The Grown-Up Christian Is …


I admit it—I’m a sucker for pictures of babies. But there is method in the madness today. We can’t really talk about grown-up Christians without at least mentioning newborns. Below is an article on the subject that first appeared here in June 2012. I’ve made a few changes here and there.

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“Man is sinful and in need of God alone who can save us.” So I stated in a post about the problem of sin.

Unfortunately, too many people don’t understand what God’s work of saving us means on a practical, everyday level. There might be an idea that we start attending church and that we will go to heaven, but little else.

Even new Christians may not be clear on the “what next” part of things. Are we supposed to clean up our language? Start doing “holy” things? Put on a serious expression and stay away from anything that’s fun?

Well, no.

The grown-up Christian life is actually characterized by abundant joy, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When Jesus was talking to Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who came to Him privately to ask questions, He said that to come to God we must be “born again.” Jesus created this metaphor to illustrate that coming to God is the beginning of life, and just as we grow physically from immaturity to maturity, we do the same spiritually.

So coming to God through Jesus Christ is the “birth.” From that point, when we confess with our mouth and believe with our heart that Jesus Christ is Lord, we have a new life.

How great if God waved His hand over us at spiritual birth and changed our desires, so that what we once hated, we now love; what offensive things we once loved, we now hate. But life doesn’t work that way. Babies don’t settle in the day they come home from the hospital and begin driving—or trading stocks on E-trade.

Instead, they have things to learn. They need time to grow. They need proper food and abundant rest, and yes, they need their messy pants changed. Eventually they need to be potty-trained. It’s a process.

The Christian life is no different.

A brand new Christian is not going to turn into a mature Christian over night. We don’t transform ourselves into mature Christians by imitating what mature Christians do, no more than a toddler can become a man by using his toy tools on his toy car in imitation of his adult dad working on his real vehicle.

Don’t get me wrong. Imitation has value, but it should not be mistaken for actual maturity.

So what is maturity? If we are in need of Christ’s redemptive work because of our sin, does maturity then mean Christians no longer sin?

I’m pretty sure that’s what a lot of people believe—some Christians and some non-Christians. Why else are Christians vilified for doing what everyone else in the culture does?

According to one poll, 85% of those answering the questions said Christians are hypocrites. Meaning we don’t live according to our beliefs.

And we don’t, not perfectly. We are in a battle to accomplish that very thing. What we believe is that we should follow Jesus—we should love God and love our neighbor. What we do is, live too often for ourselves, forgetting God, ignoring our neighbors.

So how are we any different from the rest of the world? In some respects, we aren’t. We still sin. On the other hand, we are growing up to salvation. We’re taking baby steps away from conformity to the world; we’re allowing God to transform us into His image.

It’s just not an instantaneous deal, so when we mess up—and we will mess up—we stand exposed for the world to see our imperfection.

The thing is, if no one expected us to be perfect, our exposure as “not perfect” wouldn’t be a big deal.

But expectations aren’t reality. The truth about Christians is that we do sin, even though we don’t want to. Paul said it best in Romans 7: “The good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”

So mature Christians aren’t instantaneous, and mature Christians aren’t perfect.

Then what’s true about mature Christians? Besides being forgiven, redeemed, God’s children, the mature part means we actually refuse to pretend that we are what we are not. We do not go into the world with the intent to sin. We do not celebrate some false notion of being free to sin since God’s already picked up the bill.

Actually the opposite is true. When a mature Christian sins, it breaks his heart because he knows it breaks the heart of his Father. He knows that he should walk worthy of his calling (see Eph. 4:1) that he should please God in all respects (see Col. 1:9).

His sin, then, will drive him to his knees. He will bring it to his Father to claim the forgiveness He has already given. He will let God teach him and correct him and shape him.

In this way his life begins to take on a distinction that marks him as someone like Christ. The cool thing is, the more like Christ he becomes, the more he’ll want to serve and repent and learn and grow. He won’t parade an imagined perfection in front of the world. He won’t take credit for what God has done. But he will rejoice in the God of his salvation.

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Published in: on February 20, 2018 at 5:33 pm  Comments (4)  
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From The Archives: Holiness Means What Again?


Pole_vault_barThis article is a revised version first of one that appeared here back in May 2011 as part of a discussion with author Mike Duran about the meaning of holiness.

