Racism. "Black lives matter." White privilege. Protesting, violence, looting and riots. Police misconduct and abuse of authority. How do I sort it all out?
For my own sanity, after having read countless articles, blogs and listened to podcasts and videos, I have written these points to clarify what I believe. In these points, obviously I am not trying to give a full defense of them, but rather simply to elucidate them. Which do you agree with?
1. Racism is the stereotyping of a race to demean or discriminate against them. The corollary is also true: racism can express itself as elevating one race over others.
2. Racism is real. It is evil. It has both historical roots and present expressions. It should always be exposed, resisted and rejected.
3. Racism is at heart a human issue—it has been with us since the beginning. To be countered, there must be a change in the individual human heart. The church must be a place where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Only the Gospel can achieve this.
4. There have been and are societal structures and laws that are racist—that demean and discriminate against people of a certain race, and must be identified and changed. (Think Jim Crow laws.)
5. The opposite of racism is not favoritism to compensate for past racism, but equal justice for all under the law, and equal opportunity to better oneself or one’s situation.
6. I am not a racist. My denial does not absolve me from racism. Neither is my denial a de-facto proof of my racism.
7. “Black Lives Matter” as a value or sentiment or rallying cry for protesting against racism is commendable, and something I wholeheartedly embrace.
8. The international organization, “Black Lives Matter” has an agenda that goes far beyond abolishing racism, to include open borders, redistribution of wealth, the more radical gay and transgender agenda, the toppling of the American government and the establishment of a socialist system. As a citizen of the United States with a voice, I stand against these goals. (If and when they clearly repudiate these goals, I would stand with them against racism.)
9. Law Enforcement Officers are mostly good. Some badly abuse their power, and darken the perception that all cops are bad. Defunding or even dismantling the police is a terrible idea for civilization. That said, certain police reforms are arguably needed (e.g. choke holds, asset forfeiture).
10. White privilege (or privileges given to those who are Caucasian) exists. There are also privileges given to those who are citizens, or who are born into a certain economic class (middle or upper class). Our sex/gender gives us some privileges that the opposite might not have. Being born without a handicap gives us privileges. The problem is that life is not, and will never be perfectly fair—meaning everyone must experience equality of outcomes through an imposed Marxist Socialism. Instead, we ought to promote freedom to improve oneself and one’s situation, and encourage personal responsibility.
12. On the conservative/liberal spectrum, nearly all news media as well as social-media pegs the left side, while promoting itself as neutral and unbiased. A fair amount of propaganda is unwittingly consumed regularly and shapes our society’s outlook and values.
13. We have lost our ability to discourse rationally, to listen well to each other, to argue facts and perceptions without being nasty or name-calling. We polarize. Censorship is happening, and the First Amendment has mostly been ignored. We are fast becoming a nation where we do not reason with dissenters, we silence them.
14. There is a mob-mentality at work in our society. It is about being louder, and more threatening, and demanding conformity to the rule of the mob. We see it in the fact that one must confess (almost religiously), “Black lives matter,” without adding to it (e.g. “Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. Indigenous people’s lives matter”), or modifying it in any way” (e.g. “Because all Lives matter, black lives matter”). The only acceptable confession is, “Black lives matter” (then shut up).
15. Many real problems are tangled together, though not necessarily related: racism, abuse of power by law enforcement, white-privilege, media bias and censorship, political polarization, and the breakdown of morals and families. Each of these spheres intersect, but do not necessarily and completely footprint each other. For instance, some abuse of power may be racially related, but not all is. Some protesting is violent and leads to rioting and looting, but clearly not the majority of it. To address problems, we must think clearly about real causes and address them, without assuming motives.
Read Mark 7:31-37
Sometimes, life is a grind. You finish one responsibility and turn to immediately encounter the expectations of others. If you didn’t care, you might be able to push others away or ignore what is facing you, but if you do, you engage. But weariness and frustration can’t be far behind.
The image of Jesus as the stained-glass, iconic, immovable, unflappable God-in-human-garb is marred by this short story.
It had been a draining few days: on the move from Galilee to the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, and then back; crowds of people from Gennesaret jostling Him, touching Him, begging Him for healing; Pharisees criticizing and questioning His motives and practices; tense conflict and correction over the Law; a Gentile woman’s insistent request to heal her demonized daughter; and then, this:
The unnamed “they” bring a deaf-mute to Jesus to heal. Just one more. The straw that could break the camel’s back. “They begged Him...”
Jesus’ reluctance isn’t too surprising. He isn’t an unfeeling vending machine, producing in exchange for some coin of simple request or spiritual belief. His mission isn’t to heal everyone on planet Earth, but to give enough signs to confirm his identity. But compassion leads Him to do more, as it might us.
But he is tired.
And this deaf-nearly-mute isn’t demonized; just part of the broken world where everything isn’t as it should or someday will be. He just can’t hear. And it affects his speech.
His ability to work miracles, to heal might work against Him. Like light shining into the eyes of the onlookers, constant healings might blind and distract, rather than enlighten and confirm. But here is another. Just like the one before, and the one before that, and another after, and another after that.
The crowd loves it, and waits to see what the “Jesus side show” will do next.
Jesus removes the deaf man from public view; if he is going to heal him, this one will not be under the crowd’s voyeuristic gaze. His disciples come with him to see what happened, but no others.
God in human flesh puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits into his hand and with that hand touches the man’s tongue. This strange remedy is not humanly reproducable: there is no biological connection between Jesus’ fingers in the man’s ears and his hearing (just the opposite!); or Jesus’ saliva touching the man’s tongue. It may reflect the culture’s medical understanding of the day. It may be done to incite faith. But Jesus’ methods and reasons are his, and He is not obligated to explain.
He then turns his eyes heavenward, but speaks to the man in Aramaic: “Be opened”—as if the ears and tongue would be instantly responsive. And they were.
But what startles me in the entire incident is not his technique, but His emotion:
“And looking up to heaven, he sighed...” (vs. 34)
And my heart immediately is drawn to this miracle-working-God-in-a-human-body, and I realize He feels what I have felt, and knows the weariness of unending lines, the heaviness of balancing expectations and outcomes, the moments when a deep breath is a strange mixture of persistence, resignation and compassion.
And then I realize my ears, my eyes and my heart have also responded to his command: “Be opened.” I am that one more.
He did not stop.
He did it for me.
Approaching Thanksgiving, my thoughts turn to those things for which I am (or should be) thankful. The problem is—some things I should be grateful for, I’m too close to see. I’m so close to the trees—forget the forest: I’ve got bark up my nose! So what do I take for granted?
Within my lifetime, we’ve gone from telephones sharing connections (called, “party lines”), with dialing an operator for long distance, eventually “411” for information, and long-distance rates, to disconnected mobile phones with no extra charges for calling anywhere in the United States. Our phones show caller I.D.s, have built-in voicemail, and tracking timers.
Ten years ago, no one had a “smart-phone”—actually a mini-computer with a color screen in a palm-size package. Smartphones not only allow us to call (the least of our interests), but enable us to connect with others through “social media” (an entirely heretofore unheard of category)—email, texting, Tweeting, Facebook, Instagram, and other means I’ve not really employed. Our “phones” in our pockets have the ability to access instantly more information than what once could be stored in our county library. They provide weather updates, allow us to read digital books (even the Bible!), keep track of our expenses, listen to tens of thousands of songs, organize and plan our days with calendars and project planners, take pictures and movies, and even watch videos play games.
From our computers or phones or (iPads) we can shop, compare, read reviews, and purchase nearly anything at all, and have it delivered within a few days to our doorstep—often for less than going to a brick and mortar store. Not only that, but I can buy nearly anything from anyone in the world, whether new or used, and have it in my hands in a short time.
These phones, computers and pads connect wirelessly to the “internet” with unseen radio waves (WiFi in an immediate vicinity, and LTE or 4G in a broader location). What three decades ago required an initial connection that was deliberate, clumsy, annoying, loud and irritating, today is seamless, quiet and instant. We rarely give it any thought unless it is slow or acts up.
Not very long ago, in order to determine what was happening inside our bodies, we would submit to “exploratory surgery”—actually cutting into a person to look around and investigate possible reasons for unexplainable health problems. Today, with the advent of the MRI and CatScans, we simply take pictures of our insides, revealing cross-sections of our bodies a few centimeters at a time. The advances in medical technology has pushed our expected lifespan from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties.
Today we test to identify relationships through DNA, and are sequencing and mapping the human genome—we’re unlocking who we are and why we are the way we are.
Years ago, surgery resulted in thick scars and long hospital stays; today we’re up on our feet minutes after the procedure, home shortly, with barely visible scarring.
We routinely transplant organs—even hearts—and no longer are surprised and full of wonder that recipients have a new lease on life.
Our cars are more sophisticated, better running, safer, faster, more reliable with better gas mileage and options for alternative fueling (think: electric!).
Our televisions are thin, bursting with sharp definition and bright colors. The old boxes and tubes are dead, and wafer thin is coming. The age of four to six channels is gone, and hundreds are at the tip of our fingers and remotes.
Video games are no longer like bad cartoons and clunky interactions, but have a realism that transports us into the storyline. In fact, some actually are immersive, captivating our senses with glasses and earbuds, tracking our eyes and allowing us to become one with the experience.
Forget VHS tapes and DVDs. Think BluRay, 4K, and downloads.
Forget the library and card catalogue indexed to the Dewey Decimal System. Think Google.
Forget newspapers, whether local or USA Today. Think thousands of delivery systems for information and news (and even fake news).
Forget subscriptions to magazines and hardback books. Think Kindle and digital eBooks and pdfs.
Forget foldable maps and directions scribbled on the back of a scrap of an envelope. Think Garmin, or Google Maps, or Siri directions.
Our watches no longer just tell time—whether by analogue or digitally. Now, they display information, have customizable faces, connect to our mobile phones, check our heart rate, buzz us with alarms, and assist us with workouts.
We are on the cusp of widely using other developing technologies: self-driving cars, facial recognition, speech recognition (e.g. not just speech to text, but computers which understand your everyday language and can follow directions). “Hey Siri! Hey Alexa! Hey Google!”—digital genies who respond to our wishes as their commands.
Are there problems and challenges? Absolutely
√Islamic terrorism has taken root and strikes often.
√Digital distractions flood our lives and compete for our attention so that we neglect what is clearly important—real face to face relationships, including our relationship with God. Disconnecting with the digital world, so that we are not immediately available to everyone is a challenge. The standard one expert advocates seems impossible: we turn off our computers and phones one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year. It is ironic that we didn’t even know about or need or experience ten years ago we find essential today.
√The flood of information requires a level of discernment that few of us are willing to develop and exercise, leaving us vulnerable to propaganda and “fake news.”
√What use to be limited to an annual Sears Christmas Catalogue we are exposed to daily—the constant barrage of sales and pitches feeding our discontent with what we have and inflaming our desire to have what we don’t have.
Life has transformed faster in the past ten years than in the past thirty before. Life in 1917 is a universe away from life in 2017, and one wonders what life will be like in 2027, only ten years from now.
Talking to our computers may displace typing on keyboards. We may be routinely driven to work by our driverless cars. Our life expectancy may rise another ten years. The lines between the digital and the real may blur and become difficult to distinguish.
Cash may be going away. Folded dollars and jangling coins may be replaced sooner than we think with a single card or a chip embedded in our skin. (Haven’t I read about such a thing from some ancient source?)
We live in exciting times. Opportunities are myriad, and God has us here “for such a time as this.” He’s not surprised, has seen it coming from omnipresent eyes, and expects us to be optimistic, outspoken with our faith, and unswerving in our biblical convictions. We must think well and live better.
For all the challenges, I for one am very thankful to live when we’re living, and see what we’re seeing.
So, what am I missing?
I don’t remember the day well. In fact, it is a day I’d soon forget. What I do remember is looking out my window from my office in San Diego and seeing Interstate 5 at a complete standstill. Within minutes I began hearing the wails of sirens. One policeman frantically skirted vehicles stopped on I-5 by driving on the shoulder next to the guardrail in a frantic effort to get southbound.
I wondered, “What was it? A fiery wreck? A bank robbery? Had an illegal alien been struck trying to cross the border?” No. What brought traffic to a halt in one of the largest cities on the west coast, what made police, ambulances and even SWAT teams converge in haste was, quite simply, a man who had not learned to forgive.
Jim grew up in a respectable and religious home in the rural farmlands of Ohio. There was nothing spectacular about him. He wore a flattop and glasses, and to most who knew him, Jim appeared to be a pretty quiet kind of guy. But underneath that placid exterior churned the resentment and hatred of four decades.
People always seemed to get in his way and do him wrong. In high school, though he stood six feet tall, he didn’t make the cut for the basketball team. He couldn’t let it go, but remembered it, and repeatedly brought it up years later. He nurture the hurt.
As time passed, Jim grew more distant, inward, and seething. He earned a college degree in sociology, but never pursued a teaching position because he didn’t like interacting with people. He planned to be an embalmer, and though he mastered the techniques, he couldn’t handle the public, and so never landed a position. He finally found work as a welder, but when his employer, the Babcock and Wilcox power plant in Canton, Ohio was closed, he was laid off.
