Sunday, February 07, 2016

More than Conquerors

Let's be honest. We complain ... a lot. We Americans complain about our government and our politics and our divisions between religions and morals, our economy, and on and on. We complain about the haves and the have nots and how much we don't have. We Christians complain, too. We complain about the ill treatment we are receiving from our government and our society. We complain about the political arena from a Christian perspective. We complain about persecution or we complain that some are complaining about persecution that is not persecution. If we aren't complaining, we're worrying. "Okay, so maybe it's not persecution, but it sure feels like it might be and looks like it might become persecution. I mean, things look bad for the home team." We worry about our livelihood and our families and our churches and, of all things, our rights. We even worry about our "stuff", to our shame. Worse, it's not without reason. I mean, things do look dark in places. How is America going to pull out of the messes it has built for itself? We have runaway national debt, a hostile-to-our-values education system, a climbing immorality rate (a figure that, strangely enough, never seems to show up in FBI statistics), and more. Where's the hope? So we complain and we worry.

May I suggest, dear Christian reader, that we are mistaken in our complaints and worries? Oh, no, I'm not saying there is no truth to them. Not my point. I'm saying that the answers exist and the outcome is fixed. We're complaining in the dark and worrying for nothing, not because there is no reason, but because we already know the results. What is that?
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died--more than that, who was raised--who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. (Rom 8:31-37)
Nothing to fear, folks. In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. "Don't worry," God says, "I've got this."

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Microaggression

You may not have heard of it. It's primarily a university term. You know, only the "well-educated". Most of us have never heard of it. You might want to pay attention.

Coined back in 1970, the word is used to describe terms or actions that refer to unintended or hidden discrimination. In today's world, this might include things like asking an Asian, "Where are you from?", asking someone from another culture, "What are you?", or asking a Japanese person if they can read Japanese. It is considered microaggression if you tell someone who just sneezed, "God bless you." It might be sexist, racist, homophobic, or religious, to name a few. According to Time, it is the "New Racism" on campus. In that story they included an example of someone emailing a video of President Obama kicking open a door as a joke. (I don't get that in any sense.) In fact, "I don't see race" is classified as microaggression. Because, frankly, there's not much that doesn't seem to qualify. Of course, it is, almost by definition, only white people that do it and only Christians that do it and primarily males that do it because racism is a whites-only sin and sexism is a males-only condition and the offense of religion is limited, apparently, only to Christians.

So, if you don't want to get in trouble in this world with your insensitive, racist/sexist/religious/homophobic comments, you'd better just keep quiet. Remember, this is "microaggression", so you'd just better keep quiet all the time because you never know when an innocent "God bless America" is going to upset someone.

Which makes me wonder if this isn't the intent of the concept -- keeping you and me quiet.

Friday, February 05, 2016

If I Perish, I Perish

The plot was on (Esther 3-4). A hateful man in the king's employ was out to destroy the Jews. He warned the king that they were a danger and got the king to agree to let him wipe them all out. A servant -- a slave, a captive -- heard what was happening and went to his niece who was a beloved member of the king's harem. He told her of the danger that she and they were in and asked her to beg for a reprieve from the king. "But," she said, "if I go into the king unbidden, he may kill me." "Do you think you're immune from this threat?" he asked her. So she agreed. "If I perish, I perish." (Est 4:16)

What does that take? What does it take to do the right thing at the cost of your life? Not just physical life, which is threat enough, but all of life. What does it take to obey the law -- say, for instance, the speed limit -- at the risk of the ire of drivers all around you cursing you? What does it take to stand on the Word of God even when members of your own church will throw you to the wolves for it? What does it take to stand up and say, "Marriage is the union of a man and a woman" at the cost of social execution, of being labeled a hater and a homophobe? What does it take to pack up and head to some Muslim country that arrests, imprisons, and even executes Christians? What does it take to count it all joy when encountering various trials (James 1:2-4), to consider suffering for Christ as a gift rather than an evil (Phil 1:29), to boast in weakness (2 Cor 12:9), to see pain, suffering, even death as an opportunity rather than an impossible hardship? Where do you have to be in your relationship with Christ to say, "If I perish, I perish"? To say, "For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Phil 1:21)? What does it take for us to do the right thing at the risk of house and home, job and family, social, economic, and other possible deaths?

I'm not sure we American Christians know experientially the answer to that question. I suspect we might find out. I do believe that we ought to know, given the glut of Scripture that says so (Matt 5:10; Rom 5:3-5; Rom 8:18; John 16:33; 2 Tim 3:12; Luke 14:27; Heb 12:11; 1 Peter 1:6-7; Psa 119:71; Luke 9:23-25; Col 1:24; Phil 3:8-11; Rom 8:35-39; Heb 11:35-40 -- just a few examples). I think, however, that it is being faced with the choice that will teach us the answer.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

How Did That Happen?

So, it appears that there is evidence that a large portion of our country (the Democrats) are headed openly toward what we long suspected -- socialism. In the Iowa caucus, the Democrats were about even choosing between the socialist and the criminal. That a self-identified "I want to take the money from the rich -- everyone, actually -- and redistribute it, outspend all other presidents with money we don't have, and call it good" socialist democrat could show so well in a vote in America's heartland speaks volumes about America's heart.

But what happened with the Republicans? Trump, to my great consternation, was leading all along, yet, when it came down to a vote, Cruz was ahead of Trump and Rubio was close behind. Is it possible that Republicans are not entirely brain-dead despite the claims of the Democrats to the contrary? How did that happen?

It's okay. Some trust in democracies and some trust in government and some even trust in the will of the people. I won't put my trust in "Egypt for chariots and for horsemen" (Isa 36:9). Trusting in the world systems to make this a better place isn't very wise in my mind. "But I trust in You, O LORD; I say, 'You are My God.'" (Psa 31:14)

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Bible Speaks About Us

What does God's Word teach us about human beings?

It starts out really, really good. "The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." (Gen 2:7) Better yet, "God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Gen 1:27) Oh, and "God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good." (Gen 1:31)

It is, in fact, this "image of God" concept that continues today. It is the reason that God instituted the death penalty for murder (Gen 9:6) And it is with this confidence that we believe "You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother's womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them." (Psa 139:13-16)

But something went horribly wrong. "Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned." (Rom 5:12) Thus, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Rom 3:23) And "the wages of sin is death." (Rom 6:23) Not good. In fact, worse. This sin condition means that natural Man is dead in trespasses and sins, walking "according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience." (Eph 2:1-2) "The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised." (1 Cor 2:14) That's a pretty heavy "cannot". Not "might not" or "will not" -- "cannot". In fact, "the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so." (Rom 8:7) Again, "is not able". The Bible tells us that human beings in their natural condition are blinded by the god of this world "so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." (2 Cor 4:4) Instead of being good and wise, we are naturally sinful and suffer from a heart that "is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick.) (Jer 17:9) On our own, "the intent of Man's heart is evil from his youth." (Gen 8:21)

We had a good start, made by God's hand in God's image called "very good". We are still made by God in His image, even if we have managed to tarnish and obscure it. But a tarnished reflection of God is our least problem. We stand in opposition to God, hostile, blind, incapable of understanding the things of the Spirit of God, intent only on evil from birth. We can't even see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).