To understand holiness we need to start with God because He alone is holy. Jesus, who is the exact representation of God (“And [Jesus] is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” -Heb. 1:3a), gave us the insight we need in His “Sermon on the Mount.”

In part He said the following:

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court …

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, … But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.

You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, …

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [selected verses from Matt. 5, emphasis added]

raise the barThe point I’m making is that Jesus set the bar where it belonged—at perfection, starting not with our external actions but with our thoughts and intentions and desires.

In so doing, He exposed us all because none of us is perfect. We all know this, even the most convinced atheist who doesn’t even believe in a moral standard. But because our hearts are desperately wicked, because we are so easily deceived, Jesus laid it out for us.

Now we can’t think evil thoughts about another person, while on the outside smile and help him fix his flat tire, then come away with a sense of goodness. Those evil thoughts pin us to the wall. Sure, we might fool others, and even ourselves if we refuse to look closely, but we aren’t fooling God.

The very pride we might feel at living an externally moral life, or at pointing out someone else’s activities which we categorize as moral failings, shows the real problem: we are, at heart, people who want to be God. That’s the sin the Fall infected us with.

We Christians are missing the point if we look at drug addicts or homosexuals or rapists or corrupt politicians or corporate criminals and think their problem is their external behavior. No doubt their external behavior complicates their lives, but their problem is their rejection of the grace of God He has lovingly and generously supplied through Christ, that which would provide the forgiveness they need.

No amount of “clean living” will change what they need—substitutionary payment for the insurmountable debt they owe. Their lives are forfeit. Putting away cigarettes, unplugging from pornography, taking the four-letter words out of their vocabulary, or any other external and all of them combined, isn’t going to change their standing before God.

Or mine.

We can enter His presence, enjoy a relationship with Him as His child, by grace alone.

But what about holiness? That’s where this started. Holiness is my response to my holy God.

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For related posts, see “Holiness Is Not A Dirty Word” and “Inside Out – The Way Of Holiness”

Published in: on January 16, 2018 at 6:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Dirty Laundry We Still Don’t Talk About


When I was young, no one talked about disabilities. There weren’t any handicap parking places. No ramp alternatives for those in wheelchairs. Kids with severe mental delay were not mainstreamed. No one was being tested for ADD or ADHD or dyslexia. If someone was autistic, they were placed in a special school, and no one discussed causes or symptoms or cures or prognosis.

All that has changed. Other things that were once taboo have also been brought out into the light, Divorce, for instance. Yes, there was a time in our country when divorce was so rare that kids only whispered the rumor that so-and-so came from a divorced home. As if the home was the problem.

Sex was another one of those things people didn’t talk about openly . . . until the sexual revolution stormed into culture riding on the coattails of “the pill.” Suddenly women were as free to do as they pleased sexually as men had been all those years, and no longer were they keeping quiet about there experiences. “Locker room” talk became fodder for women’s magazines, and not so long after, evening sitcoms.

Death was also a closed subject for a very long time, and to be honest, it’s still not a popular topic at parties. But preachers address its inevitability, life insurance companies, mortuaries, and cemeteries openly advertise based on the surety that death is something we need to plan for.

So what is it that people are still hesitant to talk about?

Not politics or even religion. Not sex trafficking or poverty or racial concerns or the economy. Sin and Satan are not popular topics, and that brings me close to the dirty laundry no one wants to discuss.

I’m referring to pride.

Oh, sure, we can talk about pride in a generic sort of way, but few people come clean about their own struggle with pride. I don’t hear anyone naming pride as a problem that affected their reaction to another individual: No, I don’t want to go out with him, he’s too prideful.

Do we not care?

I don’t think that’s it. Many years ago the protagonist in my first novel was arrogant, and the members of my critique group didn’t like him. A Beta reader said if he weren’t reading the book to help me he would have put it down and not finished. In other words, pride is a quality we see and do not like. But do prideful people get pushed out of the promotion line pr have friends take them aside and say, You have a problem that is holding you back . . .

I’ve heard sermons that talk about humility, and once in a great while, pride. But I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone ask for prayer for their problem of pride. And it’s not typical for someone to tell how Christ saved them from their pride.

Why does pride still seem to be the secret sin we don’t want to talk about? My guess is that Satan wants us to keep it that way, so he’s not encouraging us to bring it out into the light.

