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Monday, October 31, 2011

Paul's Moral Relativism

I love Romans 14, because if you hold your mouth just right and pick out just the right verses you can make it say the most amazing thing. Here, let's give it a look:
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions (14:1).

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls (14:4).

Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (14:5).

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? (14:10)

Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer (14:13).

Let us pursue what makes for peace and are mutually upbuilding (14:19).

The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God (14:22).
There you go, just some of the choice tidbits from Romans 14. The message, of course, is abundantly clear. We are not to pass judgment. (I mean, seriously, how many times in that one chapter does he say that?) Instead, we are to try to welcome everyone regardless of their beliefs ("faith") and keep our own opinions to ourselves. You think it's wrong for that couple to have sex out of marriage? Well, you just keep that to yourself because they are "fully convinced" in their own minds and you have nothing to say about it. And that goes for a host of other "sins" you might want to toss out there. Just keep it to yourself. Live and let live. That's Paul's message in Romans 14. Right and wrong are determined by your own convictions, and no one should say otherwise.

Is it? I suppose, if we weren't thinking and didn't mind labeling Paul as a lunatic that might work out. Of course, since it isn't internally consistent with the text nor consistent with the rest of Paul's writings nor consistent with the rest of Scripture, that might not be advisable.

First, the contradictions. In Romans alone Paul makes many commands, instructions on how believers are to live. If he meant "do what you are convinced is right", then he should have kept his mouth shut. I mean, what if I'm not convinced that every person should be subject to the governing authorities (Rom 13:1)? Isn't Paul being a bit judgmental telling me I should? And, look, that whole first chapter thing about suppressing the truth and futile thinking and becoming foolish and all ... come on, Paul, that's not "mutually upbuilding". And those are just a couple of examples. The book is full of judgment and conviction. All of Paul's epistles have this concept of declaring what is right in God's eyes and commanding the followers of Christ to do that. He leaves no sense of "Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind" or "Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?" on those issues. And, of course, the rest of Scripture is the same. One key example: In what is considered the best known verse in the Bible, Jesus said, "Judge not, that you be not judged." "Well," you will say, "there it is, plain as day." Is it? Then why does He follow with instructions on taking the speck out of your brother's eye, the Golden Rule, the problem of the narrow gate versus the wide gate, and how to discern a false prophet ("wolf in sheep's clothing") from the real thing? All of that is judgment, isn't it? No, if the 14th chapter of Paul's letter to Rome was intended to tell us not to judge anyone for anything, it did so in stark contrast to everything else in Scripture including Paul's own words and Christ's teaching.

So, if this does not mean "Judge not that you be not judged" in the sense that I presented it above, what is it saying?

Let's start with verse 1. The quarrels and judgment addressed here is not over what God declares to be good or bad. It is over opinions. Paul gives a examples. "One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables" (14:2). "One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike" (14:5). Now, I would submit that you would be hard-pressed to find Scripture that says, "Thou shalt eat only vegetables." Indeed, being a vegetarian or a carnivore is not a matter of morality. It's ... opinion. Some people think that Good Friday (as an example) ought to be a special day set aside for special observation and others think that it's just another day. Look it up. What does the Bible say about it? I'll wait. What, you couldn't find anything? No. It's ... opinion. Paul was convinced that it wasn't sinful to eat meat sacrificed to idols. The Bible doesn't say he was wrong. Thus, it's ... opinion. On matters of opinion, let's not be judgmental. Let's be peaceable. On these matters, keep your ideas to yourself. Is it a sin to send your kids out on Halloween dressed as princesses and pirates? The Bible doesn't say. Keep it to yourself. Let's not fight about it.

There is a second thought laid out in this passage which is quite often missed. A main point is not "Keep your ideas to yourself" as much as "Don't cause others to stumble because of your ideas." "Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother" (14:13). Don't let your freedom trip up a brother in Christ. Less about enlarging your freedoms, this passage, then, asks you to limit your freedoms for the sake of the weaker brother.

One other consideration, then. I pointed out that this passage is not commanding us to "live and let live" morally. That would violate all of Scripture. As such, it is not saying that we get to determine what is right and wrong in all things. The principle, typically derived largely from this passage, is called "Christian Liberty". This principle refers specifically to the areas in life in which God has chosen to be silent. The basic principle refers to those areas of life which are not explicitly commanded or clearly modeled from Scripture. When God chooses to be silent on something (like vegetarianism or honoring Good Friday, etc.), we ought to do the same. It becomes a matter of faith. Paul says, "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (14:23). Christian Liberty does not include those things that are in the Bible. So if you became fully convinced in your own mind that stealing from the local grocery store was acceptable if you were hungry (as an example), you would be doing so in direct violation of God's specific commands and this would not be covered under Paul's "opinions" category of Romans 14. This passage is not a statement of moral relativism. It is not permission for you to pick out your own version of morality. The text is in regards to opinions, matters that are not covered in Scripture. "But, abortion isn't covered in Scripture!" Well, if you can figure out how to terminate the life of a child without murdering (which is covered), you might have an argument. You don't.

It is true that there must be room for differences among people. It is true that there are those with stronger and weaker faith. It is true that we need to be careful in judgment. It is not true that the Bible endorses moral relativism or the misguided notion of "judge not at all". Don't let picking and choosing through Romans 14 lead you to that faulty conclusion. Now, if you wanted to conclude, "Well, maybe I need to keep my kids at home on Halloween because the neighbor believes it's evil and I don't want to cause her to stumble," you might be on to something there.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

One Praying Man

Now Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the settlers of Gilead, said to Ahab, "As the LORD, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word" (1 Kings 17:1).
So begins a fun and fascinating story of one of Scriptures "All Time Greats" in the area of prophets. So important was this prophet, Elijah, that he is listed with Moses at the top. It was Moses and Elijah who appeared with Jesus in the Transfiguration. Oddly enough, Elijah seems to play a small role in the Old Testament. So what made Elijah stand out?

In the event explained above, there are details missing in the account. One of those is the fact that Elijah, unlike so many other prophets, didn't get a word from God that said something like "Go and tell Ahab ..." From all accounts, this was Elijah coming in here without divine direction. It was "by my word."

The result of this bold move was a drought in Israel that lasted three and a half years. The drought brought about a famine. The famine brought retribution to God's people. Jezebel, Ahab's wife, set out to kill as many of God's prophets as she could. When Elijah prepared to go back to see Ahab after 3 1/2 years, Obadiah warned him not to go. He was quite sure that merely telling Ahab that Elijah was coming would get him executed.

The end of the episode is a fun story. Elijah challenges Ahab's 450 prophets of Baal, the Lord of Rain and Lightning, to a duel. "You guys ask Baal to give you fire and I'll ask God. Whoever answers wins!" These guys did all they could to get a response from their false god. And, let's face it, Elijah didn't help. They're out there dancing around and shouting and cutting themselves and Elijah offers, "Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened" (1 Kings 18:27). Yeah, no help at all. As the time came for the evening sacrifice, Elijah took his place in front of the people. He made a simple altar with 12 stones, dug a moat around it, put the wood on it, put the cut-up ox on top, and then had the people pour water on it (in the middle of the worst drought they'd seen) until everything was soaked. His "fancy" method of getting a response was this:
"O LORD , the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that Thou art God in Israel, and that I am Thy servant, and that I have done all these things at Thy word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that Thou, O LORD, art God, and that Thou hast turned their heart back again." " (1 Kings 18:36-37).
The immediate result to this simple prayer was fire from heaven so intense that it devoured everything at the altar ... including the altar. Baal's 450 prophets died that day because the people got the message, and the drought ended.

Elijah was a stand out. He never actually died. Instead, he ascended into heaven directly on a chariot sent from God. His return to announce the coming of the Messiah was prophesied and fulfilled in John the Baptist. And, as I said before, he made a return visit at Jesus's Transfiguration along with Moses. An important prophet.

I mentioned that a couple of details were missing from the account. One was the fact that he acted without direct instruction from God in telling Ahab that the drought was coming. The other is given in James.
The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the sky poured rain, and the earth produced its fruit (James 5:16-18).
Did you catch that? What made Elijah one of the top prophets of all time was not his speaking ability or his willing spirit or his calling from God or his excellent nature. What made Elijah a standout among prophets was that "he prayed earnestly." He prayed to stop the rain and it stopped. He prayed to start the rain and it rained. He prayed to save the life of the child of the woman with whom he was staying during the drought and the child came back to life. One praying man.

Do you ever think that you don't make much of a difference? Do you ever wonder what you can do to bring about change? Do you wonder what you can do for God and for His people? One praying man can bring about unbelievable miracles for the cause of God. One praying man can make all the difference.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

On the news the other night they interviewed an unemployed woman occupying San Francisco. She was part of the "Occupy Wall Street" protest, the one taking place in San Francisco. "How long will you stay here?" the interviewer asked. "I'll stay as long as it takes," she answered seriously. And, like an idiot, I shouted at the screen, "As long as it takes to do what?" You see, if there is no target, you can't hit it. And the vague "as long as it takes" means, if she is true to her word, that she'll have to take up permanent residence because no one has said what "it" is.