Now, to me, the amount of stuff I would have to overcome (beginning with coming to spiritual life) to arrive at faith in Christ without miraculous intervention is pretty amazing. Nonetheless, the fact that a few are saved becomes astounding. And the news that Christ died for us and offers to cleanse us from all unrighteousness is beyond comprehension. Good News indeed.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Problem of Proof

That's something solid, determined, clear. Proof. It isn't an argument; it is ... proof. It's not evidence; it is evidence and argument that convinces.

And therein lies the problem. The dictionary defines the word as "the cogency of evidence that compels acceptance by the mind of a truth or a fact". That sounds pretty settled. Except it does not offer a standard of "compels acceptance by the mind." Consider the current debate between rapper B.o.B. and Neil deGrasse Tyson. B.o.B. insists that the earth is flat. Look at any picture with a horizon. It is flat. Proof! Now, you can cite evidence, say, of photographs from space or even aircraft that have flown around the world. You can challenge him to feel free to fly out to the edge and see what he finds. But it doesn't matter. He has proof.

Oddly enough, this proof ("the cogency of evidence that compels acceptance by the mind") does not convince Tyson ... or any other educated, thinking person. Conversely, no amount of proof ("the cogency of evidence that compels acceptance by the mind") that the Earth is round is convincing B.o.B. So ... where's your proof?

This is a silly argument, to be sure, but the problem of proof is not. You might be asked more seriously to "prove that marriage is the union of a man and a woman" or to "prove that Jesus died for our sins" or to "prove that Christianity is true." Kant wrote the famous Critique of Pure Reason, arguing that God's existence cannot be proven by reason. He went on to argue that there must be a God if morality is to make any sense. The problem of proof.

You see, just as there is none so blind as those who will not see, there is no proof for those will not be convinced. It would seem like evidence and reason should be suitable means of proof, but you know that's not the case. It is entirely possible, for instance, to blind someone to good arguments and evidence by making the truth feel bad. For instance, the Bible clearly makes the case that homosexual behavior is sin, but large and growing numbers of people reject that not because the case is not in there, but because they feel bad about it. How many people have you heard of that changed their position on that fact when they were faced with a family member who announced they were "gay"? That's not evidence or argument, but it compelled acceptance by the mind.

There are a lot of factors that go into what we believe. Family, upbringing, environment, friends, life circumstances, teachers, pastors, the media ... on and on and on. We like to believe that what we believe is "proven" and those who disagree have failed to meet the standard of "proof". But Scripture warns of "foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but see not, who have ears, but hear not." (Jer 5:21) Absence of agreement with something is not lack of evidence or reason. It is simply the mind's unwillingness, for whatever reason, to accept the position. So when you hear, "You failed to prove your position", it feels deadly. Take heart. "Proof" is relative.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Praying Backwards

Andrew Wilson has a good piece in Christianity Today entitled Our Prayer Instincts Are Backwards. It is so true. We tend to pray backwards.

How many people start with "Deliver me!"? You know, there is a tough situation. We need help. We turn to God. We begin with "Deliver us from evil." Indeed, all the stuff at the end of the Lord's Prayer tends to be the stuff on which we focus. "Deliver us from evil." It is not uncommon for people to wish, in a crisis, to be right with God, so, "Forgive us our debts." And, of course, we are all fairly comfortable asking for what we think we need. "Give us this day our daily bread." Backwards.

The Lord's Prayer (Matt 6:9-13) starts not with us but with the Father. Most believers I know miss the very first request from the lips of Christ explaining to His disciples, "Pray like this." You see, "Hallowed be Your name" is not a statement; it is a request. A statement would read, "Hallowed is Your name." He didn't say that. Jesus's first address is to the Father and His first request is that the Father's name would be hallowed -- regarded as holy. We rarely start our prayers anywhere near that.

A stunning phrase from the article -- a wake up phrase -- is this. "Prayer is not intended to move from action to relationship, but from relationship to action." The Lord's Prayer begins with a right relationship with the Father. May we regard Him as "holy, holy, holy" (Isa 6:3; Rev 4:8). It follows with a prayer that God's kingdom would be present, His will would be done. First and foremost in the prayer from Jesus's lips are the concerns of the Father, not the pray-er. We tend to pray with the whole thing turned around. "Please help me ... and, oh, yeah, if I get around to it, I'll let you know you're special."

Human? Sure. Sinful? Probably not. But if we are to be followers of Christ as the term "Christian" implies, it would seem like we'd want to turn that around and, you know, pray like the One we aim to follow instructed us to pray, beginning with "Our Father who is in heaven" rather than "me".

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Weary

It's just a little verse tucked away in one of Paul's epistles.
As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. (2 Thess 3:13)
No explanation. No clarification. No new insight into how or why. Just, "Do not grow weary in doing good."

Perhaps there is additional insight from the author of Hebrews.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Heb 12:1-3)
There it is again. "That you may not grow weary or fainthearted." But this one has some helpful insights behind it. This one starts with "we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" and moves on to "looking to Jesus." We avoid growing weary by considering Him "who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself." And the way we "run with endurance the race that is set before us" is to "lay aside every weight", specifically "sin which clings so closely". Now there's a lot of meat in that. It includes motivation and direction and the proper methods.

The truth is that many genuine believers these days may be encountering weariness. Once protected by the First Amendment, we are finding the right to the free exercise of our religion being pulled away. Once a "Christian nation", at least in name and theory, we are finding that our political system, our laws, our educational system, and even public opinion are all turning against us. All the things we trusted to have our backs are stabbing us there rather than protecting us. Who to vote for as our next representative or senator or president? Not much of a choice. Little hope that it will be someone who will agree with us. How to fight off the immorality and spiritual blight that is infecting our society? Not much available. Little hope that we can change it. What it looks like is that being a Bible-believing, Christ-following, light-shining-to-the-glory-of-God Christian will be getting us into more and more trouble as time goes on, not less and less.

Paul's words, then, are timely. "As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good." And the Hebrews passage is immediately appropriate. Lay aside the weight of sins that trip us up, look to Jesus as we run with endurance, and follow His example of endurance so that we won't grow weary. These words could have been written to 21st century American Christians. And some people seem to think that the Bible is outdated.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

I Wonder

Why is it that some people are seething -- some, angry enough to kill -- while driving because they lose a minute or two behind slow drivers, but are delighted to waste hours in front of TV screens?