It was always someone else’s fault: he blamed everyone around him––his bosses, the company, his co-workers, his family, even the government for his troubles. When he would explode in one of his verbal tirades, his co-workers would laugh, not taking his anger or threats very seriously.
Jim eventually moved his family to San Diego in 1983 where he was turned down for a job as a security guard because of his anger. Even at home, his loss of temper led to his abusing his wife and children. Finally, on that humid July afternoon, the frustration and rage he had so long allowed to simmer under the surface erupted.
Having been at the San Diego zoo that afternoon, the family returned home. When his wife and daughters decided to take naps, he darkly mumbled something about “going to hunt humans.” To his wife, it seemed to be just another inappropriate and angry comment so common in Jim’s mouth. But when the house was quiet, he pulled on a black short-sleeved T-shirt, camouflage pants and boots, and dark sunglasses, loaded the car with a handgun, a pump-action 12 gauge shotgun, a 9 mm Uzi semi-automatic and drove to MacDonald’s. At 4 p.m., he entered the lobby, and before anyone knew what was happening, Jim began spraying the crowed of forty patrons and employees with a shower of bullets. He was finally making “them” pay.
After the first volley, survivors say he demanded that “everyone get down on the floor.” When those left living did so, he proceeded to systematically execute them, one by one. Of those who fled in terror, only a few escaped. A 74 year old grandfather lay sprawled at the main door, doughnuts scattered next to him. Just outside, two seven year old boys lay crumpled by the bicycles. An eighteen year old mother with her eight month old son were found in a booth, shot at close range.
Seventy-seven minutes and twenty-one bodies later, a single bullet from a SWAT team sharpshooter brought the rampage to a halt. James Oliver Huberty joined the ranks of the dead. The bullet ended it, but it was his resentment that killed him. He had never learned how to forgive anyone.
The more I learned about Jim, the more I’m convinced that he wasn’t some crazy nut case with an attitude and a gun, but a person like any of us, who neglected to take care of a what was churning around inside of him, until it was too late. Every day, many of us practice some of the same inner responses that drove this man to MacDonald’s that afternoon. Granted, we may show it in less dramatic circumstances with less devilish evil, but like Jim, we cling to our hatred and contempt. We coddle and nurture our hurt, blaming others and refusing to forgive. We want others to pay.
Why is it so hard to forgive? To forgive your husband who has betrayed you by sharing intimacies with another woman? To forgive your wife who has ridiculed you in front of friends? To forgive your boss who has taken adavantage of you? To forgive your co-worker for uncaring, cynical comments? To forgive your friends who have excluded you? Why is it so difficult to do, and how can we find in ourselves what is necessary to let an offense go?
Jesus himself commands us to forgive, and instructs us to pray, “Father, forgive us our debts in the same measure that we forgive others’ debts” (Matt. 6:12). But simply knowing that we should, or must doesn’t make it easier. What has helped me is a clear understanding of what forgiveness is and isn’t, knowing how best to ask for it, and what kinds of disciplines to practice that will increase our willingness to do it.
What is this thing called forgiveness?
I have found that many of us tend to confuse forgiving with other responses. These responses are not necessarily wrong, but they clearly are not the same as forgiving. If we are to clearly understand what forgiveness is, we must grasp what it isn’t.
It isn’t explaining.
As a pastor, I often have discovered that what I have done or said has hurt another person, even though my words or actions were not wrong. In such cases, I often explain, “I really didn’t mean to hurt you…This was a terrible misunderstanding, a big mix-up. I said this and did that, but you thought…” In such cases, explaining has a place, and when it does, understanding is in order. But explaining is not confessing, and understanding is not forgiving.
It isn’t rationalizing.
When feeling hurt, we might whisper to ourselves healing thoughts: “It’s not so bad. It could have been a lot worse. Think of what others have done or gone through. Get some perspective.” The response that rationalizing seeks is, “That’s OK. It’s no big deal. It happens to everyone. Forget it.” We want to minimize the problem until it vanishes into insignificance. But rationalizing isn’t forgiving.
It isn’t excusing.
When we excuse another, we overlook an offense or fault due to the circumstances or intent of the offender. I don’t blame a person for rear-ending my car if his brakes fail or he hit a patch of ice. I may excuse a grocery store checker’s harsh demeanor if I understand that she has had a very bad day. Excusing has a place, especially if we are dealing with cultural faux pas. Burping loudly at a formal affair is certainly no sin against God, and the appropriate response is, “Please excuse me!” But as historian George Marsden observed, “Grace is not cheap, and forgiveness is more than good manners.” Excusing has a legitimate place, but it is hardly forgiveness.
It isn’t bargaining:.
Family squabbles often end with an intervening parent (also known as “The Referee”) striking this bargain: “Billy, next time, share the cookie with your sister, and Janie, next time, ask before you grab. OK?” Bargaining often passes for forgiving, but they aren’t the same. Though forgiving may or may not be mutual, bargaining must be. You can forgive all alone, but a bargain requires two.
It isn’t blaming.
When our bad behavior is spotlighted, we may point fingers elsewhere: “It wasn’t my fault! It was HIM! HE’S the reason I did what I did. Don’t blame me!” Yet, shifting the blame to the more deserving doesn’t absolve me, and it isn’t forgiveness.
It isn’t ignoring.
When we are really hurt, pretending rarely helps. Trying to forget a wrong without forgiving is like trying to ignore a toothache, or attempting to walk on an infected toe: for a time you may try to forget, but the slightest jar revives the sharp pains. Ignoring or forgetting eventually may be the result of forgiving, but it isn’t the same as forgiving.
It isn’t feeling bad or better.
When we are needing forgiveness, we may be tempted to try to feel badly enough to merit it. “I feel so badly. I’m an idiot. You should hate me for what I did.” On the other hand, when we are offended, we may announce, “I’ll forgive when I feel better about the situation,” as if when we feel good enough, we’ll be able to overlook the wrong. Unfortunately, those who most need to forgive usually feel so miserable that time in itself will never bring them to a place where they’ll feel good enough to let it go. Surprisingly, forgiveness has nothing to do with our feelings, whether good or bad. Forgiveness is focused on one’s will, one’s choices, not on one’s feelings. Forgiving may make you feel better, but feeling bad or better is not the same as forgiving.
What then, does it mean to forgive? I have found this simple definition helpful:
Forgiveness is not making you pay for what you did, to my satisfaction at my hands.
Embedded in this simple definition are three stark requirements. First, forgiveness involves not making you pay. We instinctively know that a wrong has been committed, so we want a payback. We long for justice to be done. Forgiveness does not let go of justice, but forgoes the demand to be the one who establishes justice as judge, jury and executioner.
Next, forgiveness is not making you pay for what you did––but not necessarily to me. Regrettably, we can take up the offense of another (usually someone we love), as if it were our own, as if we ourselves were sinned against. Years ago, one of my son’s teachers said some unkind, untrue, and very unmotivating things to him. When I heard what had been said, I responded with a less than Christlike response. In fact, long after my son forgave the man, I fought with feeling ill toward him, though he had never wronged me personally. I needed to forgive.
Third, forgiveness is not making you pay to my satisfaction. I must let go of the notion that as the hurt party, I must be the one who decides who has suffered enough, paid enough, and that I am entitled to participate in the extraction of payment. Some who have done wrong suffer greatly as a consequence, but often a victim who watches from a distance does not see the offender’s suffering as connected to that offense, unless the victim has a hand in the administering of the sentence. We may try to control some of the consequences by withholding love, respect or relationship, or by bringing up the offense to everyone who cares to listen, years later. Forgiveness releases that expectation.
All biblical forgiveness makes a crucial assumption: it assumes that a wrong has been committed. Whatever was said or done wasn’t simple a slight, a foible or mistake, but a sin. For forgiveness to be solicited or offered, those involved must agree that the act was wrong. In Christian terms, it violated God’s law or character. We simply cannot forgive what we don’t admit is sin. If it really isn’t a sin, but simply a mistake or misunderstanding, other responses are appropriate. If the perceived offense against you is really nothing more than the product of your own narrow, bigoted perspective or offended selfishness, then you may need to ask God for forgiveness, and plead that He mature you. But if you have been sinned against, then forgiveness is in order.
How then do I forgive? Looking at it from the perspective of the one who needs to ask for forgiveness, there are three steps.
Step One: Admit your wrong.
Forgiveness assume a wrong, a sin has been committed, something more than a mistake. Call the act that you committed sin. Admit that you’ve been wrong according to God’s law. You can’t be forgiven of what isn’t a sin. So be specific and humble.
As our children were growing up in the Walker household, we insisted that we always deal with our sins against others by naming them. Our kids all too often were quick to say, “Sorry.”
“But for what? Precisely what wrong did you commit?” we’d press.
After a particularly troubling day at the church, I sat in front of a troubling computer, begging it to do a simple task and growing increasingly frustrated by it’s seeming resistance. Melissa, our daughter, plopped herself down at my side and offered several suggestions. “Dad, have you tried…” to which I responded, “If I needed help, I’d ask for it.” Tears welled up in her eyes, and she escaped quickly down the hall to her room. I knew I had done wrong and treated her badly; within a minute of gaining some composure, I knocked on her door, entered to see her crying softly, and said, “Honey, I’m sorry.” She glanced up and ask, “For what? What exactly did you do?” Exactly.
For the hurt party, hearing vague generalities doesn’t inspire much confidence. “Well, if I did do anything to hurt you, I’m sorry.” That’s like saying, “If I asked you to marry me, would you?” (“Uh, I don’t know. Are you asking?”) Instead, we should say, “I was wrong when I spoke harshly with you.” Or, “I lied.” Or, “I let you down by not doing what I said I’d do.”
Sometimes we aren’t certain what we have done wrong. In such cases, we may need to ask “What have I done?”—and listen to the hurt party respond before making this first step.
Step Two: Express your regret.
In our culture, “sorry” is a perfectly good word, but has become dull with overuse. It actually means, “to express sorrow or regret,” though the way its often used expresses nothing of the kind. It often is stated as the one word, sterile response to a perceived offense:
“Hey––you took the last cherry Danish!”
In fact, much of what passes for repentance these days is nothing more than a calculated attempt to get out of trouble. You get the sense that some people are simply saying “sorry” so you can get lost and they can get on with their lives. In Bill Watterson’s cartoon, “Calvin and Hobbes,” Calvin makes a confession, but patently just going through the motions:
Most of us have felt reluctant to forgive another who has hurt us because we perceive he has little or no sense of the impact of what he has done. What may escape his mouth (“I’m sorry”) may be lacking any real meaning (“I regret what I’ve done”).
But what if you don’t feel regret? Then you may need to think through the implications of your words or actions. Ponder the damages. How has what you have done hurt others? How has it damaged another’s trust in you, or compromised your character, or dishonored Christ? Also, consider the alternatives. If you could re-live the situation, knowing what I know now, what would I do differently? The answers may not be quick or easy to come by, but they are indispensable to creating a true sense of regret.
Once remorse is born in you, expressing it to the one to whom you are asking forgiveness is crucial. “If I offended you, I’m sorry” simply doesn’t move us. On the other hand, “It was wrong to lie to you. It has undermined your trust in me and makes anything else I say suspect in your ears. If I could do it over, I’d have swallowed hard and told you the truth.” Most of us are more likely to be moved to forgive is we sense the offender knows what he has done, has a grasp of how it has hurt us, and wishes he could have a second run at the situation. Express your regret.
Step Three: Ask the question.
“Will you forgive me?” Don’t make it a demand (“forgive me”) and then walk away without response. Don’t force it: “I’m not leaving until you forgive me.” As those who have injured another, we do not have the right to impose a deadline on the hurt person’s healing. Instead, we should let the question hang in the air. You may need to let them think it through. They may quickly offer forgiveness: “Yes, I forgive you.” They may need time (“I can’t now” or “I need to think about it”), or may even refuse (“No, I won’t”). God only expects you to ask, not manipulate the response.
If they do forgive you, accept it humbly. Remember, you are the debtor.
We may hope and expect the other to follow our lead and ask for our forgiveness for what they did; if they do (and it is very common), forgive them. But what if they don’t? Our pride may flare up in such a moment, arguing percentages with us: “I was only half the problem. She contributed as much as I did to the ugly situation!” In such cases, we need to be prepared to embrace whatever we have done wrong without trying to assess and manage whatever anyone else has done wrong. If my sin was 20% of the situation, God expects me to take 100% responsibility for my 20% of the situation, without announcing who the other 80% belongs to.
Asking to be forgiven is difficult; it taxes our honesty, transparency, and humility. But granting forgiveness is also demanding, and the more deeply we are hurt, the more difficult is it to let it go. How can I find in myself what I need to forgive?
How can I bring myself to grant forgiveness?
If repentance is really a matter of the heart and mind, so granting forgiveness is not merely words, but also must come from deep inside of us, where our convictions and compassion swirl together. I have discovered three disciplines that soften my heart to forgive.