The movement that started in New York has gone national and now international. Modeled after the recent coups in Tunisia and Egypt (hopefully not Libya), they seek to ... no, wait, that's not clear. But they are protesting. They want something to change. It has something to do with the 99% and the fact that the richest Americans (1%) have something like 90% of America's wealth (although I'm pretty sure that the international protests aren't about rich Americans). So ... they want to overthrow rich people? According to their "official website", they are protesting "the corporate forces of the world".

Okay, that's vague enough, I suppose. No, too vague. So I searched and I searched and I finally came across a "Proposed List of Demands". (Note: "This is not an official list of demands." There are a lot of proposed lists with apparently no official list available.) Let's see. Raise minimum wage to $20/hour. Guarantee living wage income regardless of employment. Free college education. Look, I'm not making this stuff up. I'm simply transcribing it from their list. Start a one trillion dollar (that's trillion with a "t", as in "almost double the current debt") spending effort on infrastructure. Oh, good, they don't stop there. Spend another trillion on "ecological restoration planting forests, reestablishing wetlands and the natural flow of river systems and decommissioning of all of America's nuclear power plants" (while bringing "the fossil fuel economy to an end"). Open the borders. Outlaw credit reporting. Void all debts.

Well thought out. Good job. Quite impossible, catastrophic, and insane, but, hey, at least now I know how long that poor woman will be living in a tent in San Francisco's Justin Herman Plaza. Forever.

But their Facebook page is much more reasonable. Top on the list is to revoke corporate personhood. Um ... what? Raise taxes on the top 2%. (Doesn't that cut into the 99%?) Abolish capitalism. Seriously, that's #3 on their list. The bottom is to close half of America's military bases. That should be easy because they demand we get out of the Middle East. And while we're abolishing capitalism, let's go to a "resource based economy". Yeah, I had to look that one up. Apparently it's a system in which all goods and services are available without debt or money or credits or barter. Oh, okay, got it. It's communism, where everything is owned communally and shared equally. Got it.

Well, that certainly helps that poor woman in the plaza. I'm sure America is looking forward to a radical shift from capitalism to communism. I'm not at all sure what "End corporate welfare" or "Revoke corporate personhood" even means, but those would be the least of our worries. And, of course, The constant demand for Universal Healthcare is right around the corner, isn't it? I mean, it is on their list. Don't we have it yet? Oh, wait, that will happen when all doctors decide to work for whatever they can get from the government. But that should be fine because really what needs to happen is for the government to impose salary caps on everyone. And that shouldn't be a problem because, after all, we've already started with the elimination of capitalism.

Funny thing. That whole "communism" thing, which, to be honest, sounds really good, has been tried. It doesn't work. It doesn't work in the worst possible way. But, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Are we next?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Harm and Morals

In the news recently is a whole new HPV question. You remember the HPV thing, right? Rick Perry is in trouble because in Texas he mandated that all girls get the HPV vaccine. There was a campaign in the last couple of years to push this. Girls ought to all be vaccinated for the HPV virus to prevent potential cervical cancer. Now they're finding more. It is now linked to throat cancer and even to heart disease. Wait. That's not all. It is also linked to throat cancer and heart disease in men. One study indicates that men with HPV are more than twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke. So the question is being raised. Should we vaccinate males, too?

Of course, there are a variety of reasons why it's even a question. First, there is the cost. Is it enough of a risk to pay for all those vaccinations? And then there's the question of the public. Do we really want to mandate that everyone get this vaccine? And then there is the question from the conservatives. You see, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease. So there are some on the right side of the political aisle that aren't interested in forcing their children to get an immunization when moral values would prevent it.

I'm interested in these newest findings. According to the government, "At least half of all sexually active men and women get genital HPV at some time in their lives." Currently they estimate that 20 million Americans between ages 15 and 49 have HPV. I'm interested because I'm wondering how this works out in the "do no harm" morality crowd. You know them. They are the ones that argue that morality is determined by that which causes harm. Now, most today would say that, for the most part, sex causes no harm whatsoever. "It's all in good, harmless fun. Oh, sure, you might want to avoid 'unsafe sex'. That would be a bad thing. But, hey, that whole 'no sex until you marry' and 'only sex within a marriage' thing is so outdated and, frankly, rididulous," from the "do no harm" perspective. And science is now telling us that, you know, that whole "free love" thing, well, turns out that we're not only putting women at risk for cervical cancer, but we're putting "half of all sexually active men and women" at risk for throat cancer and heart disease. Cancer and heart disease. You know, the Big Two -- two of the top killers in modern times.

As it turns out, then, our ever-so-popular idea of "free love" (meaning, actually, sex with whomever and as many as you want -- no relation to "love") has been doing harm all this time. We just never got the connection. Turns out that young men who guard their way and young women who remain pure for marriage and couples who remain faithful -- you know, like the Creator commands -- would drastically decrease their risk for various cancers and heart disease. In other words, although our culture and science hadn't seen it yet, this moral "virtue" of "free love" actually has been doing harm. Serious harm, as it turns out.

Of course, my pointing this out won't likely make a ripple in this thinking. "Well, okay, so that appears to have a serious potential for harm, but that doesn't mean it should affect our morals, does it?" Nor will it go beyond that. "Well, maybe we didn't see that coming, but we're certain that nothing else we affirm as harmless or possibly even good even though God says otherwise is actually harmful. We're on top of this stuff. We know it." It will continue to be regarded as foolish to assume that just because the Creator of the human being says this or that is bad doesn't mean that it actually is bad. "You religious folk should stop painting God as some cosmic killjoy." And we'll wonder why our pain increases the more we flaunt God's instructions. And, oh, by the way, preventing pregnancy or STDs or inoculating for HPV doesn't actually serve to alleviate the problems our sin causes. No, those things are just the surface issues. It turns out that we are often extremely blind to the harm our sin causes. You know, like those "blinded by the god of this world", inflicted with futile minds, professing to be wise but actually being fools, that kind of thing.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Sheep and the Goats

Matthew 25 is, technically, a long parable. Okay, it is a series of parables, but they're connected. It begins with "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ..." and goes on to talk all about the coming kingdom. There is the story of the ten virgins. Jesus tells us His intent: "Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour" (Matt 25:13). There is the story of the slaves and the talents. (Remember, "talents" refers to pieces of silver, not natural abilities.) Jesus concludes, "For to everyone who has shall more be given, and he shall have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away" (Mat 25:29). And then we get to the parable of the sheep and the goats in verses 31-46. In this story (parable?), He judges "the nations", separating them "as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats". He uses His own criteria to separate the two -- whether or not they fed Him and gave him drink and were hospitable to Him and clothed Him and tended Him when He was sick or in prison. Both sides, the sheep and the goats, want to know when they did (or didn't do) these things. Jesus says, "To the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me" (Matt 25:40). The sheep, then, are welcomed into the kingdom, and the goats are banished to eternal fire.

What is the point of this parable? I remember Keith Green's song about it. His view is "The only difference between the sheep and the goats, according to this Scripture, is what they did, and didn't do!!" That, of course, is the simplest reading of this passage. At the final judgment, Jesus will examine what you and I did or didn't do. Based on whether or not we took care of people will determine your eternal destiny. End of story.

So ... why do I take up this passage? Pretty clear, isn't it? Why ask why? Well, if this was Jesus's message, we have a problem. If this is what Jesus was teaching, then we have a direct contradiction to the rest of the Scriptures that indicate that we are saved by faith, not by works. We would need to either toss out or at least thoroughly reexamine the rest of the New Testament. Well, Paul would definitely have to go. I mean, he was relentless in contradicting this concept that we are saved by what we do or don't do. But the rest is in question as well. Time to toss Christianity. There is nothing really distinctive about it. Thank you very much. That's why I take up this passage. What does it mean if not that plain reading?

First, let's note that He is not speaking in a vacuum. He is speaking to His disciples. This isn't a general message to everyone. And He has spoken before of sheep. What was it He said before about sheep and shepherds? In John 10 He uses the imagery of the shepherd and the sheep. He is the good shepherd. And in this passage, who are the sheep? He tells the skeptics, "You do not believe, because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand" (John 10:26-28). Thus, the sheep are His own. Those not His own are, according to this passage, unbelievers. If this parallel holds, then, the sheep in the Matthew passage are believers and the goats are not.

Is that it? Is there any reason to think this might be the case? Yes, of course there is. Jesus speaks here of separating "sheep and goats". He speaks elsewhere of separating things as well. What is separated there? He speaks of separating "the tares and the wheat" (Matt 13:24-30) and the good fish from the bad (Matt 13:47-50). In these cases, these things looked a lot alike and needed to have the good and bad separated. But, as in the case of the tares and the wheat, they were not the same thing, and it wasn't what they did that determined what they were, but the opposite.

Another hint is in who Jesus is talking about caring for. While we tend to think of Jesus talking here about all the needy people in the world (because we've been conditioned to think that all religion is about the Universal Brotherhood of Man and the Universal Fatherhood of God -- not quite accurate), Jesus is not being that general. He references a specific set of people: "these brothers of Mine." Who did Jesus view as His brothers? "Whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother" (Matt 12:50). Thus, Jesus's concern in Matt 25 is not taking care of the needy in general, but tending to His people.