Friday, January 29, 2016

Controversial

It's interesting to look over the responses to the stuff I write. It's interesting what produces the most responses.
Not to us, O LORD, not to us, But to Your name give glory Because of Your lovingkindness, because of Your truth. Why should the nations say, "Where, now, is their God?" But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases. (Psa 115:1-3)
Controversial. "God does not do whatever He pleases. We get in His way." Or something like that.
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not willing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
Not controversial. Except that no one seems to notice that if this is saying that it is God's will that no one should perish, then it is saying that God fails because some perish. No one seems to notice that problem.
"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
Not controversial. "We like that 'God loved the world so much' thing." Except that's not what it says. And we barely understand "love" anymore as the Bible uses the term. But, hey, Jesus said it, so it must be true.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17)
Controversial. "Well, of course, 'God-breathed' doesn't mean that it's actually the reliable, inerrant, infallible Word of God. That's just a phrase." Never mind that this "questionable claim" is the basis for the certainty that the prior claim ("God so loved the world") is accepted.

I don't understand what people who classify themselves as Christians classify as controversial.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Knowing God

In Matthew 11 Jesus makes a startling statement that we seem to read right past.
All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him." (Matt 11:27)
"Oh, great," I can hear some readers already saying. "Here goes Stan on his 'Sovereignty of God' kick." Well, if you saw it in there, I suppose I could. I saw it, too. That is, if "All things have been handed over" to Christ, then that would include ... all things. That's Sovereignty. But you can relax. I'm not going there.

I'm not going there because I said there was a startling statement and that was not it. What was? Well, the rest of it. All of it. Jesus makes this startling claim that "No one knows the Son except the Father." But ... we do, right? Apparently this is not natural. He goes on to say, "No one knows the Father except the Son" which would stand to reason, I suppose, from the previous statement, but, still, don't we know God? Jesus answers that. He adds an exception: "and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him." Are you catching the magnitude of the statement?

Jesus is saying that knowing the Father -- knowing God -- is not normal, but exceptional. Of course, we're not talking about an awareness of God. Knowing that God exists is natural indeed (Rom 1:19-20). This isn't γινώσκω -- ginōskō -- which is simple knowledge. This is ἐπιγινώσκω -- epiginōskō -- full knowledge. This is relational knowledge, the idea of knowing someone in a personal relationship. That is, we know of God, but we do not know God personally. Jesus is saying that actually having a working relationship with the Father is uncommon and only possible by first being enabled to do so by the Son.

Now, we like to think that we initiate this. We come to God. We want to know God. We even have this idea of a "search for God". But Jesus says that actually connecting with God only occurs when the Son does it. We lack the ability and inclination on our own. The only way to bridge that gap is for Christ to work first. The prerogative for knowing God belongs to Christ, not us.

Now, to me, that's pretty amazing.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Defining Reality

I have a strange view of reality, at least in matters of faith and practice. It is my aim to define reality as the Author of reality does. It makes sense to me that the Creator of all that is would know what is actual, what is real. So I figure that it would be a good idea if I would define reality as He does. Most importantly, given that He is God and I am not, I should definitely allow Him to define what He is rather than assigning my own views.

Since I believe that "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17) (I know, right? "Where does Stan come up with these wild ideas?"), it is my position that God, speaking through His Word, defines reality for me. Thus, I try to take Him at His Word. I try to agree with Him in matters like morality, doctrine, practice, and especially His nature. So, if God was to tell us, "I am a green rubber duck living on Pluto", I would have to conclude that He is a green rubber duck living on Pluto. (He hasn't told us that. Relax.) By the same token, if He was to tell us that He was like a green rubber duck living on Pluto, I would conclude that He is not a green rubber duck living on Pluto, but that His existence had some parallels to the idea. We call it a simile, and the "like" term means that it does not mean that He is that, but is like it in some sense. That is, I try to take God at His Word, whether it is direct or indirect, metaphor or hyperbole, doctrinal or proverbial, historical or poetic, however He means it.

This, of course, is not on the list of "things that engender warm feelings from others". You will read things like "I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things." (Isa 45:6-7) and people will want to backpedal from it. "Oh, no," they'll tell me, "that doesn't mean what it says. We all know God doesn't create darkness or calamity." Except He says He does. We're good with "God is love" (1 John 4:16), but we're not going to let that "calamity" thing stand. When John claims for God "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them" (John 12:40), obviously either he was misguided or we're not understanding because God doesn't do that. Except that God seems to say He does. We're delighted with the "vessels of mercy" idea (Rom 9:23) but abhor the "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" notion (Rom 9:22). That tells us that God's will -- His desire -- is "to show His wrath and make known His power." Oh, no. Not God. Except God appears to disagree with our "kinder, gentler" version of Him.

I find that the more I read His Word and study what it says and compare it to itself and figure out what it means, the more things I need to change in my thinking. It's just as if I need to be in the constant process of renewing my mind. Go figure. But if I am going to let the Author of reality define reality for me, I think this process is a necessity indeed. I doubt, in fact, that I'll see the end of it in this life. My bottom line is this. I don't want to be one of those oxymorons who hears God say, "This is the way; walk in it" and I respond, "No, Lord."

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Arrogance

I suppose I shall have to learn a foreign language. I say this because it appears that my "first language", the language that I grew up speaking and the language I was taught in school and even the language for which I have multiple dictionaries no longer means what it once meant. We know, for instance, that "marriage" no longer means what it meant just a year ago. The Supreme Court self-consciously provided a redefinition (or, rather, deleted the old one without supplying a new one). But so many others mean so many other things as most of us are well aware. "Judgmental" is not judgmental when it is being judgmental of those deemed judgmental. Love once meant many things but is now mostly narrowed to "feel warmly toward" along with, generally, an expected sexual component. "Tolerance" once meant "the willingness to allow the existence of something with which one does not agree" but now means "to embrace and celebrate the ideas of others". Just a couple of terms that have changed that I've mentioned before.

Here's another one: "arrogant". The word used to mean "having an exaggerated opinion of one's abilities or value" but has now changed. It is "arrogant", now, to say, "The Bible says this which, you know, means just what it says." It is not arrogant to say, "We can't know what that means and it is arrogant of you to think we can." It is now arrogant to say, "God's Word tells me I must work on this in my life. Do you?" It is not arrogant to say, "You're wrong because I know better." I'm not able to figure this out.

It is not arrogant to say, "Jesus said, 'no one comes to the Father but through Me.'" (John 14:6) despite claims that it's arrogant for us to claim exclusivity. In fact, the opposite would be true. To deny exclusivity in the face of Jesus's own words would definitely be arrogant (having an exaggerated opinion of one's abilities). To hold that "The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Cor 6:9-10) is not arrogant. To deny it is. To argue that the Bible is the God-breathed Word of God (2 Tim 3:16-17) is not to take an arrogant position; it is taking a position subservient to the Word of God. To do otherwise is the epitome of arrogance. To hold something as true because the Bible says it is is not arrogant, but today it is considered humble to deny it. Arrogance is not found in agreeing with God's Word; it is found in denying it. And humility is not located in the willingness to affirm we cannot know; it is found ... in agreeing with God.

But, as I said, it appears that the English language is so sharply changing that longstanding definitions are not being simply altered, but so altered to mean the opposite in some places. Apparently "arrogant" is one of those terms. Welcome to the new Tower of Babel.

Monday, January 25, 2016

God is (Not) Omnipotent

God's Omnipotence and His Sovereignty go hand in hand. He would have to be Omnipotent if He is to be Sovereign. That is, He would have to have all power in order to maintain all authority. Still, we live in a day when God's Sovereignty and, right alongside, His Omnipotence are in question.

You might hear the Omnipotence question put like this. "Is God so powerful that He can make a rock too big for Him to pick up?" Or, perhaps, "Is God so powerful that He can make an unstoppable ball and an inpenetrable wall?" You know ... nonsense. "Clearly," these folk will end up, "God does not exist." Except they miss the part where it's nonsense.

Omnipotence is not defined as having the power to do anything at all. That, too, is nonsense. It is defined as having all power. "Omni" is "all"; it is a reference to God possessing all power that exists. He does not possess power that does not exist, such as the self-contradictory power to create round squares or the self-contradictory power to create a rock too big for Him to pick up. Indeed, even if He could, why would He? He's not stupid. God can do anything that can be done. (Note: That includes a vast number of things that humans cannot do or even imagine (Eph 3:20-21).) That's Omnipotence. "Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases." (Psa 115:3) That's Omnipotence. "'Ah, Lord GOD! It is You who have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for You." (Jer 32:17) That's Omnipotence.

Unfortunately, the assault on God's Omnipotence does not come only from the skeptic and the critic. It also comes from believers. It is often the same attack that they throw at His Sovereignty. "God demonstrates His Sovereignty," they will say, "by withholding His Sovereignty." So He does not practice His Sovereignty but allows Man to be sovereign (the change to lowercase is not accidental) and, in doing so, is Sovereign. By the same token, God's Omnipotence is surely displayed in His withdrawal of it. He could alter your will with His power, but He doesn't. He could heal or save or whatever you wish to use here, but He doesn't because of our lack of faith. This one is really quite prevalent. God could save everyone, but He is limited by our faith. He cannot save until we believe. It all sounds very noble and such, but it is still saying, "God does not have the power to save (or heal or ...) if we do not give Him permission to do so in our lives." We'll even rage against the faith healers who limit God's power with our faith -- "God could heal you if you only had the faith" -- while we nod approvingly that God lacks the ability to save us if we lack the faith. In the end, both God's Sovereignty and His Omnipotence are held in check -- by His choice, apparently -- by Man's faith or, rather, lack thereof.

Over against this, we find actual references in Scripture to God acting in opposition to Man's free will and even his faith. We see God overriding Man's Free Will in Genesis 20 when God tells Abimelech, "It was I who kept you from sinning against Me." (Gen 20:6) We cannot miss the repeated claim that "the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart" (Exo 10:20, 27; Exo 11:10). Worse, John claims that God "has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them." (John 12:40) We see God working apart from the limitations of human faith when we read that a centurion's servant was healed on the basis of the faith of the centurion without any suggestion of faith in the servant (Matt 8:5-10) and a paralytic was forgiven and healed not on the basis of his faith, but on the basis of the faith of his friends (Mark 2:2-12). Jesus healed the blind man without his permission (so to speak) (John 9:1-7) and the crippled man at the pool of Siloam without being asked (John 5:1-9). When Jesus raised Lazarus, there wasn't the slightest indication that anyone believed He could do it (John 11:1-44). Conversely, we read that God grants belief (Phil 1:29) and repentance (2 Tim 2:25), negating the problem of mustering up personal faith and repentance.

There is an amazingly large number of Christians who say they embrace fully God's Sovereignty and Omnipotence while they limit His Sovereignty and Omnipotence. These attributes are always, it seems, limited by believers to Man's Free Will in some sense -- either faith or choice or something similar. Many generally sound Christians are holding two opposing views and agreeing with them both -- that God is absolutely Sovereign and Omnipotent ... and He is not. I don't understand.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Forgiveness and Gratitude

Jesus gives His disciples a parable in Matthew 18 (interestingly, right after He tells them how to carry out church discipline). In response to Jesus's instructions on correcting people in church, Peter asks, "How often do I have to forgive my brother?" Jesus tells them the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:22-35). You know the one.

A servant owes the Master a large sum, an amount he could never in his entire life repay. The Master asks for repayment. The servant begs for a chance to repay. The Master forgives the vast sum. So the servant goes out, finds another servant who owes him a much smaller sum and demands payment. This servant begs for more time. The first refuses and throws him into prison. Others tell the Master and he calls this unmerciful servant before him, chides him for his lack of mercy, and hands him over to the torturers. Jesus concludes, "My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart." (Matt 18:35)

In this parable there are two sides of one message. One side is "This is the right thing to do" and the other is "This is what will happen if you don't." Can you guess what those are? Sure! The right thing to do is forgive and the consequences of failing to do so is ... how did Jesus put it? Oh, yes ... torture.

In truth, we ought to be the most generous forgivers on the planet. The world was amazed when the church in South Carolina offered forgiveness to the young man who walked into the Bible study and killed nine people including their pastor. But it shouldn't be so amazing, at least, not among us. Because we are the most forgiven people on the planet. We who originally shook our fists in the face of God, who stood guilty of Cosmic Treason, were forgiven a debt that could not be repaid. How could we not forgive the much smaller violations others offer us?

The basis of salvation in Christianity is grace through faith. You know, "not of works" (Eph 2:8-9). The basis of Christian living, however, is gratitude. Because of what He has done for me, how can I refuse to do for Him anything He would want? So when I hear, either from me or someone else, "I won't forgive that", I have to wonder, "Are you paying attention at all to what you were forgiven?" Because it is our tendency to both diminish God and enlarge Man with special attention to ourselves. "What they did to me was horrible, but what God forgave me wasn't nearly as bad." Perhaps, then, a little dose of awareness swallowed with a nice round of gratitude would go a long way toward diminishing self and teaching us to forgive others as we have been forgiven (Eph 4:32). Some gratitude can go a long way (Luke 7:47).

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Problem of the Authority of Scripture

I've said more than once that the primary authority on matters of faith and practice for Christians is the Bible. I've said more than once that the Bible is the God-breathed Word, infallible and inerrant. These things make the Bible a pretty important book. Oh, maybe not "sacred" like the Moslem's Quran, but pretty important. So ... what's the problem?

