Monday, November 30, 2009

Don't Think About It

"Mom," the little tyke whined as the family drove down the desert highway on another family vacation, "I have to go to the bathroom!" With little opportunity to do anything at all for the poor little guy, his mother tried to be helpful. "Try not to think about it."

"Don't think about it." That's a fairly common solution offered either directly or by implication for many of our maladies. "I have a paper cut!" "Try not to think about it." "I am grieving for a lost loved one." "Try not to think about it." "I seem to have this recurring temptation to sin." "Try not to think about it."

It is, of course, a pretty foolish suggestion. I mean ... think about it. "Okay, they told me not to think about the pain in my head and it will go away. So ... I won't think about the pain in my head. I won't think about the pain in my head. I won't think about the pain in my head." And you've managed to focus your attention on the pain in your head. When I took driver's training (way back when), my instructor warned us, "Don't look at the line of parked cars that you want to avoid. Look instead where you want to go. Why? Because you tend to go where you look." It's true in driving; it's true in life ... sometimes with tragic consequences. I would guess that we all know someone who grew up with a rotten parent or two. They told themselves from a young age, "I'll never be like my dad (or mom or whatever)." Unfortunately, the focused attention on avoiding being like whomever has ended up making them exactly like whomever, and the problems are perpetuated rather than terminated.

On the other hand, every parent of an infant knows exactly the solution to the problem. Little Johnny or Susie trips and falls, not very hard, but with quite a surprise. He or she is on the verge of crying ... and mom or dad provides the answer by simply distracting Johnny. That's right. They don't suggest that the little one does not think about the shock of the fall, but simply makes him or her think about something else. It would have worked the same for that poor unfortunate fellow who so hated his dad that he became just like him. Most likely if he had, instead, picked up a positive role model to emulate, he might have gone a better direction.

"Don't think about it" doesn't work. By working at not thinking about something, we end up thinking about it by design. What does work more often than not is substitution. It's not "don't think about it", but "think about something else." Since the mind cannot focus simultaneously on two different thoughts, you would end up not thinking about it. Better, if you thought about where you would rather be, you'd likely go that direction.

"All of this is a fine little mental exercise ... but, really, Stan, what's the point?" There is an important point here. All of us suffer from "besetting sins", those things that keep bothering us while we're seeking to be holy reflections of Christ. Lots of people offer lots of fixes. Usually it is along the lines of "Don't think about it." Don't think about whatever is tempting you. That's the basic plan. Of course, working at not thinking about whatever is tempting you simply focuses your attention on the temptation. What can you do? The answer is simple. Until the passion we have for our Savior is stronger than the passion we have for our sin, it will always be a problem. Forget about "don't think about it." Look to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart." The problem isn't the temptation, but the love we all carry for the sin we all hate. When we are thoroughly enamored with Christ, the whole problem will go away. Maybe that's a better direction to look.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Give thanks to Him

For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom 1:21).
Listed at the very beginning of the chain of problems that Paul attributes to mankind in Romans 1 is this accusation: "They did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him." Ingratitude, it seems, is an epidemic in the world.

What is gratitude? The dictionary defines it as a warm or deep appreciation of kindness or benefits received. The first thing, then, that needs to be acknowledged for gratitude to occur is the fact that someone else has conferred kindness or benefits. Gratitude, then, at its core, is unself-centered. (Yeah, yeah, I just made that word up, but tell me if you don't know what I mean.) Gratitude also carries with it "appreciation". What is that? Well, the dictionary says that "appreciate" means "to be grateful". Okay, enough with the circular references. What does it really mean? It is, in fact, a "business" term. It means to prize, to value, to realize the worth of something. You know, like when a house appreciates as opposed to depreciates. There, perhaps now you can see the idea. Gratitude, then, occurs when we recognize that someone outside of ourselves has given us something that we value.

What is the block to gratitude? Why is ingratitude a problem? Well, if the most common mode of humans is "self-centered", then thankfulness would fly in the face of our normal sense of things. We are the most important, and now we're saying that someone else has given us something that we value. So we do one of two things. Either, we fail to admit that someone else provided it, or we devalue what we are given.

So test yourself. Do you value the things you receive from others? Do you see worth in what God gives you? Do you prize the blessings as well as the tough times God provides? Do you honor God for who He is? You see, that's where thankfulness begins -- outside of self. And, oh, by the way, the alternative to gratitude, according to Paul, is futile thinking and foolish hearts. Something to think about on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Faith Is

I will be the first to admit that I don't fully understand all of Scripture. There are things there that are crystal clear to me and some that are ... foggy. The question isn't their truth, but my understanding. The funny thing is that in many cases it seems that I'm 180° out of phase with other Christians.

Take, for instance, the "sticky" question of predestination versus free will. Lots of Christians puzzle over that. Seems like it's tough to figure out. To me, I'm puzzled by their confusion. It is clear in my head. Simply put, limited options is not the same as either no options or coercion. So I don't see a problem. Obviously, others do.

One on the other side of the coin is Hebrews 11:1. Most Christians enjoy that verse, quite happy with its clear definition of faith:
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1).
Mmm, good stuff ... except I've never understood that definition. That is, if I start with "What is biblical 'faith'?", I don't a clear explanation in this verse. I've never been clear on that at all, while most Christians see it quite plainly.

Then, the other day, I read the passage and saw something ... different. What if it's not a definition, but a description of the function of faith? We do this in English. We might say, "Time is money." Yeah ... everyone gets that. Except we're not defining time in that statement. We're explaining that if you get paid to do something, your time translates into income or cost. It's a function of time, not a definition. Or how about this example? "Money is the grease that lubricates the wheels of business." See? Money, then, is defined as some sort of petroleum-based lubricant that ... well, no, of course not. We're saying that a function of money is to make businesses work more smoothly. That's how I suddenly saw Hebrews 11:1 -- a description of the function of faith.

Two things are offered here in this verse: 1) Things hoped for and 2) things not seen. To what is the author referring? Well, the chapter break is unfortunate because he gave that in chapter 10 and, too often, we miss it. In chapter 10, the author of Hebrews speaks of how his readers endured hardship to visit their brethren in prison. The reason they were able to do that was "you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one" (Heb 10:34). In chapter 11 he goes on to explain that people of faith died without ever having seen the promise. Our "great reward" (Heb 10:35), then, is the thing that we hope for but don't see. The question is why hope for something you cannot see? The answer, in verse 1 of chapter 11, is faith. Faith gives us assurance when we hope for something we don't have and faith gives us confidence when we expect something we cannot see. That's not a definition of faith, but it is a good explanation of the function of faith.

Look, like I said, I don't fully understand all of Scripture. This passage, however, suddenly made a lot more sense to me when I saw it as a description of the role of faith rather than a definition of the word, "faith". And I thought that maybe -- just maybe -- someone else might benefit from this perspective.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Omni-benevolence of God

Yesterday I gave you Psalm 103 as a Thanksgiving tool. There is a lot in that passage about things for which we can be grateful. As I examined it, I came across some ... interesting things.

One of the "problems" that Christianity faces is the problem of evil. The problem goes something like this. If God is omnipotent and omni-benevolent, why is there evil and suffering? You see, it would appear that God is either unable (not "omnipotent") or unwilling (not "omni-benevolent") to change these sad conditions.