Is it possible, given these points, to conclude that Jesus was teaching something that didn't contradict the rest of the New Testament? I think so. He told His disciples, "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). Jesus's disciples love Jesus's disciples. James told us that our behavior will reflect our faith (James 2:14-26). Given all this, this parable of the sheep and the goats would be better understood as a warning to people who believe they are believers, but whose lives don't reflect it. If you think you are a follower of Christ ("sheep"), but you don't care for Christ's followers ("these brothers of Mine"), you are in danger of being found out as a goat, a non-follower of Christ. Those who belong to Christ obey Him and love the brethren. Those who do not do not. Just a heads up.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Relative Humility

We live in a world where relativism is rampant. Well, largely moral relativism. There aren't really too many that believe that all truth is relative. The claim itself is nonsensical. And there are no relativists in engineering, aeronautics, the banking industry, and so on. You don't evaluate the fact that a bus is heading for you based on whether or not it is true for you. At least, not for long.

No, the real relativism today is moral relativism. It is the belief that what is right or wrong for you may or may not be right or wrong for me. You claim that sex outside marriage is a sin and I don't see it that way. It's fine for you, just not for me. It is premised on the idea that there is no absolute standard of right and wrong. Culture and circumstances and societal mores and pragmatic considerations all work into this fluid moral structure, ultimately deciphered by your personal perspective. And it's a good thing. It promotes tolerance, diversity, respect, humility.

That final aspect is found in this quote:
I see postmodern thought as a kind of moral humility, a humility that prevents us from assuming that the world divides neatly into 'us' and 'them' or that 'others' are simply evil while 'we,' by mere opposition, are assured to be in the right.
Humble, see? It doesn't assume that "I'm right!" Instead, it is based on that meek position that says, "Who am I to claim that someone else's opinion is wrong?" Now that's humility.

Or so it would seem. But that only works if the premise is right. If the premise that there is no absolute standard of right and wrong is correct, then frankly you can pretty well choose whatever you wish for your own personal standard and no one else would have the right to say otherwise. Oh, you might have to deal with societal pressures and laws and the like, but if they disagree with you, they're wrong because there is no standard. Pretty arrogant of them, isn't it? On the other hand, if the premise is wrong, then the whole "humility" factor is lost.

As it happens, it is precisely this condition that is in mind for Christians. We believe that there is a God. This God has created all that exists and, as such, has absolute authority over it. As such, He can rightly make demands and His creation must follow those commands or be in violation of His authority. That is, His authority is the absolute standard against which we must compare ourselves. Violating that authority isn't humble; it's arrogant. "I will be like the Most High."

So who, really, is the humble one? Is it the one who says, "Live and let live; I don't have the right to tell others what is right and wrong"? Or is it the one who submits to the commands of God? Is it the one who says, "Sure, God says we must do this or that, but I will not submit nor will I suggest others do", or the one who calls on everyone to do what the Prime Authority commands? I would suggest that moral relativism is not the humble position it claims to be. It takes a pretty big ego to defy God and encourage others to do the same. And agreeing with God isn't arrogant. It's just reasonable.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Problem of Apologetics

I know some Christians who believe that our primary focus in sharing the Gospel with unbelievers ought to be Apologetics. You know ... that's the field of defending Christianity with logical and evidential support. I want to point out as I have many times in the past that such an endeavor is a good thing. The Bible calls for it. We are to be ready to give an answer, to contend for the faith. We are to be renewed in our minds. Good stuff, all. But when this exercise moves to the front of the line, eclipsing all other approaches, I think it becomes problematic.

My first reason for thinking this is that the Bible doesn't seem to support it. I mean, sure, there are lots of texts where people reasoned, but the Bible doesn't put claim that there is power in reasoning. The Bible puts power in the Word of God. Many in Apologetics aim specifically at defending the faith without using the Bible. That might be of some use, but when we set aside what God says is a powerful tool -- "sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb 4:12) -- in favor of human reasoning, well, it seems like we're willingly disarming ourselves, not to mention violating Scripture. Paul said, "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom 10:17).

The other reason that this approach is problematic is that it is premised on a false assumption. Here's the notion: If I give a coherent, logical presentation of the truth complete with suitable evidence and rational dialog, people will listen and be convinced. It sounds reasonable. It ignores reality. You see, it assumes the unbiased thinking processes of those who listen, and no such process exists in Natural Man.

The idea is that thinking is some kind of empirical approach. Give the proper information and the mind will see the light. The Bible doesn't see it that way. According to Scripture humans have a natural tendency to suppress the truth in favor of their own unrighteousness and ungodliness (Rom 1:18). Paul indicates that the outcome of this fact is "they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened" (Rom 1:21). The problem, you see, is that humans are not typically thinking through things to arrive at unbiased results. They are thinking of the results. And, given that humans are hostile to God (Rom 8:7), arriving at the position that God is right and we need to repent is not an acceptable outcome.

Look at a biblical example of this kind of thinking. In Matt 21:23-27, the chief priests took Jesus to task. "By what authority are you doing these things?" Jesus responded with a counter question. "You answer my question, and I'll answer yours." His question was about the source of the baptism of John. Was it from God or man? Note the thinking process of these leaders. "'If we say, "From heaven," He will say to us, "Why then did you not believe him?" But if we say, "From man," we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.' So they answered Jesus, 'We do not know'" (Matt 21:25-27). Carefully reasoned, skillfully considered, and a completely nonsensical answer. Considering the question was not at the top of their agenda. Considering the outcome was.

The approach of Apologetics is good and even commanded. However, when it becomes the primary focus, the main message, the aim of the one sharing the Gospel, it is with a false impression. It forgets that the hearers are not only unbelievers, but they are moral agents. They are going to include their own morality in the deliberation. (We all do.) It is not simply the examination of facts and arguments. It is the presentation of facts and arguments to people who are blinded by the god of this world (2 Cor 4:4), unable to understand the things of God (1 Cor 2:14), with futile minds set on the flesh (Eph 4:17; Col 1:21), minds set only on the earthly (Phil 3:19). In fact, given the biblical description of the thinking processes of Natural Man, the task is impossible. The answer is not found in a clear and cogent defense of the Gospel, but in the power of the Word of God and in the work of the Holy Spirit. That's the answer to the problem, not a better line of logic. Apologetics? Good. The Word of God? Better. The Holy Spirit at work? The ultimate answer. Let's not get that confused.

Monday, October 24, 2011

These Witnesses

My son is getting married today. I'll be attending his wedding. A joyous occasion. She's a lovely person and will be a fine addition to our family. He will learn wonderful things from the experience like commitment, stability, responsibility, and on and on. A wonderful day.

It hit me the other day that I won't actually be attending his wedding. That's a common phrase and a common perception, but there is a fundamental difference between, say, attending a ballgame and being present at a wedding. What is it that the one doing the ceremony typically says? "We are gathered here before God and these witnesses ..." When it comes to a wedding, we are not merely observers; we are witnesses. This isn't a simple ceremony; it's a covenant-making event. These aren't two people who are going to be living together; they are becoming one. And they're doing so in front of God and these witnesses. What's the aim here? Why are we not simply observers? We are witnesses. What does that mean?

First, it means that we are affirming this wedding. When the traditional question is asked, "Does anyone present know of any reason why these two should not be joined?", our silence is confirmation that they are to be wed. We are not only observing; we are confirming this union. This is one of the underlying points in the story of Jesus at the wedding at Cana. His presence was an affirmation of marriage in general and the specific union of the two in particular. So is ours.

It also means that we are the enforcers, so to speak. When questions regarding this marriage arise, we are the ones who should be asked, "Did they commit to each other?" If there are problems between them, we are the ones who ought to hold them accountable to their vows. We affirmed their marriage. Now we need to support it, defend it, cement it.

I know. I'm making much more of it than almost anyone else would. I think, however, that it's not to the credit of so many witnesses to so many weddings that divorce rates are so high. If witnesses offered genuine reasons why they should not be wed when such reasons existed, some bad marriages would never have happened. And if we, as those who confirmed the wedding, supported that marriage, perhaps some bad marriages could be salvaged. We aren't, after all, mere observers. This isn't a ballgame. It's a mystery, when two become one and a new family is formed and we are there to be a part of it. We should do what we can to support such a mystery.

Congratulations to my son and his new wife.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

With All Your Mind

When Jesus was asked about the Great Commandment, we all know His response: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30). How often do we analyze His response? Generally, I think, we say, "Yeah, we get it, love God." Or, perhaps, we'll take it a step further and say, "Alright, the command is to love God with your whole being." And that would be accurate as far as it goes. But Jesus was specific. What did He mean?

First, obviously Jesus was quoting from the Old Testament when God made the command (Deut 6:5). So it wasn't just that Jesus was being specific. So was God. Still, I don't think the list of elements with which we ought to love God were included frivolously. I think there was a point. What point?

