What’s The Take-Home

Writers of non-fiction generally are advised to answer the question, What’s the take-home value of your article or book? Behind this question is the belief that readers come to non-fiction to gain something—knowledge, insight, inspiration, instruction.

The fact is, the question fits Western culture. Generally speaking, we are a people asking, What’s in it for me? What can I get out of it?

Interestingly, John F. Kennedy moved a generation when he turned the question on its head: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That may have been the last time any leader has challenged those of us in western society to altruistic behavior.

Most appeals come with a list of benefits: do this because you will gain x, y, and z.

No wonder, then, that this mindset has spilled into the Church. Come to Jesus, the appeal goes, and receive health and wealth. Or come to Jesus and your marital problems will be answered or your addictions will vanish or your fears will dissolve.

The truth is, God is a benefit-giving God. Throughout the Bible, He laid down choices—do this and you’ll be blessed, but do that and you’ll suffer the consequences of your sin.

The problem is, too many of us are missing the grand prize for coming to Jesus: Jesus. We’re like the man in the parable who found a treasure, then went and sold all he had so he could buy the field where it was hidden.

Except, once we have the field, instead of claiming the treasure, we’re busy collecting rocks. The rocks might be good and helpful, but they aren’t the treasure. They aren’t the reason we took up our cross.

Obeying Jesus and following Him does so often bring peace and joy; His ways are right and good. But those aren’t the Christian’s “take-home.” Jesus is. Peter, in a line that reminds me of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, said

Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. (1 Peter 3:13-14a – emphasis mine)

Hundreds of years earlier, Daniel’s three friends were faced with death if they didn’t worship an idol. They responded by saying

“If it be so [that we are sentenced to die], our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Dan. 3:17-18; emphasis mine)

He will, He is able, but even if He doesn’t, He’s still God. And in they went, only to find Jesus, the pre-incarnate Christ, there in the furnace with them. Their reward wasn’t status or protection or even deliverance from the furnace, though they eventually had those things too. But while they did not have them, they still had their relationship with God.

He is the treasure. Worshiping Him, enjoying fellowship with Him, walking with Him day by day—those are the delights that are ours no matter what our circumstances.

Paul said the same thing (in more words) in Colossians:

attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself (2:2b).

Christ Himself—the treasure, the reward, the take-home value of the Christian life.

This article is an edited version of one that first appeared here in September, 2012.

Published in: on August 27, 2018 at 5:26 pm  Comments Off on What’s The Take-Home  
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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.

Reprise: Sin Is Not The Problem

_A_volcano_on_the_Yemeni_island_of_Jabal_at-Tair_erupts_in_the_early_morning_hours_of_Oct._1,_2007Well, of course, sin IS the problem, but believing that sin is the problem has become a greater problem.

Western culture paints the belief that people sin in the worst light: If only oppressive religion didn’t make people feel so guilty. If only we realized our real potential. If only we weren’t so critical and judgmental. If only we looked for the good in others.

It all sounds so nice, so kind.

And it makes religion—Christianity in particular—seem so repressive, so intolerant, so blameworthy.

Yet no one holding this view seems concerned with what ought to be an overriding question—where did the first act of intolerance come from? How did the whole round of judgmental behavior get started?

Christian and non-Christian alike recognize that we all are not perfect. Yet somehow, the problem has become our feeling guilty for the wrong we do, not the wrong itself. The problem has become our judgment that others do wrong, not the wrong they do.

And we wonder why the lost world doesn’t want a savior.

Simply put, our culture has removed the need for a savior. Because, I’m OK and you’re OK. Not lost. And certainly not sinful.

The only people that ought to feel guilty are the ones pointing out sin. Shame on them for making the rest of us feel bad (not sinful—We Do Not Feel Sinful. To feel sinful would be … well, wrong).

So you see, our culture no longer believes sin is the problem.

It seems Christianity has played right into this deviation. No more fire-and-brimstone preaching! We don’t want people to hate coming to church. We have to bring them in with a good marketing strategy. Make church sound like fun and Christianity like the solution to whatever problem you are experiencing.

That’s not the way the preachers in the Bible went about speaking. John the Baptist called his audience a brood of vipers. Peter told his listeners they had killed the Messiah. Stephen called his audience stiff-necked and accused them of resisting the Holy Spirit.