We believe that the Bible is God's Word and authoritative for Christians. So why is it that Christians seem to be so biblically illiterate? It appears to be rampant in the church. I heard a discussion over the holidays about how Joseph was so much older than Mary and about how tough it must have been for the pregnant Mary to ride all the way to Bethlehem on a donkey and the obvious spiritual ramifications of these facts. Except, there are no such facts in Scripture. I've had good, church-going believers tell me that "Cleanliness is next to godliness" is in the Bible and "Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him." (Prov 13:24) is not. I used to use a joke to tell people that "God helps those who help themselves" is found in Hezekiah 6 until I realized that far too many didn't know that there was no book of Hezekiah in the Bible.

The problem, then, of the authority of Scripture is not with Scripture. It's with those who don't know their Bibles. It's with those who have decided to use it as prooftext of whatever their particular idea will be. And with a little work and, perhaps, a nice electronic concordance, that gets pretty easy. Want to tell people that the poor are special? Just give 'em Jesus's quote, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." (Luke 6:20) Never mind that this doesn't match the parallel account. Never mind that it doesn't even make sense from the perspective of the argument being made. It's in there, and you need to do what it says. Or a more obvious one. Did you know that the Bible itself claims "There is no God"? Yes, it does. Right there in Psalm 14:1. Sure, sure, it's yanked out of context, but, hey, it's in there! And you need to believe what the Bible says! Okay, two silly examples. The more common ones are far more insidious.

It's with those who don't know the Word. The author of Hebrews complained, "About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil." (Heb 5:11-14) That's where we are today. We've largely forgotten "the basic principles of the oracles of God." We've become "unskilled in the word of righteousness" instead of having "powers of discernment trained by constant practice." It is no wonder that we, in the church -- with Bibles in hand -- are having trouble distinguishing good from evil. We've been sucked into the accumulation of teachers and passages that suit our desires (2 Tim 4:3) rather than a love of God's Word.

At this point there is a problem with the authority of Scripture. We don't recognize it because far too many of us don't know it. Oh, we know what we like. Keep those sermons short and pithy. Entertain us. Upbeat and all that. Nothing like a good guitar riff to get us praisin' God. And never, ever mention that passage that suggests a daily gathering with believers and devotion to teaching (Acts 2:42-47). Way too much work. We seem much happier to hand over our Bibles to unbelievers so they can beat us over the heads with them. I think we can get enough Bible if they put a brief text up on the overhead display on Sunday, don't you? Oh, that we would find believers who love God's Word like the psalmist did (Psa 119). But I'd guess that even a chapter is too much if it's Psalm 119. But, then, I'd guess that most Christians don't know that it's the longest chapter in the Bible ...

Can you imagine what Christians would be like if they put as much energy into knowing, understanding, and applying God's Word as they do in their television and other entertainment?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Whose Work Is This?

Over in John 6 we have the story of the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-14). After the event, Jesus exited quickly and the disciples headed off in their boat toward Capernaum. We get here the famous "Jesus walks on water" story (John 6:15-21). The crowds figured out He left, so they went in search of Him because, according to Jesus, they wanted more bread (John 6:22-27). So they tried a more spiritual approach.
Then they said to Him, "What must we do to be doing the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent." (John 6:28-29)
Now, I don't know if you catch it here, but the text is problematic. The language here says that something is "the work of God". It's not abundantly clear what Jesus is talking about. The crowds asked what they could do to be doing "the works of God". Clearly that is a reference to "the works that God does". Miracles. That kind of thing. They wanted miracles. "What must we do to do miracles?" So is "the work of God" a reference to "the work that God does", or is it a reference to "the work we do for God", "the work God would have us do"? You see, the language is ambiguous.

It would seem from the context as a reply to the crowd who was asking how they could do what God does that Jesus was saying "This is what God does -- He causes you to believe in Him whom He has sent." But that, of course, would be an unacceptable understanding for most because we all know that we believe, not God.God doesn't cause us to believe, right? So it must mean that the work we do that God wants from us is to believe.

But that is a problem, isn't it? I've seen this discussion multiple times in multiple places. "We are saved by faith." "Is faith a work, because if it is we are saved by the work of faith." "Oh, no, faith is not a work." Except if we've just decided that this text is saying that faith is the work that God would have us do, then faith is a work. Uh, oh. Dilemma.

Commentaries aren't helpful here. Barnes says that to believe is the work that God will find acceptable. Clarke says that faith is the only acceptable work we can do. The Geneva Bible says that faith is the work that God requires. The Jameison-Faussett-Brown Commentary calls faith the work of works. Robertson's Word Pictures says that the work of God is to keep on believing. Vines Word Studies says that faith is put as a moral act, a work that God requires. John Gill and Matthew Henry have an interesting take on it. If you asked them "Is the 'work of God' a reference to the work that God does or is it the work that God requires?", they would answer, "Yes!" It is the work that God requires and it is the operation of God as a gift. It is the work that we do (notice that the crowd used a plural "works" and Jesus used a singular "work") and the work God does in us which enables us to do that work of believing.

So, which is it? Is Jesus saying that faith is the work God does in us, or is He saying that faith is the work that God requires of us? If the latter, are we not saved by a work? If not, how not?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Tossing Scripture

Many people approach Scripture with a philosophical predisposition. That is, "This philosophical position is true, so how does this inform my understanding of Scripture?" Take, for instance, the problem of the definition of "free will". By defining the term by one particular philosophical position -- say, the concept of the Libertarian Free Will which begins with the premise that God cannot predetermine anything -- it becomes impossible to agree with anything in Scripture that suggests that God predetermines anything. (Please note: I'm not offering that as a point of discussion. It was shorthand to illustrate the problem. I won't debate the nuances.) Indeed, God's Omniscience becomes impossible because God knowing everything before it occurs would be a form of determination and, therefore, nullify this version of "free will". Thus, a philosophical predisposition in this case would determine Scripture rather than the other way around.

The truth is this is an easy misstep to make and, I would guess, pretty common. I'd venture to guess that all of us at some point or another do it. We'll see a passage of Scripture and say "Well, that can't mean what it appears to say" because it violates a premise we hold that, as it turns out, is not biblical. We all, at some point or another -- some more than others -- do not allow Scripture to interpret Scripture or allow God's Word to inform us rather than the other way around. When, for instance, we say "Well, that can't mean what it appears to say" because it violates something else in Scripture, then we are letting Scripture interpret Scripture. That's not as often our problem. More often it's our predispositions apart from the Word.

So when I read
But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. (1 Cor 2:14)
I might say, "Well, that can't mean what it appears to say." Why? "Well, everyone understands spiritual things, don't they?" I might claim that, but it doesn't allow the text to speak for itself.

Or I might read
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. (Rom 3:12)
and conclude "Well, that can't mean what it appears to say." Why? "Because we know lots of people who do good. In fact, everyone does some good." And I would be canceling the Word of God in favor of my opinion about good and about people rather than in favor of what the text says.