There are several human components included. There is the heart, the soul, the mind, and the strength. They are distinct, but certainly not separate. Why do I say that? Well, in Gen 6:5 we read that "the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually". Now, normally we don't think of "heart" in terms of "thought". That would be the mind. Jesus said, "Out of the heart come evil thoughts" (Matt 5:19). Hebrews says "The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb 4:12). Thus, the heart has both thoughts and intentions. There is an overlap of heart and mind. And that's just one. We know that "strength" references the body, but there are also "powerful thoughts" and "powerful feelings", so it would be too limiting to think of it only as physical.

The soul is its own conundrum. It is often viewed as the life force, but it isn't merely that or wholly that. Job said, "My soul is weary of my life" (Job 10:1). If "soul" is merely "life force", then Job was saying "My life is weary of my life." Makes no sense. In James 3:15, the word psuchikos, Greek for "soul", is translated as "sensual" in the King James and "unspiritual" in the ESV. The soul, then, is indeed the "life force", but it is more. It is the mind, the will, the emotions. (And, oh, look, we've just made another overlay, where "soul" includes "mind" and "mind" is listed as a distinct component in the command.) The soul is the connection between physical and metaphysical, between a purely material world and that which is beyond material. The soul hungers and thirsts, praises and hopes, is bitter or rejoices.

And what, pray tell, is "the heart"? It's obviously not the organ that pumps blood. Biblically, the heart is considered the center of the human being. It is the source of emotions (See the connection to the soul?) and it has thoughts (See the connection to the mind?). In Ezek 11:19-20, God promises to give His people a "new heart". This new heart is required so that they would be able to "walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them." The biblical heart is that "inside self", our deepest thoughts and emotions, what we really are. It is the source of our moral choices, desires, affections.

Now, keeping in mind that all these things seem to overlap and interlace, what is God saying in this command? We are to love God. Good! We're all clear on that. We are to love Him with all of who we are. That would include our feelings, absolutely, but also our thoughts, morals, desires -- all of it. We are to love Him with our souls, that connection between the physical and the spiritual, our minds, wills, and emotions, our very life force. We are to love Him with every bit of strength we have, whether it is physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual.

I skipped over mind, but only momentarily. There are some who would like to suggest that "Love the Lord your God with all your mind" means "We love God by thinking right." That's not sufficient in the context of the command. It would seem, instead, that if we are to love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength, then we are to be using all our thoughts to accomplish this. It is not merely holding to truth. I said "merely" because it does indeed include truth. But it is actively thinking about ways in which we can love Him more. It is thinking about ways that would fan my passion for Him. It would include considering application of strength and effort and emotion and choices to love Him more. Yes, it is about truth, but it is more than that. It is a mind focused on loving Him.

David wrote, "My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned" (Psa 39:3). "As I mused." As I thought, my heart became hot. We do, unfortunately, often neglect the mind in our loving God. Others tend to miss the mark by trying to make it all about thinking. We are to love the Lord with all of our being, each component adding depth and richness and layers to that love so that all that we are is involved in this flame of passion and this fundamental focus on our precious God. That one passion ought to fill our entire being. Our failure to do that one single thing ought to press us to do better. Our highest treasure shouldn't be what God gives, but God Himself. That's our command. That's our joy.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


In a Facebook "battle" recently someone posted an incendiary picture of President Obama talking to some school kids. The caption has him saying, "See, that's where you're wrong. It's everyone's lunch money." So it began. One side shouted its "hallelujahs" and "Thou sayest truly!" and the other complained about the lies and propaganda. That was the word that was used -- "propaganda". Now, I know that people I know were involved in that kerfuffle and I know that some of them might end up reading this, so I want to drop the topic and pick up the principle. Those of you who might be reading this and were involved in the dialog ... relax. It's not about you. It simply illustrates the point.

What is propaganda? According to the dictionary, propaganda is essentially "information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc." Included in the idea is the concept that these ideas or rumors may be biased and may be presented in such a way that it would be misleading. Note that both of these are "maybes". If the aim is to help or harm a person, group, movement, etc., it will likely be biased (towards that aim), but not all propaganda is misleading. ("Bias" does not require "misleading".) (And there is almost no such thing as "unbiased".) The purpose of propaganda is to influence the thinking of the recipient of this message. While we tend to think of propaganda as "evil" in some sense, the definition would include advertising, as an example, where they hope to sell you something that you might like. "Dirty, rotten propaganda!" No, not so much.

In the example from Facebook, the battle began with ... propaganda. Obviously it was intended as humorous -- no one was claiming that the president ever said any such thing -- but with a message. The message was that the president would like to spread the wealth. The unspoken word passed around in that message was "socialism" (although genuine socialism is an economic or political concept where the collective or the government owns and administers the means of production and the distribution of wealth ... which hasn't yet been suggested as far as I know). Propaganda. The idea was to get the reader to respond negatively to the suggestion that we should not have private property, that there should be no differentiation in the "haves" and "have nots", that wealth should be distributed evenly to all. Propaganda.

In the Facebook example, the counter responses (which included the complaint that it was propaganda) were, as it happens, propaganda. Ideas like "It's bad that 1% of the population has 90% of the wealth." (A moral conclusion intended to make you think a certain way.) I liked this one: "You know who else was a big socialist? Jesus Christ." Now, this one leans more into the common perception of "propaganda" because it is, well, not true. Socialism enforces the redistribution of wealth. Jesus told His followers to voluntarily give. Not at all the same thing. But bandy about the "Jesus Christ" name and it might give you some traction. Propaganda.

We're into the run-for-the-presidency season. Expect propaganda. Expect it from all sides. Everyone, from the toothpaste seller to the guy running for President will want you to think that what they're selling is what you want. Well, in politics it seems it is, more often, telling you that you don't want what the other guy is selling. (In our upcoming vote for a new mayor, we did our research and decided that Fellow A would be wrong for Phoenix. Now Fellow A is running ads not to tell us why he would be right for Phoenix, but why Fellow B is "wrong for Phoenix" -- the line in the ad. So, apparently no one is right for Phoenix?) You will be deluged with messages that want to tell you how to think. Don't give that up. Do your own research. Don't surrender to the soundbites. Do your own thinking. You will, after all, be responsible for your own choices. And when you hear "your side" say something, remember that it is just as much propaganda as when "those other guys" say something. It's the nature of the beast.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Golden Rule

We all know this one. Even the world knows this one. "Don't do to others what you don't want others to do to you." Easy. We get it. And, as is often the case, we missed it.

Jesus didn't express the negative. We will generally quote it right -- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" -- but we still tend to think of it in the negative. "How would you like it if someone did that to you?" Jesus spoke in the positive. The things you like done to you are the things you should do to others. In fact, when you think about this, it can get really, really big.

Try an example. "You know, when I'm in financial trouble, I'd really like it if someone would help me out." This doesn't start with "them". It starts with "as you would have them do unto you." What would I like done to me? Now, look around. Does someone need that from me? And the reason this gets so big is because it is so overwhelming. This Golden Rule can, in fact, become too big to handle.

Which brings me to my next point. We missed it ... again. Jesus didn't give this statement in a vacuum. The verse, in fact, begins with a "therefore". "Therefore whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them" (Matt 7:12). He predicates this concept on what went before. So ... what went before?
"Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him?" (Matt 7:7-11).
Did you know that? This famous "Ask and it will be given to you ..." passage is the premise of the Golden Rule. How does that make sense? Well, if I'm going to be expected to do for others what I would like them to do for me, taxing my own limited resources of energy, money, emotions, time, etc., it will require an act of God, truth be told. For me to obey this command, I will need direct intervention from God to supply what is needed through me for those who I am treating in the way I would like to be treated. And now that makes some sense.

I'd like to point out that it also reads backwards. We often yank "ask" and "knock" and "seek" out of context and just see it as a warm promise from God that if we pursue it, He'll give it to us. Prosperity folks see this as a divine promise to get what you want from God. First, notice it doesn't say that. Ask and you will receive. It doesn't say what. None of the statements do. But my main point is that there is a purpose to all this effort of asking, knocking, and seeking. The end product about which we are to be doing all this is to fulfill the Golden Rule. God knows how to give us good things so that we can do to others what we would like them to do to us. It's not a "for me" thing; it's about "them".

So, ask, knock, seek! Do it! You have the promise that our good Father will give us good gifts. Those good gifts are for giving to others. It's a win-win! But let's not miss that it is to do good rather than to merely avoid treating others in ways we wouldn't want to be treated, and the things we are asking for are to assist us in doing the good works He has designed for us. Let's not lose sight of that.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Acceptable Sins

We all know the evils that people do. There are murderers and rapists. There are those who injure children and those who torture puppies. There are those who rob banks and deal in drugs. We all know of these bad things. It's awful. It seems that we have, on the other hand, a range of "acceptable sins", things that, well, if you're going to get technical, are sins, but, look, everyone does them and, really, they're not that bad, are they?