My answer is "True!" The idea of God's "omni-benevolence" is that He is "all-loving", that His love is without end, and covers all. We like that one. We affirm that one. We ... are wrong on that one.

Look at what David says in just this little Psalm:
As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him.

As a father shows compassion to His children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear Him.

The steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him (Psa 103, 11, 13, 17)
"See?" you might want to say, "It repeatedly talks about His 'steadfast love' and all that good stuff." Yeah, okay, but did you notice something else? There is always a conditional statement. "... so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him." "... the LORD shows compassion to those who fear Him."

There is a sense in which God loves everyone. He gives rain to the righteous and the wicked. He feeds both. He sustains both. There is a type of "omni-benevolence". However, God Himself puts limits on His love for His creation. He is not actually "omni-benevolent". His love for humans has limits. To suggest that His love is infinite and unconditional is simply not biblical.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

Some 40 years ago Andre Crouch popularized a pleasant little ditty entitled "Bless the Lord, Oh My Soul."
Bless the Lord, Oh my soul
And all that is within me
Bless His holy name

For He has done great things
He has done great things
He has done great things
Bless His holy name
Most of us know it. Most of us like it. But I have to say, the source document is so much better.
1 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name!
2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits, 3 who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, 4 who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, 5 who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
6 The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.
7 He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the people of Israel.
8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always chide, nor will He keep His anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.
13 As a father shows compassion to His children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear Him.
14 For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.
15 As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; 16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
17 But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children's children, 18 to those who keep His covenant and remember to do His commandments.
19 The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, and His kingdom rules over all.
20 Bless the LORD, O you His angels, you mighty ones who do His word, obeying the voice of His word!
21 Bless the LORD, all His hosts, his ministers, who do His will!
22 Bless the LORD, all His works, in all places of His dominion. Bless the LORD, O my soul! (Psa 103)
Okay, not as nice and neat, not as "singable", but, oh, what a fine list of things to dwell on today.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Just a Question

It's Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. I don't feel like doing anything ... heavy. I find myself wondering about something, and I'm hoping you can help me with it.

How many of you just read the first paragraph of most of the blogs you read and don't go any further? (I suppose if that's the case, you wouldn't have read this question, would you?) Is it better to more fully explore/explain, or is brevity the best course? I really want to know.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pot, Meet Kettle

I've heard it before. The Conservatives point at the Liberals and say, "To you, it's all about power. You want to stop people from smoking in public, to control who can and cannot get married, to decide what schools can feed school children, to put your thumb on big business, to control the world!" Of course, the Liberals fire back, "Hey! That's what we say about you! You want to control what we smoke, decide who can marry, give power to big business, control the world!" And the finger-pointing goes on.

This isn't a post about Liberals and Conservatives. It's about people ... us. It seems to me that we spend a lot of time pointing at the other side saying, "We're right and you're wrong" while we ignore some facts. Take, for instance, the debate between Arminians and Calvinists. The truth is that the two sides agree on the vast majority of Christian theology. There are just a few -- actually, five -- points of disagreement (and, of course, some underlying points). So the Arminians point at the Calvinists and say, "You limit the Atonement! The Bible teaches that the Atonement was for all!" The Calvinists shoot back, "You say that Christ intended to save everyone. Apparently He failed!" The Arminian complains, "You say that a believer can never lose his salvation. If that's true, what's all this about 'work out your salvation'?" The Calvinist complains, "You say that our salvation is in constant peril. In what sense, then, can Jude write that God 'is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of His glory'?" And the finger-pointing goes on.

The truth is this. Life is full of puzzles and riddles and mysteries. Some can be solved. Some can never be solved this side of eternity. (That is not to say that we shouldn't try.) When we settle into our own set of beliefs, it is a mistake to believe that we have arrived, that we have all the answers, that there are no more questions, puzzles, mysteries. No one has all the answers. I would encourage you who contend for the truth that you would do so with gentleness and respect. All views have serious questions that need answering, whether they are political or social or economical or theological. None of us have arrived at the perfect view of all things. Some have examined this or that and come to the truth. Others have examined other things and arrived at the truth on those things. None of us have all the answers. Remember that when you consider engaging in your next heated discussion.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Approve what is good

I recently wrote this post on what standard we use to determine if something is good or not, and I suppose this is a similar concept, but it has been on my mind.

In a recent conversation, someone told me, "I don't need God or the church to tell me what's right or wrong. I have a pretty good moral system without them." Do you see a problem?

I know -- we don't like relativism, but it's not avoidable here. "Good" is a relative term. Something or someone is "good" in relation to something or someone else. As I've said before, a "good dog" and a "good man" are not the same kind of "good". One goes by the standard of dog behaviors and the other by human behaviors. Or let's try this example. Someone tells me, "You know, I'm a pretty good baseball player." I say, "Oh? Why don't you go professional?" "Oh, no," he replies, "I'm not that good." If you look at what he said, you find he's good ... but not. So what was he saying? Well, compared to most people, he's good at baseball, but compared to professionals, he's not. The standard, then, determines "good".

Let's try a biblical example. In Judges 17 (and again in Judges 21), we read this indictment: "Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." We understand that to mean anarchy, lawlessness, much sin. And I'm not denying it. But notice what it actually says: "Everyone did what was right ..." You see, the problem wasn't that people were not willing to do what was right. The problem wasn't that they set out to be evil. They set out to be good -- to do what was right. The problem, then, was not the intent, but standard. They set out to be good ... as determined by "their own eyes". They would say, "We're doing what is right." It's just that their standard was wrong.

So the question I come to is this: How do you determine what "good" is? Moral Relativism is out the window if there is a God, a Divine Lawgiver. He determines what is right. Fine. Our job, then, is to figure out what that is. But we all suffer from deceitful hearts, so it gets ... hazy. Is it right, for instance, to cross a street against the "Walk" sign? What about in the case where, if you don't cross now, you'll miss the bus and be late for work? Is it right to take home pens and paper from work? Is it right to fudge on your taxes when you know you won't get caught? Is it right? How do you determine it?

There is an old story that's been around for awhile. He asks, "Would you be willing to sleep with a man for a million dollars?" She answers, "Well, yes, I suppose I would." He says, "How about for $20?" She answers, "Don't be ridiculous! I'm not a prostitute." "Oh," he replies, "we've already established that you are. Now we're just dickering over price." She wouldn't have thought twice about the morality of having sex for money under normal circumstances. That was wrong! But ... for a million dollars? Somehow ... it changed.

How do you determine what is right? That was my problem with the fellow who told me "I have a pretty good moral system without them." By what standard? Define "good moral system" in a vacuum. To what do you compare that "good" having removed any viable standard? And you, dear reader -- what standard do you use to determine what is "good", "moral", "right"? Is it a sliding scale? Is it relativism? Is it consistent with your talk? Just wondering, you know.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Praise the LORD!

1 Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.
3 Full of splendor and majesty is His work, and His righteousness endures forever.
4 He has caused His wondrous works to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and merciful.
5 He provides food for those who fear Him; He remembers His covenant forever.
6 He has shown His people the power of His works, in giving them the inheritance of the nations.
7 The works of His hands are faithful and just; all His precepts are trustworthy;
8 They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9 He sent redemption to His people; He has commanded His covenant forever. Holy and awesome is His name!
10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever! (Psa 111)
I admit it. Some people are just better writers than I am.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Self-Esteem

Recently overheard from a mother talking about her young son to another mother: "Spanking isn't working. I'm going to try a different approach. When he does something wrong, I'll ask him what toy he doesn't want to play with for awhile and then I'll take it away from him. I don't want it to be too negative. It will damage his self-esteem."