I know of countless Christians who read
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience -- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph 2:1-3)
and understand it to mean that natural man is not dead in trespasses and sins, at least not in any meaningful way, because, after all, there is nothing necessary for salvation that natural man cannot produce to accomplish what God has started. Notice that line of thinking. That Scripture doesn't mean what it appears to say because of a prior commitment to the ability of natural man that is not stated in Scripture. It's what I call Princess Bride theology. Only mostly dead.

How many "no man can" passages (e.g., John 3:3; John 10:29; John 6:44; John 6:65; 1 Cor 12:3; 1 John 3:9) are set aside because of a prior commitment to a philosophy that claims they can? How many texts don't mean what they appear to plainly say (e.g., Gen 8:21; Rom 8:7; Rom 9:16) first because they don't line up with our view of human beings? How many times do we set a straightforward understanding of Scripture aside not because it collides with Scripture, but because it collides with our private views?

I think we need to be careful. I think that a book breathed by God (2 Tim 3:16) that does not pass away (Matt 5:17-19) until all is accomplished, a book that is the Word of God ought to be rightly handled (2 Tim 2:15), ought to be that which shapes our understanding rather than our understanding shaping it. We ought to allow God to be the God He reveals Himself to be rather than the God we'd prefer Him to be. I think we ought to let Scripture renew our minds (Rom 12:2) rather than our minds, deceived as they are (Jer 17:9), reshaping Scripture. That's what I think.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

So Much or Just So?

In the famous words of Jesus, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (John 3:16) For the longest time I understood that to mean what the majority of folk understand it to mean, that God loved the world so much that He gave His Son. That is, the "so" in that text was an indication of quantity. And then I came across this.
"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." (Matt 5:16)
There's that "so" again. It is the same Greek word from the lips of the same speaker. It is οὕτω -- houtō -- which means, as it turns out, not a quantity, but literally "in this way". Thus, the New American Standard translates Jesus's words in Matthew this way: "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."

As it turns out, this command from Christ doesn't make sense in terms of quantity. It only makes sense in terms of the quality or method. Because, you see, Jesus isn't telling His disciples simply to pump out loads and loads of good works. He's telling them to do it in a certain way. What way? In a way that God is glorified. In fact, much of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is spent clarifying this. Don't obey laws to the letter; do it to the spirit of the law (Matt 5:18-48). Don't do good to call attention to yourself; do it between you and God (Matt 6:1-21). Do good works, yes, but do them in such a way that not you but your Father in heaven will be glorified.

This same "so" is at work in John 3:16. It is not, as we have often supposed, a statement of quantity. "God loved the world so much." It is a statement of method, of quantity, "in this way". Does God love the world? Yes. In what way? That's the question. In what way? Because, you see, it's not the blanket "God loves everybody unconditionally and warmly" that we like to hear and think. It is "in this way". In what way? He gave His Son so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. Thus, it is a special designation, a love "in this way" that is applied to "whoever believes" and not in general. If we fail to understand what Jesus is saying, we miss this. It isn't a blanket love. It is love aimed especially at believers.

Does God love everybody? Yes, indeed. Jesus told us God loves His enemies and we ought to do the same.
"I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matt 5:44-45)
God does good to His enemies. That does not mean that He feels warmly toward them. It does not mean that Christ feels toward them as He does toward His Bride. In fact, He had better not. We are supposed to do good in a particular way, and God loves in a particular way. He has a special love for His own. We ought to recognize the truths. We are to do good and God loves the world. But we ought to be clear on the quality of those truths. We are to do good to glorify God and God loves believers in a special way. (Scripture is clear that God hates the wicked (Psa 11:5).) Both truths are found in the proper understanding of "so".

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Woe to You, Hypocrites!

I think we're all agreed that Jesus's harshest words were for the hypocrites of His day. Indeed, if we understand the Hebraism, "woe to you", it's actually worse than we first thought. "Woe to you" is a Hebrew phrase for a curse. You know, the classic "God will be angry" kind of curse. The kind of thing you really don't want to face. Even in the Old Testament David wrote, "I do not sit with men of falsehood, nor do I consort with hypocrites." (Psa 26:4) Apparently "hypocrite" is not something God smiles upon, is tolerant of, is non-judgmental about.

What is a hypocrite? It's not "someone who is holier than thou" despite the popular notion that seems to prevail. A hypocrite is a play actor, someone who pretends to be righteous but isn't. A biblical hypocrite is someone with a mask, someone who claims to live right on "this point" while actually violating "this point". Thus, a person who, say, violated a particular issue in their youth and then tells their offspring "Don't do that" will only be defined as a hypocrite if they claim, "I never did." "Don't do that because I did and it really didn't work out well" is not hypocrisy.

There is no doubt that there are hypocrites in the Church. It would be foolish to deny it. We have a tendency to try to cloak ourselves with what we believe the folk around us are wearing, so to speak, so if we think they're "righteous", we'll often wrap ourselves up in a "righteous" wrapping even if we don't possess such holy living and claim we're righteous, too. Thus, it seems extremely common, for instance, for good church folk to complain about that nasty ol' porn problem others are having and then, I'm fairly certain, go home to their computers to look it up ... again. I remember the TV preacher, perhaps best known for his rants about sexual sin with prostitutes, who was arrested for dallying with prostitutes. Oh, yes, hypocrites abound in church. But it's not hypocrisy to say, "I believe; help my unbelief." (Mark 9:24) It's not hypocrisy to say, "This activity is wrong and I have a problem with it." (James 5:16) The sure remedy for hypocrisy is not a better mask, but no mask at all. The sure remedy for hypocrisy is admission of guilt.

So I find it disheartening these days to see the numbers of people who complain about hypocrites while practicing it themselves. They complain that "You claim to be loving but won't accept people with different views than you" while claiming to be loving and not accepting those people with views about which they're complaining. They rail against exclusive Christianity while be exclusive of those against whom they're railing. They are judgmental about those they deem judgmental and intolerant of those they deem intolerant and call it "good" -- defend it heartily. That, dear reader, is the definition of "hypocrite". And Jesus had His harshest words for hypocrites.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Blessed

Recently at church we went over the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12). You know ... from Jesus's famous Sermon on the Mount. There are (essentially) eight "blesseds" in there. And I thought they deserved a look here.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matt 5:3-12)
First, I think we make a mistake when we try to understand "blessed" as "happy". They'll try to tell you that. Indeed, some of the translations actually use that word instead. "'Blessed', you see, is old school," they'll say. "What's really in view is 'happy'." Except I disagree. There is a fundamental difference between "blessed" and "happy". To be happy is to feel pleased or contented. To be blessed is defined as a connection with God. That is, to be blessed is to be given something good by God (or someone else, I suppose), as opposed to being happy which is simply to feel good about your circumstances. Okay, so that's word games. Fine. But does "happy" really make sense in the text? Jesus said, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake" (Matt 5:10). Do you really understand that to mean "happy"? Do we really expect to be happy "when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account"? No, happy isn't the right word.