And of course they died martyr’s deaths.

Many of our forefathers died the same way. But somewhere along the line, western Christianity got comfortable. Now we have rights and feel affronted if someone says something mean about Christians.

And more and more, we’re becoming silent. We don’t want to offend others by our “radical” religious views. So we’ll keep the peace and concentrate on lifestyle evangelism, because surely, just as people can see God when they look at nature, they can see Christ when they look at my life. Can’t they?

Why does it seem more and more that sin is not the problem as much as my willingness to say sin is the problem?

This post first appeared here in February 2011.

Published in: on October 7, 2015 at 6:32 pm  Comments (3)  
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On Being Dogmatic – Revisited

big_wavesIn today’s western culture, most people seem to be dogmatic about only one thing—that no one should be dogmatic. I’m reminded of the day when I realized I was prejudiced against people who are prejudiced. These positions are nonsequiturs.

In the case of dogmatism, it seems to me professing Christians are adopting this cultural position: dogmatic opposition to those who are dogmatic. Hence, beliefs which were once widely-held such as the authority of the Bible, original sin, redemption through Christ alone, even God’s sovereign right to judge His creation, are in question, if not under attack, within certain groups of people who claim the name of Christ.

Interestingly, the Bible commands us to be dogmatic—at least that’s how I characterize the “stand firm” passages in the New Testament. Paul says “stand firm” to the Corinthian church, three times to the Ephesians, a couple times to the Thessalonians, and once to the Philippians. Peter said it too.

In these verses we’re told to stand firm in the faith, in the Lord (twice), and in the grace of God. Once we’re told to stand against the schemes of the devil.

Another time the idea expanded:

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us
– 1 Thess 2:15

Hold to the traditions the first century apostles taught—the ones we know of because they are written down for us in the Bible. But holding to traditions is what gets people labeled dogmatic, especially in a day when change seems to rule life.

Maybe it’s time for Christians to stop blushing or dodging when someone hurls “dogmatic” at us as an invective. Maybe it’s time to answer, You got that right. I am standing firm, just like my Commanding Officer told me to.

Ah, but there’s another problem for Christians—all this warfare imagery in Scripture. Couple that with the Christian’s claim at exclusivity, and we are labeled as hate-filled because we aren’t amenable to everyone else’s religion.

The key here, I believe, is for Christians to be dogmatic about the right things. We are to be dogmatic about who Jesus is, about God’s nature, Man’s sin and need for reconciliation with God, salvation by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ at the cross, our opposition to Satan, the authority of Scripture, Christ’s soon return.

No question, being dogmatic separates us from our culture—just as being light separates us from darkness, being salt separates us from that which is flavorless.

You see, dogmatic—that is, standing firm even when the wind and waves come—isn’t all that different from faith. Neither one depends on what we can see, and both can get us through the pressures of life.

This post, minus some revision, first appeared here in September 2010.

Published in: on September 9, 2015 at 5:47 pm  Comments (14)  
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God And The Gray Head

old-lady-300590-mA friend of mine recently expressed concern about her age. Not that she’s feeling any different than when she was young, but she’s noticed people treating her differently, like they do the elderly. She’s NOT elderly, and the idea that others look at her as if she is, was disturbing.

As it happens, that morning I read from the book of Proverbs. One of the verses gives perspective on my friend’s concern:

A gray head is a crown of glory;
It is found in the way of righteousness. (Prov. 16:31)

This verse also reminded me of the New Testament passage that contrasts what happens to a believer’s body with what happens to his spirit:

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. (2 Cor. 4:16)

Clearly, the more days we rack up, the more our inner man will be renewed. Other passages in Scripture make it clear this renewal is spiritual, drawing us closer to God:

[you Colossian Christians] have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him (Col. 3:10)

Perhaps the most powerful passage indicating this inner-man relationship with God comes in Ephesians:

[Paul’s prayer is] that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (3:16-19)

Over and over, Scripture also contrasts the temporal with the eternal, and the latter always comes out on top as that which matters most. Paul refers to this life as “momentary light affliction”:

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:17-18)

Sadly our culture has grown further and further from this perspective that the unseen far outweighs the seen. Once we recognized the wisdom of age and the experience. We even admired the courage and example seniors set for us. And the elders in our churches most likely were indeed elders.