1. Reflect on how God has forgiven me.
When the Bible describes how God has dealt with our sins, it uses a number of telling words. In the Greek language (in which the New Testament was written), one of the words for forgiveness (charizomai) emphasizes the manner of how He forgives: graciously, freely, undeservingly. God forgave us even when we didn’t merit it, or weren’t promising candidates for better behavior. He forgave us completely and unconditionally. Passages in the New Testament underscore how graciously God forgave us:
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other,
just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32)
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature,
God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins…” (Col. 2:13)
“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.
Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Col. 3:13)
Clearly, the Bible expects us to see how God has forgiven us, and mimic Him in our forgiving others. Our temptation is to offer “parachute forgiveness”––with lots of strings attached. In other words, I’ll forgive you IF you come to me first and IF I’m satisfied that you are sufficiently penitent, and IF you have suffered to my satisfaction, and IF I’m convinced you feel the depth of my hurt, and IF I think you’ve learned your lesson and IF you promise never to do it again.” All those things might make us more willing to forgive, but God forgave us graciously. And so should we.
A second word for forgiveness in the New Testament refers to the result of forgiveness (apoluo). It describes being set free, released or unshackled.
“The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.” (Mt. 18:26)
“To him (Jesus) who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood…” (Rev. 1:5)
In God’s mind, He released us from dragging around our failures, mistakes and blatant disobedience of our past. Our sins are no longer a weight chained to us, nor a debt outstanding on the ledgers, or an unpaid ticket to be settled before a judge in the future. We’re free. It is a shame that we often don’t take our cue from God who forgave us, but instead refuse to release others of their past, and tattoo them with their failures, complete with names, dates, and offenses.
A third word describing how God has forgiven us (aphiami) means to separate: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”(1John 1:9) The word also is used to describe a divorce (1Cor. 7:11). The point is that in forgiving us, God has separated us from our sins. They are no longer in the shadows of my life, darkening my path. I can go forward without having those things define who I am. As God has done for me, so I should to others: as I forgive another, I must see him not as an object of continued hate and contempt, but as one who is no longer defined by what he has said and done against me. The offense has been addressed, dealt with, and as far as it concerns me, it no longer dogs his steps.
Reflecting on how God has forgiven us moves us to act in the same way toward others. We can graciously take the initiative and release another from their, separating them from the guilt of what they have done. Of what has God forgiven me? All of us as sinful people have hurt and offended other sinful people; and rare it is that one side bears 100% of the blame. But all of us sinful people have offended God who has done nothing wrong and is both innocent and holy; yet He has forgiven us. How can I not forgive another when I so undeservedly have been completely forgiven by God?
Henry Ward Beecher said it well: “We are most like beasts when we kill, most like men when we judge, and most like God when we forgive.” Pondering how God has forgiven us moves us to forgive others in the same way.
2. Give it time to heal.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32)
Commentators have pointed out that forgiving in this command is in the present tense, and have suggested that it therefore infers a continual process. Forgiveness is rarely like the delete key on a computer, which, if you push it erases the data stored in the memory. Lewis Smedes compares forgiveness to a clean bandage that protects and allows the hurt to heal in time. All the pain may not vanish the instant forgiveness is willed, but it will heal in time providing I don’t grow impatient and pick at the scab or nurse new wounds. In giving it time to heal, I am not waiting for my emotions to feel better; instead, I am deciding not to hold another’s neck to the blade of my own justice. My emotions will follow if I daily decide to keep the forgiveness in effect.
3. Consider the alternative.
There can be no debate that Scriptures command us to forgive one another (Eph. 4:32). But even if you do not like the idea of forgiving another, the alternative is even worse: "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death. (Prov. 14:12) Refusing to forgive, trying to make another pay for what they did may seem right to us. In fact, forgiving may seem unfair, or allowing the offender to escape. But the only alternative to forgiveness is revenge and bitterness. “I will not forgive him” may seem like punishment to the offender, but it serves only to poison the one already injured. With every passing day, as a scab is picked to fresh rawness, his soul becomes infected and eventually gangrenous. The one who fails or refuses to forgive replays his hurts again and again in graphic detail. He is stung afresh with the sin against him, until it consumes his thinking and blinds his seeing.
He who makes another pay will himself eventually pay. Forgiveness frees not only the offender, but the offended. Resentment and bitterness, on the other hand, kills everyone.
Ask Jim. Even though he is dead, his day still speaks.
No, it doesn’t refer to pessimism, or living under the notion that you aren’t very good or can’t do anything well.
I saw the phrase repeated in one of the books I committed to read: What’s Your Worldview? An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions (James Anderson).
As he leads the reader to make decisions defining (and critiquing) their worldview, Anderson points out positions that have self-defeating thinking.
For instance, Nihilism asserts there are no objective values—nothing is really good or bad in any objective sense (p. 75). So, ultimately nothing is right or wrong; and no purpose exists objectively for human beings in this universe. “Whatever you choose to do is just as valuable—or, rather, just as valueless—as anything else yo might choose to do.” So on what basis does the Nihilist accept Nihilism as the “better” or “truer” position? Why bother articulating it? Or living it out? It is no better or worse than anything else. (It is “self-defeating.”)
The same can be said for the skeptic or agnostic who believes you cannot know anything for sure. Does the assertion that you cannot know anything include not knowing anything? It, too, is “self-defeating.”
The pluralist who advocates tolerance and forbids exclusivity is intolerant toward those who do advocate exclusivity. They do what they forbid; their position is “self-defeating.”
The relativist who thinks all morality is culturally or individually or situationally defined still assumes there is some objective standard by which one can judge the cultural, individual or situational factors as better or worse, or right or wrong; thus the relativist assumes a standard which he denies exists. His thinking is “self-defeating.”
It is as if God has hard-wired into life logic and truth. The very means and ways we express and argue against Him prove His design. We prove only that our way against God’s way is self-defeating.
Just a thought. But one that isn't "self-defeating..."
"And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season
we will reap, if we do not give up."
This simple encouragement from a New Testament writer assumes that doing good does not always have an immediate reward, and in fact, might be draining to continue over a longer period of time.
But the writer also promises us that there is a harvest that will come if we just don't grow tired and quit.
The Law of the Farm works in our daily lives as well: what we sow, we reap. We don't get strawberries from poison oak plants, or apples from scrub oaks. But this Law applies not only in kind, but also in time: we can't procrastinate letting time roll by, only to enter a flurry of activity in late September, smothering the soil with seeds and flooding it with water, and expect to eat melons in early October. Harvests reflect the persistent, often tedious cultivation of the farmer over a long period of time.
Most of us are motivated by the initial excitement of the task ahead. We can't wait to jump out of the starting blocks. We're also find a reserve of strength when we round the final corner and see the finish line ahead. The problem is in the tiresome, middle laps of the race. Or, to use the image of the farm, not the sowing nor the reaping, but the long, often tedious repetition of tending and weeding wears us down. It is then that we need to remember that promise: "...we will reap, if we do not give up..."
Honesty, prudence, unselfishness, a careful mouth, a healthy body, a sharp memory and informed mind—all the things we say we value—come to us by the Law of the Farm. I can say that I want to be slim and trim, but if I'm twenty pounds overweight today, I can't get there by tomorrow morning. If I routinely lie and am careless with the facts, I can repent today but I won't be very good at truth-telling tomorrow. Life is maddeningly slow to develop.
So what we sow, we need to cultivate to harvest; otherwise, all that work goes to waste.
It's a good reminder for us in this instant-everything age. Life is so daily, and persistence is one of the most basic ingredients to success.
“I feel that God doesn’t love me anymore.”
“I feel like no one cares.”
“I feel like it doesn’t matter what I say or do.”
“I feel that you are wrong.”
As a pastor, I often hear people say something that describes how they are feeling and what they are thinking. It troubles me, not because I disparage feelings. I certainly do not. Feelings are an important part of life. What would life be like if we didn’t feel happy or sad, anger or peace, wonder or shock? The entire palette of feelings brings color and texture to life. Life would be flat and boring—if not actually worse—in their absence.
However, feelings are a terrible basis for belief. And make no mistake:
When a person prefaces a truth statement with “I feel...”, they are actually saying,
“I believe this to be true because I feel this way.”
In other words, a statement, perception, value, or belief is considered true on the basis of one’s present feelings.
One problem with feelings and emotions is that they are highly volatile; they are less like roots of a tree, and more like leaves on a windy day. They do not stay in place but move and shift as other factors are introduced. External circumstances like the weather, or getting my way, or not getting my way and being disappointed, all can weigh on a mood. A person’s health affects our feelings; things tend to look darker when we are fighting a cold or flu. In fact, how we feel might affect how we think. But should it?
“I feel good. I feel bad. I feel guilty. I feel wonderful! I feel terrible. I feel lonely. I feel afraid.” Describing how you feel is not wrong. And feelings are not wrong—they just are.
But just because you feel good doesn’t guarantee that everything is good in your life. (Ask a recovering meth addict.) Feeling guilty doesn’t mean you are, and not feeling guilty doesn’t mean you’re innocent. Feeling fearful doesn’t mean something or someone is out to get you; and feeling secure may actually expose you to harm. My point is simple: feelings may be out of sync with facts; emotions may betray reality.
Years ago, I saw an illustration of how to harness our feelings rather than submitting to them. The illustration was of a train—facts being represented by the engine, feelings the caboose, and our intentional faith or belief the coal-car connecting the two. The idea was to identify the facts, the truth, and to intentionally place your confidence in them (to “believe” them); the promise would be that eventually, our feelings would follow along. I have found this to be accurate and helpful in my life.
Why we feel something at a given moment may be more complicated than what we are able to deduce. But without a doubt, making truth statements based on present feelings is a dangerous (but common) practice.
So the next time you hear someone (even yourself) say, “I feel...” followed by a truth-statement, take a minute and intentionally spell out the longer confession: “I believe (this) to be true because I am feeling (this way).” Then, separate the two:
“I am feeling (this way).”
“I believe (this) to be true.”
Describe your feelings, and then tell yourself, “My feelings may or may not accurately reflect the truth.”
Then seek the truth of the matter. That may mean investigating what actually happened, or what a person actually said (rather than what was reported or what you heard as a rumor). As a Christian who subscribes to the Bible as a source of truth, I measure my claims and thoughts against what the Scriptures affirm. The idea is to allow the truth, as best as you can determine it, to lead your life rather than your unfounded beliefs or your volatile feelings.
You can say, “I feel” as a preface to what you believe. But if you do, the chance of you being wrong at least some of the time increases. Maybe even more often than not.
No matter what you feel.
Today, give me a heart that hungers for Your Word.
Where I am hard, soften me.
Where I am shallow, deepen me.
Where I have no room, weed me.
Make me like good soil into which
Your truth will take firm root.
May I be rooted in You,
and fruitful in all of life.
(From Mark 4:1-20)
When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness for forty days, Jesus responded by citing Scriptures He had committed to memory. Three times He spoke the words, “It is written,” and then quoted a pertinent Scripture that clarified what Satan was trying to confuse, or sharpen God’s boundaries that Satan was attempting to blur. “It is written,” means something like, “God has gone on record.” And He has.
The written Scriptures passed on to us come in the form of real-life stories, pronouncements and predictions by prophets, heartfelt songs and wise proverbs, letters and and postcards—all written by more than forty authors over a fifteen-hundred year period of time, covering everything from the beginning of Creation to The End of it all. In it, we hear and see God; we come to know who He is, what He’s like, how He responds, what He wants. We also gain a clear picture of what we as human beings are like, what’s wrong with us, and how we might find the redemption we so desperately need.
The Bible was given not merely to fill our minds, but to shape them; not just to tell us what to do, but to drive us to the One who will transform us into who we were always intended to be.
For the Scriptures to have the impact God intended, we must consume them: we must read them, ponder their meaning, listen to them being taught, consider their implications, commit them to memory, and—most of all—respond in faith and obedience to their directives.
King David said, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
Jesus, the Son of God, said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, Deut. 8:3).
What do you say? Are you learning and obeying God’s Word?
[I recently received an anonymous email that criticized me for certain practices and convictions the individual didn't agree with. Though I attempted to engage the person in a more personal way, there was no response. Thinking it might be instructive to others, I'm posting both their email and my response. As always—eat the meat and spit out the bones. —Steve]
The Original Email:
I can understand your fervent desire to show the congregation your beliefs when it comes to politics. When you declare an opinion with strength and passion, people are drawn to you.
But let's be clear- some of those things you profess with such conviction are opinions-- nothing more. There is no biblical evidence against abortions, for example, and neither is there biblical evidence proving that life begins at conception. However, there absolutely is text about issues like gay marriage, which brings me to my next, more important point.
When you say things that are so explicitly condemning and intolerant, it doesn't draw to people to Christ and his love for us at all, on the contrary. Not only is it dangerous to sprinkle your own opinions into sermons, people living transgender or homosexual lives are driven away, not drawn in.
