A Closer Look At Faith And Prayer


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Here’s another in the series of Evangelical Myths

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

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

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

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

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

Later Jesus said much the same to His disciples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 4:54 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Christmas Story As Told In The Bible – A Quiz



In a recent post, my friend via blog, InsanityBytes said the following:

I really enjoy challenging our thinking, questioning what we think we know. As the saying goes, “don’t believe everything you think.” It’s pretty incredible how an urban legend can become fact and just a few short years later, everybody who’s anybody just knows it’s the truth and that’s how it’s always been.

Scripture is really a wonderful gift to have because one can go back and have a look at what we think we know. Wait, did God really say? Too bad Eve didn’t have a bible handy….

So with Christmas. IB points out in her post that Mary riding on a donkey as she and Joseph made their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem is pure legend. I hadn’t thought about that one before, but she’s right. So what else about the Christmas story has come to us through Christmas carols or greeting cards or children’s storybooks instead of through Scripture?

I’ve posted this quiz before so those of you who have been around for a while may remember it. I should do a new one and add Mary riding on the donkey. But here’s a repeat of the one I’ve got now, complete with intro and directions.

We know all about the first Christmas, right? I mean we hear about the details in Christmas carols and programs and sermons, see them depicted on cards and church bulletins and manger scenes. But do we know the Biblical version? Here’s a fun little quiz to find out. (Feel free to print it out and pass it along if you’re interested). Answers at the bottom.

Directions: based on what the Bible says, decide if the following statements are true or false. (Hint: for the sake of this quiz, if the Bible is silent on the matter, it should be considered false).

1. Jesus’s birth was predicted to Joseph by an angel in a dream.

2. Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’s birth.

3. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph’s place of residence.

4. The innkeeper told Joseph there was no room in the inn

5. Jesus was born on a cold winter’s night.

6. The stable was a wooden structure.

7. There were kings from the east who visited Jesus after he was born.

8. There were three of these visitors.

9. These visitors followed a star from the East to Jerusalem in search of the Christ child.

10. The star which the visitors saw was an especially bright star.

11. The visitors arrived on camels.

12. Herod told the visitors to go to Bethlehem.

13. These visitors came to Jesus and saw Him in the manger where he had been placed after birth.

14. These visitors were joined by shepherds who came to worship Jesus.

15. The shepherds also saw the star which had guided the other visitors.

16. A host of angels appeared to the shepherds and sang praises to God.

17. In a dream God warned Mary that Jesus’s life was in danger.

18. Mary and Joseph took Jesus back to Nazareth to escape the danger.

19. Mary remained a virgin and never had any other children.

20. God can do the impossible, which makes belief in the Christmas miracles possible.

Answers alert!

– – –

Answers:
1. true – though His birth was also predicted to Mary
2. true – see Matthew 1:24-25
3. false – they were from Nazareth and only went to Bethlehem because it was required by the government
4. false – the innkeeper doesn’t make an appearance in the Biblical account
5. false – the Bible doesn’t say what kind of a night it was
6. false – the Bible doesn’t describe the stable
7. false – the eastern visitors were magi or wisemen specializing in such studies as astrology
8. false – the Bible doesn’t specify how many magi there were—only that they presented three types of gifts
9. false – they saw a star in the East and went to Jerusalem where they would expect to find a king; they then followed the star from Jerusalem to Bethlehem
10. false – the Bible never refers to the star as bright
11. false – the Bible doesn’t mention camels
12. true – after learning from the scribes where Messiah was to be born, Herod told the magi
13. false – the magi came to a house.
14. false – the magi didn’t arrive the night Jesus was born; the shepherds who were already in Judea went immediately after they heard the birth announcement
15. false – the Bible doesn’t mention that the shepherds saw the star
16. false – Scripture doesn’t say these angels sang
17. false – God warned Joseph, not Mary
18. false – they went to Egypt, not Nazareth
19. false – Mary had a number of other children, among them James who wrote the book of the Bible that bears his name.
20. true – Gabriel stated this to Mary when she asked how she being a virgin could give birth to a son (Luke 1:37)

Questions? Read Matthew 1:18-2:15; Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:1-20. Or feel free to ask them here.