The term "self-esteem" seems self-explanatory. We know what "self" means and "esteem" simply means to place a value on something or someone. Now, in our normal usage, "esteem" is typically thought of as placing a high value on something or someone, so "self-esteem" would mean "placing a high value on myself". Psychology today is pretty sure that something around 90% of us suffer from poor self-esteem. We don't place a high enough value on ourselves. And, in the words of the wise and beneficent George Benson (1977) and Whitney Houston (1986), "Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all."

Funny thing though ... I don't find that in my Bible. When Jesus gave His famous statement about the greatest commandment and its follow-on, He said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." Odd, isn't it? I mean, it would seem that Jesus assumed that we love ourselves because that was the standard He used for loving our neighbors. Paul did something similar when he told husbands, "Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it." Again, the standard for a husband loving his wife is the way he loves himself. Self-love is assumed.

The world assures us that self-esteem is important ... and lacking. It is fragile and needs to be encouraged and nurtured. If we're not careful, we could damage or even destroy it. It seems to me both from simple observation and from Scripture that human self-esteem is alive and well and practically impervious to any assaults. It is natural for humans to be self-centered. That means that, without any effort or training, we see ourselves as the center of the universe. The world revolves around us. And that, my friends, is self-esteem to the utmost. That mother's little boy wasn't suffering from low self-esteem. He was quite sure that he was of ultimate importance and anyone who violated his own personal wishes was in violation of his supreme being. He didn't need his self-esteem coddled and protected. He needed it corrected.

I know, I know. Lots of people have poor self-image. (Note that "self-image" references how we view ourselves, while "self-esteem" talks about how we value ourselves.) A poor self-image is an improper view of what we are. Most people lie to themselves about their capabilities and character. Sometimes it's a positive lie -- "I think I'm much better than I really am." More often it's a negative lie -- "I downplay what I can really do." But no one suffers from poor self-esteem. It is part of human nature to be self-centered, something that Christians need to fight off all the time. That's why Paul did not say, "I say to everyone among you not to think too poorly of himself than he ought to think", but "I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment." Whether we are denying our true abilities or over-inflating them, we are still over-valuing ourselves. In one case -- arrogance -- it's quite obvious. In the other we are telling God, "Why did You make me this way?!" Neither case is true, and we are substituting our "truth" for God's truth because, after all, we are each the center of the universe ... right?

Poor self-esteem is not the problem. We all suffer from an over-valuing of ourselves. Trying to get a God's-eye-view on our true worth is difficult because we tend to start with ... ourselves. Wrong approach. When we begin to see ourselves as God's creations, vessels that He has made for His own purposes -- some for honorable use and some for dishonorable use -- we might begin to start seeing the truth. We are only as valuable as God intends us to be as far as we serve His purposes. To illustrate that, remember Aesop's story of the crow and the pitcher. Needing to get water from a pitcher, the clever crow dropped pebbles into the pitcher until the water was high enough for him to drink. Now, ask yourself ... how valuable were those pebbles? Not very ... except as far as they met the crow's purpose. Our value is set by God, and it is certainly far below "the center of the universe". Training a child (or myself) otherwise is not a service to the child.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Telling the Truth

I caught myself in a lie the other day. Oh, it wasn't to someone else. I was lying to myself. I caught myself saying, "You always get the short end of the stick." It wasn't true.

Telling the truth is a problem for human beings. I suspect, however, that our biggest problem isn't lying to others as much as we lie to ourselves. We are, in fact, somewhat schizophrenic in our lies to ourselves. We tell ourselves we're losers when we're not really so bad. We tell ourselves we're pretty good people when we're not really so good. We tell ourselves we're "all that" when others don't quite see it that way, and we tell ourselves we're "not so much" when others see us differently. We think we're stupid when we're not so stupid and we think we're pretty smart when we're not so smart. We tell ourselves we're useless without recognizing how much others need us and we tell ourselves we're indispensable when much around us can do without us. We tell ourselves we're moral when we're not and we tell ourselves we're evil when we're forgiven. We're pretty sure we can handle anything at all when we're weaker than we realize and we see things we are called to do as impossible that aren't impossible for God. We see ourselves as pretty wise in areas that the Bible describes us as fools and we see ourselves as pretty foolish when it really isn't so. We're too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, too smart, too stupid, all depending on the circumstances and all likely 180° out of phase with reality.

Isaiah warns, "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil." Paul says of Natural Man, "Claiming to be wise, they became fools." Jeremiah (quoting God) describes us this way: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" Jesus described Satan as "the father of lies". That's God's assessment. I suspect that many of the lies we tell others are products of the lies we tell ourselves. Either we justify those lies with our own or we have so extensively lied to ourselves that we actually believe the lies we're telling others.

We have a problem, it seems, with lying. We lie first to ourselves and then to others and we recognize it irregularly because, after all, we suffer with deceitful hearts that we don't even understand. Telling others the truth is important. It's called "integrity". Telling yourself the truth is just as important. It's called "thinking soberly". Both are hard for us. Both ought to be a priority for us.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Query

Okay, this one is not a discussion of theology. It isn't even about something Christian. I am not offering answers. I'm completely at your mercy. I am trying to understand.

Apparently, according to all sorts of sources, in amongst the 1000-some-odd page healthcare reform bill is a clause that makes it illegal to not have health insurance. Now, according to the President and the Congress and all, there are some 45 million Americans without health insurance. The answer, at least in part, is to force them to get health insurance.

Now, someone help me, please. How is forcing health insurance on everyone the answer? How is it legal? How is it constitutional? How is it moral?

I'm not making an argument. I'm not making a point. I'm asking a question. Seriously, how does this make any sense at all?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thorn in the Flesh

To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:7-10).
Paul never says exactly what the thorn in the flesh was. Scholars have conjectured that it was something physical like an eye problem or a speech problem. Fine. Doesn't really matter. What does matter is that I suspect (very strongly) that we all have thorns in the flesh, things that constantly point to our own weaknesses, things that require us to constantly go to the throne of grace, failing and resting on the only strength available -- His.

We have a term for it: "besetting sins". We all have them. Maybe it's alcohol or drugs. Maybe it's porn or just plain lust. Maybe it's greed or anger. Maybe it's pride or ... well, I'm sure you've come up with your own by now. If you are one that does not have such a thing, I'd like to suggest that yours might be lying or ignorance or apathy, because no one has "arrived".

These sins are troubling. That was an understatement. You fight against it and you find yourself doing it and you hate it afterward and you wonder what's wrong with you and why can't you stop and ... the cycle continues. Being born of God, you have the seed of God in you, so you abhor sin (as opposed to embracing and defending it). You look for a program, a plan, a method to work out of this sin. Someone may even offer a 12-step system or some such, but it's not the fix.

The Scripture gives the fix. It's really just a two-step program. 1) "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness." 2) "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities." There, see? Simple. Okay, not simple. But straightforward. Rely wholly on God's power, and recognize that your problems, when placed in God's hands, bring glory to God. Certainly not easy. Definitely a life-long process. And none of us actually break free of all besetting sins this side of heaven. Still, it really is a pretty good system to start working with, isn't it?