Think on it. These choices and lifestyles are important, but in the grand scheme of things, do they matter enough that it should cost people their salvation? I believe that the answer is no. These people have been cast out countless times by society, sometimes wrongly in the name of the bible itself. We as a church should open our arms to these hurting people and show them Jesus's love, not join the crowd in turning our backs. When it comes down to it, are these the issues you want people to be driven away from God because of? These people are already wary and spiteful when it comes to religion; let us not add fuel to their suspicion.
Jesus's followers and disciples were sinners, and he frequently dined with murderers and thieves. We should follow his example as Christians and show that Jesus's love surpasses all boundaries and definitions. It is not our place to pass judgement or rebuke those who are in need of Christ.
Thank you for your note! Perhaps surprisingly, I enjoy—even welcome—a spirited and engaging discussion, and don't think disagreement is at all bad. Solomon reminds us that "as iron sharpens iron, so the countenance (i.e. face to face encounter) of one person sharpens another." Email is a poorer substitute to our getting together, listening carefully to each other, expressing convictions and questioning beliefs; but it's better than not interacting at all.
I'm guessing you chose to remain anonymous for one of the following reasons:
•You think that if I knew your identity and that you disagreed with me, it would affect our relationship, or my acceptance of you, or my estimation of you. (It wouldn't. I have lots of friends who disagree with me.)
•You are in a position of responsibility, and you wonder if you could express these beliefs without having someone (me? others?) judge or reject you.
•You've had painful experiences with others disagreeing with you, and you'd rather avoid that possibility with me.
•You just didn't want to. No reason.
Whatever the reason, I want to assure you that most people who interact with me over a table do not find me censorious, belittling, or angry. I am not Donald Trump.
I do not know if you even want a response. Other than the encouragement to "think on it," you did not ask me to explain my opinions, or clarify my reasoning. I have given your email some thought (as I've had some downtime since being in the hospital), and decided I would email you back.
Perhaps the easiest way for me to respond is to do so directly to your thoughts as you stated them. That way, I hopefully won't misstate what you said or misrepresent your ideas. (I'll copy and paste, then respond. Your thoughts are in red italics, mine follow.)
This is a warm and non-threatening welcome! Thank you! (See how this is going to work?)
I can understand your fervent desire to show the congregation your beliefs when it comes to politics. When you declare an opinion with strength and passion, people are drawn to you.
Actually, I was surprised at your opening salvo because I rarely state anything about politics in a message on the weekend. We usually think of politics as anything dealing with elections, or candidates, or trying to sway legislation regarding hot-potato social or economic issues. But politics, strictly speaking, deals with any of the activities that influence the policies and practices of a government. In common language today, politics also calls to mind the legislation itself surrounding those policies and practices.
The distinction between the core beliefs and the politics that address them is an important one. I can hold a conviction but disagree with some legislation about it, or disagree with a belief, but endorse a law defending it. Years ago, I did not support a law regarding "the defense of marriage" (though I believe in traditional marriage), because I thought it was a poorly written law. These days, though I believe that marriage requires two consenting individuals of the opposite sex, I would oppose the government forbidding gay marriage or demanding that I recognize or perform gay marriages. My point is that my political opinions are distinct from my core convictions, which I hope are biblical.
Redeemer's has made a point to avoid politics because it often confuses the issue with seekers who need to hear about Christ (your later point regarding gays in your email). You don't become a republican or a democrat and then become a Christian, or when you become a Christian, you don't also automatically become a member of a certain political party. You are a Christian first and foremost. You follow Christ wherever he leads.
That isn't to say that all political issues are off limits: many have a moral core, and we may want to address that moral issue from a biblical viewpoint. For instance, Trump claiming to be a Christian, but denying that he has ever sinned or asked for forgiveness from God needs to be addressed and corrected, not because we forbid people to vote for him, but because the very definition of Christian is at stake.
But let's be clear—some of those things you profess with such conviction are opinions-- nothing more. There is no biblical evidence against abortions, for example, and neither is there biblical evidence proving that life begins at conception. However, there absolutely is text about issues like gay marriage, which brings me to my next, more important point.
This is where I get to probe. An opinion is a belief or judgment or position that you personally take. It is your opinion. Labeling something an opinion says nothing about its veracity, its truthfulness. It may be sober truth or sheer craziness; it may be rooted in facts or have no grounding in anything but an individual's imagination. So, yes. I have opinions. So do you. And certainly, you are expressing your opinion when you say that what I express with such conviction is nothing more than my opinion. It may or may not be the case. You may be saying, "I don't think what you express with such force is grounded in truth"—and you may be right. But simply because it is my opinion doesn't make it groundless or less true, any more than your opinion.
Your statements about abortion is a bit startling because either you haven't read better arguments for and against abortion, or you've summarily dismissed the ones you disagree with. But theologians even from Century One, and scholars who have written voluminous commentaries on the texts of Scripture have concluded that there is a very strong case to be made that in the minds of the writers of Scripture, a person's existence begins at conception, and God's involvement with that person extends back into the womb. (Check out, for instance, Psalm 139.)
Without any question, life begins at conception. Something is living. It's not a grain of sand, and it will never become a spoon or a Buick. It is living. I think you're trying to say, "It isn't human" or "it isn't yet a person" (and therefore can be destroyed like you might remove a wart or take out one's appendix). I understand the point. I do believe it is a person, an undeveloped human being—yet a human being nonetheless. There is no chance the mother will give birth to a puppy or a fish. Only a human will emerge from that womb.
So, I do disagree with you that there is no biblical evidence at all against abortion, or "proof" that the biblical writers thought life began at conception. There clearly is. And from the early church fathers onward until the mid-twentieth century, this was the common position of the church.
I do agree with your last sentence in that paragraph, "However, there absolutely is text about issues like gay marriage," but probably not the way you mean it. More about that in a minute.
When you say things that are so explicitly condemning and intolerant, it doesn't draw to people to Christ and his love for us at all, on the contrary. Not only is it dangerous to sprinkle your own opinions into sermons, people living transgender or homosexual lives are driven away, not drawn in.
First, let me agree with you. It is very dangerous to sprinkle my own opinions (if that is all they are) into a sermon. If you've been around Redeemer's, you've heard me teach about (what we call) "The Target of Convictions"—that not all beliefs have the same importance or certainty. Some things are absolutely certain and are to die for (the bullseye); there are things in the surrounding ring of the target that are very important and we're very convinced about, that we would divide over, but not die for. Christians can and do hold very different positions about issues that require us walking different directions. Outside that ring is another—things we debate over—things that are important but there is no need to divide over. Then in the outer ring are things we discuss—but we shouldn't even get hot about. All the other stuff (surrounding the target) doesn't matter. This helps us hold important convictions, but also recognize and cultivate humility. My point is simply that I agree with you, that not all convictions hold the same weight or importance, and it's confusing (and dangerous) to pretend that they do.
Still, that doesn't mean we shy away from expressing any convictions that aren't in the bullseye. But I should point out, when appropriate, when there is significant disagreement or confusion about an issue. In fact, I often have said, even in a sermon, "Regarding the question of remarriage after divorce, nobody agrees. Read ten books, and you'll get fifteen positions." Sometimes I survey the other positions before giving my own; sometimes I don't. But I should admit that others disagree. During the series last year, The Naked Truth about Sex, I spoke about homosexuality. To prepare, I read the best books I could find that presented why homosexuality was not prohibited either in the Old or New Testaments, and that the texts that appeared to do so were misunderstood. If you go back and listen, you'll hear me give a fair presentation of each of those passages before explaining why I thought differently.
The larger question of whether or not gay or transgender individuals are driven away by my teaching the Scriptures, and therefore miss God's love is troubling. I think you're saying that God loves people just as they are (He does), and that they should come to him just as they are (they should), but when they come to him, he has no expectation of changing their lives (which is not so).
And I absolutely think that we should (and I do) love any person whatever their sexual orientation. That doesn't mean I won't tell them they ought not do certain behaviors. A couple living together unmarried and sexually active comes to Christ; will God expect them to stop engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage? Absolutely. Must it happen prior to coming to Christ? No. That isn't the foundational issue. But it will become an issue as God works to sanctify them (1Thessalonians 4:1ff).
By the way, clearly reflecting biblical standards and values is not necessarily condemning and intolerant. Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me." That might be considered condemning and intolerant—condemning because Jesus is judging every other religion to be a dead-end, and intolerant because he allows no other exceptions for any reasons. But I think your point might be how we hold to the positions: are we dismissive and angry and condemning, or are we compassionate, loving and accepting? Can we hold to the truth in love? Can we state the truth unwaveringly, but do so with humility, and mercy and grace?
Think on it. These choices and lifestyles are important, but in the grand scheme of things, do they matter enough that it should cost people their salvation? I believe that the answer is no. These people have been cast out countless times by society, sometimes wrongly in the name of the bible itself. We as a church should open our arms to these hurting people and show them Jesus's love, not join the crowd in turning our backs. When it comes down to it, are these the issues you want people to be driven away from God because of? These people are already wary and spiteful when it comes to religion; let us not add fuel to their suspicion.
This is probably the real reason you've written to me, and I sense either you or someone you love and care about has been poorly treated by a church. I grieve with you that we don't do better with this, and should. We should open our arms even more and show them Jesus' love. I've often thought that if the situation now present in many Muslim countries (tossing gays off of the roofs of buildings) ever happened here, I'd hide a gay person in my home and protect them with my life.
We aren't perfect, and ought to do better. But one of the recent baptism candidates is gay and is trying to sort through how to follow Christ as a gay person—one with same sex desires. Like us, she doesn't have it all figured out either, but she is following Jesus to the best of her ability. We love her and are encouraging her. She is one story among many that I know of at Redeemer’s.
I think you may be hoping that we should go public with a "gay doesn't matter" position. I suppose then we ought to precede it with, "Being sexually active with a straight partner doesn't matter" policy. In both cases, we are restricted by God who has made us male and female, and has more in mind than even our happiness these few decades we live on this earth.
Salvation is not a ticket to heaven, but forgiveness for sin and transformation of the mind, the heart, and the behavior of the person over a lifetime of following Christ. Offering something else is something less.
Jesus's followers and disciples were sinners, and he frequently dined with murderers and thieves. We should follow his example as Christians and show that Jesus's love surpasses all boundaries and definitions. It is not our place to pass judgement or rebuke those who are in need of Christ.
I'm not sure where Jesus dined with a murderer (other than Saul of Tarsus), but I get your point. And absolutely, we ought never to restrict our interactions and outreach to the "respectable" people, whoever we think they might be. (But I hope you aren't equating gays with murderers or thieves.)
I do think we ought to follow Jesus' example as you said; yet even he let the rich young ruler walk away. He called some of the religious leaders who refused to believe in him, "snakes" and "whitewashed tombs." He referred to false teachers as "dogs" and "pigs." But anyone who came to him on his terms in repentance and faith, he embraced. "Go and sin no more," he said to the adulterous woman; not "go and feel free to continue with your lifestyle."
Is it our place to pass judgment on or rebuke those who are in need of Christ? Have you read the New Testament? He requires us to speak the truth, even when it hurts, but to do so lovingly. He will hold us responsible to proclaim "repentance and faith." Regardless of a person's past, or what they've done, or how they feel, or what's going on in their lives right now, Christ calls them—Christ calls them through us—to come to Him just as they are. Having done so, He will not leave them (or us) as they and we are. We are to become disciples...who learn to obey Him in everything (Matthew 28:19-20). And in that process, He will be with us and never leave or forsake us. Thankfully.
Want coffee? I would welcome the time, and I promise you I will not argue with or discourage you.
I heard someone predict years ago that we soon would be entering a time when what is solid will be liquid, what is certain would be uncertain, what we see with our eyes could not be trusted. Nothing will be as it appears. The result? Chaos and conflict.
I think we are there.
A video was released of Stanley Kubrick, a prominent film-maker (now deceased) who made a death-bed confession that, under contract for the US government, made an elaborate film of a the initial moon landing. We all thought it was real, but it was an elaborate hoax to fulfill Kennedy's challenge and undermine the Russians. (Whether or not the video itself is counterfeit is another discussion). So real or not real? I don't know.
A Muslim couple shot up a government office party in San Bernadino. Or, at least we thought it was an American Muslim man and his immigrant Muslim wife. Reports are now circulating that some witnesses identify the shooters as three, not two, and tall, white males, not a short, slight woman and an Arabic looking man. Real or not real? I don't know.
A year from now, we'll elect a president, which means that we have been in the pre-primary stage of information overload, awash in claims and counterclaims, truths and lies, accusations and denials. Even so-called fact-checkers (like Politi-Fact and Snopes) seem to themselves need fact-checking. Spin is the name of the game. Polls are twisted and re-interpreted, assertions are made, blatant falsehoods are presented all to manage the reactions and perceptions of the populace. What is real? I often don't know.
Do most Muslims subscribe to Sharia and are they out to undermine America and attack us from the inside out? Is the economy about to collapse under the weight of its own $18 trillion debt, or is it just business as usual with the usual Chicken Littles squawking doom and gloom? Will Donald Trump bring stability and a strong voice to a crumbling civilization, or will he ignore the Constitution and act pragmatically as the exact, conservative alter-ego to Obama? I'm not sure.