If we did, we’d see how ugly it is. How it leads to all kinds of other sins. We’d see it’s a kind of entry drug that opens up the whole case. We might even talk about how pride is at the heart (literally) of every person who does not come to God.

No matter what reasons people give—from crazy Christians to “a lack of evidence”—the real issue is what atheist Christopher Hitchens admitted before he died. He didn’t want a Supreme Being telling him what to do. He wanted to be master of his fate.

And therein is the real problem. It’s not easy to say, Thy will be done.

No, we want our will to be done. In government. In our office. At our children’s school. In our church better. In our community, our city, our state.

That’s why we buy into commercials that tell us we deserve this or that. Inside we quietly agree.

Jonah is a good example. God said X and he did Y. He wanted what he wanted, no matter what God wanted.

Pride is at the root of sins in more than one Bible person’s life. And too often it’s at the root of our sins today. I guess the old term was “besetting sin.” Pride plagues us far more than we are willing to talk about, I think.

Of course submission to God is the cure to pride.

Published in: on January 4, 2018 at 6:24 pm  Comments (3)  
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Being Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough


When I was a teenager, I went through a period of time during which I questioned whether or not I was a Christian. I figured, if I was saved, I’d want to obey Christ. After all, that’s what the Bible says. But I continued to sin. Oh, nothing big and horrific. But I knew I wasn’t honoring my parents. I knew I was selfish and angry with my siblings. I was under no illusion that I was perfect. But why not? I considered that, just possibly, I didn’t really “mean” it when I “accepted Jesus into my heart.” So to be sure, I accepted Him again. And again. I even raised my hand and went forward in church. Just to be sure.

At one point, though, I realized that I had to take God at His word. So when He said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31a) He actually meant it.

I now understand that what I experienced then, and continue to experience now, is God’s grace. I did not, do not, and will not measure up to God’s standards—His righteous and perfect standards. In short, I sin. I do so because I am a sinner.

I’m always a bit mystified when someone claims he doesn’t sin. I’ve been in discussion with a number of atheists who don’t think sin is a real thing. But so far, not one of them refutes the fact that nobody’s perfect. They have no answer to the fact that the Bible says, The wages of sin is death, and the correlative fact that one out of one persons dies. Conclusion: all must therefore be sinners.

Either all are sinners or death has a different cause, which, of course, is their position, though one I don’t understand. I mean, we are evolving . . . until we die? How does that work? But that’s a different discussion. Except that grace doesn’t really make sense if you don’t see the sin problem which leaves all of us stranded, separated from God with no possibility of reaching Him.

Grace simply means that since we can’t do anything about the gap between us and God, He did the work for us. He didn’t help us. He didn’t start the process. He did what we could not do for ourselves. He came to us. He died for us. He gives new life to us. It’s all God. And He extends His hand to us, so to speak, for no other reason than that He loves us. He didn’t pick out the best looking or the tallest or the smartest or the thinnest or the kindest among us. He picked those who believe in Him. That’s it.

I’m pretty convinced that we’re all a mixed bag of belief and unbelief. There’s a man in the Bible who approached Jesus and said, I believe, help my unbelief. I think he illustrates where we all are. God does not withhold faith from some people. In fact, Scripture says that He does not want any to perish.

Furthermore, I see people who don’t believe in God, exercising belief is something else. Many believe in evolution. Or the goodness of humankind. Some believe in a mystic religion or in some other god. What I have never encountered is someone with no belief in anything.

Oh, sure, some atheists insist that they don’t believe because they have science. But what they miss is that they are choosing to believe particular scientists, since they themselves have not conducted the experiments or done the observation from which the conclusions they espouse have been drawn. They believe in their source of information and in the conclusion that certain people in a particular field of study have reached.

So the real issue is not, do you believe, but in whom do you believe? Because we all believe. Just like we all sin.

Back to grace. Not only did God cross the gulf that separated us from Him, He paved the way for us to follow Him. In other words, He crossed once so that we all can cross in His steps.

One thing grace does not do: it does not force anyone to join God. Sadly, there are some who choose to be His enemy. They don’t see His love and forgiveness. They don’t want Him telling them what to do. So they pull away from Him instead of following Him. They spurn His grace.

Because grace is extended to us, not forced upon us.