The first one that comes to mind for me is unforgiveness. I mean, if someone does you wrong -- serious wrong -- who would blame you for holding a grudge? Indeed, in some of these cases, if you forgave, people would think you were really odd. No, no, morality does not require that you forgive in all cases. But then you read Jesus's words when He said, "If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt 6:15) and you might want to reconsider that position. Jesus doesn't seem to consider it an "acceptable sin". In the story of the two sinning servants in Matthew 18, one servant owed his master 10,000 talents and the other servant owed the first servant 100 denarii. Now, 100 denarii is not pocket change. A denarius was a day's wage. Think about how much you make in 100 days of work. A standard work week is 5 days, so that would be 20 weeks. This guy owed 20 weeks of pay to his fellow servant. On the other hand, the first owed his master, according to this converter, 88,831,168,831,169 denarii. Well, you do the math. However, the first servant got his debt forgiven. That left the second servant. The first owed nothing and the second owed 100 days' pay. So, in view of our "comparative sinning" perspective, which was the worst offender? As it turns out, in Jesus's story the worst offender was the guy who failed to forgive. His failure to forgive his coworker in light of the amount forgiven him cost him everything. Everything. Maybe we ought to reconsider the "acceptable sin" of unforgiveness.

You know, of course, that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Just going to the standard Ten Commandments, we'll find this kind of thinking is fairly standard. Idolatry? Not so bad. Making carved idols? Really bad. Taking God's name in vain? Pretty normal. Keeping the Sabbath (in any sense)? Really outdated. Honor your mother and father? Downright foolish. Murder, adultery, stealing, yeah, those are all really bad. Oh, well, murder isn't so bad if you're talking about hating someone (Matt 5:21-22) and adultery is actually standardized in the media (and the way some women dress to go to church, for that matter) if you're going to reference looking with lust (Matt 5:28), and, hey, everyone steals when it comes to things like income tax or the employer's time, so those aren't all bad. When it comes to "bearing false witness", that depends on the magnitude of the "false witness". Telling someone a lie to make them feel better is actually commendable! And then there's covetousness. Isn't that actually the backbone of Capitalism?

You know, when it comes right down to it, we have a lot more "acceptable sins" than unacceptable ones. Is there any wonder that we balk at God's divine justice and complain when He displays wrath rather than the mercy and grace we clearly deserve? I mean, we aren't really doing much that bad, are we?

You know, maybe we ought to reconsider our underlying premise of "acceptable sins" in its entirety.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What is a Christian?

I've already established that I do not believe Mormonism to be a cult in the normal sense of the word. I think I've also made it clear that I don't classify Mormonism as Christian, either. That doesn't mean that I think they're dirty rotten folk who ought to be spurned. Not at all. They're generally pretty well-behaved people with high moral standards. But I've known atheists with high moral standards who would also not classify themselves as Christians. And it's not that they're simply mistaken. I think lots of genuine Christians are mistaken. It's that they're mistaken on fundamental issues that define Christianity.

What, then, is a Christian? Mormons would like to tell you that it's in your behavior. You know, Jesus said, "You will recognize them by their fruits." And if that is Christian, then (many) Mormons are indeed Christians. But, if that is "Christian", then so is any moral person who is a Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem, or even atheist. Since essentially all religions preach morality, then anyone who follows any religion, by this definition, is a Christian. And that, my friends, makes no sense.

Jesus made a different distinction. "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (John 3:17-18). "Christian", by this definition, is someone who believes in "the only Son of God". Of course, that immediately becomes hazy because any informed atheist will admit that Jesus existed. Does that mean that they "believe in" Him? No one would say so. Apparently, then, it's not as simple as that, either. (Before we look further, remember that neither is it more complex than that. We just need clarification.)

The Gospel that is Christianity can be found in Ephesians 2. Here we see the problem and the answer. Humans are "dead in sins" (problem) (Eph 2:1-3). The answer is found in a God "rich in mercy" (Eph 2:4-7). Redemption from our sin condition is found by God's grace in the belief (faith) that Christ alone can rescue us from our condition (Eph 2:8-9). It's not works (Eph 2:9). It produces works (Eph 2:10), but that's not the means of salvation. That would be "Christianity" in its simplest form.

There is, of course, an underlying necessity here. The characters of this religion must be the same. Placing my faith in Jesus, my neighbor's Mexican gardener, wouldn't qualify. "What??!! I trust Jesus for my salvation! How can that be a problem?!" It has to be the Jesus who is, in Jesus's words, "the only Son of God". And, of course, it has to be the God whose Son He is. Other gods have other sons. Those don't count any more than the neighbor's gardener does. (No insult intended to the neighbor's gardener. He may produce a lovely lawn, just not salvation.)

As it turns out, then, the "God" that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worships is not the same God whose Son we are to trust. Theirs is one of many while the God of Christianity is singular -- the one and only (Deut 4:35, 39; 1 Kings 8:60; Isa 45:5-6, 18; Mark 12:32; Eph 4:6; 1 Tim 2:5). Jesus is the only Son of God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9) while their "God" has many sons. While Christianity has a God who is three-in-one (too many references to list), they have many gods of many worlds, with the "God" of our world being only one of a multitude.

The Christian God is one and only. The Mormon God is not. The Christian Christ is the only begotten Son of God, a member of the Godhead. The Mormon Christ is not. Christian salvation is by faith in Christ apart from works. Mormon salvation is not. (On their website they claim, "This part of our existence is a time of learning in which we can prove ourselves, choose to come unto Christ, and prepare to be worthy of eternal life." The fundamental issue for biblical Christianity is that we cannot "prove ourselves" or "prepare to be worthy of eternal life".) Just operating on low-level, essential Christianity without any high theological discussion, it cannot be said that the LDS religion meets the criteria of essential Christianity.

One other point I'd like to make on the topic. This is another one of those questions about the efficacy of the Holy Spirit. Christ promised His Spirit would lead His people into all truth. Orthodox Christianity has claimed that the Holy Spirit has done just that. Mormons hold that "The true doctrine of the Godhead was lost in the apostasy that followed the Savior's mortal ministry and the deaths of His Apostles." They argue, "As the Bible was compiled, organized, translated, and transcribed, many errors entered the text." They make it clear that "Individuals cannot be saved in their sins; they cannot receive unconditional salvation simply by declaring a belief in Christ with the understanding that they will inevitably commit sins throughout the rest of their lives." In other words, they deny in the fundamentals the historic view of the Church and Scripture, arguing instead that some 1800 years after Christ, Joseph Smith got it all straightened out. As I've made clear, this is a serious problem.

Are Mormons moral people? Largely, sure. That's not the question. Is Mitt Romney a good candidate for President? That's a question you'll have to answer for yourself. But don't do so based on whether or not he is a Christian. We don't have a "Christian requirement" for the office. (I'd suggest that many men voted into the office have not been Christians -- even some you like.) You need to decide what your values are when you vote for whomever you vote, and whether or not Mormons are Christians is likely not to be one of them. Nor am I suggesting that Mormons are to be vilified. They're as wrong as any other religion and need Christ like everyone else -- the real Christ. Please note, as well, that Mormons believe the same thing about Christians who are not Mormons. If you're one of those, you're wrong and need to change your beliefs. That goes two ways.

Other sources:
Mormonism 101
"Mormons Aren't Christians" Is Not an Epithet
LDS Test

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Jesus on the Poor

There is a component of Christendom (that's my wide-range term) that argues that the "social gospel" is our primary task. The social gospel is good news to society: "God doesn't want you to be poor. We're going to work to make your lives better." That's narrow, of course. It would include the sick and the rest of the downtrodden, but that's the idea. It was, we are told, Jesus's main message. So I thought I'd take a look at exactly what Jesus did say about the poor.

He said the poor were blessed (Luke 6:20) which, if you take it at face value, would suggest that moving someone from "poor" to "not poor" would be a theft of a blessing. But He clarified in Matt 5:3 when He said that the "poor in spirit" are blessed, so that's a little different.

He told John the Baptist that "the poor have good news preached to them" (Matt 11:5). (See also Luke 4:18.)

The rich young ruler failed because Jesus told him to "sell what you possess and give it to the poor" (Matt 19:21).

When the disciples protested because a woman poored expensive ointment on Jesus's feet -- "This ointment might have been sold ... and given to the poor" -- He said it was a beautiful thing she had done because "You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have Me" (Matt 26:11).

Jesus said that salvation had come to Zacchaeus's house when he gave half of his goods to the poor (Luke 19:8-9).

That's pretty much a comprehensive list of Jesus's statements on the poor, at least according to the concordance. And I think it largely sums up what Jesus wanted to get across. Let's see if we can consolidate it. First and foremost, above any care and feeding, the poor (like everyone else) need the Gospel. Not some social gospel. They need the good news about Christ, salvation from sin. I'm afraid that for many that gets ignored in their attempts to "advocate for the poor." Note, by the way, that this is highlighted in the event with Mary pouring ointment on Jesus's feet. Caring for the poor is important, but "the poor you will always have with you." More important is Christ.

Beyond that, what does Jesus indicate about caring for the poor? Jesus wants people who are His followers to give, to give generously, to give liberally. Followers of Christ ought to be noted for their generosity and charity in caring for people in need. We ought to feed the hungry and care for the sick. We ought to "invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind" (Luke 14:13) where we can minister to their needs. And while most of the charitable organizations these days are para-church organizations, I would have to say that a large number of the followers of Christ are not meeting this command from Christ.