Living in the fog of uncertainty and confusion, and not committed to thinking critically, most people gravitate to harder edges of arguments and quickly express emotional responses, and ad-hominem arguments ("you're a @#$%"). Absent of any sense of curiosity about the other person's reasons and arguments, they choose to express rather than listen, to speak before understanding, and so fulfill the Proverb, "It is foolish and shameful to answer before listening." (18:13).
So the solutions proposed (or being enacted) on a national scale are breathtaking:
"Ban all Muslims."
"Ignore the Constitution."
"Increasingly restrict weapons."
"Censor the Internet."
"More government programs."
"No government programs."
"Let anyone immigrate into the United States."
"Close all the borders."
"Meet violence with violence."
It's hard to be nuanced when verbal grenades are being lobbed, and innocents are actually getting killed. But if there ever was a time when we needed to listen first, and (in Steven Covey's words) "seek first to understand before being understood," it is now.
Is everything just a matter of personal preference and one’s perspective? Hardly. Truth does exist. Many of our positions can be judged as more or less accurate to the facts, which are usually measurable and knowable. Even when talking about solutions, there are bad and better positions based on statable values and priorities. And I can be wrong about things I feel deeply about.
I do have some convictions about most of the issues floating around today, though some I really am at a loss about what to believe or do.
As a Christian, I believe we can never be "know-it-alls," only "know-enoughs." I believe every person matters or no one matters. I'm convinced that "God so loved the world..." I also believe that government was divinely-ordained to protect people and promote justice, and should be accountable, not all-powerful. I also believe that even if 300 million people believe in a dumb idea, it's still a dumb idea.
A lot of the issues are complex, and we might not agree on many of them because of our convictions and presuppositions. But with a dose of humility and respect, in an environment of free speech, we can listen to each other, learn from each other and show respect to each other.
When civilization stops being civil, it is flirting with being over.
Fifteen days until Christmas!
Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. Maybe it’s because most of the stuff I want, I clearly can’t afford, or I’d already have it. Whatever the reason, most the excitement of Christmas has shifted over the years from filling out a gift list, oogling presents under the tree, and waiting in excited anticipation, to pondering the fact that God visited us.
Don’t get me wrong. I love nearly everything about the season. I actually enjoy stringing up lights on the house in the rain. I begin playing Christmas music around Thanksgiving. (My grown daughter and I have a contest to see who plays the first carol of the seasons. This year she won—calling me around the end of July and surprising me with a holiday treat in mid-summer.) I don’t mind shopping (but I don’t like fighting for a parking space). Once I’m there, I do like the get-togethers where we meet new people or enjoy some time with people we do know. I really love watching someone open something I’ve given them, see the delight and surprise on their faces and bask in the shared love.
In the Walker home, it all typically starts Thanksgiving evening when we watch (for the umpeenth time) the Hallmark presentation of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, with George C. Scott as the sour Scrooge. The day after I untangle our boxed lights, and try to remember how I strung them up to cover the whole roofline last year. In the days that follow, we cut a tree, decorate it as a family, wrap packages and prepare our hearts.
Christmas eve is celebrated at one of our church's five services (or in my case—usually all five.) Then, the highlight on Christmas morning is opening our stuffed stockings to see what amazing, creative, little gifts someone thoughtfully gave us.
It all ends the day after Christmas when the tree goes to the dump, the lights are yanked off the house, and all the decorations are boxed up until next year. With a couple sweeps of the vacuum, all is restored to pre-Thanksgiving order. And the new year peeps around the corner.
I love it all.
But most of all, I am grateful that for once during the year, my mind deliberately muses over the birth and coming of the One who has set my heart free, the One who has won my love with His love, whom I will someday see face to face. I think about sometimes how frustrating it is to be human, to be sinful, to be so limited; and I realize that the Son of God understands it all, because He became one of us. I unwrap the gift of a relationship with Him, full of hope and power, wrapped in mercy and forgiveness, and my face brightens with delight and surprise.
The older I get, the more grateful I am for what Christmas is all about. The wrappings are really nice, but the gift is overwhelming.
May your musings this season brood over Him who came, whose love for you is priceless!
Much love to you in Christ,
On the morning of October 1st, 2015, a young man entered a classroom at Umpqua Community College, began shooting people, with the result that nine died and ten others were seriously wounded. This is the text of the message I gave to Redeemer’s Fellowship just days after the tragedy.
I want to welcome you here this weekend. The tragedy of October 1st will not quickly fade from our memories, and it’s good to be together today.
If you’ve been attending Redeemer’s during our present series, “Life’s Healing Choices,” we want to assure you that we’ll continue it next week, but today, we thought it better to take some time to talk together, pray together, and be together. Today, I want to speak to you not as a teacher, as I normally do, but as your pastor and shepherd. I hope to give you some words of comfort and direction, and answer a few of the common questions plaguing most of us.
But first, I must say, I’m very thankful for this community. I was born and grew up here, and Roseburg is a wonderful town. Crisis often reveals what we are made of, and I along with so many others are proud of and even more grateful for our community in the last few days: the first responders—everyone from the dispatchers who kept their cool, to the law enforcement officers who rushed to the scene. (It was less than ten minutes from the first shot to the last one that ended the rampage.) I’m thankful for medical personnel, doctors, nurses, paramedics—including both retired and off-duty physicians, who when they heard the breaking news came without being asked. I’m thankful for all the churches and Christians who are praying for this community and asking for God’s wisdom and comfort, and for all who aren’t affiliated with any church or faith, but who have shown love and support during this dark event. This won’t be over by Monday; but we will come through it together.
Thursday mid-morning, I was sitting in my office, when suddenly my phone started ringing, dinging and buzzing. I wondered initially if there had been an amber alert somewhere; but then someone down the hall yelled that there was an active shooter situation at UCC. Before we could figure it all out, it was over, and we quickly pinged everyone we knew who worked at or attended UCC to check their status. I don’t need to tell you that the news was very dark—a number of people had been executed, and there were rumors that the shooter had intended to target Christians.
Probably like you, shock set in, and I struggled with what I was hearing—that evil could reach out its finger and touch our quiet community. I have to admit, I found a quiet place in a dark room and prayed, “Lord, I’m not sure what to do or how to respond. So give me wisdom, and guide my steps.” It’s the same prayer you probably have prayed and will pray again in the coming days.
If this were a memorial service for the victims, we’d probably just grieve together; but we’re gathered here as the church, and I’m your pastor, so I will speak differently. I need to address the two very frustrating and troubling questions that many of us are asking: “Why did this happen?” and “How should we respond?” First:
WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?
When this question assumes center stage in our minds, we aren’t really thinking about the shooter’s motives: why did he do it? Sheriff Hanlin suggested that at least one motive of the shooter was notoriety—his few moments of fame at the bloody expense of others. Sheriff Hanlin said he would not speak the shooter’s name and help fulfill his intentions; I agree. I would encourage us to follow our Sheriff’s lead. But whatever were this young man’s twisted motives, we are at least as troubled at God’s.
Why did God allow this? Couldn’t he have stopped it? And especially if the young man targeted Christians—this suddenly feels like a very unsafe world. And here’s the truth: It is. We live in a broken, fallen world. Evil exists in this world. It is very real. It shows up in a thousand ways—some very dramatic and terrible, and some unnervingly personal and internal. So why did it happen? I want to answer it in a way that you might not hear from others, but I think is disturbingly true.
There is a prophecy in the NT that provides us with a clue:
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. (2 Timothy 3:1-5)
The prediction is that times are coming that could only be described as terrible. In the original language in which the New Testament was written, the word described times that were “violent, dangerous, fierce, or evil.” Terrible...like last Thursday morning. Whether or not these are the last days is arguable, but that we just experienced the kind of time predicted, isn’t.
But notice that the prediction also warns us that terrible times rarely happen in isolation. They’re part of a larger, darker picture.
Forgive me for being blunt: but we shouldn't be shocked that this happened. We live in a world where a major religion, Islam, routinely chases Christians from their homes and publishes videos of beheading, burning, drowning and crucifying Christians. We live in a part of the world—the Western world—where we have banished God to the backrooms of public discourse, and have taught that God (if there is one) had nothing to do with the creation or design of the universe—that this is really a godless universe, and therefore anything goes. We live in a world where selfish desire is enthroned, and where Planned Parenthood promotes abortion, the murder of innocents, and secretly sells body parts of human beings, and then we wonder why this awful and tragic and senseless thing happened? Our culture is perfectly designed to achieve the results we now are experiencing..and if we want different results, we need to change our culture. We can't tell God to take a hike from our life and then blame him for the mess that results. Why do these things happen? Because we have slowly accepted a godless culture of death to grow in our civilization, and unless we repent and return to the Living God who loves us and sent Jesus as our Savior, we'll likely see more senseless tragedy.
This is a world that desperately needs a Savior. And it has One. He said, “The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy. But I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) What we saw in horror Thursday is the work of the thief who kills and destroys life. Our alternative is to turn to Jesus to find life.
We’d love a world with no violence, no murder, no theft, no lying, a world in which people love and care for each other, and accept our differences, and walk hand in hand with their God. It’s just that we don’t have one like that. We have a world in transition, a world that is going somewhere, but isn’t yet there.
Most of the late-night infomercials hawking everything from appliances that slice and dice to hair in a can end with that tantalizing tagline: “But wait! There’s more!” And we wait to hear...more. We want...more. In this case, our hearts yearn for...more.
The tragedy of Thursday shouts to us all of us that we live in an imperfect and broken world—that despite how beautiful and wonderful life is (and it is), there is a streak of heartache and evil and death through it that begs for redemption, for setting things right someday. Jesus claims to be that Redeemer, that Savior. He takes us as we are, forgives our sins, and restores our relationship with God, and begins to work on us from the inside out.
But wait! There’s more!
He intends to fill our life with meaning and purpose, and promises to never leave us or abandon us. He promises to stay with us in life, to take us to the end, no matter how frightened we are, or how ugly it gets.
But wait! There’s more!
He promises that there is a new world coming, one in which there will be no more tears or sadness, no sin or failure, no death or disease. He will right every wrong, make all things new, and we will live forever with Him in His Kingdom.
But let me remind you what he has never promised. A trouble-free long life. This is what’s weird: we didn’t ask to be born. But once born, we assume God owes us at least 80 mostly happy, pain-free years before we exit this stage of life. And we’d like a little forewarning, please. But not too much.
In one of my favorite Psalms, King David makes this statement:
“All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:16)
David affirms that God witnessed our first breath and knows our very last gasp, and in between is closer to us than we can imagine. It’s very important for us to remember, “But wait—there is more!”
The Bible never gives us exact reasons why things happen the way they do; we think things should make sense, the pieces of the puzzle should all fit together better, the tragedies should be fully explained; more often, we’re left with gaping holes in our understanding and in our hearts. What the Bible does affirm is that the world is in transition; that it needs a Savior, a rescuer; that we have the One and Only Savior in Jesus; and that someday through Him God will make all things new and wipe every tear away. Until then, we need to trust Him that there is indeed more.
Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
You will have trouble... Like Thursday morning. Trouble. Awful trouble. Life and death trouble. It’s been like that for some time, and will be like that until his Kingdom comes.
But Jesus tells us to take heart...because He has overcome the world. He knows what it’s like to be targeted, and persecuted, and even executed; and he knows what we yet don’t know—what resurrection is like. Death is not the end of this story, nor of the stories of many who lives were taken or changed forever. There is another chapter coming. There’s more.
It’s probably not enough to stop the hurt; but perhaps it’s enough to hold onto so healing can begin. Then:
HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND?
We all feel like we should be able to do something to change what happened, to swamp evil with good. That’s why we light candles, or gather in parks to pray, or give money for victims, or pay for the coffee of the next guy in line. But the truth is, a lot of things are out of our control. And nothing we do can change what has happened. But there are some things we can do.
When I left the office on Thursday, I had three encounters that spoke to me:
1) As I stepped out of my car to get gas, I overheard a loud and passionate exchange between two guys who were talking about guns, gun control and what they will do if anyone decides to do what this shooter did. I just paid my bill and left. I didn’t have energy to engage.
2) Then at the bank, after some brief chit-chat, the teller looking down at my deposit slip quietly asked, “Everyone in your family OK?” I said, “Yes. Thank you for asking. And yours?” She paused, said one of her daughters attends UCC but that she’s OK.
3) Then while ordering coffee, I caught the Barista’s eye and said, “You OK?” Tears rimmed her eyes, her bottom lip quivered, and she said something like, “I wish that guy would have died a slow death. I wish he would have suffered.” She’s a student at UCC, and the shooting shattered her confidence and sense of security.
So how do we respond? Let me offer three words to remember:
Engage with each other. Ask how another is doing, and take time to listen. We probably need each other’s love and encouragement more than we need each other’s answers. Most of us are pretty wobbly right now. Our emotions are pretty close to the surface. Jar another, and you’ll probably hear passion, or anger, or fear, or frustration. It’s probably a great response just to nod and love the person. Be there for each other.
