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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Satan – Is He Real?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But clearly we humans believe in wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because, you see, he loves to delude people.

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

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

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

Jesus answers every charge on our account.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Debt is not a popular topic. The US government continues to bow under the massive debt we’ve accrued in the past few decades.

The state of California is no better. And then there is the debt of individual Americans!

The one good thing about all this insurmountable debt, I guess, is that we can more completely understand the parable Jesus told in Matthew 18 about the servant who owed so much money, his king was going to foreclose. The plan was to sell him, his family, and all of his stuff.

Jesus explained that the guy had no way of repaying his debt, implying that what he owed was far greater than what his king would receive from the sale.

A bad investment, some would conclude. The servant cost more than he was worth. Better to cut the losses and get out. And that’s precisely what the king intended to do.

Except the servant pleaded for more time.

As if!

More time was not going to change things. Five years or fifty years, the servant was not going to make enough money to pay what he owed. His situation was hopeless.

Enter the Christ of Colossians:

When you were dead in your transgressions … He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. (2:13-14; emphasis mine)

This passage reminds me of Romans 8:1—“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Those certificates of debt Paul referenced in Colossians, those “decrees against us,” are the things of which I stood condemned.

And yeah, they were hostile to us—they condemned us to death. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

But now they’ve been removed—taken out of the way, nailed to Christ’s cross. So it’s easy to see why there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.

He didn’t forgive the debt in the same way that the king in the parable did, simply by saying the word and wiping the slate clean. Instead, Jesus Christ paid the debt.

It’s a great picture because it shows God’s justice—the debt needed to be paid—coupled with His mercy that freed us from the debt.

It also shows the impossibility of the debt coming back on us. How do you un-pay something? How do you un-remove it from where it’s been or un-nail it from the cross, the place of death?

Paul explained about the cross in more detail in the first chapter of Colossians:

For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard (vv 19-23; emphasis mine).

I love the “in order to” part of that passage. Christ has done the work, paid the debt, in order to present me blameless, beyond reproach—or specifically, beyond Satan’s reach. Simply put, all my certificates of debt are marked PAID.

This post is a a revised edition of one that first appeared here in September 2011.

Published in: on January 24, 2017 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Why Did God Make Us As We Are?


Freedom-watch-protestIn any number of online discussions I’ve had with atheists, a couple questions eventually surface. One purports to get at the root of sin—basically, it’s God’s fault because He made us capable of sin.

In response I’ll generally say that God made us with free will, to choose Him freely, not as a puppet with no options of our own. But the comeback then gives rise to the question: why did God make a law in the first place? Why did He “invent” something that He could hold against us?

Another way of asking this, of course, is, Why did God make right and wrong? Why did He determine wrong needed to be punished? Why didn’t He simply make us so we could choose whatever we wanted, without any consequences?

That kind of libertarian freedom seems to be what many atheists want.

In essence, this approach judges God. He was wrong to make a law we had to obey. He was wrong to judge those who broke the law. I suppose in the one element of consistency, the conclusion of such a view is that a wrong God is no God at all; thus the conclusion that God does not exist.

The argument, of course, hinges on the rightness or the wrongness of 1) God creating humans with the ability to choose; and b) God determining right and wrong.

The irony of the argument is that in declaring God wrong to do what He did, both in giving humans free will and a moral law to follow, the person standing in judgment of God is acting like God. He’s determined that his own value system is superior, that he knows what’s best for all of humanity, that life without moral judgment is best.

This view, of course, exposes the greatest sin: pride.

But it also reveals something else, something equally vile.

God determined to make humankind in His own image, in His own likeness. To create humans without free will and/or without a moral compass would have violated God’s very nature. In essence, those who think God made mistakes or created the world wrongly are repudiating God’s very nature.

They are, in fact, rebelling against their Creator. They are following in the steps of the father of lies:

“How you have fallen from heaven,
O star of the morning, son of the dawn!
You have been cut down to the earth,
You who have weakened the nations!

“But you said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God,
And I will sit on the mount of assembly
In the recesses of the north.

‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’ ” (Isaiah 14:12-14)

“Like the Most High.” I don’t think many atheists would acknowledge this is what they want. After all, they don’t believe in God. Why, they don’t even believe in belief! But behind all their spiritual anarchy—their pursuit of absolute individual freedom—is simply rebellion. It’s spitting in God’s face. Kicking against His moral demands. Turning their back to His right to rule.

Professing Christians who doctor the Bible are in the same boat. They don’t like that God is the judge of all the earth, so they invent the belief that all people will be saved at some point. One school of thought is that everyone is already saved—they just don’t all know it.

Some of these accept sin—it is pretty hard to ignore—but they reject the idea of Jesus Christ canceling the debt of sin by substituting Himself for us, by dying in our place to satisfy the requirements of the law.

I presume this latter camp is divided—some believing that they must do good, like Jesus, in order to earn their own salvation, and some believing that God simply dismisses the charges because He’s just that kind of guy.

No matter how these individuals identify, the reality is that denying God’s revelation of Himself is rebellion.

No Christian can say, We believe in God, His great love for humankind, His Son Jesus and the example He set for us to follow—we just don’t believe in that wrath and judgment stuff. That’s not how I view God.

As if we have a say in determining who God is.

Just like the atheists who so often say that humans invented God, this progressive “Christian” view has humans determining what kind of God they are willing to believe in. In fact, they are trying to make God to their own specifications. They are unwilling to believe in Him as He has revealed Himself.

Aside from the fact that they are wide of Truth, they are also missing a true relationship with God, who loves us and gave Himself up for us.

Why did God make us as we are? Because He desires relationship with us. He desires to shower us with His love and grace and kindness and generosity and sense of belonging and security and purpose and wholeness. He wants us to talk with Him and walk with Him—not for His benefit, but for ours. That’s the way love is.

Impulse Control


MacDonald'sAs I was driving out of the mini-mall with groceries in the trunk, I came to a stop sign. A young mom was walking with her son and her daughter who she held by her hand. They’d just finished crossing the street from the McDonald’s they must have visited because in the mom’s other hand she held a food item wrapped in the bright, cheery colors of the fast-food giant.

As she reached the near side of the road, I waited. Which way was she planning on going? As it turned out, she was no longer going at all. She reached the corner near the stop sign, mostly out of the traffic lane that led to the McDonald’s drive-through window, released her daughter’s hand, and opened the food parcel—a cheeseburger, by the looks of it.

Once set free, the daughter, who I’d judge to be about four, reached toward her mother with both hands.

With the little girl now free to run into traffic if she chose, I had added incentive to wait until I knew the mom and her charges were safely out of the way.

The harried woman proceeded to stand where she was and break off a piece of the sandwich to give to her daughter.

Really? I thought. Really? In the middle of traffic? You can’t tell your daughter to wait until the car goes by, at least?

But of course she couldn’t. We are a society of instant gratification, and we’re training our kids to our way of living.

How this societal trait contrasts with the Christian worldview! In Galatians 5, for example, we learn that the fruit of the Spirit includes self-control. In 1 Corinthians 13 we learn that love is patient. Even the idea that we are to wait for Christ’s return as victorious King, shouts of a need to harness our impulses and do what’s right, not what we feel like doing.

Romans 6:12-13 speaks to God’s standard for us:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.

In the first eleven verses Paul explained how our identification with Christ through baptism enables us to walk in newness of life, no longer slaves to sin. But the clear implication of the verses above is that we can still live as if we are slaves to sin, or not. If sin reigns, then we obey our lusts—our impulses, our selfish desires, what we want, no matter who it might hurt or offend or inconvenience or put in jeopardy.

If you want it, why by all means, go for it! seems to be our new motto. In other words, our lusts are reigning in our mortal bodies. Sin is reigning in our mortal bodies.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the little girl was sinning because she wanted some of the sandwich. But the mom clearly missed a teaching point. She could have shown her daughter that she needed to wait because the circumstances weren’t safe. They may have had that conversation before they crossed the street—I don’t know. But if so, the mother was either not a good judge of “safe” or she had caved to her daughter’s insistence that she get what she wanted NOW. For clearly the little girl was being insistent.

Sadly the church in the west seems to be rapidly incorporating the values of society instead of standing for God’s standard of patience and self-control. Just recently I received a newsletter from a Christian that boldly proclaimed, “I’m learning to say YES to myself.”