Published in: on December 18, 2017 at 5:29 pm  Comments Off on The Christmas Story As Told In The Bible – A Quiz  
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God In The Flesh


Why does it matter that God came down to earth in the form of Man? That event, after all, is what Christmas celebrates. But why the big deal? Was it really necessary? I mean, couldn’t God forgive sins without coming to earth in bodily form?

These kinds of questions are a little mind-boggling because we are presuming to know why God did what He did. But here are a few things that Scripture tells us.

First, Jesus made it clear that anyone who had seen Him had seen the Father. In other words, by coming to earth, Jesus answered, for all time, the question of whether or not God existed. Not that people were atheists all those years ago. They weren’t. But God knew what the mind of twenty-first century humans would be dealing with, so He answered the question before anyone posited it.

Jesus also came in the flesh to teach. That’s what He told His disciples. Yes, He healed the sick, but they would get sick another day. Yes, He fed the hungry, but their hunger would return. Yes, He raised more than one dead person, but alas, they would face death again some day. While Jesus used His time on earth to do these other awesome things, He plainly told those who hung with Him that His mission was to preach.

He said to them, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.” (Mark 1:38)

What exactly did He preach? I think it can be summed up in His answer to the question, What is the greatest command? Love God, He said. And the next command is like it: love your neighbor.

Jesus used a lot of stories to illustrate what He was saying—a landowner and his servants, a woman and a lost coin, a father and his two sons, a man left for dead by a bunch of robbers, an unjust judge, and on and on. Each of these in some way were illustrations of His two-pronged message. What did it look like to love God, or the opposite? What did it look like to love your neighbor, or not?

But Jesus didn’t merely teach. He also lived a pure and holy and sinless life. He did what no man had done before. He resisted temptation. He said no to Satan, to the world system, to desires of the flesh that would take Him into sin. His greatest temptation, of course, was to use His power to save Himself at the cross instead of saving sinners. But this too He resisted.

And of course that’s the ultimate reason Jesus came in the form of Man. He came to save the lost. He came to be the offering that would bring an end to the need for offerings. He came to condemn sin and to be the means by which we can sit at the heavenly banqueting table.

I can imagine Jesus as the honored guest and those of us who follow Him arriving for the great party. Do you have an invitation? we’ll be asked. Don’t need one. Jesus invited me personally. I’m with Him.

In short, Jesus came to be the mediator which makes friendship with God possible. Without Jesus, what are we left with? Idols. Atheism. Humanism. Nothing of substance. Nothing eternal. But because Jesus came we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.

Published in: on November 30, 2017 at 5:52 pm  Comments (14)  
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Belief And What We Put Our Faith In – A Reprise


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

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

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

God makes Himself known first in His creation.

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

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

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

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

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

And yet . . .

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

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

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

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

Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind (2:18 – emphasis mine).

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

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

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

Published in: on October 18, 2017 at 4:54 pm  Comments Off on Belief And What We Put Our Faith In – A Reprise  
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Sex And The Bible – A Reprise


Samson004I’m not sure where the idea has come from that Christians are prudish as opposed to moral. I don’t see the two meaning the same thing, and neither does the New Oxford American Dictionary. But what about the Bible? Is it prudish?

Not quite. No sooner does the writer of Genesis recount the creation of Adam and Eve but he reports, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:25).

Some people unfamiliar with the Bible have the strange idea that the first sin had to do with sex. I think that myth is reflective of a sex-crazed society, because it has nothing to do with reality.

Sex was part of creation which God declared to be good. In addition, His first command, even before “From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,” was “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” Translated, that means, Have sex with your wife and have kids.