The Bible is a library of ancient books all telling the larger story of who God is and who we are. And one of the oldest books in the Bible is the book of Job. It is a book about a man who lives through the most agonizing form of suffering any of us can imagine: in a series of seemingly meaningless and purposeless tragedies, Job lost his possessions, his health, even his children. When his friends heard what had happened, they came to him together, and they wept with him, and they just sat there with him, not speaking a word for seven days, Scripture explains, because they saw how great his suffering was.
Jews today call it sitting shiva (the Hebrew word for “seven”). You sit there, be there, and don’t correct or even answer. The NT encourages us to weep with those who weep. You’ll know when to do just that.
For your own sake, trust God that there is more, that the Bible isn’t lying or mistaken about what’s coming. Trust God to take care of you. Few verses in Scripture have spoken to me more often or more powerfully than two from the prophet Isaiah. In the first one, God is reassuring Israel of His presence and care despite their being in an impossible situation:
“Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
I hear God’s voice to us in Isaiah’s words. The second is Isaiah’s prayer to God reminding us that peace comes when our focus is on God and not on the disturbing, dark events around us:
You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock. (Isaiah 26:3-4)
We need that kind of trust. And so do others. They need to hear us speak of trust and hope as well. In the past few days, I’ve said many times something like this: “If this world is all there is, I'd be pretty down, but I'm so grateful there's more..." I’ve said, “It won't always be like this. This world needs a Savior, and has one. He will make things right in the end.” Hope is contagious, as despair is infectious. We need to speak of the hope we have, to remind each other not to despair, and encourage each other especially when days grow dark.
Let me leave you with the prayer most of us know, a prayer the Lord gave us to pray, a prayer that speaks volumes to our situation right now:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13)
Notice how encouraging and instructive this prayer is:
Our Father in Heaven: He is our Father who loves us, who has given us life, and cares for us.
Hallowed be your name: Hallowed is a $5 word that isn’t in our daily vocabulary, but it simply means to honor to someone or something. Jesus is nudging us to pray that God brings good out of what is evil, that He brings honor to His name in the midst of these terrible tragedies.
Your Kingdom come: It’s a confession of our hope, a resetting of our perspective, so that our gaze is not fixated on this present darkness, but on the coming Kingdom of joy and light.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven: As we ask it, we submit to it in our own lives, and try as best as we can to be responsive to Him in all things. Evil does exist; clearly not everyone does what God directs. Jesus encourages us to ask God to accomplish his will even when everything feels evil and out of control.
Give us this day our daily bread: By so asking for today’s needs, we recognize how uncertain life is, that tomorrow is promised to no man. We live the gift of today, but recognize the uncertainty of tomorrow.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors: We admit we are imperfect, broken people who need forgiveness; and we ask for it. But we also must forgive others—and never let grow inside us the very anger, resentment, frustration, bitterness and disregard for life that poisoned that young man. We let God be the judge, and we forgive as we have been forgiven.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: We recognize the pull of evil in us, the temptation to use others and be selfish, and go our way without God. We know we could fulfill that terrible prediction of people who let go of God and enthrone themselves; and we ask that we would not do any of those things. But we also confess that evil exists in this fallen world, and so we entrust ourselves to God to deliver us from it. We cannot escape the presence of evil in this world; at times God may protect us from it; at other times, we may be hurt by it; but whether we live or die, God will not leave us or forsake us, but will bring us into His presence, where evil will never touch us again.
For now, we love others deeply; we trust God for ourselves and our community; and we pray in the midst of darkness that we don’t contribute to the darkness; but instead look forward to his kingdom when all will be made right.
Last Friday, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court of the United States changed our civilization forever.
By ruling that homosexual marriage is legal and not to be denied by any state, they changed the ancient definition of marriage, removed the right of states to self-determination regarding the issue, and made a ruling outside of their purview, apart from any Constitutional basis.
Throughout the weekend, people tweeted the hashtag, #LoveWins, and then posted the angriest, darkest, nastiest comments toward the other side one might imagine. Both gays and straights have fallen into name-calling, ad-hominem arguments and ugly threats. Love hasn’t won (unless by “love,” we simply mean “sexual expression").
In short, the Court simply ruled that no gay couple can be denied a license to marry by any state.
Those supporting gay marriage pooh-pooh the doomsayers by stating what the ruling actually means:
•Gays who want to get married can.
•Gays who don’t want to, don’t have to.
•Straights who want to get married can.
•Straights who don’t want to, don’t have to.
•Religious leaders and organizations who don’t want to perform a wedding (any wedding) won’t be forced to.
•Religious leaders who wish to perform any marriage may.
•If you are in a gay or straight marriage presently, the ruling has no affect on you.
•If you are wanting to express disagreement or displeasure at the ruling, or agreement and relief at the ruling, you may. But otherwise, it doesn’t affect you.
Or so the argument goes. Time will tell whether the ruling makes us a more “open” society, or whether activists will press toward forcing on dissenters not just toleration, but endorsement.
One person took me to task for my posting an article that took the position that though the Supreme Court redefined marriage, marriage (as I believe is defined and established by God) did not change. Her remarks were pointed and sharp:
Personally I'm not offended one bit by the ruling. Maybe that's because I'm "liberal" in the eyes of crusty, old, narrow-minded, pretentious jerks. I find this article repulsive and easily arguable on 90% of the "logic." Maybe God only recognizes heterosexual marriage, but why does the govt have to do the same? Separation of church and govt? No you don't have to preside over a single gay marriage, you don't have to preside over any marriage you don't see fit. That is at your discretion, but don't say that the government is wrong for allowing others to do it. America is a good place to live, if you don't believe it then move to north korea. PS: sorry for the rant. I'm just sick and tired of seeing everyone complain about gay marriage when there were 3 terrorist related executions in one day. If you want to pray for someone, pray for those who are subject to an unimaginable terror every day they wake up. Not for those who are morally wrong in a religious definition.
I hope to live in a world where a gay couple can get married, and I can affirm that marriage is between a man and a woman; that I can't prevent that union and the government won't force me to perform it. I agree with you that government and religion are two different entities––but I suspect that as government grows larger and seeks to enforce its will on dissenters, the legal will trump the religious. America has always been a place where human conscience is recognized and respected; I hope it continues to be, but I'm not optimistic. Do I believe that this ruling will be limited to requiring states to issue marriage licenses for gays? Not at all. Using the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling, I'm pretty sure a legal challenge to polygamy (or polyandry) is coming. And an insistence that organizations that refuse to recognize gay marrieds will lose tax-exempt status. (I absolutely hope I'm wrong, but time will tell.) I don't think I'm a "crusty, old, narrow-minded, pretentious jerk"––or at least that's not why the Supreme Court decision troubles me. So, do I wish to live in North Korea that has a very restrictive, very imposing government? Not at all. I want to live in a place where we can disagree openly, live and let live, and still treat each other with respect and love. How about you?
People are clamoring to talk about and ponder what this means and where it will lead. As you get into conversations about this topic, be sure not to inflame the discussion by name-calling or arguing. Instead, realize that these are matters of conscience, and reaffirm that in matters of disagreement, we should be able to speak freely and respectfully with everyone.
On Facebook, my friend John Snyder, a pastor in Arizona, posted some sanity and wisdom:
"And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be... lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God..." (2Timothy 2:24-3:1, 5)
Over the years, I've noticed that most of our prayers and prayer requests from others revolve around three things:
1. Healing of physical problems:
Ask people for prayer requests, and without a doubt you’ll get at least some requests for physical health. We want God to heal everything from colds and flu to broken bones and terminal cancer. I get it: we can't get away from bodily existence, and when our bodies don't work well or cause us hurt and suffering, we want it to stop. It is, without any doubt, the most common request we receive from others or ask God to answer.
2. Provision of perceived needs or wants:
We have a need and ask God to meet it; we want something we don't have and pray that God will provide it. A man is out of work and so asks God for a job. A person lacks money to pay a upcoming bill, and prays for provision. A woman want a husband with no promising candidates on the horizon, and asks God to meet someone. Someone is confused and want answers or guidance, so he asks God for direction.
3. Reversal of circumstances:
We don't like where we are or the situation we find ourselves in and we want it to reverse/change. We're having problem with our kids, and we want them to behave. We're struggling with weight and we want to lose it. We're frustrated with a person and we want him to change.
Praying and asking God for any of these is not wrong. You can find examples of people praying for each of these in the Bible. But it isn't necessarily what matters most.
So what should we pray for? When we want to encourage others and pray specifically, what requests should be on our lips? What did Paul pray and ask God for in the lives of young Christians? What should we be asking God for, so that we are praying for what matters most?
The answer is in Paul’s prayer in Colossians 1:
"And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light" (vss. 9-12)
What does Paul pray for? He has two main requests:
1) That we'd have clarity about what God wants for our lives.
He prays that we'd be filled with the knowledge of His will––in other words, that we'd have the clarity and conviction of what God wants and desires for us in every area of our lives; in our thoughts, affections, purposes, priorities, activities and choices. Further, praying for wisdom for another is asking that he or she see life from God's point of view, that they'd have a decidedly God-centered perspective on life.
So Paul prays for them to know what God wants––and for that to be crystal clear in their minds, both in the big picture and in the daily details. Believe me, God wants you to have this. He doesn't want you to be in the dark or be confused, but to be crystal-clear about His will.
I often realize that I know better than I live. It's a gap I constantly am trying to close. But once we know what God wants, we need to do what God directs. So Paul asks God for a second request:
2) That we'd live a life worthy of Christ and pleasing to God.
As so often in the Bible, life is pictured as a walk along a path or road. We are traveling through this world, and as we do, we move in a direction, forging convictions, forming habits, learning skills, and making decisions. We could shape our lives around ourselves and our concerns, or we could remember all Christ has done for us, and desire to please Him in everything and in everyday, living worthily of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him!
Not content to pray in generalities, Paul specifically asks God to help believers bear fruit, or live compelling lives that make a difference to others; and increase in the knowledge of God, or grow to be closer to Him and know Him better; to be strengthened with all power...for all endurance with patience, or in other words, to have the ability to patiently and joyfully endure whatever comes, all the while giving thanks to God for all He has already done for us in Christ. This is what Paul has in mind when he prays for another person to live in a manner worthy of Christ and pleasing to God!
So go ahead and pray for anything that comes to mind––for healing, provisions, for circumstances to change. There is nothing wrong with any of those requests. But why not take a cue from Paul and intentionally pray for what matters most for yourself and others? That you'd have clarity about what God wants for your life, and that you'd live a life worthy of Christ and pleasing to God.
(If you take this challenge, let me know how it changes your prayers, and how God answers!)
I have lost my keys, my wallet, my organizer, money, a watch, a hat, a coin purse, sunglasses, tickets, as well as a number of smaller, more insignificant items. In each case, it seems to follow a predictable pattern:
1. I discover that something important to me has disappeared. (This frustrating realization usually occurs at the precise time I need the item, and so it compounds my irritation.)
2. I drop everything else I’m doing to search frantically for what I’m missing. This usually involves first looking in conspicuous places like the bedside table, my Tom Bihn backpack, or the bathroom counter (don’t ask). If it is still nowhere to be found, I try retracing my steps from the last time I remember having the item. By this time, whatever good mood I had prior to the discovery has vanished, and in its place is a blaming, brooding, suspicious person who thinks someone “took” the item without telling me.
3. If and when I find the lost item, I experience relief, make apologies for the people I accused, whisper to myself promises and plans about how I will not lose it again, and generally feel grateful.
Losing something important does that to me.
God knows what it’s like to lose something. Something valuable, even treasured. Something He desperately wants back. But, unlike me, He always knows where it is, and His seeking is never to find, but to restore.
What He has lost is a person. The person is someone you know. He is a neighbor on your block. She works with you in the office. He sits in the seat next to you in class. You see her in line getting a coffee early in the morning. They look normal, function fairly well in life, but are spiritually lost.
The lost person may or may not know he or she is lost. But being spiritually or morally disoriented, they can’t find their way back on their own. As soon as they approach the realm of spiritual truth, nothing looks very familiar. They can seem confused, troubled, even questioning whether they want to be found. But unless they have help, unless someone goes after them, they will not find their way home.
Jesus was once asked why he spent so much time with people who didn’t fit the religious mold, who were embarrassingly messy in their past, who still said and did things that revealed their biblical ignorance and spiritual immaturity. He not only spent time with them, he regularly engaged in conversations with them over lunches and dinners, in larger and smaller groups. “Why” they muttered, “does He welcome and associate with these spiritual halfwits?”
He answered them by telling three stories (which you can read in Luke 15): In the first, a sheep wanders off from the flock; in the second, a woman misplaces a valuable coin; in the third, a young man demands his inheritance, leaves home and squanders it in Vegas-styled living.