I don’t think the problem is that we haven’t said yes to ourselves.

I’ve been reading the biography of George Müller, who established homes for over a thousand orphans in England during the middle to late nineteenth century, all by faith in the provision of God and without asking for donations to meet any of their needs. I tried to imagine this man of faith saying that he was learning to say YES to himself. It doesn’t compute.

For Müller, the only thing that was important was seeking God and His righteousness.

To be honest, there is a movement in the church to be “missional,” by which those who use the term mean, working for social justice. But the aim seems less concerned with God’s kingdom and righteousness than with fixing the brokenness of our society.

Müller could be the cover boy for social justice. I mean, he was accepting into his orphan homes any and all children, regardless of their social status or financial means. At the same time he established an Institution of Spiritual Knowledge Home and Abroad which educated and provided for needs in various places.

But undergirding all this activity was prayer and faith and a desire for others to see God as He is—a loving Father who provides for the needs of His children, who answers the prayer of faith in the contemporary world just as He did in Bible times.

Müller’s life and way of working stand in sharp contrast to the self-indulgent lifestyle of today. I suspect he eagerly embraced, and undoubtedly taught, Paul’s admonishment not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies so we won’t obey its lusts.

Today we’re more inclined to ask, What is sin? Some might go so far as to say, Paul simply didn’t know how harmful it is to restrict a person from pursuing his or her natural inclinations. In other words, the Bible is Wrong!

Well, actually God knows us quite well, being that He came in the form of a man and lived among us. Not to mention that He created us.

Since I know myself to a degree (and because I trust Omniscience), I’m inclined to agree with God, here: I need impulse control. We all need impulse control.

The Problem With Salvation


In the previous three posts (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday), I addressed the reality of sin and the need each of us has for the good news, that God has rescued us from the mess of our own making. But that’s only part of the story. More than what God has saved us from is the reality of what God has saved us to.

I addressed this in a post a number of years ago, and I want to reprise that article today.

– – – – –

When I was a kid, growing up in a Christian home, I attended Sunday school regularly. My first recollection of an explanation about sin and salvation is tied to heaven and hell.

Later I attended a Bible club and received a Wordless Book that reinforced the concepts.

Clearly, I did not want to go to Hell. If Heaven was the only alternative, then that’s where I wanted to go, and if Jesus could get me there, then I wanted to accept Him “into my heart.”

I had to get past the idea of a shrunken version of Jesus fitting into my heart, and one Sunday school teacher was able to explain, the Holy Spirit was actually the One who would live in my heart.

Why didn’t they just say so, I thought. I had a vague understanding of the Holy Spirit because a lot of hymns called Him the Holy Ghost. Ghosts didn’t sound holy to me, so I had already asked my parents about that one. I don’t remember what they told me, but it must have been adequate for a child’s understanding because I wasn’t troubled by further questions until much later.

But I digress. From my own experience, from listening to others tell their testimony and to some venting about unhappy religious backgrounds, I see confusion when it comes to the issue of salvation.

In part I think this is because some of us never grow up in our understanding of God. But another contributing factor, I think, is that I had an experience of being saved from Hell rather than an experience of being saved to God.

Any teacher, coach, and most parents will tell you that part of training involves laying out consequences. God deals with us the same way. He tells us what the wages of sin is, just as He warned Adam what would happen if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

So Sunday school teachers who spoke of Hell were not inventing something or using scare tactics. They were telling the truth.

However, escape from Hell isn’t all that great in and of itself. For years I worried about boredom sitting on those clouds, playing a miniature harp for all of eternity.

Eventually my understanding began to grow and my relationship with God began to develop, but it took years.

I had one friend in college who had serious questions about God, in part because she had questions about eternity. My answers were woeful and unbiblical, and she dismissed Christianity in the face of them.

That experience drove me to ask more questions.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

  1. Salvation seems to be less important to some people than their efforts to earn it.
  2. Salvation is much more about being in God’s company than anything else. The real terror isn’t Hell. It’s separation from God. Conversely, Heaven is only great because God makes it great.
  3. Christ provides the only access to God.
  4. Because salvation is really a relationship, it is dynamic.
  5. I don’t have to wait for “later” to experience the joy of my salvation.
  6. The relationship I now have with God grows like any other relationship. If I spend time with Him, I am close to Him. If I don’t, I’m not.
  7. Right now, my relationship with God is more like an Internet friendship. I know Him in part, in the ways He’s revealed Himself to me. Someday, I’ll know Him in person.