Published in: on October 25, 2017 at 4:00 pm  Comments (15)  
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Our Sin Is Too Small – Reprise


Years ago a little book came out entitled Your God Is Too Small by J. B. Phillips (reissued in 2008). The title seemed to say it all. Christians were losing a proper view of God as transcendent, sovereign, majestic, holy, all powerful, omniscient.

Instead, we were turning God into whoever we wanted Him to be. He could be our buddy, for example–one that wouldn’t mind if we were too tired on a Sunday morning to keep our appointment with Him. He was OK with taking a back seat to . . . pretty much anything.

What a far cry that view of God is from the one Jesus showed us when He proclaimed that His followers would have to hate their family members and even their own lives if they were to be His disciples.

Today, it seems, a good many professing Christians have taken another step along the continuum of making God small. The way they’re going about it, though, is not by making less of Him, at least not initially. It’s by making less of sin.

Sin, you see, was never so egregious that sinful people deserved a death sentence. In fact “sin” is such an ugly, old fashioned word. People all make mistakes, but sin?

Most of us are simply living out learned behavior. It’s society who taught us to be prejudice and selfish and greedy.

Not to mention that a good many people are sick. We have addictions and paranoia and all kinds of disorders that make impulse control difficult. But none of it is sin.

Then there’s our DNA. I mean, really, is it our fault if our genes put us on a path toward alcoholism? Forget the old “the devil made me do it” line. It was our genes which we can’t control or choose. This “sinful” stuff is simply not our fault.

So how can anyone ever think God should condemn people to death for such petty things as complaining against their leaders? Or eating a piece of fruit. OK, that killing your brother thing was pretty bad, but King Saul got condemned for actually sparing someone’s life. God apparently can’t make up His mind.

That kind of reasoning sounds so rational, it’s a little scary. The problem, however, is with the reduction of sin. Because God is sovereign, any command He gives is to be obeyed. Ultimately He gave us two: to love Him with our whole being and to love other people in the same way we love ourselves.

Basic. Short and sweet. But no matter how hard we try–and people in religions all across the world have tried for centuries–we continue to fall short. We can’t love God the way He deserves to be loved or the way He requires us to love. And though we fully understand how we love ourselves, we can’t manage to treat other people in our lives the same way.

Instead of being heart sick at such utter failure, however, we simply shrug and say God is too demanding, too filled with wrath, too petty, too unloving.

Unloving!

When our sin becomes so small, our egos seem to grow in compensation, and they apparently block our view of who God actually is. Which leads us to say nonsensical things about His character.


After all, WE would never strike down Korah and his 250 followers for simply wanting to share in the priestly duties. (See Numbers 16) Why should their desire to better themselves be viewed as rebellion toward Moses and Aaron, and why should rebellion against their leaders be viewed as rebellion against God?

WE would be kinder and more willing to listen and probably commend the Gang of 250 for their initiative. And if we’d react that way, then God has to be a monster for not seeing things the way we see them.

Yep, we are now the measuring stick, not only of sin but of God Himself. We can declare homosexuality off the sin list, just as we did wives submitting to husbands, adultery, premarital sex, abortion, and any number of other things. And because God wanted those things to actually be punished, well, that makes Him a tyrant.

Because, you see, when our sin is too small, we judge God by our standards instead of accepting His judgment of us.

This post, apart from some editing and minor revisions, originally appeared here in September 2013.

Published in: on October 5, 2017 at 4:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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No Thank You, Mr. Buffett


Suppose I decide I want to talk to Warren Buffett, the American business magnate. I hunt up a number, call, and wonderfully am answered on the first ring by one of his many assistants.

I explain I want to talk to Mr. Buffett himself. The assistant tells me he just happens to be on site and available. In seconds I hear Mr. Buffett’s energetic voice.

I eagerly identify myself, then move on to the reason for my call. “Thank you,” I say, “but Mr. Buffett I’ll have to say no. I just can’t accept a million dollars from you.”

He pauses, clears his voice, then says, “There must be some mistake. I never offered you a million dollars.”

As you know, this scenario is completely fictitious, but I think there are parts that are analogous to our perception of humankind’s relationship with God.

Jesus clearly said that

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

As I understand this passage, there are only two camps—he who believes and he who has not believed. In other words, no one is in the state of my fictitious scenario in which no offer has been made.

We frequently talk about accepting Christ, yet we don’t take much time thinking about what rejecting the Son means. Instead, we assume that first a person hears about Jesus, then he “makes a decision.” That way of looking at things suggests the third category—those who have not heard.