I know ... what you'd really like is a cure. God calls us to a relationship. Relationships are not systematic or simple. They're dynamic. And they're worth it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Christians and Politics

In a recent comment to a post about happiness, my friend, Dan, made this comment, intended, I'm sure, to be satire: "Man has trumped even God, he has elected Obama!" I appreciated the humor. And it got me thinking.

In American politics there is a well-known group known as "the Christian Right". Truth be told, they're really a diverse group, but they are there. (I'm saying "they" rather than "we" because apparently I'm more "centrist" than "right". Go figure.) This "Christian Right" is concerned about the political structures and conditions of the country and are working hard in the political arena to mobilize to change things to what they believe is the best. And what have they achieved? Well, when President Obama and the Democrat majority Congress got elected, they achieved failure. Now the Christian Right are wringing their hands and warning people about the dire consequences of these people in charge and their ideas. The feeling I get is not a humorous statement like Dan intended, but a real fear that the president and his people can do irreparable damage to the country and its people.

Now, I understand that the Body of Christ is just that, a body. Some are called to do this and others are called to do that. Some are preachers and some are evangelists and some are ministers and some are servants. And the list goes on. Some are actually called to be involved in politics. I get that. But I would hope that none of us would make the mistake of thinking in any seriousness that Satan won and Obama is going to do damage that God never intended.

I think, when I put it that way, you can begin to get the picture. Let me flesh it out. "There is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God" (Rom 13:1). (Okay, let me let Paul flesh it out.) We live in a republic where we get to influence government with our vote. And living here as we do, it is our God-given responsibility to do so. And when Christians knowingly voted for the most pro-abortion president ever (as an example), it is true that we failed to meet our responsibility. There are unpleasant things that can and might happen in this country. I won't deny it. But don't think for a moment that the president, the Congress, your governor, or even your city council is going to be able to disable the will of God and produce something God never intended.

Don't misunderstand. There might be unpleasant things ahead for America. Nations, unlike people, do not face a final judgment in front of God. If a nation earns God's judgment, it's a temporal judgment. And America is working hard to earn that judgment. It might get uncomfortable for us, even fatal for the nation. We need to pray for our leaders. We need to vote for what's right. We need to be models of what's good. All that is true. But don't think for a moment that salvation for America is found in the political system. And don't think for a moment that bad government means God is no longer in control. In the end, the only thing that will happen is what He wills. Count on it. The question will then be, "Do you trust Him?"

Monday, November 16, 2009

Charity Begins ...

They tried to tell us, "Healthcare Reform is a Christian matter." They tried to tell us that Jesus would support the government taxing its constituents to provide healthcare to its people. It's a Christian thing! They tried to tell us that the Bible would be in favor of such a thing. And I tried to say, "No." (Eloquent, I know.) My position was that the biblical standard for doing good deeds was that they were by choice, not by force. Well, they disagreed.

Imagine, then, my surprise when I read this from Paul's letter to Philemon:
I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord (Philemon 1:14).
Hmmm ... I suspect that some of those who were arguing that Christians ought to endorse compulsory taxation for government-provided healthcare because the Bible supports it didn't read their Bibles close enough ...

Biblically, it would appear that charity begins in the heart, not in the government's legislation, programs, or tax codes.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"You don't understand!"

Most who are or who ever have been teenagers have, regarding someone in authority, either thought or said at some point, "You don't understand!" Kids of that age are pretty sure they know everything and when they are denied what they "know" to be a good thing, it's not pretty. Usually, of course, the authority figure (parent or otherwise) really does understand better than the teen realizes, but that's not how it feels.

We have a relationship with the Ultimate Authority, Jesus Christ. Sometimes He tells us things we don't like. And sometimes, either in the midst of His commands or just in the midst of life, we can think or even say, "You don't understand!" We're commanded to do things we don't very much like or we're denied things we very much wanted or ... you get the idea. How could He understand? He's God. He doesn't suffer. He doesn't lose. He never even sinned, for pity sake. And then we read this:
We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:15-16).
On earth, Jesus experienced every form of temptation and trial that we do. Being human, He endured it all. Being God, He knows the best. He understands.

The author of Hebrews concludes that because He understands first hand, we can "draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." Like teenagers lashing out at our "foolish" parents, it turns out that we're wrong. He does understand and we can come to Him for the grace and mercy that we need ... even when it doesn't feel like it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

I'm a Radical

There, I said it. I'm a radical, and I will proclaim it openly.

The dictionary has a list of definitions for the word, radical". Among them are the normal concepts that we're used to. There is "extreme" and "favoring drastic political, economic, or social reforms". Yeah, that's what we're familiar with. In the noun form, the first definition is "a person who holds or follows strong convictions or extreme principles; extremist". Yeah, yeah, that's it. Oh, wait ... "follows strong convictions"? Now, that's not quite what we had in mind. Interestingly, the very first (and then repeated on down the line in various ways) definition is "of or going to the root or origin". Synonyms include "basic", "essential", and "original".

The Latin source means "having roots". The original sense of the term meant a return to the roots. In the early 19th century, a group of men formed the Radical Movement seeking political reforms for the government. They were the first real push behind parliamentary representation and formed the basis for what would become the Labour Party in the UK today. Their opponents dismissed them and labeled them "radicals" for their reforms, and since then the concept of any extremist thinking has been labeled "radical" even if it isn't reform.

Me? I'm a Christian radical. I believe that too much theology today has drifted away from any genuine roots in both Scripture and historic Christianity. We find way too much "self-styled Christianity" that urges a feel-good approach both from the "name it and claim it" side as well as the liberal "social gospel" side. Instead of defining Christian theology from its root source of the Bible, too many have defined it by how it makes them feel or how it looks to others. If it appears, for instance, "too judgmental" or "too intolerant", they toss it out without regard to the reason that it's there. That is, if God is judgmental and intolerant about something, then His followers also ought to be.

So I'm a radical. I am in favor of a return to the genuine roots of Christian doctrine. Sometimes that won't feel very nice. Sometimes it may appear offensive, judgmental, intolerant, harsh. Sometimes it will feel ... radical. But I am in favor of a return to the source. The standard dictionary term for this, of course, has become its own pejorative: "fundamentalism". That was a return to the fundamentals ... you know, like the original definition of "radical".

I'm a radical, and I will proclaim it openly. In fact, you ought to be one, too.

Friday, November 13, 2009

God wants you to be happy

Facebook has an application called "On this day, God wants you to know ...". The application generates randomized feel-good messages from God. You know, things like "On this day, God wants you to know ... that you are unique and precious." More verbage, to be sure, but those kinds of things.

The other day one of my friends got this one:
On this day, God wants you to know...
... that you deserve happiness just because. There is nothing you need to do to deserve happiness. There are no 'minimal requirements' for you to fulfill before you can claim happiness. You deserve happiness simply by virtue of having been born. That's it. Nothing more is required. Be happy.
Mmm, yeah, that just feels so nice. Of course, it would be best, if you want to be most comfortable, not to ask questions like "Is it true?"

You see, it begs the question. Is it actually true that simply because you were born you deserve happiness? More so, is that God's big desire for you -- happiness? Are humans, as a right of birth, deserving of happiness? We'd like to think so, to be sure. We'd like to think that humans deserve happiness. McDonalds would like us to think so, wouldn't they? "You deserve a break today," they tell us. We're pretty sure that the pursuit of happiness is one of those inalienable rights endowed by our Creator (even though that Creator has been asked to leave our government, our schools, our public places, etc.). It is in the Declaration of Independence, you know ... a valid source of theological truth, I'm sure. God loves you and wants most of all for you to be happy. Sure it's true!