This article originally appeared here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in August, 2009.

Published in: on June 27, 2016 at 4:33 pm  Comments Off on The Problem With Salvation  
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Treating Poison Oak


WaterBalloonWhen I was younger, I loved water balloon fights. Or water fights of any type. My brother and sister and I used to have a pretty good water fight every once in a while. We had these plastic squirt bottles meant for ketchup and mustard which sent out a pretty great stream of water—better than any of the water guns we had (this was in the pre-soaker days).

Fast forward to college and a warm, late November evening, with vacation right around the corner. Someone came up with the idea to ambush a group of guys on their way to their dorm from the library—with water balloons! Oh, yes! I was in my element!

We did a little scouting and found a good place off the trail where we could hide in the bushes, toss our balloons, and make a quick get-away. So we waited. And waited.

After maybe ten minutes, one of the girls in the group said, Yeah, guys? Isn’t this poison oak? She held up a twig from the bushes we were hiding in. Sure enough! It had poison oak’s tell-tale three leaflets with scalloped edges.

Poison_oakYikes! But we thought it was a little too late. I mean, we’d been hunkered down in those bushes the entire time, so would a few more minutes matter?

On came the guys. We let fly our balloons and then scampered away. Except, this group of guys was of a mind to get revenge. They chased us down somewhere near the chapel with the nice little fish pond behind it, and, yep, in we went. With all the water and pond scum we had to deal with, the poison oak was forgotten.

Until the next day when the first sign of rash hit. Left untreated, it got worse. At last I made my way to the on-campus health facility to see the nurse. Lo and behold, one of the guys who had tossed us into the pond was also in the waiting room. And yes, he was covered with rash as well.

At the time I didn’t know how poison oak worked, but it was pretty clear that my exposure to the plant had transferred to him. In fact, he had a worse case of it, and to make matters worse, during the upcoming quarter break, he was scheduled to go on tour with the choir.

I don’t think I felt properly sympathetic at the time. I mean, I was dealing with my own misery, but at least I could do it at home, coated with calamine lotion and lying very still so as not to aggravate the itching.

I’ve since learned that poison oak, when damaged—the kind that occurred when a group of college girls tramped into the patch to hide—releases an oil to which many people are allergic. That oil can stay on clothing (pet hair, too, for those who might be curious). So when the guys with vengeance on their minds grabbed us to throw us into the pond, they picked up the oil off our clothes.

Poison oak is a nasty business. If you’ve never had it, count your blessing. There isn’t any cure. I mean, it’s an allergy. It could have been washed off if we’d acted promptly, but none of us really knew what we were dealing with. And of course, the unsuspecting guys had no clue. They simply contracted poison oak from our clothing.

Because there’s no cure, all you can do is minimize the effect. At the time, calamine lotion was pretty much the only thing the nurse could give us. But that treatment was temporary, smelled, and looked really bad. Though it reduced the itching, it was really only a cover up.

I don’t know what science understood about poison oak back then. Now we know there is a way to bring the rash under control. I mean, it’s an allergy. Allergies respond to antihistamine, but apparently not topical antihistamine. Only internal antihistamine.

But here’s the point of this story. Identifying the fact that we were lying in a bush of poison oak didn’t help us at all. For one thing, we didn’t leave. For another, we didn’t go immediately back to our dorms and wash. We didn’t handle our clothes with care, and we didn’t warn anyone else that we could potentially give them the rash by transferring poison oak oil to them.

So, sure, we knew we were in a patch of poison oak, but that knowledge did us no good since we didn’t take any action because of what we knew.

In the same way, we can understand that nobody’s perfect—that we have a sin problem—but unless we do something about our condition, we will put ourselves and others close to us at risk. Because sin has consequences—far worse ones than the rash poison oak gives.

“Doing something,” of course, doesn’t mean, figuring things out on your own. It doesn’t mean following a twelve-step program, though that might treat the symptoms and even ease the consequences for a time. But as addicts admit, the battle to stay sober or drug free is a lifetime battle.