After Man sinned and God removed humans from the garden, sex remained as much a part of the historical record as any other human activity. In Genesis 4, for example, the Bible notes that Lamech took two wives—presumably the first to have bigamist relationships.

After the flood, when Noah and his family landed on dry land, the Bible notes that Ham, his youngest son, “saw the nakedness of his father” while Noah, drunk from wine, was passed out. Something happened, clearly, because when Ham’s brothers learned what he’d done, they “covered the nakedness of their father.” Noah awoke and “knew what his youngest son had done to him.”

Not a clear picture of what kinky thing happened in this family, but the event is not omitted either. Neither are the homosexual desires of the men in Sodom and Gomorrah who wanted to rape Lot and the two angels who had come to take him out of the city.

The Bible doesn’t shy away from revealing Sarah’s attempt to “help God out” with the son He’d promised Abraham by giving her husband Hagar, her servant, as a mistress, since she herself was beyond child-bearing years.

Then there’s Jacob and the trickery of Laban which put Leah in the wedding tent the night Jacob thought he was having sex with Rachel. A week later, after completing his sexual obligation to his first wife, he then married the woman he loved. But throughout the years, Jacob’s sex life is about as open as . . . oh, say, David’s.

First, though he loved Rachel, he continued to sleep with Leah, as evidenced by the four sons she birthed. Rachel, on the other hand, was barren, and demanded Jacob give her sons. He responded by saying, Am I God who has closed your womb? Notice, he didn’t say, OK, I’ll move back in with you. Apparently, Rachel’s barrenness was not due to a lack of sex between her and her husband.

Rachel’s jealousy led her to give Jacob her servant as a mistress. He didn’t object and had two sons by that woman. Leah didn’t want Rachel to get ahead of her, so she gave Jacob her servant as mistress. In the course of time she delivered two sons as well.

But Jacob still loved Rachel and apparently was now living with her exclusively. Except one day Rachel asked Leah to share the mandrakes one of her sons had found in the field. Leah ended up agreeing . . . if she could sleep with Jacob that night.

And Leah once more got pregnant. And again. And again.

But at some point Jacob went back to Rachel because God opened her womb, and she gave birth to a son named Joseph.

Joseph—this would be the boy whose jealous brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt where he fended off the advances of his master’s wife and landed in jail because of it. Let me be clear. This was not some mild flirtation. The Bible says Potiphar’s wife approached Joseph day after day and said, Lie with me.

Then there’s Joseph’s brother Judah, whose daughter-in-law tricked him into sleeping with her (he thought she was a prostitute—so much more upright!)—and had twins by him.

Should I go on to the gang rape and murder Judges records or the mass kidnapping of women the Israelite leaders engineered so the men of Benjamin would have wives. Then there are Samson’s exploits with various women and David’s adultery.

I’m sorry. If someone thinks Christians are prudish it’s because a) they don’t know what’s in the Bible; or b) they’re talking about professing Christians who don’t read the Bible and are formulating their attitudes about sex from some other place.

Because, yes, many of the examples I mentioned above are not what we’d call ideal examples of a sexual relationship. But that’s part of the point. The Bible doesn’t pull any punches about sex or any other topic. Jesus Himself had some clear instruction about lust, and He didn’t shy away from telling the Samaritan woman precisely what her marital status was (You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t your husband).

He didn’t camp on her sexual failings, however. He didn’t tell her to marry the man she was living with and then come back to see Him. But He also didn’t hesitate to tell the woman caught in the act of adultery that she should sin no more.

Prudish? The Bible is not prudish. People who read the Bible will see the good, the beautiful, the disturbing, the vile within its pages. A Christian who pays attention to what God says about sex through the lives and decrees and admonitions in Scripture can hardly have a prudish attitude toward sex.

The Bible doesn’t shy away from the topic of sex, but it also never presents sex as mankind’s problem. But don’t take my word for it; read it yourself.

This post is an edited version of one that originally appeared here in May 2014.