As western culture has grown more and more preoccupied with pleasure, we’ve elevated beauty and the body and youth. Seniors? We’re talking more and more about euthanasia, not the strength of the inner man. Because, after all, life is about being healthy and fit and strong and virulent. When these things start to fade—when the outer man starts to decay—what’s the point?

How wrong that perspective is. Above all else, those with gray heads can teach the rest of us what a strong inner man looks like. No, we can’t see the inner man, but we can see gentleness instead of anger, hope instead of despair, contentment instead of dissatisfaction, peace instead of hostility, and the joy of the Lord instead of bitterness.

Our culture may not value the older generation, but God seems to. Later in Proverbs He says gray hair is the honor of the old. When He gave the people of Israel the Law, He specified they were to “rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:32).

The bottom line for those of us who are aging . . . which would be, all of us . . . is to remember that God looks on the heart today in the same way He did when He was about to have Samuel anoint David as King of Israel. It’s the heart that matters for eternity, not the clay jars in which it is temporarily housed.

Now is the time to grow in our walk with God, to yield to His work to make us in the image of His Son.

The stuff the world tells us we should do to stay young and vibrant? It’s a sham. No matter how young we may look, the parts don’t work as well as they once did. The outer man is fading and will continue to fade no matter how much we might like to stop time.

Aging is part of sin’s curse. God never intended us to die, but someone recently opened my eyes to the fact that even the curse, God turned into a blessing. Because of God’s mercy and grace, this decaying body will one day be replaced with a new, better, 2.0 model.

Something to look forward to.

Published in: on February 3, 2015 at 6:03 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Prevalence of the Christian Worldview

Police_brutality.svgSome in the US would say the heart of the nation was broken in Sandy Hook when a gunman opened fire on a classroom of kindergartners. That response is only one instance of many that shows the values of our society.

Here in SoCal, the public rose with one voice to demand justice for a homeless man, mentally challenged, who was beaten to death by police officers. Despite the fact that our definitions have become far too murky, we stand against “cruel and unusual punishment.” We decry gang members gunning down a beloved grandmother or the drunk driver who cripples the little old man on his way home. Hospitals pledge never to turn away a sick child, and donors make that promise good. Our government has passed laws to provide the disabled with access to the same venues as everyone else.

Why? Why would we care about the poor, the sick, the weak, the needy? Because we have a Christian worldview.

By “we” I mean Western culture—the places in the world where Christianity took hold for hundreds of years. Most certainly, we can’t claim to have done Church right. The Dark Ages were called “dark” for a reason. The Reformation happened because there was a need in the Church for reform. People continued to miss what Jesus was about and tried to set up His kingdom on earth using human resources and schemes.

In addition, we are now living in the post-Christian era of Western society. I won’t say “a post-Christian world,” because as it happens, Christianity is spreading rapidly in places where it once was little more than an afterthought.

What, then, am I going on about?

The message of Jesus Christ changed who we in the West are as a people, as a society, as a culture. Love your enemy, forgive those who misuse you, becomes a creed about how to treat prisoners of war, and policy about not discriminating. Give a cup of cold water to the thirsty becomes a Salvation Army of people on a Rescue Mission to provide for the hungry and hurting and hopeless.

And not just Christians do these things, to the degree that some believe the Government should actually step in to insure that no one in America goes hungry or lacks health care or grows old with no means of support. We believe in what Jesus taught, even though many, if not most, have stopped believing in Jesus.

The sad thing is, the Western world seems oblivious to the fact that our core values have come from what Jesus Christ said. And because we’ve lost the basis for these values, it’s only a matter of time before our culture starts looking more and more like the rest of the world (unless, of course, the rest of the world becomes more and more infused with a Christian worldview).

Tolerance slips to tolerance of only those who think like us. Health care applies only to those who don’t inconvenience the rest of us. Forgiveness is supplanted by revenge.

But for now, when those who care little for God rally to provide for widows of police officers slain in the line of duty or work to stop human trafficking or give to a project to stop AIDS in Africa, we’re witnessing the effects of living in a country shaped by a Christian worldview.

Because the nations in the West are unique.

The way we look at the world is still marked by the revolutionary way Jesus lived and by the Power that inflamed His followers, enabling them to go and do likewise.

Published in: on February 26, 2013 at 7:42 pm  Comments Off on The Prevalence of the Christian Worldview  
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