So what is "blessed"? In Jewish context (and Jesus was a Jew), there were blessings and curses. (That wasn't "happy" and "sad".) The standard Jewish blessing went like this.
The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace. (Num 6:24-26)
And in this Hebraism we see "bless" and "make His face to shine upon you" as a parallel, a "same meaning". So is "be gracious to you" and "give you peace." "Blessed" means that God's face is toward you, that He keeps you and is gracious to you and gives you peace. "Cursed" is ... the opposite. Are you necessarily happy if God's face is toward you? No, not necessarily, but there is something much better, much deeper, much richer there even when you are not feeling pleased or contented. Do you see? That is the idea of "blessed". Much better than "happy". May even include "happy", but, oh, so much more.

So to the Beatitudes. What conditions will see this kind of attention from God? I think if you read the text you will see a logical progression. There are (in order) "the poor in spirit", "those who mourn", "the meek", "those who hunger and thirst for righteousness", "the merciful", "the pure in heart", "the peacemakers", and "those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake". I see, in that, a sequence. It begins with a recognition of personal spiritual bankruptcy (poor in spirit). "I have nothing, spiritually speaking." Properly recognized, this cannot help but produce mourning (those who mourn) for that condition because not only am I spiritually bankrupt, but there is no remedy I can apply. As a result, I present myself to God meekly (the meek), deeply desiring the the righteousness (hunger and thirst for righteousness) that only He can provide. As a result, I can be merciful (the merciful) to others in the same condition I was and God supplies a pure heart (the pure in heart). As a renewed believer, I can be a peacemaker (the peacemakers). (Note: A peacemaker is not simply someone who resolves conflicts between people -- definitely that, but not only. A peacemaker is also one who can offer God's peace to others.) Finally, having been spiritually bankrupt, mourning that condition, realizing I have no self-help available, but turning to God for His righteousness and receiving His mercy and a pure heart from which I can be at peace with others and offer them God's peace as well, we arrive at the Christian life, a "taking up your cross", a life dedicated to Him which necessarily includes persecution and trials (James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-7).

Each step seems to follow logically from the previous. Each condition also has its own reward. From "the kingdom of heaven" to being "called sons of God", the outcome of these proper responses to God have wonderful compensations. But "blessed" -- God's face toward you, His keeping and grace and peace upon you -- these are marvelous on their own. May we all seek to be blessed in the way Jesus offers here.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Pursuit of Happiness

We've been told that God Himself gave us the right to, among other things, the pursuit of happiness. In truth, I've always balked at that. There is this concern, you see. If God gave us the right to pursue happiness and my idea of happiness is, say, whacking people on the head, well, then, there's a problem. I still believe that this whole "right to the pursuit of happiness" thing needs to be much clearer, but I'm not so hard over anymore against the basic premise.

There is a feeling in much of Christendom that we aren't supposed to be happy. We're supposed to be self-controlled, subdued, meek, quiet, those kinds of things. You know, your basic killjoy. And yet Scripture is full of what Pollyanna referred to as "happy passages". We are, in fact, commanded to "rejoice in the Lord always" (1 Thess 5:16). So while I might question the whole "pursuit of happiness" thing, clearly Christians are to be joyful (Gal 5:22). And, when I think about it, I think this is a matter of design.

Jonathan Edwards wrote in The Freedom of the Will that humans will always act according to their strongest inclinations. I think, in a similar way, human beings always seek happiness. Call it joy if you wish. Maybe even pleasure. But in everything we do, I think -- like with the will -- we're seeking to acquire that which we believe will make us happy. If you think your highest joy will come from sex, you will pursue that. If you think it comes from food, you will pursue that. If you think it comes from good looks or fame or power or ... well, you get the idea. And I think we're designed that way.

Nehemiah said, "The joy of the Lord is your strength." (Neh 8:10) Jesus told His disciples, "These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full." (John 15:11) He said, "Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full." (John 16:24) In the fruit of the Spirit, joy is prominent (Gal 5:22). Real joy, then, comes from the pursuit of God.

If we believe that our ultimate joy is in the Lord, we will spend our time seeking the Lord. You know, like it says in the Bible (Matt 6:21). It's not a problem. It's part of our design. The problem occurs when we seek to find that happiness in places our Designer never intended. And now I'm back to my questions about the right to the pursuit of happiness.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Presidential Choices

I don't know what concerns me more. Is it that Bernie Sanders leads Hillary Clinton in the Iowa polls, or is it that Donald Trump leads the pack in the GOP race?

I'm stunned by the numbers of people, especially young people, who are enamored with a self-declared socialist running for the office of President of the United States. It's not like the right is labeling him such. It's his own position. He believes in openly "taking from the rich and giving to the poor", redistributing wealth, and in plans that will "help the lower classes" (we can debate whether or not they will) while costing everyone more than they can pay. But in America today there appears to be such class warfare that sanity is irrelevant. If it makes those guys pay and me richer, why not? Down with capitalism! End the American Dream. Well, of course, we may have already done that, but you get the idea. They self-consciously want to terminate what once made America great.

I'm appalled at the numbers of people, including unusually large numbers of older people, who love the Donald. Seriously? This is the guy whose god is money and power. This is the guy who has built and bankrupted multiple times. I suppose if our country was a company he might be worth a shot, but it's not. And the most troubling thing to me is this "no Moslems" concept that he threw out, is sticking by, and for which he is lauded by his fans. Now, let's follow the logic. Islamic extremists have undeniably declared war against us. They hope to sneak into this country (already have, in fact) to cause us pain. We don't know who's who, so in the name of safety and security let's deny access to everyone who goes by the "Moslem" moniker. Do we not see how this works? "Potentially dangerous" = banned. "Whew! Thanks Mr. Donald President. Safety and security!" Except what happens when the military declares Christianity -- no, wait, conservative Christianity -- the biggest threat as the military has done in their briefings to their people? What happens when the "Freedom from Religion" folk convince enough people that evangelicals are a threat? If we're aborting the 1st Amendment to protect us from Moslems, what protects us from the anti-Christians? But this is just an example of the Trump-think that concerns me.

What most concerns me is not Sanders or Clinton or Trump. What most concerns me is the people of this country that hold them in such high regard. I don't actually see a good, electable candidate for president in the coming election. America deserves what she votes in. And it doesn't look good. Some Christians wonder when God will judge the U.S. and how. I'm thinking all He has to do is give us what we ask for. That ought to kill the country.

Update
Making my point for me, Sarah Palin endorses Trump. People are sheep, the best candidate we have is intolerable, and people will endorse anyone.

Friday, January 15, 2016

What Is This Thing Called Forgiveness?