Published in: on September 28, 2017 at 5:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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Light And Darkness


lunar_crepuscular_rays_2Years ago when I was teaching, we took our eighth graders on a three-day science field trip to Catalina Island. One of the activities was to experience a sight deprivation maze. It’s hard to imagine a place as dark as that cramped labyrinth was.

From that experience I can tell you confidently, darkness is not beautiful. In fact, you can’t see the darkness. You simply can’t see anything. No shades or shapes, not even movement. Your eyes can’t register a single thing because of the absence of light.

Light, on the other hand, is exceedingly beautiful in its many manifestations. I thought of this again on Sunday as I was driving to church. Sunlight streamed through parted clouds, lining them with gold. Not silver, like the cliche. But it was so brilliant, I suppose you might say it was sort of silvery-gold.

And just the day before, as the sun was about to break above the horizon, its light painted a scattering of woolly clouds with pink, all but their outer gray edges. That’s nothing to the sunsets we get in the fall. Then there is the full moon climbing through the early night, or the crescent moon lingering with the last stars in the early dawn.

Light in its many forms is beautiful. Well, maybe not all artificial light can be said to be beautiful, but natural light does dramatic things. Starlight twinkles, sunlight refracts, candlelight glows, and firelight dances.

Any wonder then, that Scripture says Jesus is the Light of the world?

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life
– John 8:12

Yet, most likely, because of the little bit of physical description we have of Jesus, we don’t think of Him as beautiful. Isaiah 53:2b says,

He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.

But then this from Psalm 27:

One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD
And to meditate in His temple. (v. 4 – emphasis mine)

This morning I was listening to Awaken the Dawn, an album by Keith & Kristyn Getty. One song, “What Grace Is Mine” opens with these words:

What grace is mine that He who dwells in endless light
Called through the night to find my distant soul

The phrase “endless light” grabbed me. Not only does God dwell in endless light, He is endless light. It speaks to God’s eternal nature, but it also promises unlimited beauty. And what a contrast to the “night” through which He calls – the darkness of sin that blanks out the light. No wonder He needs to call me. My condition prohibits me from seeing even endless light. Except, He tore the veil.

All fear can flee for death’s dark night is overcome
My Saviour lives and reigns forevermore

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in January 2011.

Published in: on November 3, 2016 at 5:48 pm  Comments Off on Light And Darkness  
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Satan, The Imaginary, And Halloween


Every year around this time Christians begin a discussion about celebrating Halloween, but perhaps speculative writers, more so. The conversation is justifiable, especially in light of the fact that Halloween has become a highly commercial, and therefore, visible, holiday in the US. As a result, television programs, movies, and certainly commercials have some tie in to the weird, the supernatural.

For Christians, there seems to be a great divide when it comes to celebrating Halloween. Are we taking up the cause of the enemy if we carve a pumpkin and hand out candy to Trick-or-Treaters? Should we offer alternatives—a harvest festival instead of a haunted mansion—for our church activities? Should we seize the moment and build good will in our community by joining in wholeheartedly, or should we refuse to recognized the holiday, turn off the porch lights, and decline to answer the door when masquerading children arrive?

Satan

As I see it, there are two critical issues that dictate our response to Halloween. The first is our attitude toward Satan and demons. Is he (and are they) real? How big a threat is he? How are we to respond/react to him?

Scripture gives clear answers to these questions. Satan is a real being, one referred to as the father of lies (see John 8:44) and as a being masquerading as an angel of light (see 2 Cor. 11:14).

In response to something Spec Faith co-contributor Stephen Burnett said in his article “Shooting at Halloween pumpkins”, I laid out an account of Old Testament references to Satan and his forces. Here, in part, is that comment:

Satan was abundantly active, starting in a certain garden where he brought his devilish behavior before Man and his wife. Another vivid depiction of Satan’s activity is detailed in the book of Job.

In Egypt, Moses faced Pharaoh’s conjurers. Certainly their source of power was not God, yet they duplicated a number of Moses’s miracles.

On the way to the Promised land, God instructed the people “They shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot” (Lev. 17:7 a). Forty years later in Moses’s farewell speech, he described how the parents of the current generation had behaved:

      They sacrificed to demons who were not God,
      To gods whom they have not known,
      New gods who came lately,
      Whom your fathers did not dread. (Deut. 32:17)

I think it’s clear that the gods Israel continued to worship—and the ones worshiped by the neighboring people—were demons. Hence the admonishing to excise sorcery from their midst.

Unfortunately they didn’t obey but continued to involve themselves in demon worship:

      But they mingled with the nations
      And learned their practices,
      And served their idols,
      Which became a snare to them.
      They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons (Ps. 106:35-37)

Then there was this verse in I Chronicles: “Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.”

I could give you verses from Daniel too, showing that Satan was active in standing against his prayers, and that he was in fact “the prince” of, or had cohorts who were, known locations. Isaiah, too, and Zechariah had prophecies involving Satan.

The point is, Satan was very active in the Old Testament.

Scripture is also clear that Satan is a threat. He is described as an adversary and as a lion seeking to devour (see 1 Peter 5:8). He’s the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10), the tempter (Mark 1:13), the one who snatches away the Word of God (Mark 4:15), the one who can bind (Luke 13:16) and destroy (1 Cor. 5:5) and torment the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7), who comes against us with schemes 2 Cor. 2:11), who demands to sift some (Luke 22:31) and possess others (John 13:27), who hinders believers in their ministry (1 Thess. 2:18).

Satan is real and he is a threat, but he is not greater than God. In fact his doom is sure. Scripture instructs us to be on the alert against him, to stand against him, to resist him, but Satan is a defeated foe (Col 2:15 and Rom. 16:20). We are never told to fear him.

The Imaginary

The second critical issue when it comes to deciding how we are to deal with Halloween is our understanding of the imaginary. Dragons, vampires, cyclops, werewolves, zombies, goblins, orcs, trolls, and such are imaginary creatures from the pages of literature. Witches and wizards that wave magic wands and/or fly around on brooms are imaginary. Ghosts that float about like bed sheets and are friendly or who pop in and out of sight at will or move things about with a word are imaginary.

Are Christians ever instructed in Scripture to stand against the imaginary?

On the other hand, most of us recognize that these various creatures are or have been representative of evil. The question then becomes, are we handling evil correctly by giving attention to the things that have been used to represent it?

Along that line of thinking, I believe it’s fair to ask if we should avoid representations of snakes, because Satan entered one, lions because Scripture said he is one, and angels because he appears as one.

The greater question, it seems to me, is whether or not dressing up in costumes of creatures that have an association with evil might trivialized evil. For instance, the “red devil with horns and a pitch fork” image of Satan trivialized him so that fewer and fewer people believe he is a real being—not a good thing at all if we are to stand against him.

Halloween

These two issues—what we believe about Satan and what we believe about the imaginary—collide in this one holiday. But there’s another element that must enter into the discussion because ultimately, what we do on Halloween is done in front of the watching world. We need to ask, what does our culture believe about Halloween?

As other comments to Stephen’s post reveal, some studying the holiday see its historical underpinnings—either pagan Celtic practices or early Church traditions. But what do ordinary people today see? Are our neighbors celebrating evil? Or are they having fun dressing up as something spooky? Are they going to haunted houses because they want to invoke the dead or because they want a shot of roller-coaster-ride-like adrenaline?

While we can’t deny that a fringe element—perhaps even a growing fringe element—see Halloween as a celebration of evil, I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that the majority of people in the US view it as nothing more than a reason to party. The activities are consistent with the day but have little or no meaning, much the way most people celebrate Christmas.

How we as Christians celebrate Halloween, then, hinges on these three factors—our view of Satan, our understanding of the imaginary, and what we want to say to our culture.