I want to postulate that the decision to reject the Son of God has more to do with our heart attitude than it does with hearing the name of Jesus.

I realize I am walking a dangerous line here, one I think some of the universalists traverse. However, I hope I am coming at it from a Biblical perspective.

More and more, people claiming to be Christians speak of the “innocent” people who haven’t heard the gospel (as Rob Bell did some years ago in his ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos). At best that position is tapping into the “blank slate” theory, that man is born neutral and can decide to be good or evil. At worst, it aligns with the belief that man is good and something from the outside—society or government or Satan or an evil parent or traditional religion—drags him into sin.

The truth is, none is innocent. None is righteous. We are all in “reject” mode, dethroning God and enthroning ourselves.

Let me turn the page for a minute. When Jesus was teaching in the temple one day, He began a discussion with the Pharisees about who their father was. They claimed God was their father, but Jesus said no. Their father was the devil (see John 8:18-59).

Whether Jesus stood in front of them or not, their father would still have been the devil. He did not become their father because they rejected Jesus as their Messiah. The devil already was their father.

Jesus, of course, knew this about them because He is omniscient. He knew they were slaves to sin. The only thing that could free them would be His shed blood.

But today so many are coming to the issue of salvation as if it is a matter of imparting information—giving everyone a chance to hear the truth, and if they haven’t had that chance, then God is either unfair or He’ll give them that chance later or the information we thought they needed, they didn’t really need because their own belief system is a good substitute.

All of this rejects the idea that an omniscient, all powerful, good God who forms us in our mothers’ wombs can know our hearts and that He calls those who are His. It’s an uncomfortable idea.

We don’t know, can’t understand why God put us in America where we could so easily hear the gospel.

But we must marvel just as much about Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, who was kidnapped with the intent to be sold into slavery. As a result, he had the opportunity to learn about Jesus and escaped the plague that wiped out the rest of his people group.

Or how about Mincayani, one of the Huaorani tribesmen that killed Jim Eliot and the others martyred with him. His act of violence did not stop the truth of God from coming to his people and specifically to Mincayani himself.

The stories of people coming to Christ are many, varied, and no less miraculous if the miracle is about being born where the gospel is readily heard or if it is about one hearing the unexpected and unsought truth of God’s Son.

My point is this. I don’t believe anyone will be judged for rejecting an unoffered gift. God is not Warren Buffett.

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

Jesus And Jerusalem


Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for one final Passover. Christians refer to the commemoration of this as Palm Sunday, and it marks the beginning of Holy Week.

The thing most noteworthy about this arrival—and thus the name—is that His followers preceded Him with palm branches and shouts of praise. They believed they were ushering in the promised Messiah. And they were. But they understood the Messiah to be a king who would free Israel from their enemies (Rome) and establish a new kingdom without end.

Jesus’s expectations were entirely different. He came to Jerusalem knowing full well that the people He had come to save would turn their backs on Him, would falsely accuse Him, try and convict Him, beat Him, and finally crucify Him.

Oh, sure, at the end of His life people would still identify Him as king of the Jews, but the words would be inscribed on a board at the head of the cross where He would be nailed—the place where a criminal’s accusation would typically be placed.

His expectation was not that of a triumphal king. He was coming to Jerusalem to fulfill His role as suffering servant.

Ironically, after the people stopped cheering, after they began to be swayed by the Pharisees who regarded Jesus as a danger to them, to their way of life, Jesus accomplished the very thing they had hoped for. Just not in the way they expected.

In those first moments on His way up to the City, despite the palm branches and the cries of Hosanna, Jesus expected to die in Jerusalem. In dying, He would fulfill the very role His followers had wanted for Him. He would defeat their enemy and free them from the shackles they had been held by. But the enemy was death and the shackles were sin.

Jesus’s brief stay in Jerusalem and the nearby villages was marked by controversy. He would say things that put the Pharisees in their place. He would weep over the city because of their rejection of Him.

He would face betrayal and denial and desertion. He’d be lied about and misunderstood. Romans, who hated the Jews, would spit on Him and mock Him as the king of that backwater Roman province.

And Jesus walked into it all, headlong. He knew what was coming. He expected every insulting, cruel action and word directed His way.