The real problem, then, is not the poison oak, so hiring someone to try and take out all the bushes, isn’t going to solve the problem long term. The real problem is the allergy—that part of a person’s makeup we’re born with.

Here the analogy between sin and poison oak breaks down because the best we can do for the allergy to poison oak is to administer an internal antihistamine. For sin, though, we can actually have it removed from our lives. Scripture says because of Christ we can be freed from the slavery of sin, that it will no longer have mastery over us.

I’m telling you, that makes me want to shout for joy. Hallelujah! If you’ve ever been tormented by a nagging, persistent, irritating habit that is harmful to you and to the people around you, and you can’t figure out how to stop doing what you don’t want to do, then you understand the slavery of sin.

Jesus Christ sets us free.

Published in: on June 24, 2016 at 6:07 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Problem Is Sin


Seattle_AtheistsIn the Theist/Atheist Facebook group I’ve mentioned from time to time, a question came up about faith (is it a virtue). One thing led to another and one person involved in the discussion said he had four problems with faith in the “christian god.” The first area he mentioned was sin. He said, in essence, that he rejects the idea of sin.

I was shocked at first. This discussion took place just a week after the Florida shooting that killed 49 people at the Pulse, a gay bar in Orlando. I think, how can anyone watch the news and then turn around and say he doesn’t believe in sin?

My only answer is that Satan, who Jesus described as the father of lies, has blinded the eyes of unbelieving people. The problem is so obviously sin.

Society talks about love and tolerance, to the point that those topics have become almost trite. And yet, as if bringing an answer to the problem of violence or hatred or prejudice or terrorism—whatever was behind the actions of the Orland killer—several Broadway stars resurrected an old folk song from 1965 by Burt Bacharach: “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love.”

Before this cry for love, God gave us the Law that serves as our tutor—showing us how impossible it is for us to act in a morally upright way day in and day out, every hour of every day.

Jesus explained that God’s standard goes beyond the Law to include our attitudes as well as our actions. So lust makes us equivalent to adulterers, hate makes us as guilty as murderers. And yes, Jesus said, the law requiring an eye for an eye needs to be replace with love for our enemies.

So when the world tells us we need love, they’re right.

The problem is, they think love we somehow generate from within or already have but need to tap into, will be victorious over sin. If we love, we won’t be selfish any more. Or prideful. Or angry. Or greedy. Or lustful. Or power-hungry. Or jealous. Or vengeful.

If we had this love or could learn to love other people, if that was all we needed, then why do bad things still happen? Even if we just figured out the benefit of love fifty years ago when the song first came out, shouldn’t we see some progress, if that’s all we need?

In truth, the fact that we are still dealing with prejudice and hatred and corruption and all the other problems in our culture—abuse, pedophilia, sex trafficking, rape, identity theft, and more—is proof that sin is real. We should see some movement toward a better society, but what evidence is there for a positive change? We haven’t curbed alcoholism or drug addiction. We haven’t stemmed the growth and power of gangs. We haven’t replaced love for violence at any level. Kids still bully kids. Men still abuse women. Women still cheat on husbands. Takers continue to take.

Why is that, if not sin? There is no explanation.

Atheists have no explanation. I’ve asked before. Those who believe in evolution have no theory how society, which developed, they say, from the animal world, has taken on these evil tendencies.

Because that’s the prevailing view: humankind is good but society corrupts. The question remains: when there were just a handful of evolved humans, were did their evil tendencies come from? The atheist formula—good people create a bad society—simply does not compute.

The sad thing is, Christians have backed off from declaring the problem of sin. At some point the narrative accepted on most fronts was that “fire and brimstone” preaching was bad, that people shouldn’t be scared out of hell, that what would “win people to Christ” was to hear about His love and forgiveness.

There’s a lot of truth it that approach. Paul wrote to Titus, explaining the saving work of God:

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

So, yes, the catalyst for change is God’s kindness and love.

But the atheist I mentioned from the Facebook group went on to say that the third thing he had against faith in God was salvation. He apparently doesn’t want it because he believes he doesn’t need it.

That’s the place people end up if they believe they are good and don’t have a sin problem. Maybe we shouldn’t bring back fire and brimstone preachers, but we certainly should tell the truth about human nature.