Each of the stories share similar parts: Something valuable and important to the owner is lost. The person drops what he is doing to search for it. When he finds it, he rejoices and celebrates. The shepherd searches for the sheep, finds it and carries it home. The woman crawls around her floor until she sees the glimmer of the coin, and then celebrates. The father lets the son go, waits patiently (and in agony) until much later, in the distance from the house, he sees his son trudging home; he runs to meet him, kisses him, and throws a party celebrating his return.
The lost are found.
Jesus defined his mission this way:
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
That’s why Jesus spent so much time and energy on these people. They were lost, and needed to be found. And they mattered to God.
Just like you and me.
However and whenever you became a Christian, I can assure you it was because someone loved you and cared for you enough to see that you understood the Good News. There was a time when you were lost, and—if you’re a Christian—a time when you were found. God is behind this.
This year, I’m asking God to help me see everyone with new eyes––to remember that each individual matters greatly to Him; and if they are lost and have not experienced the gracious gifts of cleansing forgiveness and new life, to reach out to them and do what I can to help them find their way to Jesus.
Join me––won’t you?
Bill Whittle (“Afterburner” on PJTV) observes, “If you add a small amount of the best wine to a cup of sewage, you have...sewage. But if you add a small amount of sewage to a cup of wine, you have...sewage.”
It’s a clever way of pointing out that purity is important, that to contaminate something requires very little of the offending substance.
Few people care whether Ivory bar soap is 99 and 44/100 pure. But take the same standard and apply it to marriage, and everyone cares. As of today, I’ve been married 35 years, which amounts to 12,775 days. If I have a one-night stand with someone, the argument that I’m 99.9999% faithful won’t wash. The .0001% unfaithfulness contaminates the trust.
The same argument can be applied with the same results to finances, speaking truthfully, keeping confidences––nearly every area we deeply care about. The reason is that the contamination affects negatively, even disastrously the previous condition.
Water contaminates nearly nothing, but sewage affects almost everything. The former changes hardly anything, but the other poisons the whole punchbowl.
Rationalizing that it’s just one event, just a small amount, only a small problem does not wash. The smallest amount can contaminate the whole.
Purity matters. It matters most in areas that matter most to us: in truthfulness, in integrity, in promise-keeping, in loyalty and faithfulness.
Where we sully the water with the sewage of our failures, we need to quickly confess it to God who is pure, trust His forgiveness to cleanse us from all impurity, and as best as we can, come clean with those affected.
Purity matters very much. Where does it matter most to you?
We tend to think of distant historical events as less vivid, and therefore less real than events we have witnessed or experienced firsthand. On the contrary, they are as real as our morning cup of steaming coffee.
But the resurrection has the disadvantage not only of being an ancient event (and therefore less vivid to our minds), but also unique in the history of the world, and therefore testing its believability.
So how do we know if the resurrection actually happened?
Some dismiss it out of hand, simply because they believe it couldn't have happened. Things like that don't happen. They start with the preconception that supernatural events aren't possible, and since the resurrection of Jesus must be supernatural, it therefore didn't occur. It's just a story.
But what if it did? How would we know? There is way.
If I were to ask to you prove that you attended a worship service at Redeemer's on Easter Sunday, how could you do it?
Evidence of your attendance might be a dated receipt from the coffee bar or from our Resource Center. Or you might interview those who saw you there or sat with you and worshiped. You might show the notes you took during the sermon, lending credence to your claim that you had been present. You might even cite a dramatic change in thinking and behavior that others noticed, dating to that weekend when you heard about Jesus being raised from the dead. Taken together, it would constitute a formidable case that any jury would accept as convincing: you were there.
This is precisely the kind of evidence that the New Testament cites for the resurrection of Jesus. People witnessed his death. Two individuals laid him in their own tomb, and rocked the flat stone down the gutter, slamming shut the opening of the tomb. But within three days, guards testified that the tomb was open and the body gone. Many men, women, young and old, saw him, some interacting with him, talking with him, eating with him, walking along a road with him. He was seen by individuals, as well as in groups as large as 500 at one time. Meeting him who had been raised, lives where forever changed.
Luke, a first century physician and New Testament author, explained that Jesus showed himself to be alive after death by "many convincing proofs" (Acts 1:3). The word used in the Greek language (in which Acts was written) refers to legal evidence that would stand up in court, eyewitness testimony and proofs that impartial judges would accept. In other words, Luke believed that Jesus came back from death––not a near death experience, but from the grave. And for very good reasons.
IT REALLY HAPPENED!
Upon cardiac arrest, followed by no circulation of oxygenated blood, a person has about twenty seconds before loss of consciousness; with ten minutes, the brain is irreparably damaged; with 30 minutes, the brain dies. Life as we know it is over. There's no coming back from that. Yet, Jesus did.
What happened on Easter Sunday changed everything, because it really happened. Jesus was raised from the dead.
The passing of time perhaps has made the event less vivid in many of our minds, but not less real. The only thing that has changed is time. And time never erodes the reality of an event that happened. It happened, and it behooves us to ponder it, what it means, and how it has and should affect us on the other side of it.
Jesus is really risen from the dead!
How does that affect you?
You are older than the stars. You are called “The Ancient of Days,” and before time began You existed forever. Long after this world is done, You still will be God.
You are alive as no other; in fact all life has its source in You. With every birth, we see the marks of your creative genius. With every death, we are reminded that our hours are in your hands. You give breath to every living thing, and when you take it away, our days end.
You are as close to us as a friend by our side, or as our thoughts in our minds, or our breath in our lungs. You know everything about us––every experience we’ve had, every success we’ve enjoyed, every failure we’ve suffered––all with sharp clarity and present vividness. With perfect wisdom and unhindered power, you show yourself to be sovereign over all.
You know us better than we know ourselves, love us better than we love ourselves, and order all things according to the pleasure of Your will. Every pleasant thing in our lives, every answer to prayer, every provision of need, every friend we enjoy and every trouble we escape is a sign of your steady goodness.
Every standard of right, every perception of goodness is tied to you; you are good and from you we receive all that is good. When you could punish us for our wrongdoings, you grant us mercy. When we have not earned your favor, you freely give us grace upon grace. In uncompromising holiness and righteousness, you have paid the ultimate price for forgiveness.
On this Good Friday, we remember it was you who came; you who was rejected; you who suffered; you who was crucified; you who paid the price for us. Our guilt is gone because of you. As One risen from the dead, you are the Lord of Life.
We confess that we tend to take for granted all You have done for us. You have been so good for so long that we expect your gracious gifts to continue. We confess that at times we have lost sight of Your purposes for us, and have instead become enamored with our expected standard of living. We have lived for pleasures and diversions, but have forgotten that people around us are without forgiveness and hope; their eternal future is eclipsed by our present convenience. Forgive us.
We want to be more responsive to the promptings of Your Spirit, and less enslaved to the plans and to-do lists of the day. We want Your Word to fill our minds, to bubble up in our quiet moments, reminding us who You are, who we are, and the directions You intend for us to go. We want to see you work in us so yesterday’s failures and frustrations have less control over us tomorrow. We want you to work through us to do those things that are lasting. And we want you to work apart from us, to see your power and glory evidenced in ways that strike awe in our hearts and remind us You alone are God.
Thank you God, for all you are, and all you have done. Thank you for your promises and your unfailing love. Thank you that because of Christ, you will never treat us as our sins deserve. Thank you that you will never leave or abandon us.
Thank you that on this Good Friday looking toward Easter, we remember that the death of Jesus was enough to make us right with you, and we look forward to the resurrection of our bodies and the renewing of this world.
With hearts of gratitude, we pray confidently in Jesus’ name.
"I can't understand why God would allow...."
Many of us have expressed this, finishing the sentence with personal disappointments, reversals and tragedies: a young person you know succumbing to cancer, your own marriage lying dead in the water, your son or daughter rejecting everything you as parents stood for.
Nearly all us have thought it upon being exposed to troubling events of the day: a second Fort Hood shooting, North Korean brutality on its own citizens, bombings by terrorists, a Malaysian flight vanishing into thin air.
“Why?!” we wonder.
The question isn’t meant to press meaning into the tragedy or make sense of the losses, but rather to question the existence of a so-called sovereign God who seems very, very silent. The question should be asked, and there is an answer that historically has been held by Christians through the ages. Though it may not satisfy everyone’s curiosity or questioning about any one specific event, it does provide enough perspective to not get stuck. In fact, I find the answer as breathtaking as many of the tragedies that suck the wind out of my lungs.
Let me take you just for a moment up to 10,000 feet to look around.
I'm not going to talk about that terrible incident so many years ago; it was destructive, it was wrong, it was formative, it shouldn’t have happened. In a better world––not even a perfect world––it wouldn’t have happened. But it did. But don’t fixate on that event. Let’s ascend to 10,000 feet. What do you see?
We live in a very mixed world. It is both beautiful and breathtaking as well as ugly and destructive. A person can make a strong case that in the human heart, there is goodness, and given opportunity people do some wonderful things. Creation speaks of the grandeur and glory of it's Creator. Each day can touch us and move us and fill us with wonder and gratitude. Still, every time we turn around, there is a black and red streak of evil marring the picture. Stamp it out, and it goes dormant, but eventually surfaces again like boils on fresh skin.
We are living in interim age after Jesus the Messiah has come, and before He returns to set all things right. In the New Testament, we live in "this present age", and we often look forward to "the age to come." In other words, God knows what he's doing, recognizes evil exists now, and is working against it now and will eradicate it once and for all soon at the end of this age.
Knowing this general truth doesn't mean I understand why Nazis can liquidate 6 million Jews in ovens and open graves, or why a million babies get aborted annually in the United States, or 42 million worldwide, or why governments can lie to us or Christians can be martyred or Muslims can distort truth across whole societies, or marriages can fail or gay marriages are promoted...and God seemingly does nothing.
But the the implications of this general truth biblically are not unclear.
•First, each one of us must submit to God.
God wants each one of us to come to Christ, to be forgiven, to enter into a relationship with Him, to walk the path of life following His leading, and spread the word. We do not need more legislation, more laws. We need changed hearts. Thomas Reed rightly observed, "One of the greatest delusions in the world is the hope that the evils in this world are to be cured by legislation." Our lives change from the inside out when the Spirit of God takes up residence in the human heart. In The End, everyone in God's Kingdom loves Him and wants to be there; something supernatural and transformative must first happen in each person. That is what is happening right now, in this age, person by person, in the proclamation and acceptance of the Gospel.
•Next, we must take sides.
We should speak out against evil in this world, and work against it whenever and wherever we can. Bonhoeffer said, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil." In this age, we are to take sides. In my favorite Psalm, 139, in which David speaks so eloquently and beautifully of God's intimate knowledge of each one of us, he destroys the mood by declaring his desire for God to "slay the wicked" (vs. 19) and expressing his "hate" of all who stand against God (vs. 21-22). David knew that neutrality isn't necessarily godly in a world infected with wickedness. Take sides. Act justly. Speak up. Intervene.
•Finally, we must wait.
Patiently, in hope, we look to the future when what has happened inside us as believers will also happen all around us in Creation. The Day will dawn. All things will be set right. The world will change. Justice and judgment will come. The Messiah, Christ, Jesus will reign, and this age of the world, dark and exhausted, will end.
The single events of anyone's life will fit as pieces of the incredibly complex cosmic puzzle that God is putting together. Am I clear how it all fits together? Not even at 10,000 feet can I see it yet. But I will.
"And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).
So will you.
What do you see now?
Why should I continue to read the Bible?
After all, as a pastor, I know the Scriptures better than most people. I know the stories, the timelines, the backgrounds and most of the interpretations of difficult passages. I can cite references at will; most of the time I can give the book and nearly every chapter. I’ve memorized key passages – both individual verses and whole sections. I can fit the pieces together chronologically and theologically. I can read them in the languages in which they were originally penned. A person would find it difficult to cite a passage that I didn’t recognize or wasn’t very familiar with. So why should I spend time (outside of preparing to teach) reading what I already know?
Simple. Because I want to live.
I don’t mean that by the very act of reading the Scriptures, or becoming familiar with their content, or even by obeying the commands in them, I gain God’s favor or earn admission points to heaven. Jesus Himself corrected that notion when he rebuked the religious leaders of His day: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life." (John 5:39-40)
Besides correcting what the Scriptures are not (an end to themselves), Jesus indicated what they were and still are (a roadmap to Him and to life).
The Bible often describes my life as a “walk” (22 times in Paul’s letter alone). My life is a journey that’s going someplace. Along the way, I will find myself faced with forks in the road, read confusing signposts, and sometimes be forced to turn back to take another path that will lead in a different direction. The Bible is my compass showing me where "north" is; it is my map giving me a "God’s-eye view" of my life. With it I can better determine where I am and where I need to be.
Further, the Scriptures are God’s primary tool to transform my mind (Romans 12:2) so I think differently, see things from Heaven’s perspective and value things as God does. They not only give me guidance, they tell me who I am, where I came from and where I’m going. They remind me what matters; and as importantly, what doesn’t. They even describe God to me, and through them I hear His voice.