The praises showered on Him that first day as He rode the donkey into the City, were a result of His miracles, according to Luke. The people knew Him to be the person who performed wondrous deeds, including the resurrection of Lazarus. Perhaps they’d witnessed one of the healings. After all, just outside of Jericho He gave sight to the blind beggar Bartimaeus. Perhaps word of this miracle had traveled ahead of him. Or certainly with the group of followers who accompanied Him.

But Jesus hadn’t come to Jerusalem to do more for those people’s physical condition. What they really needed, they didn’t realize. So they came looking for one thing, and Jesus came intending to give them something far greater.

That they missed it, grieved His heart, and He cried over the city.

What must the people have thought, this figure they wanted to crown as their king, pausing on the ride into the city . . . to cry? Maybe that’s when the seeds of disaffection were first planted. But Jesus crying for the lost was the truest picture of His heart and the motivation for what He intended.

He went to the cross—He wasn’t dragged there against His will—to be the ultimate Passover Lamb for Israel and for us Gentiles, too. We who didn’t even know we needed a Passover Lamb. Jesus knew what we needed above all else—peace with God, victory over sin and death—and that’s what He intended to give us, no matter what it cost.

Published in: on April 10, 2017 at 5:56 pm  Comments Off on Jesus And Jerusalem  
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Groaning


This world is groaning. It’s the weight of sin that causes it, and it’s been going on for … well, since Eve believed Satan over God.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if we as human beings aren’t more aware of the groaning than at any point in history.

Terrorism has people across the globe on heightened alert. War and rebellion are tearing nations apart. Famine is on the increase, and the economy of the rich countries vacillates beyond our control. Add to all this earthquakes in places like Haiti, Chile, and Japan; the tornadoes and flooding in the US; hurricanes on the East coast.

We’re groaning.

Professing Christians are leaving the church. Government—democratic government that was supposed to have the necessary checks and balances–is self-serving if not corrupt. Marriage is being redefined. In other words, civilized institutions are crumbling.

We’re groaning.

The weight of sin is too big. Drug addiction isn’t lessening. Anxiety isn’t disappearing no matter how much we medicate. Neither is depression. Interpersonal conflicts haven’t ceased. In fact divorce is still a growing problem no matter that so many people now practice at marriage before making “lifetime” vows. Abuse continues or perhaps is on the increase. Child slavery and sex trafficking are problems that seem without end.

We’re groaning.

Worst of all, who can we trust? The person we love the most is the person who shatters our hopes and betrays us by their unfaithfulness.

We are indeed groaning.

Should I go on to mention cancer or AIDS or fears of a worldwide pandemic? I suspect it’s not necessary.

At every turn, we’re groaning.

Like any number of crises recorded in the Bible, God is standing with open arms saying, Your way leads to destruction. My way leads to life.

Over and over stiff-necked people ignored Him or shook their fists in His face, denying His right to rule. So it seems, we’re doing today.

We think if we just get the right person in the White House, if we only raise taxes or cut spending, if we only marry the right guy or girl, pass this piece of legislation or that, solve one key problem then another, use this green technology or drill that oil well, then, at last, the world will come round aright.

In that foolish thinking, we are ignoring the One who wants us to fix our eyes on His Son.

“See to it,” Paul said to the Colossians, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy or empty deception according to the traditions of men, according to the elementary principles of this world, rather than according to Christ.”

The philosophy and empty deception of our day says we can solve our own problems, that we don’t need anything outside ourselves. We have the power within us.

And yet, with all this great power within ( 🙄 ), we don’t seem any closer to bringing the groaning to an end. We’re looking in the wrong places.

There isn’t a chemical high or an alcohol-induced haze that will mask the pain long enough, there isn’t a movie or video game or concert or ballgame that will distract us sufficiently, there isn’t a better relationship that will heal our shattered heart.

Except the one God offers through Christ Jesus. He is our Hope, and He is our Salvation.

In Him the groaning will one day come to an end. And even while we wait for that day, we find comfort and peace and joy in the presence of the only One who can see us through. The Psalmist says, “He Himself knows our frame.” And Moses in Deuteronomy says, “The Lord your God is the One who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” God through Isaiah says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.”

Paul tells us in Romans that the Spirit groans, too. For us. “The Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

The world groans under the weight of sin, but God through Jesus Christ has conquered sin. Praise His Name.