Having said that, what I do not see is a "social gospel" concept. I don't see a command to advocate for the poor, to protest the conditions of people with less than others, to demand higher taxes or call on the government to handle these problems. Mind you, I'm not saying that we shouldn't advocate for people in need. I'm simply saying that, despite what I've heard from so many sources, I don't see any such command in Scripture, especially from the lips of Jesus. I don't see anywhere that Jesus stood against the government of the day to see that needy people were cared for. I don't see where He called on rich people to surrender their wealth to care for the poor. I see lots of commands to His followers to do that, but not to the public in general.

Look, let's face it, American Christians, we are not caring for "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind" as we are commanded. We're falling down on that score, and we should correct it. No excuses. If you classify yourself as a Christian, a follower of Christ, it ought to be part of your godly practice to care for people in need. Jesus commanded it. We ought to do it. I'm not denying it and I'm encouraging it. I just don't see where Jesus was "the advocate for the poor", where our calling is to force corporations or private parties to give to the needy. I don't see a biblical command to stand against unbelievers for the poor and hungry, insisting that they are required to do what Jesus told us to do. We are the social gospel. We are to be the ones helping people in need. Requiring it of people who by nature despise God and reject Christ doesn't make much sense. And while it would be of benefit to them to help people in need, demanding it of others because we are commanded to do it isn't what Christ had in mind. Obeying was what Christ had in mind.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Testimony of Church History

I stated recently that it is beyond my comprehension how it is that people can claim that the Church got it wrong all this time and now, here at the end of the 20th or into the 21st century, we finally figured it out. These things aren't matters of archaeology or the like. "We always figured that Mt. Sinai was here, but modern archaeology indicates that it's likely over there." No, not that kind of stuff. I'm talking about doctrine, important matters, issues of the faith. If it turned out, for instance, that Friday was not the day that Christ was crucified, it wouldn't have any major impact on Christianity. If, on the other hand, the Church has always believed that homosexual behavior is a sin in God's eyes and, lo and behold, we find out today that this just isn't the case, well now, that would have major implications.

The claim I've made is the claim Christ made. "When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13). Of course I don't think (nor does anyone I've ever heard or read) this means that the Holy Spirit will reveal all possible knowledge. (Someone complained "They didn't use modern medical practices" suggesting that this was "truth" that the Holy Spirit failed to impart.) I'm basing my view on the claim that the Holy Spirit would lead His people into true doctrine, the truth regarding the counsel of God. The position I've taken is that if it took 2,000 years for the Holy Spirit to get across the truth that ____ (where the blank may be that homosexual behavior is perfectly acceptable to God under certain circumstances or that the Bible was never intended to be understood at face value or that churches aren't supposed to be anything at all like they are today or that the Trinity is a false concept created by Constantine or whatever other conspiracy concept might be floating around) is the case, then the Holy Spirit is a poor communicator and a general failure in His role as truth teller.

The argument I've gotten on this is standard. "How can you say that? The Church has always made mistakes/always had disagreements. What makes this any different?" This misses the point in two areas. First, the claim of Christ is not that the Church would be infallible. This is obvious, as most of the New Testament is written to counter errors popping up in the Church. Jesus and the Apostles all warned of weeds in the wheat, false teachers, and divisions in the Church. That they would exist was a given. So to tell me "The Church has always made mistakes" doesn't counter the claim that the Holy Spirit would lead His people into all truth.

The other area of problem here is a misunderstanding of my claim. I am not arguing that the Church has always been right. What I am arguing is that the Holy Spirit has always imparted the truth. In the days of Elijah, God told the prophet that He had retained a remnant (1 Kings 19:18). It was a small number; 7,000 who had not bowed to Baal. This is my understanding. From Christ through today there has always been genuine Christianity with orthodox doctrine. Sometimes it was obvious; sometimes it was not. But it always has been ... if we are to believe Jesus's claim that the Spirit would lead His people into all truth. If I cannot trace my beliefs back through Church history, I would argue that my beliefs are suspect. I don't base this on my skills of interpretation or wise thinking, but on the reliability of the Holy Spirit.

The objection that there has always been disagreement in the Church doesn't help here. I understand (I disagree, but I understand) when people say, "Well, they couldn't come to an agreement on Predestination in the past, so why should I now?" But note that a position on the topic has been held from the beginning. This is not the same thing as saying that the idea is new or the Church was always wrong. Interestingly, the things that are most hotly contested today are not issues of dissent in Church history. No one questioned from the beginning of the Church (and before) that marriage was the union of a man and a woman, but today there are those who have figured out that the Church has always been wrong on that score and really it's just a mutual commitment for love. (Funny ... I don't even see the demand of "love" in biblical marriages. I see it as commanded of Christian husbands, but not as the main point of marriage.) The Church has always held that homosexual behavior is a sin, without any disagreement, but today we're assured that the Church has always been wrong on this issue. The Church has universally held to the inerrancy of Scripture from its earliest days, but today wiser heads have prevailed. These have never been questions in Church history or, if they have, were settled long ago, but some today are arguing (without saying it and even denying they're arguing it) that the Holy Spirit has failed to bring out the truth until now.

Yes, the Church has made mistakes. No doubt. Yes, there have been disagreements and divisions. Without question. Indeed, these things were promised in Scripture. And they happened. But if genuine Christianity cannot be traced from its beginning to today or if, in fact, it has taken the Spirit of God 2,000 some odd years to get across simple truths like these, we will need to question the efficacy and reliability of the Spirit, the Bible, and of Christ who made the claim. As for me, I will continue to question anyone who claims to come up with a new doctrine or hold to some vast conspiracy theory regarding the Church. If God is not big enough to superintend His Word or His Body, He's not a big enough God to worship.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

More Gems from Lamentations

31 For the Lord will not cast off forever, 32 but, though He cause grief, He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love; 33 for He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men. 34 To crush underfoot all the prisoners of the earth, 35 to deny a man justice in the presence of the Most High, 36 to subvert a man in his lawsuit, the Lord does not approve. 37 Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? 39 Why should any living mortal, or any man, offer complaint in view of his sins? 40 Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD! (Lam 3:31-40)
Chapter 3 has some really good stuff in it. I already mentioned the wonderful reality that "The Lord is my portion", a fully sufficient answer to whatever hardship you may be encountering. But these other components stood out to me as well.

I had a conversation recently with someone who assured me that God only had one will. His will was only for good. I was listening to a debate the other day and heard someone claim that it is not God's will that bad things happen. A very common claim. Not supportable, at least from Jeremiah's perspective. Note his position here. God "does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men." Does that mean that God does not afflict or grieve people? Clearly not, since the entire book is Jeremiah's lament over the affliction and grief that God has caused in His judgment of Judah. God does afflict and grieve the children of men. He just doesn't enjoy it. (Two wills.) Instead, Jeremiah is quite certain that "Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?" Do you know that? Or are you going to claim that only good comes from the mouth of the Most High and the bad comes from someone or somewhere else? God repeatedly makes this claim about Himself. Keep in mind that idolatry is worshiping a replacement for the real God. If the real God claims to produce both pleasant and unpleasant, good and bad, light and darkness, well-being and calamity, and you claim it's not so, that would be a replacement for the real God. Just a warning there.

What is Jeremiah's answer to this? I mean, if it is true that God afflicts people and it is true that God Himself claims to produce both good and bad, is that fair? Is that just? Jeremiah has an answer. "Why should any living mortal, or any man, offer complaint in view of his sins?" In other words, "Are you sure you want to go there?" We tend to forget what we deserve. We tend to take grace for granted. Jeremiah is reminding us. Even as saved individuals, God would be fully justified in pouring out all sorts of temporal hardships on sinners such as us. We've earned it. And it's important to keep in mind. He who is forgiven much loves much. If we deserve God's favor, it isn't grace.

Jeremiah, then, has an application to this little sermon. Given the steadfast love of God, His disappointment in having to inflict people with difficulties, His willingness to do so, and our own sinfulness, He has a response. Let's not complain about hardships. "Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD!"

Thank You, Lord, when You discipline and correct us. Thank You for the undeserved favor You've already shown us in giving us Your Son. Thank You for your mercy when we deserve justice. Teach us to watch our ways and to turn always to You.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Courageous -- Not a Review

As I mentioned, my wife and I went to see the movie, Courageous. The movie spawned all sorts of thoughts. This, then, is oriented around the movie, but it isn't a review. Well, perhaps a little.

The movie had a lot to commend it, and, as I said, I would recommend it to anyone who hasn't yet seen it. If you're a Christian and a male (either a father or a potential father), I highly recommend it.

The movie is about four police officers and their families who are courageous as officers but resolve to be more courageous as fathers. The movie has its action sequences as all cop films have without the gratuitous blood-letting or foul language that no cop film requires. It is well acted and well filmed and worth the visit. I don't want to give away anything for those of you who haven't seen it, so that's about all you're going to get of the details from me.