If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm skeptical. I don't actually think that God's highest priority is my happiness. Nor do I believe that just because I was born I deserve happiness. Why? Well, to me it's neither biblical nor rational. That is, it's not what the Bible seems to say and it doesn't make much sense to me.

Consider, for instance, the wrath of God. It's not a small subject in the Bible. So prevalent in the Old Testament was it that some considered the God of the Old Testament to be a different God than in the New Testament. Still, it doesn't take a lot of reading in the New Testament to find out that wrath is still there. There are warnings and curses and danger for all of us, but especially for the unbeliever. There is the promise of "scourging" from God to His own children. However you interpret "scourging", it cannot be read as "happiness". Indeed, it says, "For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant." And Paul tells us "It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for His sake." Yippee! Suffering for Christ! Let's do the "happy dance"! No, that's not right.

Am I suggesting that God is a mean 'ol fellow, a cosmic killjoy, some divine curmudgeon who only wants to torment us? Not at all! The rest of the verse I mentioned about the unpleasantness of discipline ends this way: "... But later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." We have a promise that God works all things together for good to those who love God. We know that Christ's payment on our behalf has taken away God's wrath toward us. So what am I suggesting? I'm suggesting that God is much more mature than your average 2-year-old. All youngster knows is "Make me feel good now." His parents, on the other hand, know better. There are times that little Johnny needs to be made uncomfortable, like when he needs vaccinations or when he needs discipline. Why do his parents do that, knowing that little Johnny will not be happy? They do it because they are most concerned not with his immediate comfort, but with his best interests. And that is God's concern. First, God is concerned about His own best interests. He needs to be ... He's God. Then He's concerned with the best interests of His children. Now, remember, there is a biblical definition for "His children", and it's not "all human beings". "To all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, to them He gave the right to become children of God." It makes sense in human terms that a loving parent would be most interested in the best interests of a child. It only makes sense that a loving God would be primarily concerned with not so much the happiness, the best interests of His own children.

Does God want you to know, then, that you deserve happiness? I don't think so. Does simply being human mean that you deserve happiness? Certainly not! Remember, there are "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction". They shouldn't be counting on God's generosity. There are what Paul refers to as vessels "for dishonorable use". There are those who are "children of your father, the devil". Being human does not confer, then, the divine right to happiness. Don't let someone try to convince you otherwise. If you're a child of the King, He has much better things in mind for you than paltry happiness. Count on it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Factious Man

I was reading the other day in Titus and came across this: "Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned" (Titus 3:10-11). Now, I have a pretty good vocabulary, so I was pretty sure I knew what "factious" meant, but better to check and be sure than to assume and be wrong.

Interestingly, the original (transliterated) word is "hairetikos". I'm pretty sure you can tell what word we get from that. In fact, the King James (and others) translates it "Reject an heretic ...". Okay, okay, we all know what a heretic is ... or, at least, we think we do. But what does the Greek word mean? " The origin is actually in the word that means "to choose" and references choices that are made. In context, it is the choice to be schismatic or to be presenting schismatic choices. In English, as far as Christianity goes, "heretic" references one who maintains religious opinions contrary to those accepted by the Church. It would stand to reason, from that, that the translation, "Reject a factious man ..." would make sense, since someone maintaining positions contrary to the Church would be causing division.

Now, I'm not, in this entry, willing to analyze "heresy". I'm not going to debate "doctrines accepted by the Church" either individually or as a concept. Here's what I'm wondering. Do we do this? Are we supposed to warn people, "You're being factious; you're causing division; you're being disruptive" and, after a couple of warnings, reject them? If so, what does that rejection look like? (Yes, if you haven't figured it out yet, this is another my question posts.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

No one does good

Now, I know that at least one of my readers is going to think, "This is aimed at me." Relax. It's not. The argument put forward by that reader/commenter isn't new. And it deserves a proper examination. So, if you feel like I'm talking about you personally, let me say that I'm not in the least. This is a discussion about an idea that has been floated for a long time.

The passage of Scripture in question here comes from Romans 3. I'll put it down here for reference:
9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; 10 as it is written, "There is none righteous, not even one; 11 there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; 12 all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one." 13 "their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving," "the poison of asps is under their lips"; 14 "whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness"; 15 "their feet are swift to shed blood, 16 destruction and misery are in their paths, 17 and the path of peace they have not known." 18 "There is no fear of god before their eyes" (Rom 3:9-18).
Here's the problem. People who believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God want to read this (and everything else) as literally as they possibly can. Still, this one is problematic. We're fine with a literal "There is none righteous" because we know that just a few verses later we will read, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," and this agrees with that. But after that it gets a bit dicey. Really? None who understands? None who seeks for God? I mean, we have all heard testimonies of people who had a long search for God and finally found Him in Christ ... right? Sure, all have turned aside, but we really don't like that "they have become useless" thing much. And that claim that there is none who does good is really over the top.

One side of the discussion takes that claim literally and the other considers it hyperbole. Why? Well, because we know lots of good people who do good, so it can't be literal. If we admit that there is none who does good, and it is good to receive Christ, then we have a real problem, don't we? Of course, if you're not paying attention, the other side has a problem all its own. You see, if you stand on "It's intended to be absolutely literal," you've created a problem. The easiest way to illustrate the problem is to point to Jesus. He was sinless, right? So ... no one does good? It is, then, a problem for both sides. One side dismisses it as an overstatement and is left with no meaning, and the other side embraces it as absolute and denies Christianity. How do we handle this sticky situation?

I'm sure this will make some people happy, but let me say at the outset that the statement is hyperbole. Hyperbole is a figure of speech that makes an extravagant statement to make a point. We're used to it. And this one is hyperbole. We know this because we can name one person who did good, so "no not one" can't mean actually "not one". Further, we all claim that Christians do good ... or, at least, we're supposed to. So more than one does good. It is hyperbole. It is an intentional overstatement to make a point. There, I said it.

"Oh, good, now we're back at the other side that says it was hyperbole and we don't have to worry about it, right? We're all clear that lots of people do lots of good." And now we've walked into the other problem. We all know lots of people who do lots of good. So, if we admit that the claim that there is none who does good isn't actually literally true, what does it mean? I'll tell you what it cannot mean. It cannot mean that lots of people do lots of good. You see, hyperbole is intended to make a point. If "There is none who does good" is intended to convey "Lots of people do lots of good", we've erased any connection to rationality. It cannot mean that people do good all the time. You see, hyperbole has a purpose. It is intended to make a point. When the gospel writer says, "The whole city came out to see Jesus", I assume that the whole city didn't actually come out to see Jesus, but I'm pretty sure the vast majority did. If the truth turned out to be that only 95% came out, I'd say, "Yeah, that makes sense." If the truth turned out to be that only 5% came out, I'd say, "Huh? In what sense does 'the whole city' make that point?" The point of the that hyperbole was "a vast majority". The point of this hyperbole can only be that doing good is extremely rare, and the only remaining question is "How rare?" If the answer is "Oh, lots of people do good," then the hyperbole is meaningless.