Easter, which is coming up later this month, is all about commemorating what Jesus Christ did to free us from the slavery to sin. But unless we acknowledge the weight of sin, we won’t appreciate what God accomplished through His Son.

Sometimes I think people have to be blind not to see the effects of sin. But we are so used to the things that break God’s heart and that harm humankind, we take them as “normal.” They aren’t. What God created was good. What we’ll enjoy in the new heaven and the new earth will be free from the “slavery to corruption.” And even now we can enter into the “freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

This post is a revised and expanded version of one that first appeared here in September 2011.

Published in: on April 7, 2017 at 6:49 pm  Comments (28)  
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Guilt/Innocence Or Shame/Honor


Just last week, a man here in the LA area who served 32 years in prison was released from custody because of a wrongful conviction. How will this man be perceived in society? The answer to that question can be easily determined by the kind of society from which he comes.

Anthropologists study humankind, including the way culture works. One such scientist, Franz Boas, and his student Ruth Benedict, first identified differences in cultural patterns, claiming that Eastern cultures follow an honor/shame arrangement and Western cultures, a guilt/innocence mode.

Benedict endorsed and popularized what some called “Boasian conceptual kernel” of US anthropology:

Human behavior is patterned. There exist within historically specific populations recurrences in both thought and behavior that are not contingent but structurally conditioned and that are, in turn, structuring.

Those patterns are learned. Recurrences cannot be tied to a natural world within or outside the human body, but rather to constant interaction within specific populations. Structuration occurs through social transmission and symbolic coding with some degree of human consciousness.

If I understand the first point correctly, the idea is that people groups behave and think in identifiably similar ways, because the people have been conditioned to do so. In turn they teach others to also be structured in the same way.

The structure of those in Eastern cultures is based on honor/shame, which largely identifies the way a culture “manages” its citizens. Individuals care a great deal about their standing in the community, so they don’t want to do something that would cost them respect or high standing.

What the community deems deplorable, then, takes presidency over individual desires or beliefs of right and wrong. I assume the community values are also somewhat fluid. If a society softens its position against a certain behavior, presumably an individual would no longer bear shame for engaging in it.

A guilt/innocence society follows a different paradigm. Rather than conforming to the community based on their praise or condemnation, a guilt/innocence outlook is more concerned about the individual’s adherence to law. The idea of innocent until proven guilty emphasizes the difference in the two approaches.

In the shame/honor culture, an accusation brings shame. In a guilt/innocence culture, an accusation needs to be proved.

A third cultural outlook is the fear/power model. Tribal cultures and totalitarian regimes and perhaps gangs operate on the fear of a group and their desire for power to counter it.

The general knowledge about these ways of grouping cultures, has simplified them as Eastern or Western. Little mention is made of fear/power, and Eastern cultures are believed to be shame/honor driven, while Western societies operate according to the guilt/innocence model.

One aspect of cultures adhering to the guilt/innocence model is that they are more concerned with the individual, whereas shame/honor groups care more for the community. As a result, some clear differences have emerged:

Individualistic cultures, primarily located in the West, appeal more to legal notions of right and wrong to govern social behavior. Morality is internalized, so people experience guilt for misdeeds. Guilty persons become innocent when they are forgiven or justice is served. (“Honor and Shame Societies,” the Zwemer Center)

Consequently, the man I mentioned at the outset, who was wrongly convicted of murder, has no shame because he spent half his life in prison. He was innocent.

What I find fascinating about the study of these cultural differences, is that I can see elements of both in the Bible. The Old Testament deals primarily with Hebrew culture, and there is much of the shame/honor culture apparent in the story of the Jewish nation, but at the same time God is the one who departs from the norm and tells the people that a man’s family is no longer to be considered guilty just because the man is guilty. In other words, no more guilt by association. A guilty person was to die for his own crimes, but his sons were to go free.

The New Testament with its teaching about sin and the forgiveness bought by the blood of Christ further built the guilt/innocence culture that took hold in the Greek and Roman societies where Paul ministered.

As I view Christianity, I see the perfect marriage of both shame/honor and guilt/innocence. What I don’t see is fear/power, unless it involves Satan and what he wants to accomplish.

All this to say, I wonder if through globalization and perhaps through the devaluation of Christianity, Western culture is sliding more and more into the shame/honor camp. I mean, all the politically correct approach to life is little more than putting pressure on an individual by the group to get people to conform to a societal norm, regardless of Law.