What else did I like about the movie? Well, the first thing I'll say is that it had one of the clearest presentations of the Gospel that you'll find in any theater. It wasn't muffled or mushy. It wasn't "seeker-friendly" or coddling. It was correct. And it was necessary. As in the previous movie, Fireproof, the movie carried a message. I appreciated the fact that it wasn't "soft". It called on unbelievers to believe, but it carried a powerful message for believers. In other words, it wasn't happy with "easy believism". "Just believe and life will be good!" Nope, not here. It is a vehicle for a powerful call to godliness. I appreciated the fact that this carried a timely and necessary call for God's men to be godly men. In the popular feminized Christianity of the day, men are often left without any solid call. This was aimed directly at God's men. We need it. One other undercurrent throughout the movie that I really liked was the reminder of the Providence of God. We miss often the concept of Providence. Do you see the root word? "Provide." That is, God as Provider gives us what we need all the time. Maybe that's pleasant. Maybe it's not. Maybe we think we accomplished it. Maybe it's plain we didn't. But God is always Sovereign and always provides what we need. I caught that in this movie.

I did encounter some concerns in the movie. There was a nagging question of whether or not it was a morality play or a Gospel presentation. If you, like me, took it as a call for Christian men to live up to God's call for fathers, it wasn't a problem. If you took it without that filter, it seemed like another call for people to be nice. Here, let me put it this way. Is Christianity about being a good father (or whatever) or knowing Christ? It would be easy in this movie to get that confused. I'm left with a conundrum. The movie calls Christian men to be godly. The movie also shares the Gospel. It's easy to confuse the message. Is Christianity about the Gospel (saved by faith apart from works) and being a moral person? Is Christianity just another moral call? It could come across that way. On the other hand, Scripture repeatedly calls believers to godliness. Is it right to leave that out? I'm not entirely sure.

One of the problems I had with this film is an unfortunate necessity in the medium. I mean, if the movie was made like real life, who would watch it? No, it has to work this way. All films do. You see things going well. There is a crisis. The character(s) work through and things turn out okay. That's how a movie works. That's not how life works. In real life, a guy may lose his job and remain unemployed a long time. A woman could contract cancer and die from it. Real Christians pray and feel like God is not listening sometimes because the answer they get is silence. This is real life. It doesn't make for watchable movies. This concept, however, tends to lead us into a problem in our thinking. When you see a movie like this or hear in wonderful testimony how so-and-so prayed and God answered miraculously, you think "Isn't God wonderful?!" Yes, He is, but He doesn't always do that. And He's still wonderful. You can almost get the impression that God is our butler, a really handy Guy to have around to fix things when there's trouble. A personal servant who makes our lives better. If He doesn't, either we're not good enough (too sinful, lacking faith, something) or He has failed to meet His obligations. It's an easy step from a movie like this to a thought like that. But, as long as you're aware of it, you can avoid it.

There are those complaining about these things that I've mentioned, but with more vigor than I'm offering. I simply put them out there for your consideration. Do they properly divide between Gospel and morality? Do they rightly represent life and Christianity? Could they cause people to be confused? All these are things to think about. My bottom line is Paul's bottom line: "What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice" (Phil 1:18). Go see the movie. Keep in mind the reservations. Don't conclude (as too many foolishly do today) that movies are real life. Don't get confused into thinking that Christianity is some morality religion. Don't think that God is your private helper, your personal "fix it" Guy. Pay attention to the truth, especially to the call for God's men to be God's men. It's a good movie and worth the effort. Go see it.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Cult of Mormonism

"Is Mormonism a cult?" That question is being bandied about in the media and on the Internet. "Do you [Evangelicals] believe that Mormonism is a cult?" And you have to read that with the shock and outrage that they bring to the question. As if, "How dare you consider it a cult??!!"

What is a cult? If, by "cult", you mean "a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies" (the standard English definition), then, yes, it is. So is every religion. Since all religions contain their own particular system of religious worship, all religions are cults. But I'm fairly certain that this isn't the (offensive) definition about which the question is being asked. So to what form of "cult" are they referring?

One more likely definition would be "a quasi-religious organization using devious psychological techniques to gain and control adherents." We often think of cults as some sort of mind control, some sort of brain washing where the followers simply follow like automatons. Is Mormonism that kind of a cult? I don't see it. People come and go from the religion all they want. It doesn't seem to be any more of some "devious psychological techniques" than any other false religion. Often we think of a "cult" as "a religious group held together by a dominant, often charismatic individual." Nope. Can't see that in the Mormon religion. So is Mormonism a cult? With the exception of the standard definition which would include all religious beliefs, I can't see how Mormonism could be classified as a "cult".

One other definition for the word is found in academic religious studies. They place "cult" under the term "new religious movements". Now that would be the case for Mormonism. While they like to claim that they are "Christian", it is not possible to maintain that claim in any way, shape, or form.

Mormonism rejects the singular mainstay of Judaism and Christianity carried from the beginning: monotheism. They are polytheists and claim, in fact, that we, too, can become gods.

Mormons reject the Christ of the Bible, represented as "the only begotten of the Father", the singular Son of God. The Bible presents Him as the second part of the Trinity, a part of the Godhead. They consider Him an offspring of God, a literal son, in fact, brother of Lucifer. Not the same Christ.

Mormonism rejects "saved by faith apart from works" in favor of "saved by works". That is, direct contradiction. We are saved by faith to start with, but ultimate salvation is attained by working for it. Ultimate salvation, by the way, is godhood for those who attain it.

Mormons reject the authority of Scripture. They venerate the Bible to some extent, but hold a two-fold position that says that our Bibles were contaminated and are, therefore, unreliable, and that the Book of Mormon is pure and, therefore, the best source of truth.

Is Mormonism a cult? Not in the common usage. It is a religion, so it would be a cult in that use of the term, and it is "new religion", so it would be a cult in that use of the term. But I wouldn't classify it as a cult in any of our normal understanding of the term. Neither could I classify it as Christianity. Not in any standard understanding of that term. It is not merely a "different" form of Christian theology, but a complete rejection of anything that makes Christianity what it is.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Greed is Bad

In view of the other post today regarding the nonsense of the "Occupy Wall Street" crowd, I would like to state that I do not think that greed is good. Pointing out the nonsense of Jim Wallis's "It's a Christian duty" and this "Give me what I want because you've got more than I do" movement should not be construed in any way to absolve people whom Scripture clearly indicates are a dangerous and sinful group -- the greedy and the wealthy. Remember -- and this would seem to apply to some on both sides -- "the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil."

Just in case it wasn't clear.

Occupy Wall Street

Small businesses make up 99.7% of all employer companies, but employ less than half of all private sector employees. Of the non-farm sector in 2007, small businesses employed 60 million people and corporations employed 61 million. Small businesses pay 44% of the total U.S. private payroll. Of course, the goal of most small businesses is to grow into large businesses.

Now Jim Wallis has made it a matter of Christian necessity. If you aren't standing with these "Occupy Wall Street" people, you're standing against Jesus. (I'm really amused when he suggests that you send the protesters a pizza, like some of these pizza companies aren't among the "big corporations" that are being protested.) This, you see, is because the number one priority of Christianity is to eliminate poverty. (Unfortunately, I missed that commission in Scripture.)

As it turns out, those other guys -- you know, the ones that employ more than half of all private sector employees, pay more than 50% of private sector payrolls, and are the aim of most small businesses -- have become the enemy. Corporations are "them". They're the ones to overthrow, to tax, to throw out on their ear. We will protest them loudly on the computers they made for us, express our complaints via the smartphones they've built for us, take time off from working for them to raise our voices while we wear the clothes they made for us and take pictures of the event with the cameras they produced for us. Down with corporations!

And somewhere in the back of my head is this small voice saying something about biting hands that feed and that kind of nonsense ...

But, really, that's not what this is about. It's not about eliminating corporations. Okay, to a small number who aren't thinking about it, perhaps, but not to most. No, the complaint we see is against "corporate greed" and the number we see is "99%". The protest is that there is a group of people -- 1% of the population -- who are richer than all the rest of us. One percent of the population is rich, and the rest of us are poor. Thus, the demand is that the 1% surrender their status as rich and give it to the rest of us, the poor.

The other night on the news I heard a talking head say, "The Tea Party has accused the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement of being anti-capitalism." I thought that was a stretch. (He didn't cite any references.) (And I don't cite the media member I quoted because I can't exactly recall which one it was.) Then I thought about it more. According to, capitalism is "an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, especially as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth." The demand from this group is that the government put an end ... to capitalism. Wealth must not be left to private individuals or corporations. It must be distributed.

One of the repeated messages regarding this "Occupy Wall Street" movement that I have heard from multiple sources ranging from news outlets to David Letterman is that what they want isn't at all clear. As you see the outrage and read the banners and follow the "movement", keep that in mind. They don't know where they're going. "What do we want? We don't know! When do we want it? Now!!" Do they want the dismantling of corporations? Let's hope they're not that foolish. The impact on life and the economy -- ours and the world -- would be devastating. Do they want the government to mandate the redistribution of wealth? Let's hope not. We don't really want to switch from a free enterprise nation to a communist nation. Do they really believe that 99% of America is "the poor"? I'm afraid that's often the case -- a group of people too ungrateful to recognize what they have and too blind to see the vast difference between a poor American and a poor African (as an example). But, then, ingratitude is a standard problem among humans, isn't it? Since ingratitude is so heartily condemned in Scripture, I would have to disagree with Mr. Wallis. Standing with the ungrateful to oppose those who have more than we do simply on the basis that they have more than we do is not a Christian act. It's not even American.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Lord is my portion

I already did A Lesson from Lamentations. Welcome to the sequel.