Is there one right way of doing Halloween? I don’t believe so. I do believe we should avoid pointing the finger at other Christians and saying that they’re doing it wrong. Paul speaks to this issue in Colossians 2: “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath Day” (v. 16). Those who choose to celebrate are just as clearly not to point the finger at those who choose not to celebrate.

The only way we can insure that Satan has his day is by our disunity, our unloving attitude, our angry arguments over whether or not we celebrate Halloween.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared at Spec Faith in October 2011.

Forgiveness Is Not An Option


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

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

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

– – – – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in: on September 5, 2016 at 7:18 pm  Comments (4)  
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Standing Up For Magic


magic-book
Several speculative writers (E. Stephen Burnett at Speculative Faith, for one) have been looking at the subject of magic from the vantage point of Christians trusting something other than God and His word in their pursuit of righteousness—including their efforts to controvert magic. As a result, some in this camp take a stand against speculative fiction, whether from a Christian or not, that includes magic.

I’m convinced that those who would blackball a work of fiction for including magic are in the minority, but I don’t think it hurts to take another look at the subject. Here’s a reprise of an article that examines magic using the lens of the Bible.

– – – – –

Some time ago I had a discussion with a Christian who considers much of speculative fiction to be opposed to the Bible. I’ve only had a few encounters with people who hold this view, though other writers have spoken of being surrounded by such folk.

The exchange reminds me that it’s wise to confront this attitude head-on, with Scripture, starting with the fundamental question some ask: how does a Christian fantasy writer handle magic since magic is intrinsically un-Christian.

Interesting.

Here’s the first definition for magic in the Oxford American Dictionaries: “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”

My question, then is, Do we Christians not consider God “supernatural”? But … but…but … Someone may well say God’s work is miraculous, not magic. And the Oxford American Dictionaries would agree that God’s work is miraculous: “occurring through divine or supernatural intervention, or manifesting such power.”

But isn’t miraculous simply a more narrowed term, specifically referencing the divine? Magic, on the other hand, does not exclude the divine.

However, I don’t want to get too caught up in semantics. Let’s agree that the Bible does warn against magic and witchcraft and other sorts of divination sought from powers other than God Himself.

In contrast, God’s powerful works are called miraculous and prophetic.

The point that is noteworthy for fantasy writers and readers, however, is this: the Bible makes it clear that both God and Satan have power. Not in equal measure. Satan is no more omnipotent than he is omnipresent, though I suspect he’d like Man to think he is both.

Make no mistake. God’s power trumps Satan’s, and it’s not even a fair comparison. Satan may not get this because it seems he keeps trying to go up against God, as if he can outmaneuver Wisdom or out-muscle Omnipotence.

Be that as it may, we can’t deny that he has power and it is supernatural—beyond Man’s abilities. Pharaoh had his magicians and so did Nebuchadnezzar, and seemingly they were used to these conjurers producing what normal folk could not. Their power was not from God, however.

Moses, with the rod of God, went head to head with Pharaoh’s magicians, if you recall, and God’s power dominated. Nebuchadnezzar’s sorcerers could not tell their king his dream, let alone the interpretation of it, but God’s man, Daniel, could.

But back to fantasy. If supernatural power—good and evil—is real, then why should Christian fantasy writers pretend that the evil forces in their stories don’t have real supernatural power? Why should we pretend that those siding with good have no supernatural power?

Fantasy, after all, gives a story-long metaphor for the real world. Why would we want to give Christians—young adults or adults—the idea that there isn’t actually supernatural power of any kind by doing away with magic in our stories?

It seems to me it’s important to address the source of power and the reality of power and the proper attitude toward power—all of which fantasy can address. Unless, of course, a Christian story must be scrubbed clean of supernatural power.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in 2010 and was republished in August 2013.

The Christian, the Church, and Love for the “Brethren”


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

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

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

So are they right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The writer to the Hebrews continues the theme:

      “Let love of the brethren continue.”

    As does James

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

    And Peter

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

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

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

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

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