So let's examine the text and see what we can find. What was the original question? Well, the short term question was "Are we (Jews) better than they (Gentiles)?" The answer was intended to be a resounding, "No!" The passage, in fact, is at the tail end of a long dissertation on the sinfulness of Man that started way back in Rom. 1:18. Paul is laying down the problem (bad news) for which the Gospel (good news) has an answer. The problem? This passage, then, is the summary, and the summary is that all are under sin. The problem is that both Jews and Gentiles are under sin, slaves to sin, without hope in themselves. There is no solution that we can drum up on our own. Reading on past this section, we find the solution that God provides. Chapter 6 tells us that God's solution to our problem of sin is ... death.
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Rom 6:3-4).
This puts those "who have been baptized into Christ Jesus" in a different position than those who have not. Those who have not are slaves to sin. Paul tells those that have "do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts", an option that a slave to sin does not have.

So where are we now? First, there is Natural Man. Natural Man is sinful by nature. God's description is "every intent of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually." Paul's description is "dead in your trespasses and sins", "walking according to the prince of the power of the air," and "by nature children of wrath". Given this nature, it makes sense that "There is none who does good." In fact, given this description, if anyone does actually do what God considers good, it would be a choice that was against his own nature. Violating what you want to do would normally be recognized as a violation of free will. We call it "coercion". The hyperbole, then, that "there is none who does good" is appropriate 1) when you consider the standard that God uses for "good", 2) you recognize that Natural Man has no inclination to do what God recognizes as "good", and 3) there is a group of humans who, having died to their old selves, have a new nature with new inclinations to do the good that God considers good.

If you want to argue "It is hyperbole; lots of people do good", you've eliminated any meaning. If you want to hold to "There is none who does good" completely, you eliminate Christ as well as His followers. If you want to understand the intent of the statement, you need to see that righteousness does not exist among fallen Man, that doing good doesn't happen in fallen Man, and that the only answer to that problem is to die with Christ. A radical problem, you see, demands a radical solution. Or, you might see it as a not-so-bad problem. People aren't perfect, sure, but they're not all that bad. So what's the point of such hyperbole (as well as 3 chapters of explaining the sinfulness of Man) if it's just not that bad? I agree that it's hyperbole; I simply believe that it has meaning that is not so far from its extreme.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What Grace Does

One of the biggest distinctives about Christianity from other religions is this whole "saved by faith" thing. All other religions are on a "saved by works" plan. Christianity alone claims "saved by faith apart from works". This, of course, causes no end of problems. James assures us that faith without works is dead faith, not saving faith. So genuine, biblical, saving faith produces works, but is not conditioned on works. In the Reformation, the reformers held to "sola fide", saved by faith alone. The Roman Catholic Church protested. "That would mean that it doesn't matter what you do!" The reformers answered, "We're saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone." And today the problem continues. Many have confused the social gospel with the real Gospel. The "good news" is that we can be nice to people. In fact, the social gospel is a product of genuine faith, not an aim.

I was thinking about all this because I ran across this passage in Titus and found it interesting as it relates to the topic:
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14).
The topic here is "the grace of God" (one of the five "solas"). Like faith, we think of grace as something given, not something that actually does something. Look, however, at what Paul has the grace of God doing.

The grace of God has brought salvation. Yeah, that's the kind of thing that we would imagine grace doing. But there's more. There is another function of grace listed here: "Training us". That's right, the grace of God trains us. What does it train us to do? Well, it's a list of things ... a list of works. It is God's grace that teaches us to renounce godliness and worldly passions, to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives, to wait for our blessed hope. Isn't that interesting? God's grace trains us to be what God wants us to be.

I maintain that the Bible teaches that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. Works are not a factor. On the other hand, faith without works is not genuine, saving faith, and the grace of God teaches us to be godly. So, while works are not a part of our salvation, neither can they be ignored. Without the natural by-product of works, there is reason to question whether you have either grace or faith. We are saved apart from works, but works are a part of grace and faith.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Effect of the Will on Salvation

It is the common belief that we become Christians by choosing Christ. You know how it is. You are told that you need salvation and you choose to accept Christ. Bingo! You're saved! Is that really how it works?

Paul was explicit. "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8-9)." Why is salvation a gift? "That no one may boast." But if salvation is based on our making the right choice, isn't that something about which to boast?

Imagine the conversation you might have with yourself. "Why am I a Christian when others are not? Well, clearly I made the right choice and others did not. So ... why did I make the right choice and they didn't? Well, apparently I'm smarter than they are. No, wait ... that can't be right. No, it must be that I'm just more spiritually in tune. No, no, that's a problem, too. I'm more aware? No. Hmmm." You see, if salvation is based on your proper choice, it requires that there is something about you that is better than those who make the improper choice, and that is something about which to boast.

There is, of course, a volitional factor in salvation. We are required to place our faith in Christ to be saved. But is that a product of our choice, or not? The Bible says it is not.
All who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).

So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy (Rom 9:16).
John's gospel says that it is specifically not the result of the will of man. Paul says it is not our actions or our choices. We are not saved because we make the right choice. Instead, we are saved because God chooses to have compassion on some and to harden others (Rom 9:18). Yes, we make the right choice, but that's not the deciding factor. God alone is.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Promise

I really like this opening of Paul's letter to Titus:
1 Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, 2 in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago, 3 but at the proper time manifested, even His word, in the proclamation with which I was entrusted according to the commandment of God our Savior, 4 To Titus, my true child in a common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior (Titus 1:1-4).
Paul talks about "the faith of those chosen of God", and I like that. I have nothing about which to boast. I came to faith because God chose. Paul connects "knowledge of the truth" with "godliness". So many argue that doctrine isn't important, but Paul thinks that knowledge of the truth is interlinked with godliness.

It's the next phrase, though, that just thrills my heart. We have faith that we will have eternal life. Where did that concept come from? It came from God. He cannot lie. And before time (the literal translation of "long ages ago"), God promised that those He chose would have eternal life. It is that promise on which we rest. Nice! But think about this. If God made this promise before time, to whom did He make it? It wasn't to us. We weren't there. It wasn't to the angels. They were created around the same time we were, and, besides, it wouldn't matter if they were promised that we have eternal life. No, what we're looking at here is an inter-trinitarian promise. I fancy that it went something like this.

Father: "Son, I have a plan. How would you like a Bride?"

Son: "Excellent! Of course, she would have to be perfect."

Father: "Oh, of course! So here's my plan. I'm going to make a race of humans in our image. Out of that race we'll establish your Bride."

Son: "I like it!"

Father: "There's a catch, Son. They will sin. They will rebel. And since you need a perfect Bride, we will need to act to make them perfect again."

Son: "Seems good to Me."

Father: "That means that you'll have to die for them."

Son: "Great!"

Father: "Okay then! Let's get started. Spirit, you move across the face of the waters and then ..."

Do you get the impact of this notion? We are not chosen by God because we're so lovable. We're not saved because we're worth it. It is not intrinsic value that forces God to pull us out of damnation. No, it is Divine love for His Son. We are a gift from Father to Son, a love gift. He promised His Son before time began that He would do it, and we are the fulfilment of that promise. Wow!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Last Days Madness

1 But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. 2 For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, 4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. 6 For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, 7 always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim 3:1-7).
I don't know about you, but I find this disturbing. It reads like a standard description of Americans in general. It certainly seems to describe our world.