It’s hard for me to believe that anyone in the world would ever stand up and say, I’ve never had a wrong thought or done a wrong deed in my entire life. I’ve loved others as much as I love myself. Any such person would most likely be guilty of lying and of pride, so there goes the idea of good. Because in God’s way of accounting, “good” means “without any bad.”

In our society we put good on a sliding scale. If we can say something is “mostly good,” then it’s good. Five stars. But even the best five-star people we know, still fall short of perfect. They know it. We know it.

So why aren’t we coming to the obvious conclusion: the problem our world has is sin.

Until we get a proper diagnosis, we’ll slap band-aids over incurable wounds.

One more thing. Telling someone he is a sinner is not hateful. That’s like saying a doctor is hateful for telling someone he has cancer. Uh, no. Not. Hateful. Try, honest.

We have spent too long in the faery land of Good Humanity, so we no longer recognize what stares us in the face every night on the local and national news: humans sin. We all sin. Everyone of us.

It’s not hateful to admit that sinners sin. It’s not hateful to tell people there’s a Savior—One declaring Himself to be Love—who wants to rescue us from the mess of our own making.

Published in: on June 22, 2016 at 6:16 pm  Comments (17)  
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What Makes Good News Good?


reading_newspaper_276396976Since I’m a fiction writer, let’s pretend.

You’re rich. Not just comfortably middle class, but within reach of Bill Gates. We’re talking loaded, filthy rich, a billionaire. One day, you get an email notification that you have won a new car, the latest low-end Nissan—a stripped down car with no radio, anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, or automatic transmission. Did you receive good news?

But let’s pretend you’re a twenty-year-old college student with mounting loans, and the only way you can get to work from school is public transportation — if the professor lets class out five minutes early, and then you have to make a dash for the bus stop. One day, you get an email notification that you have won a new car, the latest low-end Nissan—-a stripped down car with no radio, anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, or automatic transmission. Did you receive good news?

I suspect someone in scenario number two would be ecstatic with such wonderful news, but why? It’s the same news the person in scenario number one received. In all likelihood, that individual would either look at the prize as just one more thing to have to deal with or more probably, as something to hand off to an assistant to dispose of. He might not give the matter a second thought.

Clearly the different reactions are based upon the differing circumstances.

In the spiritual realm, while we all have identical circumstances to deal with, our perception might be that we don’t.

All mankind labors under the weight of our selfish, prideful, self-righteous hearts that want to see us enthroned, not God; that want to see us first, not our neighbor. Our condition leaves us separated from our Creator and at odds with the people around us.

Some of us have learned to mask our disappointment at our isolation and some have learned to numb it by activity or some destructive behavior. Some try to overcome it, thinking it is possible to do enough good things to crawl out of the abyss. None of it works, but we keep trying because we think perhaps we just haven’t found the right key.

On the other hand, some seem to have it all figured out. They are successful, on the way to fulfilling all their dreams, happy in the truest sense of the word. They are the spiritual billionaires.

But the truth is, they are no less dead in their sins, destined for destruction. They just don’t know it. Their perception is, All is well. Their reality is, The wages of sin is death.

If I were to come up to one of these spiritual billionaires and say, God loves you; His grace is available for you; His forgiveness is free—that individual would most likely think I was offering him the equivalent of a cheap car he doesn’t want, a burden he’ll have to get rid of as soon as possible.

It takes thirsty people to want water, hungry people to want bread. It takes lost people to want to be found.

Enter God’s law. Scripture calls it a tutor. Without the law I wouldn’t know that my covetousness or lust or hatred is not OK.

Jesus Himself expanded the Ten Commandments. In fact one of His first public discourses was all about how the Law was not only external but internal—lust was the same as committing adultery, hatred the same as committing murder. In the end He said, Be perfect as My Father is perfect.

As if!

When you put it in the terms Jesus did, we all know we aren’t perfect, can’t be perfect. And therefore, that we stand in need of a Savior.

We—all of us—need the good news, but it will only seem good if we know we need it.

This post, a reprint of an article that first appeared here in February 2011, is a follow up to Who Believes In Sin These Days? and Sin Is Not The Problem.

Published in: on May 26, 2016 at 5:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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