of SoCal storms, we will have rain throughout the day. There may be a short break here or there, but for the next two days, the weather people are predicting rain.

I’m thankful for the rain. I have to keep reminding myself as I anticipate a drive in the rain on Thursday.

Sometimes our blessings—and rain certainly is a blessing—have mixed consequences, the same way the things we dread or don’t like, do. I mean, there isn’t much that happens in this world that doesn’t have a flip side. Whatever happens might be horrible, but from the ashes something good comes. Or something great happens, but there’s a downside no one saw coming.

Let’s say, for example, a ball team wins the ultimate championship in their sport, and as part of the celebration, their “fans” riot in the streets after the game.

Some things do seem like they are headed nowhere, that the outcome is hopeless, that all is lost and no one is coming to save the day, or to bring first aid, or even a cup of water. That can happen. It does happen.

But for the Christian, all is not lost. All is never lost. Because our King is Jesus, and He has already conquered sin and guilt and death and sickness and sadness and abuse and persecution and any other thing we can imagine that could come against us.

The flip side of suffering, is God’s glory, His comfort through His Holy Spirit, His home that we can anticipate. Peter said it like this:

Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. AND DO NOT FEAR THEIR INTIMIDATION, AND DO NOT BE TROUBLED, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:13-15; I added the italicized font for emphasis; the all caps indicate a quotation from the Old Testament)

Peter actually talked to those first century Christians a lot about suffering, and it all applies to us as well. In Chapter 4 he says

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (vv 12-14)

Did you catch that? As in the first quote, he says here in this second, that we are blessed if we “share the sufferings of Christ.” He follows this with a warning that no one is to suffer as “a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or troublesome meddler.” That covers a lot of territory!

But what if we suffer just because we live in a world in which bad things happen? I can’t explain really, but as Christians who trust God, we can trust Him in the bad things, too. We can. And we can bless His name. We can do what Jesus did: “He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.” (1 Peter 2:23b)

Because God is righteous, because Jesus is already the Victor, as Corrie ten Boom liked to say, we can do what James says: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” (James 1:3).

Then of course there’s David who said in Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me.”

I think the key is God’s presence. For the Christian He is with us, in us, never absent, slumbering, or inattentive. He knows.

So Daniel’s friends experienced God’s presence right there in the fiery furnace, and they lived to walk out of it, but Stephen experienced God’s presence through His angelic servants, and he died. The outcome isn’t really the point. The “entrusting ourselves to Him who judges righteously” is everything.

So rain or sun—God sends both because we need both, most of all for our spiritual strengthening and growth and well-being.

Published in: on November 26, 2019 at 5:24 pm  Comments (4)  
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Jonah And Racism


I know. The title of this article is supposed to be “Jonah and the Whale,” right? I mean, that’s what everyone know about Jonah. But I’ve recently heard a couple different pastors on the radio, and to a man they cut to the heart of the story.

Jonah is not about some miraculous rescue from the sea, though that’s a part of the story. It’s not even about a disobedient prophet who finally, when given a second chance, repented and relented and did what God told him to do. Though that also is part of the story.

The real issue for the prophet Jonah was his hatred of the Assyrians. You know, the people who lived in Nineveh, where God told him to go and preach. If God had said, Go to Bethlehem or Bethel or Jericho or Dan, I imagine Jonah would have been happy to obey, because we know from 2 Kings that Jonah did in fact prophesy certain things about Israel.

But Nineveh? Jonah didn’t want to go to the enemy. He told God why: he knew that when he preached the message of judgment, those violent idolaters who had fought against Israel on more than one occasion, would repent, and then God would forgive them. Yep, that’s why he didn’t want to go. He didn’t want them to repent. He didn’t want them to receive God’s mercy.

Again, that’s right there in the book of Jonah—in the chapter that doesn’t make it into the nice little picture Bible story books we so often see. After God saw the Ninevites change their ways and turn from their wicked deeds, after God relented of the destruction he had planned to send against them, what did Jonah do? He went up on a hill outside the city to watch, hoping that perhaps God would stay with the judgment He had planned.

Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city. (Jonah 4:5)

While he sat there, God prepared another object lesson for Jonah. He gave him a plant that provided additional shade from the heat, but just as miraculously He sent a worm that destroyed the plant. And Jonah was angry. Why? He had liked that plant. He wanted the plant to live. He hadn’t actually planted it or cultivated it or done anything to give it life. But he wanted that plant to live.

God made the comparison: Jonah and his attitude toward the plant in juxtaposition to God and His attitude toward Nineveh.

Then the LORD said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

Jonah had no compassion for the thousands of people who God was warning about the coming judgment. His actions—going the opposite direction in order to avoid giving God’s message, becoming angry when God relented and determined that He would not destroy them after all, sitting outside the city in hopes that God would still judge them—followed by God’s confrontation of him, show us Jonah’s heart.

He wasn’t thinking along with God, here. He wasn’t rejoicing with the angels that sinners had turned from the errors of their ways. He wasn’t thinking about mercy or forgiveness. Instead, he was thinking about revenge.

My guess is that Jonah would have been happy to deliver God’s message of judgment: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4b). If, that is, he hadn’t figured out that God, being merciful, would give them a second chance.

He didn’t want them to have a second chance. One way to keep them from repenting, was simply keep them in the dark about their coming judgment. So, one ticket to Tarshish, please.

The whole story is so ironic, because Jonah himself experienced God’s second chance when he was plucked from the sea by a God-appointed fish. When Jonah repented, God appointed the fish to hurl, then gave Jonah a second chance:

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time (Jonah 3:1a)

Jonah reminds me of the man in one of Jesus’s parables who had been forgiven much but who would not forgive those who owed him even a small amount.

The story also reminds me that God loves the world. He loved the people of Israel and He loved their enemies. He wasn’t playing favorites or picking sides. He sent Joseph to Egypt, Daniel to Babylon, and Jonah to Assyria.

In essence He’s sent Christians to those places, too, as well as to many other places. That’s our “marching orders,” our perpetual assignment. And never has it been easier to “go” without really even having to go. We can preach the gospel—the good news that has to start first with the same kind of warning Jonah was to deliver—by supporting those who leave their homes and go in person. We can tell others through the internet, radio, print, podcasts, videos, so many, many ways. We can even go to our homeless or unchurched neighbors right where we live.

Our choice is simple: we can behave like Jonah or we can show the compassion of Christ, the love of the Father for those thousands who are confused and don’t know what is right.

Published in: on September 27, 2019 at 5:00 pm  Comments (9)  
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Restoring The Soul


I heard a message recently concerning Christians who are “down in the dumps.” I think it was originally preached as part of a conference for pastors. The speaker, using one of David’s Psalms as a point of instruction, named several other people in Scripture who experienced a point of discouragement: Elijah, Jonah, a couple others. And he could have mentioned the Apostle Paul, too, because he faced discouragement in the face of ministry that was constantly under fire.

This message seemed timely because I recently heard from a friend about an individual dealing with discouragement. I’m not immune myself (as witnessed by my spotty blogging of late).

How great, then, to know that God has already provided for times when a person is disheartened or demoralized or disappointed. The bottom-line answer is in Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul.

When David (who authored this Psalm) refers to the “law of the Lord” here, he is speaking of God’s word. The passage continues, using a variety of other synonyms that add some clarity to what exactly God’s word is: testimony (or covenant promise), precepts, commandment, judgments.

The key for this post is that God’s word restores the soul. God’s word. Essentially it gives us a window to clarity. Our circumstances might be troubling. Our discouragement might come from the way the world is trending—away from God and what is morally right—we might feel alone in whatever we’re facing. The word of God reminds us that what we see when we look around is not the whole story.