There are some interesting points. That "lovers of self" would be first on the list is telling. That "disobedient to their parents" is on the list at all is surprising ... at least to most. I mean, listing off things like "treacherous" and "brutal" and "lovers of pleasure" ... sure, but disobedient to parents? It appears to be somewhat important to God, yet that's what too many parents today teach their kids. I was interested in the "unloving" there in verse 3. In Greek they have four basic words for "love": agape, philos, eros, and storge. The first two appear quite often in Scripture. The third doesn't, but I don't think it needs additional definition. The last one, on the other hand, doesn't actually appear in the Bible ... sort of. Storge is generally the concept of family affection. The word doesn't appear in the Bible, but astorge does, with the "a" prefix meaning "not". It appears here. The claim is that people will lose what is considered to be natural affection. And when you read the news about mothers abandoning children and father abandoning families and parents murdering their children and ... well, you get the idea. It's jarring. And the Bible called it.

Here's the most disturbing part. We can all sit around, nod our heads, and say, "Oh, how bad that this describes our society." But Paul warns Timothy "Avoid such men as these." Now, Paul was explicit earlier in his letter to the church at Corinth. "I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world" (1 Cor 5:9-10). Paul warned them to avoid any "so-called brother" who was like this. He's doing the same here. These people are not "the world". They are inside the church. They are the religious. They ... are us. This warning about the last days is not a description of pagan America. It is a description of Christendom in the last days. And, sadly, it is too close to an appropriate description of many in our churches today. They hold to a form of godliness, but deny its power. They are always learning but never actually come to the knowledge of the truth. They seem to be caring, but are actually weighed down by sin and controlled by impulses. That is what I find disturbing. I expect the world to be sinful, but those who claim the name of "Christian" ought to be different. Are we?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Why I Believe

Why do I believe what I believe regarding Christianity? Well, there is certainly a large intellectual component to it. I am convinced, based on evidence and reason, that Christianity is true. I am convinced that the Bible is God-breathed and, therefore, inerrant. I can see things like fulfilled prophecy and the fact that it was written by some 40 authors over thousands of years without contradiction and with a single message and that's evidence. I am convinced by that same Bible that Christ, God's Son, became flesh and died for my sin, paying my debt. I am convinced that the God of the Bible is truly and uniquely Sovereign (capital "S"). The evidence, the texts, the reasoning all bring me to this place. A lot of people seem to have some rational difficulties, but in my mind I see a seamless structure that all just makes sense to me. (That is not to suggest that I understand everything. "Don't fully understand" is not the same as "Doesn't make sense".) In fact, a good portion of my theology has been arrived at against what I was taught earlier in life and told in more popular Christian circles. I didn't get here because I necessarily liked it or because I was brought up this way. I have become convinced by evidence and reason.

If I were to tell you that the only reason that I believe what I believe is evidence and reason, however, I would be less than honest. Very little in life, in fact, is that simple. Most things are complicated. There is a strong intellectual component to my beliefs, but there is also an important emotional component. Having arrived where I am theologically, I have become quite attached to what I believe. In fact, I will go so far as to say that I need it. I'm perfectly willing to consider other options and there are certainly things that are more peripheral than others, but there are core beliefs that, if you were to strip them away, would devastate me.

Take, for instance, the idea of God's Sovereignty versus Man's Free Will. The by-far most popular belief is that Man has Ultimate Free Will. God doesn't interfere with that. Why would He? He gave Man Free Will and humans can do as they please. Most people like that idea. Me? It terrifies me. If that is, indeed, the truth, then life is hopeless. Some argued, for instance, on 9/11/2001 that "God is a gentleman and doesn't interfere." Don't tell me that! I want to believe that God is in charge. I want to believe that they meant it for evil but God meant it for good. I want to believe that God works all things together for good to those who love God. On the other hand, if God has given free rein to Man, then Man has free reign ... and God does not. (That was not a spelling error in either case.) The image, then, is a god who is there in heaven, ringing his hands, trying to figure out how he's going to pull this one out. "Oh my, oh my ... I wish they wouldn't do that. How terrible! Now what will I do? I'll figure out something." That god inspires no confidence, provides no meaning, and gives no hope in times of crisis.

That's just an example. It actually affects all portions of my life. If I look to Judaism or Islam (or other religions), for instance, I am offered the "hope" of eternal bliss if I just be good enough. "Good enough" is a vague concept that, well, knowing myself, isn't going to happen. Without the Atonement, "good enough" isn't good enough to give me hope. If I look to atheism, I am offered no reason for anything except "Stuff happens". That happy old platitude "Everything happens for a reason" is bunk. Everything just happens. There is no basis for morality, no basis for meaning in life, no answers to evil (a contradiction in terms), and no way to make sense of life. No hope.

You may disagree with my theology. That's perfectly fine. And I'm perfectly willing to 1) discuss it with people who disagree (in a friendly manner) and 2) examine whether or not I might be wrong. You have to realize, however, that there is a lot on this side. My beliefs conform to the Bible as it is written. My beliefs conform to orthodoxy in the historic Church. My beliefs make rational sense to me, carefully enmeshed and intertwined. If you're planning to try to talk me out of it, you will need some new set of information or logic train because I've seen most of them, and you'll need to offer me some sort of hope in life because moving off of where I am thus far appears hopeless. Sure, sure, you're happy with it, but, trust me, I can't go there. Like the hymnist, "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus' name." Anything other than the Sovereign God I know, other than orthodoxy, other than an inerrant Bible, other than a Savior who died on my behalf and paid my debt ... anything else may be a sweet frame, but it is not sufficient for my hope. It is ... sinking sand.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

How Free is Free Will?

I am not offering an analysis from philosophy here. I will not provide the popular view. I am going to offer the biblical account and you, the reader, can decide what you believe.

The popular perception is that humans are endowed with "free will", an apparently unlimited capacity to make whatever choice he or she pleases. Of course, a simple examination of that concept will tell you that it just doesn't make sense. You cannot choose to climb to the top of your roof, flap your arms, and fly. You do not have the option to choose to live underwater. These, of course, are silly examples, but the main point is that we cannot freely choose to do things that are outside of our nature. That should pose no problem. It should simply provide some clarity to the concept of "free will".

Enter the biblical pronouncements. The Bible is full of references to making choices. Of that there is no doubt. Perhaps the most famous is Joshua's "Choose this day whom you will serve", followed by the glorious, "But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." We are beings with the capacity of volition. But can we choose anything? No, not those things outside of our nature. So what does the Bible have to say about limits to our choices?

Well, from the famous heights of the "Hallelujah Chorus" taken right out of Revelation -- "The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth" -- to the depths of Lamentations -- "Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?" -- the Bible is full of the Sovereignty of God. In the midst of his worst nightmare, Job asks his tormenters, "Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this?" Jeremiah records the prayer of Baruch: "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." More than once the psalmists tell us, "Whatever the LORD pleases, He does." Paul tells Timothy that God is the "only Sovereign". We like to say, "Your freedom ends at my nose." The truth is that our freedom to choose ends at God's Divine Will. We cannot choose to do those things that violate God's Ultimate Will.