What’s particularly interesting is that bullying is taboo, but group bullying is the means by which we attempt to put an end to individual bullying.

In this climate, everyone is easily offended, every position expresses hate or abuse, no one is innocent any more as long as they hold beliefs that contradict the “group.” As yet, the “group” is not society at large, but certainly it’s growing in numbers.

As I see it, this kind of shame/honor approach is divorced from reality. Someone who gets away with a crime has no shame because he has not reflected badly on his community. Never mind that he might be hurting the less fortunate. Never mind that he makes his money on the backs of the weak.

The real problem with the shame/honor approach is the loss of the sense of personal sin. In light of the fact that Christianity alone offers mercy and forgiveness, I wonder if the concept of a Savior might be lost if our culture slides more and more toward shame/honor.

Of course, there is great emphasis in the Old Testament about God’s people upholding the honor of His name. One reason that God didn’t do away with the complaining people of Israel after the Exodus was precisely because of what the people around them would think about God. In fact, the point of a nation entering into a covenant relationship with God was to show the other nations the blessings God wanted to shower upon them as well.

Israel as a community was to be God’s ambassador to the world. Today we believers have that role. Individually, but collectively as the Church. We are to love one another in such a way that the world notices.

But we receive forgiveness for sins, not as a collective community, but as individuals, foreknown, predestined, called, justified, glorified by God because we as individuals believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world, that He was raised on the third day, that He is now at God’s right hand interceding for us.

Shame. Guilt. Fear. Jesus Christ dealt with all of it. He is the most cross-cultural person who ever lived. But that is what I’d expect from the Savior of the world. No wonder the gospel penetrates the Amazon jungle and the Russian steppes equally.

Mercy And Justice


top_signIn one sermon which George MacDonald is purported to have authored, he addressed God and His justice. The only Biblical text I can find is that from which he seems to have wandered—Psalm 62:12, which states, “And lovingkindness is Yours, O Lord, For You recompense a man according to his work.

In the King James, which the sermon quotes, lovingkindness is rendered mercy. The writer then makes a case for his interpretation of justice, leading into a denial of justice resulting in punishment.

How odd this discussion seems to me, but perhaps that’s because I’ve had good Bible teaching all my life.

The cultures around Israel during King David’s time (Psalm 62 is one of his) did not practice justice. They practiced vengeance. Consequently, the declaration that God would recompense a man according to his work was a statement of mercy. He would not punish a man for something his father did or punish the brothers or the children. God’s mercy was demonstrated in His justice, set in opposition to their vengeance.

How simple and straightforward. How righteous.

We are accountable before a Holy God for what we do. He does not pile on more than we deserve.

But here’s the thing. We are required by law to stop at stop signs. If I run a stop sign and get pulled over by a cop, I am guilty of breaking that law. No matter that I’ve not run a stop sign the prior 2000 times, or 200 million times before that. Stopping at the stop sign is what I am required by law to do. Fulfilling my obligation does not earn me points against a future time when I might slip up and run the stop sign.

In other words, there is nothing I can do to make up for my situation. I can only recognize my condition—I am a lawbreaker deserving of the just (and merciful) penalty for my actions.

What great news, then, that Jesus, who was not a lawbreaker, and therefore, faced no penalty, stepped in.

The amazing love of God is beyond comprehension here, because God did not wave His hand and dismiss my sin. He bore it Himself. He transferred my sin in the same way that the sins of Israel were transferred to scapegoats. It’s a mystical process, if you will, something that sounds too incredible, too hard to fathom. The Holy God, unstained in His being, complete in His purity, piled my sin on His shoulders. He bore my sin and carried my sorrow.

He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. (I Peter 2:24)

And in more detail from Isaiah

But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors. (Isa 53:10-12; emphasis mine)

Paid in full. The blood of Jesus Christ blots out my sin. I receive God’s mercy when I understand that my work is insufficient to pay what I owe, that Christ alone could afford to bear my sin because He bore none of His own. The angel of death passes over me as surely as he once passed over the Jewish homes that bore the blood of the spotless Passover lamb slain on their behalf.

What a clear picture of God’s redemptive work—the marriage of His Justice and Mercy—prompted by His infinite Love.

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

Published in: on March 3, 2017 at 5:16 pm  Comments (4)  
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