I've written before about forgiveness, about how it is not unconditional and about how it is not "feeling better toward" someone. That's what it is not. What is it? Basically, forgiveness is releasing someone from further obligation. The forgiver has been wronged and grants to the forgivee a pardon from future punishment or restitution. Note that this is not cheap or free. It's not as if the debt isn't paid. When forgiveness is granted, the forgiver takes the payment of the debt on himself. The way the Old Testament expresses forgiveness is to "remember no more" the wrong done. Now, be careful. That doesn't mean "forget". It means "to no longer call to attention." I noted, however, in previous entries that the obligation to forgive is predicated on repentance.

Let's make clear, at this point, that while the obligation to forgive (remembering that "forgive" means "to pardon, requiring no further punishment or restitution") is predicated on repentance, in no case is it biblically acceptable to hold a grudge, maintain hard feelings, or be angry. We know, for instance, that we must "See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled" (Heb 12:15). God tells us "the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God." (James 1:20) Instead, we are commanded to love, and love requires that we "not take into account a wrong suffered" (1 Cor 13:5). So all those hard feelings that often accompany a wrong suffered are ruled out by Scripture, with or without forgiveness.

So, we are to be "forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you." (Eph 4:32) The Bible is clear that in all cases of repentance we are obligated to forgive. We also have examples in Scripture where people who did not repent were granted forgiveness as well (e.g., Mark 2:5; Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60). So forgiveness in the case of repentance is commanded and is possible without repentance.

Recapping, then, we know that Christians are to imitate the Father by forgiving when they are wronged. This forgiveness is predicated on the forgiveness we have been granted and entails a release from further punishment or restitution. This forgiveness is required in the case of repentance and allowed without it. In no case is bitterness or continuing anger acceptable for the believer.

So what does that look like? You can't, for instance, forgive someone else's injury. Perhaps you are injured in an accident with a drunk driver. You may opt to forgive (require no further punishment), but the injury is also done society and the law will require further punishment that you cannot forgive. Nor does forgiveness require that you forget.

Sticky questions still remain. For instance, does forgiveness mean that you lay yourself open to all sorts of potentially dangerous situations? "He robbed me twice, repented twice, and I've forgiven him. Does that mean that I cannot be wary of the possibility of another relapse?" If "wary" is categorized as "punishment" in your thinking, yes, it does. I don't see "wary" as punishment. Someone that proves their untrustworthiness can be released from penalty (forgiven) and still not be trusted. I think this is a version predicated on the "forgive and forget" concept. "Well, I'm forgiven, so there are no longer any concerns between us." If forgiven means "forgive and forget", that would be a reasonable conclusion. But forgiveness is not to forget. It is to release from penalty. And being wary isn't penalizing. So if a child breaks a rule, repents, is released from further punishment, there is no reason to require that there be no considerations or preparations for a repeated breaking of that rule. Just no punishment.

I think forgiveness is tough. We talk about it like it's easy. It's not. But if we are commanded to do it, there is one thing that is clear -- forgiveness is not an emotion. (You cannot command feelings.) So it is possible to choose, out of obedience, to release someone from further punishment (forgive). And dealing with your own emotions (bitterness, bearing a grudge, hurt, anger, etc.) is an issue that requires a change in thinking. That one is best acquired by remembering that God, in Christ, has forgiven us (Eph 4:32). Remembering the immense debt Christ paid for me (Matt 18:21-35) ought to produce a heart willing to forgive. And if the one who is forgiven much loves much (Luke 7:47), I suspect that should go a long way toward that whole bitterness and grudge problem, too.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Why Pray?

When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He prefaced it with this.
"When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him." (Matt 6:7-8)
Most people think of prayer as our efforts to tell Him what we want. Oh, sure, they'll say it is more than that. We also use prayer to praise Him and to express gratitude and to confess sin. All that good stuff. But, by and large, prayer to most of us is our telling God what we want so He can give it. He can give it to us or He can give it to whomever else we're praying for, but it's so He can know what we want for ourselves and others. I suppose, if we're not paying attention too closely, that makes sense. It doesn't quite work biblically since "your Father knows what you need before you ask Him."

Okay, now, hold on. If He knows what we need before we ask, then what is the purpose of prayer? Well, hang on a moment. It gets worse. Paul says, "The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words." (Rom 8:26) Okay, so God knows what we need before we ask and we don't even know how to pray. So, we might ask again, "What is the purpose of prayer??"

Here's what we do know. We know that prayer is commanded. We are supposed to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess 5:17). Prayer (all of the Christian life) requires faith (Heb 11:6; Matt 21:22). We are to ask (Matt 7:7) and ask in Jesus's name1 (John 14:13-14; John 16:23-24). We even know that we are supposed to be persistent in prayer (Luke 18:1-8). But isn't that all telling us the same thing? Isn't that all telling us that prayer is our asking from God what we want so He'll give it to us? And haven't we just determined that He already knows?

The word translated "pray" in the New Testament means essentially "to wish toward". It is, therefore, an expression of wishes or will. In that sense, what we've come to suspect -- prayer is telling God what we want -- is actually true. But only in that sense. We know that God knows all things (1 John 3:20; Psa 147:5; Isa 46:9-10). That would include your requests. So you aren't informing Him of something He doesn't know. It is said that prayer changes things, and I don't dispute it, but one thing that it does not change is God's knowledge or God's will. So, what then? Prayer is our effort to draw near to God (James 4:8). It is our process of communicating with God. It isn't, as in human interactions, a way of informing God, but a way of exposing ourselves to Him. It is our opening up of ourselves to Him. It is our opportunity to express to Him what He already knows but wants to hear from us. That would include our confession of sin, our gratitude for His kindness, our rejoicing in His glory, and, of course, our supplications.

Now, we should also keep in mind that some things prevent us from praying properly. James says that we don't get what we ask for when we pray with selfish motives (James 4:3). That ought to give us pause. Husbands are warned that failing to properly live with our wives with respect and understanding hinders our prayer (1 Peter 3:7). While God judicially forgives our sin, Scripture tells us that harboring sin inhibits our communication with God (Psa 66:18). We are told to resolve conflicts with people before praying (Mark 11:25). And, of course, a lack of faith is a prayer problem. "Whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him. (Heb 11:6)

It is my suspicion that we don't pray enough. It is my suspicion that I don't pray enough. (I would think that "pray without ceasing" isn't something that any of us do.) But the fact that God wants us to be in constant communication with Him ought to be something in which we would rejoice. And knowing that "The prayer of a righteous person has great power" (James 5:16) ought to encourage us to pray. There are surely tools and methods that help, but what God is looking for is people who wish to honor Him by opening themselves up to Him. We can do that through prayer. He can use that. Besides, we're commanded to do it. Those should be sufficient reasons to pray.
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1 Be careful. That is not a formula. "In Jesus name, Amen" is not some magical incantation that gets you what you want. To ask "in the name of" Christ is to ask for the purposes of and on behalf of Christ. That is, "If this can be done based on Christ's purposes and for Christ's glory, please do it." Agreeing with Christ and His will. It is a position of subservience to Him.