What else limits our choices? The primary inhibitor to our freedom to choose is ... ourselves -- our nature. We would like to think that any human is fully capable of freely choosing to do good, but God says, "No one does good, not even one." We would like to think that Natural Man has the full ability to choose not to sin, but God says of sinful Man, "Every intention of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually." Paul describes believers as slaves of righteousness and unbelievers as slaves of sin. We want to believe that Man can choose to come to Christ, but Jesus said, "No man can come to Me unless the Father draws him." We'd like to believe that Man is fully capable of understanding spiritual matters but Paul warns, "Natural Man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned." We'd love to think that unregenerate human beings can freely choose to love God, but the Bible assures us, "The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot" and "The flesh profits nothing." How free is that? And there are a number of passages that go something like this:
God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by Him to do His will (2 Tim 2:25-26).
"Yeah, yeah," we are tempted to say, "God grants everyone repentance." This claim denies the amazingly tentative nature of the passage. Do you see that? Paul writes with words like "may" and "perhaps" stuck together. The unavoidable conclusion is that God may not grant them repentance. Further, there are two things required here. First, God must grant it; it's not a certainty. Second, the only means of escape from Satan is ... captivity. Yep! These people who may be granted repentance (or may not) can only escape from the snare of the devil after being captured by God.

From a biblical perspective, how free is free will? Well, we're free to operate within the realm of our nature as long as God allows it. That nature, for unbelievers, is a sin nature, so the available choices are to sin a lot or sin a little, but never not to sin. No one does good by God's standards of good. And no one has the capacity to override God's will. In the Garden of Eden, Adam had the capacity not to sin. In the wake of Adam's sin, Natural Man lacks the capacity to not sin. Believers, given a new nature, have the capacity to sin or not sin, to operate in their own strength (sin) or in God's strength (not sin). It is only when we get to heaven that we will lose the capacity to sin. In other words, your free will, while certainly present, isn't nearly as free as you might like to think. That is ... if you believe the biblical version. I do.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Civility

This is one of my question posts. I don't have the answers. I'm hoping you can offer some.

I think that in our world today there is a serious lack of civility. When opinions differ, people tend to be mean about it. If someone does something wrong, we don't point it out quietly -- we make a scene about it. We're not civil enough to each other. And it's not just a "worldly" thing. Go to Christian discussions on the web and you'll find Christians arguing with believers and unbelievers in not-so-kind ways -- belittling, insulting, ridiculing. From Congress to the media to your workplace to your home, I suspect that you've experienced this lack of civility of which I speak. We're not as nice to each other as I would like us to be ... as the Bible would call for us to be. Worse, we embrace it, we defend it, we honor it. It disturbs me.

Still, if I were to argue that we should always be civil to each other, I'd be arguing against Scripture. Elijah walked into Ahab's court and, without civility, told him it wouldn't rain because Elijah had prayed for it not to rain. The prophets were known for being forthright instead of civil. You may try to dismiss what Jesus did to the moneychangers in the Temple as a misunderstanding, but there is no mistaking how He spoke to the Pharisees. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" (And if you understood the Jewish "woe", you'd see it wasn't kind.) Repeatedly He warned them that they were worse than the worst in terms that were not ... civil. When Peter addressed the Jews with the Gospel, he didn't soft pedal it. He told them that they crucified the Messiah. And when Paul confronted Peter's hypocrisy, he did it in public and without civility.

Clearly, then, there are times when civility is not called for. I am quite sure that most of the time we need to be more kind to each other, but there are times when rough, forthright talk is required to make a point. And that is my question. Clearly I think it is not all the times I've seen it done in person and on the Internet. Still, there are times. When? Under what circumstances are we called upon to be painfully honest instead of trying to word things kindly? When is it necessary to be uncivil? What determines those moments? I'd like to know.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Radical Rule

One of the best known rules in the Bible is the Golden Rule. It's called in philosophical circles "the ethic of reciprocity". You know: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Jesus said, "Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them" (Matt 7:12). Ask someone to explain what it means and you'll generally get something like this: "Don't do things to other people that you wouldn't want done to you." This concept is found in a wide variety of "scriptures", instructions for a variety of religions. You'll find it in the Bahá'í faith, Brahmanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Ancient Egyptian, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American Spirituality, Roman Pagan Religion, Shinto, Sikhism, Sufism, Taoism, Unitarianism, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism ... to name a few. It's not rocket science. We teach it to our kids. "How would you like it if someone did that to you?" Don't do to others what you don't want others to do to you.

While it's clear that Jesus included that thought in His command, this is not what Jesus said. Sure, that's good practice, but Jesus said something different. We see a lot of commands stated in the negative: "Thou shalt not ..." And the general understanding is in the negative: "Don't do ..." But Jesus's command was in the positive: "Do." And that makes this command somewhat more radical than we tend to think of it.

The question is not "How would you like it if someone did that to you?" The question is "What do I like?" followed by "Go and do thou likewise." Do you like people to be nice to you? Be nice to people. Do you want someone to comfort you when you're sad? Comfort people. Do you want people to be understanding when you make a mistake? Be understanding. When you are remorseful for doing something wrong, you want forgiveness. Forgive. In other words, the command is not to avoid harm, but to affect pleasure. Give to people around you the good that you would want them to give to you.

Face it ... we're not so good at that. We may avoid hurting people whenever we can, but we're not good at looking to find good things to do to people. We're good at finding out where others are wrong, but are we correcting them because we would want to be corrected (and in a way we would want to be corrected), or are we doing it for personal satisfaction? When we have excess, do we seek people to whom to give it? I know I'd appreciate it if someone who had extra would share with me. Are we telling the truth in love? I know that I appreciate the wounds of a friend because I know that friend cares. Are we actively seeking to do the good to others that we would like done to us? That is the Golden Rule. And that is radical.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The New Commandments

Thou shalt have no gods. Being "spiritual" is okay. A general belief in the existence of God is okay. And a general inclusion of all "gods" is just fine. But none of this "One True God" thing.

Thou shalt not have anything but images. The only true source of truth is science, and anyone who predicates their worldview on the Divine is wrong at best and evil at worst.

Thou shalt not bow down to your God. Humans are the most important beings in existence. All values follow. You may believe in this "God" of yours, but He has to submit to human standards and measurements.

Remember to party. Personal pleasure is the ultimate value. The worst thing you can be is boring.

Honor yourself. No one is more important than you are, and thinking of yourself first is the "greatest love of all".

Thou shalt not murder ... unless, of course, that murder takes place as a result of "a woman's choice", in which case it's a marvelous thing.

Thou shalt not commit adultery. Okay, only kidding on that one. It violates the "Personal pleasure as ultimate" rule.

Thou shalt not steal. Only talking here in mass quantities. There is great value if you can, for instance, steal from the government by cheating on your taxes. It's perfectly acceptable to steal time (and small office supplies) from your employer. We're just talking here about ... my stuff. Thou shalt not steal my stuff.

Thou shalt not lie if it isn't in your own best interest.

Thou shalt not condemn your neighbor or your neighbor's wife or his male servant or most anyone at all. That's our job.

Above all else, it is certainly evil to be sure. All of these things are pretty sure, but maybe not. What we require of you is that you do not claim to be confident of your beliefs to the exclusion of other beliefs. That kind of certainty is wrong ... and we will exclude your beliefs for having that belief.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Teaching and Singing

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Col 3:16).
Interesting concept. Teach and admonish with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Do it as a product of gratitude towards God. Sounds a bit odd, I think, but interesting. Hey, maybe today would be a good day to try it.