It isn’t really the true story. For one, Christians are never alone because we have the Holy Spirit with us. Jesus said, He’s better than Jesus Himself remaining on earth, the most obvious reason being that Jesus, as a man, was limited in space and time so that He could never have physically been with all believers, everywhere. The Holy Spirit can, and does, reside in each believer’s heart, making available to us all His power and comfort and guidance.

Christians also don’t have to worry about the moral mess that seems to be our culture’s choice of living. This lack of righteousness will pass. It’s not a part of the end game. Heaven is. And for us personally, because Christ has defeated sin and death, we can live by His grace, not by the law of sin and of death (see Romans 8).

As for our troubling circumstances, those also will pass. They are not part of anything permanent. Rather, they are like a vapor that passes away, like a flower of the field that fades and falls to the ground. Those metaphors are actually descriptions of the human condition. We are here for a short time when we measure our lifetime with eternity. Paul calls the suffering of this world “light affliction” and “momentary” because there is no permanence in what seems hard now.

Football players right currently are gearing up for the NFL 2019 season. They are dealing with long, hot, hard practices in training camps throughout the US. They don’t love the difficulties as they compete for a roster spot. In truth, they can hardly wait for the games they know are coming soon. They’re willing to go through the “momentary, light affliction” of training camp because they understand 1) their coach wants them to become the best players they can be; and 2) they want to improve their game.

For us, the things that might discourage us are the very things that God can use to make us stronger, better, more like His Son Jesus.

All this we learn in God’s word. All this has the potential of restoring our souls as we dive into His word and let it abide in our hearts.

Christian Behavior



Photo by THE COLLAB. from Pexels

How are Christians to behave toward other people?

The answer is not complicated, Jesus spells it out with some frequency, both by words and by actions: we are to love others.

First we are to love other Christians—as Christ does, which means sacrificially.

Second, we are to love our enemies, even do good to those who misuse and abuse us.

Third, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, which is, as a radio pastor pointed out today, something we don’t need to learn to do. By nature we protect ourselves and care for ourselves, unless a person has experienced great mistreatment and/or is mentally ill. One of the ways people cope with horrific circumstances is to pull within themselves and protect themselves. Of course we can be taught to hate ourselves, but even when that’s the case, we see people hiding this self-loathing under a cloak of pride and arrogance or in mistreatment of others. In truth, we by nature love ourselves, though there is a great group of believers who are chiming in, along with the world, saying that we need to learn to love ourselves. In fact, Jesus said we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves because loving ourselves is a given.

To illustrate loving a neighbor, Jesus told the story of the man who others assumed to be a racist. When a “good” priest and a “good” Levite, encountering a situation that had the potential of being dangerous or of rendering them unclean in the eyes of the Mosaic Law, they took detours to escape the possibility of jeopardy.

The man who had every reason to hate the Jews and avoid all contact, did the opposite. He went out of his way to help the stranger. Jesus called him a true neighbor.

Using that story, we’d have to define neighbor as someone with the means to help (time, resources, connections) who sees another in need. We’re a neighbor if we help.

I live in an area populated (if you can use that word here) by a number of homeless people. One day on my morning walk, I came across a women who was lying flat on her stomach at the edge of a (church) parking lot. Just lying there. I stepped closer to her, not sure initially if she was even alive. She moved, so I asked her if she needed anything. A blanket, she said. Not money or help or food. A blanket.

Yes, I had a blanket I could give her. I’m not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but I had more than one blanket, and an old one I wasn’t using. Did I turn around and go home to get it? No, I told her I’d pick it up after I finished my walk. That’s kind of the equivalent of the man in Jesus’s story telling the injured guy he’d be back for him later after he’d taken care of his business.

I’m ashamed that my reaction was first to look out for my own personal needs, but there it is.

It gets worse. Another day a fairly young guy with earbuds and flip flops, shorts and a tank top passed me and my friend on our walk. He stopped, came back, and asked if we had some money to give him. Uh, no, neither of us carry any money. But the thing that’s important for this post, is what was going on in my heart. A young, healthy guy, by all appearances, begging money off a couple women clearly his senior. I wanted to give him a swift kick. I immediately concluded he wanted money for his addiction, because obviously he could get a job and earn a living if he wanted to. Mind you, I don’t know this guy and have no idea what his story was. Sort of like the man in Jesus’s story who didn’t know the guy lying in the road. I’m not saying I should have given this stranger in front of me any money (which I didn’t have and couldn’t have done), but I could have prayed for him instead of making assumptions about him, ugly assumptions. Peter said to the beggar at the Beautiful Gate, I don’t have any silver and gold, but what I have I’ll gladly give you. I have Jesus Christ in my life. Why didn’t I offer the stranger what I did have?

Well, I get tongue-tied, feel awkward, don’t know how to bring up the subject. I mean, he didn’t ask for the gospel. He asked for money. In response I simply told him I couldn’t give him what he wanted. But I could have given him what he needed.

OK, but I’m much better at writing than off-the-cuff conversations.

But how many times have I written comments and had to delete them because they were snide or snippy or rude or snarkish? Way more than I can count. I have to pray over comments and let the Holy Spirit guide my thoughts because my nature is to walk on by, or worse—to give a swift kick as I pass.

I’m pretty sure that God wants His followers to approach others with a heart of compassion. Instead of asking, “What’s in your wallet,” we should be asking ourselves, What’s in your heart?

Published in: on July 29, 2019 at 5:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Holiness: An Unpopular Topic


Photo by Narcis DRAGOI from FreeImages

I think it’s understandable that people who don’t believe in God or who have a theism based on some false religion or false teaching, don’t value holiness. After all, they don’t have a true model for what holiness looks like. Further, so many are focused on doing in order to gain: gain the highest heaven, gain happiness, gain salvation, gain Nirvana, gain acceptance—you name it.

But God calls Christians to be holy because He is holy. No other reason than that we are to be like Him. Reminds me of who God created us to be. Primarily God put Adam into the garden He prepared to act as His agent—to superintend what God had made. He was, after all, created in His image.

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:27-28)

In essence, our holiness is the way God wants us to live out this agency today, given that we now have a fallen nature and live in a world far from God. But is that possible?

Yes, and no. Clearly, when we come to God by embracing His Son and His work at the cross on our behalf, we receive new life, though we still grapple with an old nature (see Romans 7). The process of becoming like Christ is just that—a process, one theology calls sanctification. What it practically means is believers walking in obedience.

Romans 7 is helpful:

But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.

We’re not bound by Law. But we still serve. We still do what God wants us to do, but only in the “newness of the Spirit.” Essentially, learning to say no to the old self with its sinful and selfish ways, and to say yes to the indwelling Holy Spirit, is a process. A life-long process.

The Bible says a lot about how we are to live. In fact, that last day Jesus spent with His men, He said, If you love Me, you will keep My commandments (John 17). God wants us to obey Him, though our salvation doesn’t depend on our working to earn His favor.

He wants us to obey, I submit, the same way a parent wants a child to obey: it’s good for the little rug rat. 😉 Seriously, God’s commands are good for us, and not only for us as individuals but for the church and for our witness in the world.

Take this ONE command, for example, something probably most of us blow off as insignificant:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing (Phil 2:14).

Imagine living without grumbling. Imagine life without disputes. Yes, obedience to that one simple command would have a profound impact. Paul doesn’t leave it to our imagination. He tells us what would result:

[Don’t argue or complain] 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 (Phil. 2:15)

Imagine! Blameless and innocent, shining as lights in the world. Well, isn’t that what Christ said we were to be, back in His Sermon on the Mount? Lights shining before men so that they see our good works and glorify our Father.

The point is, our heart attitude can’t stay inside. It can’t be our little secret. We can’t be undercover Christians. At some point, our relationship with God through Christ must spill out of our lives and splash onto our neighbors.

That’s pretty much what the whole book of James is about. Our faith—our inner spiritual life, our relationship with God—is real only if it gets up and walks.