The first two chapters of the Lamentations of Jeremiah are primarily in the third person. Jeremiah is looking at the destruction of his beloved Judah and weeping for their suffering. His lamentation is over their destruction. The third chapter is a shift of gears. Here it becomes personal. Here Jeremiah talks about his own pain. And he isn't shy about naming the source. As a sample:
I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of His wrath; He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me He turns His hand again and again the whole day long (Lam 3:1-3).
According to Jeremiah, God Himself has turned on him. According to this prophet of God, it is God's wrath that he is enduring. There is no hint of a sense of injustice. Still, Jeremiah thinks it's not only a judgment against his people, but against him.

As we read on, he fleshes out the pain he's in. He summarizes down around verse 17:
My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, "My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD" (Lam 3:17-18).
How many of us would want to correct Jeremiah? "Jerry, Jerry, come on. Surely God didn't do this to you. Surely you can't mean that God has removed your peace. Come on, Jeremiah. You can't mean that your hope is gone. Where else do we get hope but from the Lord?" That's what we'd like to say. We would, of course, be saying it in clear contradiction to his own words. And we would be premature. Jeremiah, you see, isn't finished.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in Him." The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD (Lam 3:21-26).
Ah! There, see? There is more to the story. I'm fascinated at the comfort Jeremiah finds in the midst of his very real suffering. It is not that there is hope that things will get better. He has already denied that. It is not that things aren't as bad as he thinks they are. Indeed, they are absolutely that bad. It's not that God will rescue him from his troubles. He has no reason to believe that. Jeremiah's hope doesn't come from the chance of something better. Jeremiah's hope comes purely and simply from God. "The Lord is my portion," he says. That's it. That's all.

We could learn from this. We could benefit from the recognition that "The Lord is my portion." When we face hardships and trials, we often look for the light at the end of the tunnel. Jeremiah found the light in the darkest moment simply in the presence of God. Paul put it this way: "I count everything as loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ" (Phil 3:8). That's Paul's secret. That's Jeremiah's secret. The real value in life is knowing Christ. All that other stuff -- comfort, wealth, health, family, friends, self-confidence, all that other stuff -- can go out the window. We can be without any hope of regaining any of it and still have hope, still have peace, as long as we realize, "The Lord is my portion." Nothing else matters.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Responding to Pain

My wife and I saw the new movie, Courageous, this weekend. Good movie. I recommend it. I highly recommend it to any dads or dads-to-be (at any time in the future). This is not a post about the movie. It is a post spurred by the movie.

In the movie (no spoilers here, so relax), there were various crises that various characters faced. Since the movie was made by Christians with Christian overtones, several of these events spawned crises of faith. You know how it goes. Bad things happen in life and we -- believers -- ask God, "Why?" We want to know where God is when unpleasant events occur. We're hurting physically or emotionally or spiritually and we often don't cry out to God for help, but for an explanation. And I'm not suggesting this is wrong. I'm just asking if it's rational.

Here's the thing. I'm speaking here only of Christians, believers, people who know that "God works all things together for good." I'm talking about those who have heard that we ought to "count it all joy when you encounter various trials, knowing this, that the testing of your faith produces patience." I'm referring only to those who know we have a sovereign God who works all things after the counsel of His will. Everyone else ... you're on your own. But for those of us who know all this, how does that standard response of "Why, God??!!" make sense? Oh, it makes sense from an emotional perspective. I get that. As I said, it's standard. But it doesn't seem reasonable in light of the truth that we have. When bad things happen to God's people, we have the absolute assurance that it will work for good. Not only do we know that it will work for God's ultimate good (for which we should rejoice), but we know that it will serve to move us toward perfection (James 1:2-4). This is good. So how does it make sense to have a crisis of faith over these events?

Now, don't get me wrong. I've had them. You will, or likely will. Nor do I think it's wrong to do so. The Psalms are full of people crying out in just that way. "Where are you, God?! I'm in pain!" I'm not suggesting that it shouldn't happen. In fact, it is when we ask these hard questions in these hard events that we seem to come to the most sure answers -- "evidence from a hostile witness", so to speak. So I'm not trying to be cold-hearted or judgmental. Here's all I'm asking. Do you ever get to the place that you thank God for these things? Mind you, I'm not talking about thanking God in spite of these things. A parent who, say, loses a child might, after the grief, get to the place where he or she thanks God for the time they did have with their precious child. That's fine and good, but it's not what I'm talking about. If we understand that these painful experiences are actually provided by a good and loving God for our best interests -- for good -- wouldn't it make sense that, after the pain has subsided perhaps, we would thank God for the good that He provided ... for that pain that He gave to improve our lives?

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Lesson from Lamentations

So, I got a little tired of the easy, sweet meat of the epistles of Paul and thought I'd switch over to some of the more difficult stuff. So here I am, reading in, of all things, Jeremiah's Lamentations. Go figure. But, no, wait, it has some really good things in it.

The book is all about ... get this ... Jeremiah lamenting. (Yeah, like who'd have guessed, right?) He is lamenting over the destruction of Judah, of Jerusalem, of his own people. Now, keep in mind, Jeremiah had spent his life warning that this was coming. It wasn't a surprise to him. Still, there it was, just as he had said it would be. And he was upset. I mean, sure, God did it (Jeremiah has no question about that) and it was, in that sense, a good thing. Still, it hurt to see. We suffer from that ourselves at times, I'm quite sure. We are glad that God does what He does, but sometimes it hurts to watch.

Down in the middle of the second chapter, Jeremiah tells of one of the things that caused Judah to fail. "Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading" (Lam 2:14). Now, when we think of false prophets, we think of the latter idea. They give false and misleading oracles. They tell them things that they want to hear, but aren't actually true. We don't often think of the other aspect: "They have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes."

You see, Jeremiah understood that calling out sin was for their benefit. Despite all you hear today about being judgmental and intrusive and overly moral and too narrow-minded, Jeremiah disagreed. He said that the problem was not that these false prophets were judgmental or intolerant. Their problem -- the reason they did such grave damage to Judah -- was that they failed to point out iniquity. He said that pointing out sin had the potential of restoring Judah's fortunes.

I think there's a message here for us. Sure, we need to share the gospel and we need to focus on glorifying God and all that. But if we love our country, if we care about the people around us, it would seem from this text that we ought to expose iniquity where we see it. If we would like to see our nation and our neighbors restored, Jeremiah seems to be saying that we can assist that process by calling out sin when we see it. Now, I know ... that isn't exactly on the list of things for most people who want to help our country. When Christians stand back and say, "We want to be inclusive, not judgmental," they are siding with Jeremiah's false prophets, not with God. But, then, God's ways are not our ways, are they?

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Exceedingly Abundantly

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith -- that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Eph 3:14-21).
Sure, that's a long section, but it's Sunday and it's worth it. It's a prayer from Paul for the Ephesian Christians, indeed, for "all the saints". He prays for God to strengthen them and to root and ground them in love. It's all very good. But when he gets to a description of the love of God in which he wants them grounded, it gets ... large.

He prays that they would have "strength to comprehend" this love. What? What's to comprehend? We know love, right? Well, apparently not this love. It is wide and tall and deep and long. It is, according to Paul, a love that "surpasses knowledge". Did you get that? Because it sounds a bit crazy. Paul wants the saints "to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge." Sorry, Paul? That sounds contradictory. What he says is that we should know by experience the love of Christ that we can never comprehend.

I get the image of a guy in a rowboat on Lake Superior. Water as far as the eye can see. He is deeply thirsty, so he dips his cup into the water and takes a drink. Ah! That's good. He slips out of the boat and paddles about for a few moments to cool off. Ah! Refreshing. Now, does this guy comprehend Lake Superior at this point? No, not at all! But he has experienced it. He knows it better than I do, who has only seen it (once ... as a child). Kind of like that.

Still, I want to keep in mind that the love of Christ, as much as we think we get it, surpasses knowledge. This love requires supernatural strength to grasp. This love requires divine power to experience it. And while I have suggested a human way of understanding the phrase, "to know that which surpasses knowledge", it is still too large to really get your mind around. This is why Paul's prayer ends up with an exclamation of the glory of God. Getting the love of Christ is, frankly, far beyond our capabilities. It is not, however, beyond God's capabilities. And here Paul runs into real problems of expression. The only way that we would be able to know that which surpasses knowledge is by the work of God who "is able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we ask or think." It's a huge expression -- "exceedingly abundantly beyond." It isn't short. It isn't simple. It's really, really big. It's more than you could ever ask of God. Indeed, it's beyond more than you could even imagine. Bigger than even that. What God is capable of is really big -- even beyond Paul's abilities to express it.

Now here's the kicker. This power, this extreme ability of God, this thing that enables us to know that which cannot be known and to experience the love of Christ, is "at work within us". Did you get that? It's not available. It's not out there, waiting to be tapped. It's not simply God's capabilities. It is within us. It's already at work within us.

Indeed, "to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen."