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.

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Published in: on February 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm  Comments (11)  
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The Difference Between Religious People And Christians


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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer Changes People


Christian prayingThis past week I heard something distressing. A Christian in a leadership position handled confrontation by telling the other person that perhaps they should leave the organization. That’s the second instance of this kind that I’ve learned about. The first time was years ago and the organization was an entirely different one, but a person in leadership handled the criticism he received in exactly the same way.

Such a conclusion, especially from someone in leadership, seems so contrary to Scripture. After all, the Bible gives us instructions for handling a situation in which a fellow Christian sins (see Matt. 18). It also is full of exhortation to be reconciled with other Christians, to forgive, to be at peace with one another, to be unified.

Paul had a conflict with his partner in ministry, Barnabas, because of John Mark, who initially accompanied them on their first church-planting trip. Half way through their travels, the young man deserted them, however, so when Barnabas wanted to include him on their second trip, Paul said, NO WAY! So Barnabas and Paul parted company.

But that’s not the end of the story. Rather, Paul at some point reconciled with Mark, to the point that he told the church at Colossae to be sure to welcome him. He also said this to Timothy in his second letter: “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.” (4:11b)

He went a step further in his advice, however. In verse 16 Paul says to Timothy, “At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them.” Paul went from holding Mark’s desertion against him to praying that the Lord would not hold these other people’s desertion against them.

Paul was a changed man. And he ended up with a changed relationship.

The secret passed on in Philippians is for us to have the attitude of humility Christ had, which is the way we can follow these commandments:

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. (Phil. 2:3-4)

The thing is, the only way to do what is so opposite to our instinctive reaction to others is by prayer.

I had occasions when I was teaching and coaching in which somebody would rub me the wrong way—whether another teacher, a student, an opposing coach, a parent, an administrator—and the only way I could face the day was by praying for the individual. OK, sometimes I prayed for the circumstance, too, but inevitably, when I prayed for the person, God changed me. My heart. Not them necessarily. He changed me!

Suddenly, things that had bothered me in the past didn’t seem as awful as before. In my dealings with such a person, I now wanted to be on the same page, not at odds, so I communicated in a more positive, encouraging way.

In several instances, what had been a relationship fraught with friction, turned into one of closeness and caring.

That’s God answering prayer. Not in the way I might initially think.

I can pray, God, please make this person leave, but that doesn’t solve MY problem. I need to learn to love the unlovely, to be kind to the unkind, to give God room to work. After all, He says that a gentle answer turns away wrath. But if I don’t turn to God and ask Him to give me His gentleness in my answers, I’ll never see the turning His word promises.

Commonly we say that prayer changes things, and it may. But it also changes people, and from my experience, the person it changes most is the person praying.

Published in: on May 25, 2016 at 6:30 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Unprofessional Prophet


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post first appeared here in May 2012.

Published in: on May 2, 2016 at 6:16 pm  Comments (2)  
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Grace And How It Really Works


Old_Testament008As often as I write about grace—and that’s pretty often—I can’t seem to exhaust the topic. I’m often struck by some of the same things I’ve written about, as if I’ve never heard them before. For example, I’m stunned every time I realize that Christianity is the only religion based on grace. In fact, it seems the word grace is hardly in the vocabulary of anyone who is not a Christian. It’s simply a Christ-attribute and therefore a word for Christ’s followers.

There are some people, however, ones I’ve called pretend Christians, converts of those who the Bible calls false teachers, who try to co-op grace and make it into something it is not.

For instance universalists freely admit to God’s grace, but their idea is that because God extends us grace, there is no justice. A summary of their position could be, Grace. The end. In fact, according to the universalist, all roads lead to God, including the road of unbelief. Whatever happens after death happens to all of humanity. No favorites, they would say.

On the opposite side of the continuum would be legalists. They don’t believe in grace, or if they do, they don’t believe that it’s enough. God, from their perspective, needs our help.

The sad and sometimes confusing thing is that these legalists aren’t too far off. They just have things backwards. They believe (though they may not articulate it this way, their actions indicate this is what they actually believe) that a person must clean up his act before he can receive God’s grace.

The book of James makes it clear that the things we do are important. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus that we are saved by grace through faith. James turns around and makes the case that faith isn’t faith unless it’s got some legs.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (James 2:14-17)

So faith, the kind that’s in action, combines with grace to free us from sin and guilt and the law and Satan’s power and our sin nature and spiritual death.

The Bible is filled with pictures of this process.

* The people of Israel are escaping Egypt, but they don’t have food for the long journey on foot to the home of their ancestor Abraham. They plead and complain to Moses, and he in turn asks God what’s to become of these people. God answers with His grace. He sends manna, a “bread of the angels,” that appeared first thing at dawn and was gone by the time the sun was fully up. A miraculous provision. One they had for forty years! But here’s the thing: they had to go pick it up. And cook it or prepare it.

God also sent them quail because they were starved for meat. When many didn’t take the time to do their part—to clean the birds and cook them–when their appetite took over their actions, God sent them a dire punishment.

God gives grace, no doubt, but the people have to appropriate it and not misappropriate it.

* Years later God gave Joshua instructions for defeating Jericho. First the priests were to walk the ark around the city with all the people following. Then seven days later after repeating this walk each day, they were to circle the city seven times and the walls would fall. They fell! God’s grace in action, remarkably! Who can imagine such a thing. But that still left all these enemy Canaanites trapped amid the rubble. The people of Israel had one less difficulty—a difficulty that made conquering the city seemed impossible—but they still had a battle to wage.

* David, fresh from the fields where he watched over his family’s sheep, faced a giant of a man named Goliath. He was over nine feet tall and he was a fearsome fighter. But David marched boldly to meet this champion of the Philistines:

Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. This day the LORD will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down and remove your head from you. (1 Samuel 17:45-46a)

As David said, God, by His grace, delivered David and David cut off Goliath’s head.

The point is simple. Grace can’t be misappropriated like the name-it-and-claim it folks want to do or like the universalists try to do. But at the same time it can’t be treated as the ugly step-sister to obeying a legalistic set of laws.

God’s grace is The Big Deal in our relationship with Him. In fact it is the Big Deal that separates Christianity from all other religions. God saves by supplying us with His grace through the faith He freely gives us. His grace is free. His faith is free. His salvation is free.

But we’ve got to own it. Claim it. Say, Yes, that grace has my name on it. It’s my free gift from God which is the means of my salvation.

It’s a narrow road, walking between two extremes. But at the same time, this amazing balance God has created helps us to spot false teachers and pretend Christians. Because people who don’t know the love of God aren’t really clear about grace. Not that any of us actually “knows how it works.” But we do trust God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, so that we in turn might show Him our love by doing what He asks.

Published in: on April 11, 2016 at 6:06 pm  Comments (3)  
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Spiritual Journey Or Relationship With God?


New_Testament001

Christians have for as long as I remember been concerned about speaking to others in what some refer to as “churchese” or “Christianese.” By this they simply mean the lingo associated with church or with Christianity.

All sorts of specialty groups enjoy common parlance. Writers, for example, talk about their WIPs and choosing a first or third POV, about submitting queries and proposals or preparing one-sheets for conferences. Football fans have their inside talk as well, involving OTAs and mini-camps and drafts or free agency; then there are zone reads and blitzes and chop blocks and pass interference and what is a catch.

For some reason, however, Christians have the impression that when it comes to our faith, we alone in all the world use words that carry meaning to those of us who are part of the group. Somehow, we’ve also determined that the use of “insider” jargon is bad. Hence, every generation or so, someone—a song writer or pastor or author or TV evangelist—introduces a new set of words to identify certain aspects or elements of what we do and what we believe. These, of course, turn into the new jargon.

For example, my church did away with ushers some time ago and replaced them with greeters. Mind you, they are the same people, dong the same function, but we now call them this other, different term. When we still handed out bulletins (we have since gone more or less paperless—it’s California; what can I say!), we suddenly started calling them weeklies. Not bulletins, though they still held the same information they always had.

One of the latest new jargon terms is “spiritual journey,” sometimes referred to as “our faith journey.” The idea is that we are all going somewhere spiritually. Some are seeking and their paths aren’t particularly straight. Some people are further along on their journey and are admonished to be patient with those who are back where they once were. The idea seems to be that we’re all going to get there in time, though some might be going faster and some slower.

No one says this, but I’m assuming some are on the wrong road or are headed in the wrong direction. But generally people only talk about believers or seekers as having a spiritual journey.

In reality, since all people are spiritual, we all have a spiritual journey.

Which brings me to my point. I think changing jargon can sometimes have detrimental consequences. “Spiritual journey” or “faith journey” seems to have replaced “relationship with Christ,” but I think the new phrases are poor substitutes.

As I mentioned above, all people have a spiritual journey. When the Bible uses the analogy of a broad road and a narrow road to describe our “spiritual journey,” there’s no indication that anyone is sitting it out on the side of the road. We’re all on one path or the other. So, what precisely does a person mean when they talk about their “spiritual journey”? Are they referring to their study of Zen Buddhism? Their practice of Hajj? Their participation in any of the six global humanitarian initiatives? Their initiation into and life within the Khalsa brotherhood?

“Spiritual journeys,” metaphorical and actual, are part of any number of religions and religious activities. The door is so wide that a Christian can say to a stranger on an airplane that his spiritual journey is the most important part of his life, and that stranger will have no idea what the Christian believes.

In other words, the new jargon buzz word among Christians actually distances us from … well, Christianity. Now we can sound just like everyone else. We might actually mean, when we say “faith journey” or “spiritual journey,” the process of sanctification in which God is making us more and more like His Son Jesus Christ. But what does the person outside of Christianity hear? Likely the term comes across as metaphysical—this person believes there is more to life than the physical and that’s important to them.

Wonderful, and true. And maybe it’s a starting place. But I can’t help wondering if this new bit of jargon is designed to avoid exclusivity. You know, the kind Christ says He requires:

And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:23-26)

People walking around with crosses ought to be noticeable. And if they’re all parading along in the footsteps of Jesus, I’d think people would start to pay attention. I don’t see Jesus setting us up on a “spiritual journey” so much as He is an all-in kind of commitment to a Person. To Him. To the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ.

So I’ll leave other people to their spiritual journeys. I don’t want to be on a path where I’m checking to see how I’m doing in relationship to everyone else. What I desperately need is Jesus. If I’m going to do what Jesus said He wants from those who come after Him, I have to keep my eyes on Him.

In short, I ought not to be paying as much attention to where I’m going as to Who I’m following.

Living By The Terms Of The Treaty


"Scene in Geronimo's camp, the Apache outlaw and murderer. Taken before the surrender to Gen. Crook, March 27, 1886, in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico."

“Scene in Geronimo’s camp, the Apache outlaw and murderer. Taken before the surrender to Gen. Crook, March 27, 1886, in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico.”

After reading a two part series of posts on Evangelicals by my friend and fellow blogger, InsanityBytes (part 1 and part 2), I decided the following article was the best comment I could give on the subject.

– – – – –

When I was growing up, Saturday afternoon meant old B movies on TV, often something western. One particular story has stayed with me.

What history calls The Indian Wars dominated the West. Settlers and miners and railroad men and soldiers clashed with any number of Indian groups, from Chickasaw to Seminole.

In this particular story, a compassionate and understanding American, with a number of Indian friends, was convinced to take the position as agent for what was the equivalent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As part of his job, he was required to negotiate an acceptable treaty with the tribes waring against the US government.

Against all odds, he was successful—except, treaties needed to be ratified by the Senate. The political climate at the time was against him, and rather than agreeing to the terms he had promised the Indians, the government sent troops to implement the Indians’ forced removal from their land.

The story stayed with me because I felt the betrayal this Indian agent experienced—as both the betrayed and the betrayer. He was let down by the government that said it would stand behind his negotiations (the stipulation he demanded as the condition for him taking the position as Indian agent). As a result, in the eyes of the people who had trusted him, he became their Brutus.

It struck me recently that professing Christians who take up with false teachers are like those politicos in that old-time movie. They say they will abide by whatever their representative decides, but when the terms of the agreement come down, they don’t really want to keep their word. They find some way of changing the rules, of canceling the treaty.

In essence, they leave their representative hanging out to dry. The world, to whom He has gone, point and laugh.

    Ha-ha, they say they love, but look at the nasty things they put on their signs when they picket the streets.

    They say they don’t love the world or the things of the world, but listen to how greedy their preachers are.

    They say they live like Jesus, but they have marital breakups, addictions, bad debt, carry grudges, sneer and snark, just like the rest of us.

When we who bear the name of Christ, do not obey Him, we aren’t much better. Our disobedience affects how others look at Jesus in the same way that a false Christian’s inconsistencies end up staining the name of Christ.

I’m reminded of an Old Testament incident recorded in 2 Chronicles 18. Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, allied himself with Ahab, king of Israel. When they were preparing for war, Jehoshaphat wanted to inquire of a prophet of the Lord.

All the other prophets said the kings would have great success if they prosecuted the war, but the one prophet of the Lord Jehoshaphat insisted they bring in, said they would meet with defeat.

And what did Jehoshaphat do? He ignored the prophet of the Lord.

Why, I’ve wondered, did he bother to ask for the man to speak a message from God if he wasn’t planning to listen?

Then too, why do people today take up the name of Christ and ignore His Word?

But that forces me to ask, do I ignore His Word, too—at least the parts I don’t like? Things like, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing”?

I guess the question I need to ask is this: how much do I care about the reputation of He who I say I’m following?

Published in: on March 8, 2016 at 7:39 pm  Comments Off on Living By The Terms Of The Treaty  
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Christians In A Non-Christian World


Peter006I know it’s hard for many Christians outside the US to comprehend, but believers here have lived for decades under the illusion that we’re in the majority. With the changes in our culture in the last seven years, and particularly in the last seven weeks, we really cannot deny the truth any more: we are in a post-Christian society and are in the minority.

This realization has caused great concern for many who have held out hope that the US would return to the ideals of our founders—that we would again recognize our Creator who, our Constitution tells us, endowed us all with certain unalienable rights. Barring a great movement of God’s Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of our people, we will not see a shift toward the things of God.

Changes once made are rarely rescinded. I don’t see same-sex marriage being disallowed by the Supreme Court or a Constitutional Amendment enacted returning marriage to its historical definition. Even with the Planned Parenthood scandal, it’s improbable that abortion will ever again be outlawed. And schools are already not allowed to teach creationism as one possible means by which the multiverse came into being.

How, then, will children raised on evolutionary theory as if it were fact, come to faith in a Creator God?

Let’s just say, Christians have our work cut out for us.

But shouldn’t that excite us?

I mean, did we think God put us on earth for a vacation before heading off into eternity? Who do we thing Jesus was talking to when He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me”? And who is on the receiving end of the great commission? Aren’t we, believers in Jesus Christ, to be the ones who make disciples?

But in a society of “everyone’s already a Christian,” none of us has to step up boldly and declare our faith.

I was reminded the other day of one of my greatest failures. In sixth grade (I would have been twelve) I attended a school in a rather exclusive part of Santa Barbara, a rather exclusive part of SoCal. Not everyone was rich (we weren’t), but I’m sure a number of my classmates were. Further, I was in a group ear-marked for college. So these kids were bright, hard-working, well-behaved, their parents involved.

I, as a Christian, was trying to figure out what my beliefs had to do with everyday life. The year before I’d made a woeful attempt to be the loving Christian. At that time we lived in an Italian ghetto in downtown Denver. When a new boy came to school and everyone started picking on him, I decided the loving Christian thing was to be nice to him. I hadn’t foreseen two consequences. The new guy took to me like I was his life raft, and my friends started teasing me about him because of it.

In a very un-Christ-like decision, I reversed my original “be nice to him” mode. Surprise, surprise—he didn’t respond so well. Being betrayed was probably harder on him than the original bullying. We ended up at loggerheads which led to fisticuffs. And eventually a trip to the office.

So much for putting into practice Christian principles.

And now I was in California, the exclusive area with well-behaved children. No fighting or cussing or bullying. One day I was riding home on the bus next to one of the sweet girls in my class. She was a pretty girl, too, well liked, and kind, but on that day there was a sadness about her. I don’t remember what it was we were talking about, but I do remember that the conversation opened up so that I could naturally say something about being a Christian or trusting in Jesus, or having faith. And I sat there. Said nothing. Stared out the window. And the moment passed. To say something after that would be forced, awkward.

But, I reasoned, Trudy was probably a Christian already. I mean, she was such a nice girl.

Flash forward another year when we were in junior high—1500 seventh through ninth graders from all over the city, packed into the school. I didn’t have any classes with Trudy, and the first time I saw her on campus I almost didn’t recognize her. She’d made it big with the “in crowd” known for . . . a lack of virtue. I don’t know that we ever spoke again.

But how many times I wished I could go back on that bus and tell Trudy about Jesus Christ who wanted to rescue her from the dominion of darkness, who wanted to be her Redeemer and Friend.

All that to say, the illusion of a Christian world can make believers complacent. It’s a little uncomfortable to talk to people about such a personal thing as their belief in God, and as long as we think (or rationalize), as I did, that they’re probably already Christians, we won’t step out in faith and be the ambassadors God wants us to be. After all, you don’t need to be an ambassador among your own citizens.

Today the illusion is gone. Our neighbors and co-workers look at the world very differently than we do. They believe truth is relative; that humankind evolved from a primordial soup; that there is no god or if he does exist, he’s disinterested or unknowable or weak; that the Bible is full of myth and not authoritative but outdated; that humans have the ultimate say about their own body and their own gender and their own sexuality and whatever else they believe they can or want to control; that “sin” is passe; that humankind is good.

The thing is, our task today to bring the gospel to this foreign culture with their opposing worldview, is not so different from what the apostles faced as they went about making disciples in the first century.

May we step out in faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, as they did, to move the mountain of unbelief that oppresses our neighbors and associates. May we seize the opportunity to be ambassadors for Christ in the non-Christian world in which we live.

New Life And Fighting The Same Battles


Hawaii_surf_fwsA Facebook friend posted something today about a spiritual struggle she’s facing. Her conclusion was, instead of flopping around like a wounded fish simply trying to survive, she would “go down deeper.” The image is a good one, I think.

I’m not a strong swimmer, but years ago I used to spend a good amount of time at the beach during the summer. When it got hot sitting on the sand, I’d jump into the water and ride the waves for a while to cool off. I learned that when you were facing a breaker, the only way to survive was to dive down and let the wave roll over you.

One year that bit of knowledge probably saved my life. I was with a group at a beach with really big waves. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say they were eight to ten feet, maybe more. Remember, I’m not a strong swimmer. I was following a friend out past the break line where I could catch a wave and ride it in, but on the way out, an especially big set of waves came tumbling toward shore. (The waves were big and they came one right after the other with little break.) No problem, I knew to dive down deep.

Over and over I came up for a gulp of air only to see a new wave bearing down on me. Down I dove. You know the water is pretty deep when you open your eyes and everything is black. Light is not making it all the way to the bottom. And the wave was rumbling and tossing me about as it rolled over me. I was beginning to wonder how to get a lifeguard’s attention because I was getting tired and didn’t know how much longer I could dive then struggle up for air. But the set subsided and I was able to ride a normal-sized wave to shore.

I learned a scary lesson—when you’re a weak swimmer, play to who you are, not what you wish you could be. I stayed on the beach for the rest of the day.

Still, I’m glad I learned to dive deeper.

For the Christian just like the body surfer, diving deeper might seem antithetical. You want to get up and over and beyond the break line, so why would you dive into the wave instead? Because it’s not as dangerous to be under the water when the wave breaks. Water reduces the force of the water.

For the Christian that spiritual struggle can be because of suffering or temptation or some set of circumstances that pull at our spiritual underpinnings. Diving deeper is a way of living out Paul’s statement, When I am weak, then I am strong:

Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:10)

Say what?

Paul made this statement in the context of what we might consider unanswered prayer. He’d asked God three times to remove a “thorn in the flesh,” some physical ailment, apparently, that Paul believed hampered his ministry or was simply difficult for him to manage. Some think it may have been poor eyesight, some the illness he mentions in Galatians 4:13-14. At any rate, God told him to live with it. Well, He said a little more than that!

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” (v 9a)

And Paul’s response? He went down deeper:

Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (v 9b)

A blogger I follow talked about leaning into Christ, which I think is another way of saying, Go down deeper.

Hawaii_Wave_(3274955069)You see, it is in yielding, in surrendering to the water that a swimmer can survive the breakers. (*Note: this may or may not be true of the giant thirty foot waves off Hawaii. I simply have no knowledge of how anyone survives those!) In the same way, the believer can survive life’s tumult by surrendering—not to the circumstances, but to our God who knows all about these circumstances long before we realize they’re upon us. It is He we lean into. We yield to Him.

Because He is sovereign, because He has promised to use whatever comes into our life as part of the refining process to make us like His Son, we can know that “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” There is no way we can lose.

It’s part of the new life we experience in Christ. We are saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. So while we are forgiven and God puts our sin away—as far as the east is from the west—we now have the mandate to live up to our calling, to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects.

Paul says it this way in his first letter to the Thessalonians:

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. (4:1)

So we struggle, and often it seems as if we struggle with the same thing all over again, but each time we lean into Jesus, each time we go a little deeper, we are becoming more like the Son in whom we are to abide.

I so often wish I could say, There, I’ve got that one mastered, now we can move on to the next one. Ah, but no. God will continue to bring me back to whatever it is I need in order that I may once again yield to Him. Because in reality, when I am weak, then I am strong. The only way to handle the struggle is to give in—not to the circumstances or the temptation, but to the Sovereign Lord who is over the circumstances and will provide the way of escape from the temptation.

Published in: on July 6, 2015 at 6:33 pm  Comments (3)  
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Living With Guilt


Convict_Chain_GangThere’s a perception among many that Christians are the most tortured, guilt-ridden people on the planet. After all, our God has all these rules, and He judges everyone and is probably just waiting to zap whoever he catches breaking one of his commandments.

That picture is a sad caricature of what a true Christian is like. Don’t get me wrong. I know there are people in a number of arms of the Church that have the perception that their salvation rests on the works they do. But that’s a misconception of the truth.

In reality, Christians are wonderfully freed from guilt, sin, the law. We freely acknowledge that we’re failures. No matter how we might like to live in obedience to God’s mandates, we admit we can’t—not a hundred percent of the time. We’re supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves, but we become so engrossed in our own lives and projects and comfort and well-being, we sometimes don’t even know who our neighbors are.

We know we’re supposed to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but sometimes it’s just so hard to get out of bed in the morning to have that time reading the Bible and praying that we know will bring us closer to Him. And doesn’t the church already have enough Sunday School teachers?

I could go on about pride and grumbling and judging and greed and gossip and selfishness and hatred in our hearts—you know, the kind Jesus says is as bad as murder. We Christians are a bunch of sinners, like all the rest of the world. But there’s this important distinction. We don’t bear the burden of our sin any longer.

No guilt.

No shame.

No secret desire to sneak into a tiny monastery cell and engage in self-flagellation.

We’re also not boasting about the sins we’re chalking up. We aren’t bragging about getting out of a speeding ticket by lying to the cop or planning how we can cheat the IRS when we file our taxes.

The truth about Christians and sin is this: Jesus Christ paid the debt we owe for all our sins—past, present, and future. The guilt that we were rightly bearing is off our shoulders.

yokeWhat we know now is God’s love and mercy and grace and forgiveness. Out of hearts filled with gratitude, we want to love God better, obey Him more perfectly, follow Him where He takes us. We simply owe Him our lives and we don’t want to let Him out of our sight.

Happily, we don’t have to!

And that’s such great news, we don’t want to keep it to ourselves. We want to let other people know how Jesus will also take the burden of guilt they’re lugging around off their shoulders.

I can hear people now: What guilt? I don’t have any guilt. That only comes from crazy religious people with their lists of do’s and don’ts. That whole sin thing is a religious construct to force people into their churches.

Well, actually, it’s not. First we have these natures in us bent to glorify ourselves instead of glorifying God and serving ourselves instead of serving others. In other words, our bent is to reject God’s authority and to live for ourselves. Some people deal with this by saying God doesn’t exist and we have to learn empathy. But the fact is, we never learn it perfectly. So even if we set aside our rejection of God and just looked at how we treat others, we can see that bent nature in us all.

Most people are quite aware they aren’t perfect. However, they have allowed society to talk them out of recognizing that not-perfect state as sin. It’s kind of like these criminals caught on security cameras in the act of stealing the packages or dog-napping the puppy or passing the note to the bank teller, then standing up in court after they’ve been arrested and pleading not guilty.

Well, of course they’re guilty! What they’re hoping for is to escape punishment by some technicality.

I don’t know if people who say they don’t sin are angling for the same escape or not. But I will say, if they don’t own their guilt now, they will one day.

The ONLY people who are living without guilt are those who have accepted the grace of God poured out on us as His gift through His Son Jesus who took our sins on Himself and paid the penalty we deserved.

Simply put, we’ve been forgiven.

I’ll add that we also have a virulent enemy who tries to make us feel guilty even though we’ve been forgiven. He throws our past in our faces and tries to shame us by our failures. He loves to discourage us so we don’t face each day remembering how accepted and loved we are by God.

We’re in a battle, but not against people who don’t believe like us or against a certain political slant or law. The battle we are waging is “against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12b).

These are the forces that hate God and don’t want us to lift up His name, who want to see us stumbling under guilt we’ve imagined still belongs to us. These forces would love to see us fall into sin and besmirch the name of Christ by which we are known.

Sometimes we fall, but God is the One Who holds our hand. He won’t let us pitch headlong out of His loving care. He’ll bring us back into His arms and carry us if that’s what it takes.

It’s God’s amazing love that drives us forward. Now, instead of hating on God, we want to do His will. We don’t have a list we need to check off because it’s in our heart to pay attention to what pleases Him.

So for the Christian, living with guilt has been changed into living for the delight of pleasing God. The Chris Tomlin song “Amazing Love” says it well:

Amazing love,
How can it be
That You, my King, should die for me?
Amazing love,
I know it’s true.
It’s my joy to honor You,
In all I do, I honor You.