Writers talk about cardboard characters versus the desirable kind—three dimensional ones that seem alive. Faith is like that, without the “seem.” Real faith is alive and therefore will show signs of life. James names three chief areas.

First we’ll be doers of the word, not merely hearers. In short, we’ll be obedient to God’s word. Second, we’ll bridle our tongues rather than deceiving our hearts. And third, we’ll be slow to anger, which means we won’t judge, quarrel with or complain about our “brother”—a term he uses consistently to refer to fellow Christians.

The first point alone can be overwhelming. If I read the Bible asking one thing—what in this passage must I obey—I can become paralyzed into inactivity because there’s too much. I’m not selfless enough to handle the one command from Philippians about not grumbling or complaining, let alone the ones about being a cheerful giver or being anxious for nothing or dwelling on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely and of good repute.

When I realize this, I am pressed back into God where I must learn to stay. It is His strength that makes it possible for me to obey. It is the prompting of His Holy Spirit that makes me want to.

In short, obedience which leads to holiness is not a thing I can achieve apart from God, but if I love Him, I’m heading for the heights, one shaky step at a time, holding onto Him as tight as if my life depended on Him. Which it does.

This post includes a large, revised and edited, portion of a 2011 article entitled Holiness In Practice. Others in series are
“Holiness Is Not A Dirty Word”
“Holiness Means What Again?”
“Inside Out – The Way Of Holiness”

Published in: on July 25, 2019 at 5:34 pm  Comments (48)  
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The Poison Pill Of Culture


This article is a re-post of the one I wrote Monday for my Speculative Faith column.

Considering Travis Perry’s article last week [at Speculative Faith] (“Licking the Chocolate Off Poison Pills: A Comment on Cultural Engagement”), I suppose the obvious first question to ask is this: is culture really a poison pill? I mean, God quite purposefully left Christians in the world (“As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” –John 17:18). He did also say that said culture would hate Christians (“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” –John 17:14) and that we are not to be of the world (“They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” –John 17:16).

Of course, I’m interpreting “world” as “culture.” I’ve heard some scholars refer to it as the system of the world. Kind of like, the way the world operates.

Clearly, from what Jesus said in John, the way the world works is opposed to the way God works, the way Jesus works, and might fairly be considered a poison pill. So today the world preaches (yes, preaches) that we are all good and have this unlimited potential in us, that all we need to do is look within to find it. God says something quite different: we all have a sin nature and need to look to the cross; that when we are weak, then we are strong.

The world also says the one who carries out revenge is the hero, whereas God says, the one who forgives and loves the enemy is the hero.

Another current “truth” the world is currently preaching is that there is no truth. Nothing set in stone. All relative, flexible, contingent. God, on the other hand, specifies that His word is truth, even that Jesus is truth. And that truth is fixed in Heaven. So, truth according to God is not pliable. Not malleable, not subject to our indigestion brought on by a bit of cheese or the feelings we have today that we didn’t have yesterday.

There are so many others: attitudes about sexual promiscuity, pride, greed, lying, gossip, sexual identity, other gods beside the One True God, etc.

So, if there is so much poison in the world, how can a Christian engage culture and not be killed by it? Is the only way to survive to divorce ourselves from anything that could potentially harm us? Or our kids? Our families?

That approach doesn’t seem to explain why Jesus left us in the world instead of taking us out. It almost seems to say, God was wrong about leaving us here because it’s just too dangerous, so we’ll do what He didn’t: we’ll take ourselves out of the world as much as possible.

Not only is it contradictory to what God intended, including the commission He gave believers (Matt 28:19-20), but it doesn’t work. The real problem we are faced with is the sin in our own hearts. That’s why Jesus chastised the Pharisees for cleaning the outside of the cup without cleaning the inside. His answer was not to build a shield around the cup to keep away people with dirty hands or even with evil intentions. His solution was to first clean the inside of the cup.

Key word: first. Matthew 23:26 makes the clear statement that the way to clean the outside is to clean the inside first:

You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.

As I see things, the way to engage culture is with clean hands and a pure heart. These we find in God’s word, by cultivating a relationship with Him. Not by keeping a list of songs we won’t sing or TV programs we won’t watch, computer games we won’t play, books we won’t read, etc. In other words, we don’t get clean hands and we don’t carry out the charge Jesus gave us to go into all the world to make disciples, by engaging only part of culture.

What may seem contradictory is that I believe Travis is right: culture that “pushes the envelop,” that walks the edge of propriety, actually normalizes that behavior. I’ve seen this first hand with the issue of homosexuality (I guess because I’ve lived long enough to see our culture do a flip-flop on this subject). My mom, who graduated from college the same year my brother graduated from high school, way back in the 1960s, had a psych textbook that listed homosexuality as deviant behavior (among other inappropriate behaviors). I watched as our culture introduced homosexual jokes into society, then funny but likeable homosexual characters, and ultimately homosexual scenes on TV. All the while our government has passed law after law that gradually aimed, not only at permitting homosexual behavior but at supporting and encouraging its acceptance and practice. Now, here in California, legislators are trying to push through a law prohibiting professional counselors from engaging people who want help with same sex attraction by using strategies designed to help them choose heterosexuality instead.

What does that mean for writers and readers? Do we keep away from culture’s poison pills, or do we sue the pharmacies? Or do we clean our own cups instead?

I believe Travis was actually saying is that there isn’t a one-way-to-engage-culture rule, unless it’s this: “it’s actually normal to embrace a type of sorting process for popular culture and refuse to engage in areas we know are potential problems for us” (Travis Perry).

Refuse to engage in areas that are problems for us! Because it’s my problem, doesn’t mean no one else should therefore engage. Because it is not your problem, doesn’t mean I’m supposed to engage.

But what about the normalization process? I guess I’d add another layer of discernment or awareness: what things might be problems for the culture, for society at large? For instance, was the violence in Schindler’s List an encouragement of mass murder? I don’t see how. Was the promiscuity on display in Mash an undermining of monogamous marriage? I think it was. Was Harry Potter normalizing witchery? Not in the least.

So we can make choices, which must be informed choices. Nevertheless, the real first step is that “cleaning the inside of the cup” Jesus spoke of. In a discussion that includes “friendship with the world,” the epistle of James says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:8) Note, he didn’t say, Stand up to the world. Go to war against the world. Yes, resist Satan (James 4:7), but the focus is clearly on each Christian being in relation with God and in obedience to Him.

Sunday “Christians”


Photo by Joshua Eckstein on Unsplash

Sunday Christians may not be Christians. Only God knows. A couple of the pastors I listen to on the radio when I’m doing dishes or the like, repeatedly challenge their congregation—and by extension, those of us listening to the broadcast—to examine our hearts to see if we are of the faith, because it’s too, too easy to sit Sunday after Sunday in a church service and not actually be saved.

But how is that possible? someone may ask.

One way is to sit under the instruction of false teachers who “tickle our ears.” Of course, no one forces us to choose false teachers. This is something we do because we like it that way: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, (2 Tim. 4:3)

In other words, these false teachers are giving people what they want to hear, but it’s not the gospel.

Another way people calling themselves Christians may not actually be Christians, is if they see their “religious activity” as their ticket to heaven. In other words, going to church is just one activity on a list that they can check off and add to the “good deeds” side of the ledger. In their mistaken way of thinking, as long as the good outweighs the bad, they can bank on heaven for their future home. It’s sort of like depositing money in your savings account so when it comes time to buy a new house, you have a sufficient down payment.

Sadly, for these folk, salvation doesn’t work that way.

There’s a third category, and of course, there well may be Christians in this group. Only God knows their hearts. These are people who come to church, listen, say they believe, and then go away and live their lives as if they are just like everyone else. In other words, their Christianity does not inform their daily lives—what they say, how they work, what they do on their free time—none of it.

Some actually think this is a good thing. The more they can blend in with society, the better they think it is. They don’t want to look too radical, too focused on “just Christianity.” They want the empirical data to govern their every-day lives and the Bible to govern their spiritual lives—never the twain should meet.

What I don’t see or understand is how this approach fits in with the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He told us that we who would follow Him should take up our crosses daily. We are to die to self, and we are to live for Christ. This approach requires a total reordering of our lives, our priorities, our purposes. Can a person be a Christian without such a renewed approach to life?

Maybe. God only knows. I mean, none of us enters the Christian life as fully formed, mature believers with all the right priorities. We talk about growing in our faith because we do need to develop from little seedlings into more sturdy plants, on our way to fully developed trees that will withstand the storms of life. We simply don’t start there once we acknowledge our need for a Savior and turn to Jesus for our redemption.

The point is, can a person be saved and still look like pretty much everyone else? Maybe. Maybe the Holy Spirit hasn’t convicted them about things others see in their lives. They might think there’s nothing wrong with porn, for example, because the world tells them nothing is wrong with porn. But at some point the Holy Spirit will convict a true believer and they will deal with that sin in their lives.

We all face this sort of roller coaster experience in our Christian lives. We repent and then find ourselves needing to repent all over again. To repent means to turn from, but our turning too often seems like a U-turn. We can’t seem to continue on the path of righteousness that God would have us walk. We want to. We pray to. And we see our baby steps taking us along the way more and more, but not all at once. Never all at once.

So who’s to say that another person is a believer or not?

Of course if they say they’re not, they’ve answered the question for us. If they think they are, but are sitting under false teaching, that’s pretty easy to see they have deluded themselves. Same with those who think doing religious duty is the same as following Christ.

Truly, becoming a Christian requires us to declare who Jesus is, what He’s done, why we need Him.

Who is He? Jesus is God’s Son who died for the world, to pay they penalty for our sins which we have no way of paying for on ourselves. He is Lord—not only in a future sense when every knee will bow to Him, but now, in my heart.

What has He done? He’s stepped in to do what we could not do for ourselves. He’s become the Mediator between God and humanity. He’s made it possible for humans to see God and to know Him and to enter into a relationship with Him.

Why do I need Him? Because I’m a sinner and have no way to reach God on my own. I’m mired in the world system, entangled by my own evil desires. I need Jesus to rescue me from the “dominion of darkness.”

In the end, I don’t want to go my own way any more. But sometimes I do. I wish it weren’t true, but that’s the reality Paul described in Romans 7—“For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (v. 19).

So, do Sunday Christians exist or are they all pretend Christians who don’t exhibit a sold-out lifestyle? I have no doubt that some are saved and some are not. God knows who’s who. My responsibility is to examine my own life, to lay it before God, and ask Him where He wants me to grow in order to become conformed to the image of His Son. I really have no way of doing that for anyone else.

Published in: on June 11, 2019 at 5:41 pm  Comments (5)  
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My Take On Cloth And Wineskins


Have you every been bugged by a portion of Scripture? It just doesn’t seem to fit or make sense in light of what you know or in light of the context?

I’ve struggled in this way with a passage in the book of Matthew. Let me give you the context. Jesus began his public ministry and quickly incurred the ire of the Jewish religious leaders because more than once He healed people on the Sabbath. After calling Matthew to be His disciple, He went home with him for dinner. The Pharisees complained about Him eating and drinking with tax-collectors (corrupt government officials) and sinners (those who didn’t keep the Jewish law). Jesus told them to “go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE’…”

Soon after John’s disciples and those of the Pharisees observed a religious fast. John’s disciples asked Jesus why His disciples didn’t fast, too.

Now His answer.

And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. (9:15)

I get that. So far so good. But He continued:

“But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” (9:16-17)

Huh?

How did we get from eating with sinners and not keeping a fast, to cloth and wineskins?

Well, obviously, as with the previous part of His answer about the bridegroom, Jesus is making an analogy, but what equals what?

I’ve heard sermons on this passage before and usually the point is this: the old is the Law, the new, the New Covenant. Set aside for the moment that those to whom Jesus was talking would not have understood that analogy at all. The idea of the New Covenant was still just that—an idea. Most people had no clue why the Messiah had actually come.

But the real problem I have here is that the new wine bursts the old wineskin, and both are lost. In addition, the new cloth patch on the old garment in Jesus’s analogies ruins what it was intended to repair.

Yet Jesus clearly said in the Sermon on the Mount that He did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matt. 5:17-18)

My thoughts about the cloth and wineskins analogy came clear to me as I read a passage in Mark where Jesus elaborates on the problem He had with the Pharisees:

(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:3-9 – emphasis mine)

The Pharisees were adding onto the Law, changing what God had given by adding in their new regulations. So back in Matthew, what if the old cloth and the old wineskins stand for God’s true Law? In the verses just prior to these analogies, remember, Jesus told the Pharisees to figure out what Scripture meant when it said God desired compassion rather than sacrifice.

God’s Law was actually to love Him and to love our neighbors.

The new patch of cloth, the new wine, then, represent the traditions the Pharisees heaped on top of what God had said. Their add-ons were tearing apart the fabric, bursting the skins, of God’s perfect Law.

I know this way of looking at these verses flies in the face of the traditional interpretation. Traditional … heh-hem. Maybe that’s not a bad thing because I think it fits the context of the passage and is consistent with what Jesus says about fulfilling God’s law and about the Pharisees’ perversion of it through their tradition.

In the end, I come away more mindful of the need to hold loosely things like worship styles and other extra-Biblical practices. Compassion must not be sacrificed on the altar of tradition.

This article is a reworking of one that first appeared here in May, 2012.

Published in: on April 3, 2019 at 5:55 pm  Comments (5)  
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To Please Or To Become Pleasing, That Is The Question



Photo: Three Crosses © Mellow Rapp | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The distinction I am making is between doing good works to become pleasing to God (works done because of law) and doing good works to please God (works done because of grace).

There’s nothing I can do to become pleasing to God. Not only would my motives be wrong in doing good, my efforts would be futile. My nature is sinful, and all the cleaning up I do amounts to rearranging dirt, not genuine washing.

For the person who believes, the work Christ did on the cross changes everything. Before, as Romans 7 says, the wanting to do good was in me, but the doing ended up being that which I hated—and that which God hates too, I might add.

Because of the new nature God gave me, because of the Holy Spirit in me, and because of the strength Christ provides me, I can now do the good I want to do. And why do I want to do good? To earn points with God? Get jewels for my future crown? Earn a spot closer to the throne?

No. The issue is still not about me becoming good or better or pleasing. Who I am in Christ is fixed. But because of what Christ has done, my response, as is true in any love relationship, is to want to give to Him in return for what He has been given to me.

In one of the most amazing aspects of God’s love for us, He who needs nothing from us, asks something of us so that we can joyously give to Him as an expression of our love. Hence, my desire—a growing desire, not a fully mature thing—is to please Jesus.

Here are some favorite verses that touch on pleasing God:

I Thessalonians 4:1 – “Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more.”

II Corinthians 5:9 – “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.”

Colossians 1:10 – “so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

Ephesians 5:8-10 – “for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.”

Pleasing God, as I see it, is all about getting to know Him.

Young people in love do this same thing. Does he like his coffee black or with cream, pie for dessert or cake, the beach or the mountains, football or golf, Hondas or Chevys, and on and on.

Why learn all these things?

In order to provide him with what he wants, in order to choose his preferences, in order to please him as often as possible.

When I stand before God washed of my sins, that should spark in me a response—more and more I should like what He likes, do what He does, speak as He speaks. When I do, I am not more pleasing to God, but He is pleased.

From the archives: this post originally appeared here in August, 2015.

Published in: on April 2, 2019 at 4:54 pm  Comments (4)  
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