Especially in this culture, the world’s voice and values are a constant din, assaulting my ears and mind, trying to shape and mold my mind. Advertisements repeatedly assault my senses; television dramas test my convictions and boundaries; music and lyrics become the background to life, not so subtly digging tracks for my thoughts. All this happens every day, everywhere I turn. My eyes and ears are the gateways to my mind and heart; who or what is meant to guard them? God has not left us defenseless: the Holy Spirit using God’s Word stands at the entrypoints of my life. When I read the Scriptures and expose myself to its truth, I place in the Spirit’s hands the weapons to defend my heart and mind.
Among all these rambling thoughts, I know that everytime I read the Scriptures, I see Jesus. I’m reminded that the Story is His, it’s about Him, it points to Him and finds its consummation in Him. And my love for Him and desire to know Him better is strengthened as I read, re-read, and remember.
Jesus said it simply, quoting a passage in Deuteronomy while under duress as he was tempted by Satan: ”It is written, ‘A person does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)
Do I need to read and digest the Scriptures? Must I review what I already know, what I can easily recount? Must I think deeply, spend at least a few moments daily, ponder continually the Scriptures? Only if I want to live this life as God intended.
This morning I opened to one of the Psalms I’ve read so many times, and read, "The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made" (Psalm 145:8-9), and I was glad.
The Scriptures are waiting. For you.
Want to start a great discussion? Want to get into a great conversation? Want to get to know a person better than you do now? Tired of the same old "blah-blah"? It's actually easy. Just ask!
Small talk by its very definition won't make great conversations. Instead ask a great question. What makes a great question? (Hey! That's a great question!)
Then listen for all you’re worth! Sit back, and be a great audience. Let the silence do its work. Watch the person's mannerisms: Is she nervous? Did the question hit home? Is he smiling or frowning? Defensive or intrigued? Give the person all the time in the world to answer, as well as the freedom to revise or correct or modify what he says on the fly. Even if you disagree with what the person says, nod and be attentive, encouraging her to continue. Whatever you do, don't cut him off, even if his answer upsets you, or is clearly wrong. Don't start to shake your head, or look displeased, or mentally begin to form a rebuttal, because if you do, he'll stop answering and you'll stop listening. Feel free to ask clarifying or follow-up questions, but remember the spotlight is on the one answering. Your role is to listen for all you’re worth.
Great questions can be used diagnostically, helping you understand and get to know another person. Because they open the door to deeper convictions, they are useful in turning the discussion to the Good News of Christ.
TWENTY GREAT QUESTIONS
That said, here are twenty of my favorites (in no particular order) that I keep in my back pocket to pull out when the moment is right:
1. ”Do you think it is possible to get to know God personally? If so, how?”
2. ”Are you happy with your life? What’s missing?”
3. ”What do you imagine God is like?”
4. ”If you died tonight (and I hope you don’t), how certain are you (from 0-100) that you’d go to heaven (if there is one)?”
5. ”What are some of the reasons people don’t go to church? Why do some?”
6. ”Do you think there is a purpose or plan for your life outside anything that you’ve dreamt up? If there was, would you want to know?”
7. ”If you could change one thing about your life right now, what would it be? How would that make things better?”
8. ”What is holding you back in life right now?”
9. ”What do you wish someone would ask you?”
10. ”If you had a chance, would you like to meet Jesus? Why or why not?”
11. ”What’s the key to understanding the real you that most people miss?”
12. (To anyone in trouble, sick, facing a divorce or grieving over a death:) “Are you afraid?”
13. ”What do you have to offer other people?”
14. ”What is one thing you’d never, ever do?”
15. ”What do you do when your conscience troubles you?”
16. ”If you could live over one day in your life (good or bad), which would it be and why?
17. ”When you die, what would you hope people would say about you?”
18. “You are the President of the College of Life. What’s the first course every entering student must take?”
19. “If there is a God, what do you think is the best evidence of His existence? The most damaging evidence that He doesn’t exist?”
20. “Everyone dies. If you could write the script for how you leave this world, how would it play out?”
These are just a few of the nearly 400 questions in my conversational toolbox I’ve collected over the years and have found intriguing.
By the way, which intrigues you most? And how would you answer it?
All it takes to become a Christian is to believe the Gospel, the Good News about Christ. A person must trust in who Jesus was and what He did for you: He died in your place to pay for your guilt as your Savior, and was raised from the dead as the Lord who gives the Spirit of life to all who believe in Him. Sound simple?
It is, but there is a warning. So much of early Christian teaching about the Gospel involves repentance. The word in the original Greek language doesn’t refer to cleaning up your life prior to presenting yourself to God, nor even to promising to be better in future than you were in the past. The word literally means, “change your mind” or “turn your thinking around.” About what?
•About who God is––a holy and righteous God, who nonetheless loves His creation and seeks their redemption.
•About who we are––people who have done wrong and gone wrong, and deserve God’s just punishment, people who cannot make things right with God on our own; and
•About Jesus––the Son of God, the promised Christ, the Savior of the World, apart from whom no salvation exists.
Some people attempt to merge Christian truth with their presently held beliefs without forgoing any conflicting convictions. The result is either a lifestyle or behavior at odds with God, or even worse––an inoculation by a weak or compromised form of the truth. The person thinks they’re Christian, but in fact is not.
Whenever I’m attempting to diagnose the spiritual condition of a person, I ask myself two questions:
1) “Is he really a Christian?” Does the person have the genuine disease? Does he really understand and believe in his heart the Gospel? And,
2) “Does he look and act like it?” Is the person’s language, behavior and values consistent with God’s? The New Testament assumes that if the tree of your life is good, fruit is expected. It’s reasonable to ask, “Does this person’s faith result in Christlike character (called, “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23), and in making a constructive, spiritual difference in other people’s lives?
The answers to these two questions can be either simply, “yes” or “no” giving us four possibilities about the person under observation. The first and fourth possibilities are the easiest to discern:
#1: “He is genuinely converted and acts like he is.”
He articulates his need for Christ and understands what Jesus has done. He seems to trust in what Jesus did as enough to make him right with God and rests in it. His behavior, though not perfect, appears to respond to God’s directions in the Scriptures. He is growing and progressing in his obedience to Jesus and his love for God and others. The Apostle, Paul clearly falls into this category, having experienced a life-altering conversion upon seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).
Likewise, the fourth area is also somewhat obvious:
#4: “He is not converted and doesn’t act like he is.”
To put it another way, he also is consistent with his beliefs, yet as an unbeliever in Christ. One would expect this person to deny that Jesus was anyone other than a good religious teacher, and might be convinced that there is no God. Or he might embrace an entirely different religion, advocating a way to please God or live life that is foreign to the Bible. Simply put, he makes no bones about not being a Christian. Further, his behavior, his expressed beliefs, his value judgments do not necessarily fall in line with Christian practice. The Jewish leaders who crucified Jesus, murdered Stephen and opposed Paul are examples from this category, as are the Greek philosophers to whom Paul proclaimed the “unknown God” (Acts 17).
The third box describes a more confused individual:
#3: “He is genuinely converted but doesn’t act like he is.”
At some point in the past, this person has understood and believed the Gospel. He has received and embraced the twin gifts of God, forgiveness and new life through the indwelling Spirit. For whatever reasons, either he has not grown out of his past habits or broken free of his sinful pursuits, or he has fallen into them after the truth has taken root in his life. (The Corinthian believers in the New Testament are good examples of these bad examples––people who genuinely believed in Christ and received the Spirit, but who were notoriously troubled morally and spiritually.) So, he lives a scrambled spiritual life, the promises of God and the promptings of God’s Spirit being muted by the voices of this world and the turning over of his mind and will to the world’s desires. An old adage describes him perfectly: “Too much of Christ to be happy in the world, and too much of the world to be happy in Christ.”
The most troubling of all possibilities involves the second box–the deceiving and self-deceived individual:
#2: “He is not converted but acts like he is.”
Perhaps he has grown up in a religious home where he has adopted a Christian culture, or has felt pressured by friends or family members to make certain professions of faith that he did not deeply believe. It is not enough to attend church, or submit to baptism, or even say the right words at appropriate times; a person must develop certain convictions about God, and Jesus and oneself that open the door to simple belief in Christ. One of the original 12 disciples, Judas, a constant companion of the Savior, and one who in the end betrayed him and committed suicide falls into this category. Simon Magus (Acts 8) also seems to have gone through all the right motions, but without rejecting magic or developing basic Christian convictions.
Though four possibilities exist when considering the condition of a person who professes to be a Christian, only one is what Jesus wants. The other three require different prescriptions that address their specific infections.
So ponder the possibilities. How do you help an individual in each category move to #1?
Question:I heard that Christmas is a pagan holiday? What gives?
Every year, this question is bound to come up. Well-meaning people want to inform the ignorant that this Norman Rockwell holiday has evil roots; that Christians who know better should shun the whole Santa scene with its reindeer, snowmen, elves and sleighs. The Grinch is the only proper person to emulate on this non-Christian holiday.
So is Christmas a fabricated, non-Christian holiday?
There are a number of ways to answer this: “No,” “Sort of,” and “Yes.” Let me take them in that order.
Christmas isn’t a pagan (non-Christian) holiday. We celebrate the birth of Jesus, the long awaited coming of Christ into the world. How Christian can you get?
But the fact that so much of our holiday is shared and shaped by the world around us leads me to answer, “Sort of.” After all, Baby Jesus shares the stage with angels, donkeys, shepherds, wisemen, and a whole host of other creatures and figures less than Biblical: Frosty, Rudolf, elves, Santa, and even a green Grinch. The whole notion of a Savior is threatened to be smothered by wrapping paper, fudge, gifts, cards, parties, lights, candy canes, Visa bills, dead fir trees and wreaths. So the day isn’t exclusively Christian.
In fact historically, first century believers didn’t celebrate the birth of Christ at all. The resurrection of Christ from the dead (celebrated as “Easter”) captivated their attention far more than His birth. Authorities aren’t even certain about the precise date of Christ’s birthday. Some think the end of December, while others point to the first of January, and still others figure as late as the end of March! No one is sure. So how did we arrive at December 25th?
By 336 A.D., the majority of churches celebrated Christmas (or as they called it, “The Feast of the Nativity”) on our traditional date. But some point out (usually passionately and angrily) that behind that date was a pagan holiday—the Feast of Saturnalia, the festival celebrating the birth of the Sun in the sky (i.e. the turning point in the dead of winter when days begin to get longer again). They had feasts, gave gifts, sang songs and made merry. (Sound familiar?)
So it is a pagan holiday!? Yes. So what?
THEN WHY CELEBRATE IT?
Ponder why Christians associated with that date. Instead of boycotting the whole mess, early Christians decided to redefine it and use it as an evangelistic opportunity to reach their pagan neighbors with the message of Christ—who at least for time would be open to the thought of God in their life. They took hold of the holiday, and used it as a platform to worship and proclaim not the sun, but the Son (a play on the words not only in English, but also in Greek).
So if someone gets in your face about Christmas, just remember. You don’t have to participate if you don’t want to. There is no Biblical command to buy a tree, or to eat fudge (though I wish there were), or to buy gifts or even to kiss under mistletoe. God doesn’t demand you celebrate Christmas. On the other hand, you do no wrong to enjoy the season, especially if you use it as a means to remember that the Son of God has come, and to enjoy the company of others who don’t yet know Him as Savior.
People need to know Jesus. Worship Him, talk about Him, and give others the best gift God has given you: His Love in Christ!
What do you do traditionally that you treasure at Christmas?
The following is an article I wrote to address Acts 6:1-7 which we had planned to teach the weekend of December 14-15. However, Roseburg froze over the previous weekend, and for the sake of safety we canceled services. In order to stay on schedule, we decided to look at the passage here, rather than in a sermon. Let me know your thoughts about it!
Now in the days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-7, ESV)
GROWTH BRINGS PROBLEMS
Growing families need more space, more food, more clothes, more time and attention. Any couple who has recently added the first little one to their home will describe it as life-changing!
Growing companies have communication problems, distribution challenges and leadership needs. What worked when they were smaller isn’t sufficient to address the situation when they become larger.
Even churches are tested when they grow. Growth in numbers tests our focus (“Will we stay on track with our purpose or get distracted?”); it tests our flexibility (“Are we still flexible enough to change, or are we set in our traditional ways?”); it even tests our love (“Is it about numbers of nickels and noses, or still about people?”).
As the early church grew to well over five thousand believers, they began to have problems that they didn’t have when they were smaller––problems that resulted from their diversity and different expectations. Apparently, though everyone in the church was Jewish, not all were culturally the same. Most were Hebraic Jews––those who spoke Hebrew and were most comfortable with strict Jewish culture; but a growing minority of believers came from a Hellenistic background, spoke Greek as their first language and were most at home in a more relaxed religious environment.
It helps to understand that there was no Social Security system in place in that day. Families typically took care of their own; but if a woman had no family or was a single mother with no prospects for marriage, she often was destitute. The early church saw this as a need to be addressed, and from its early days, it took benevolent offerings to help the poor in their midst. So what was the problem?
As the church grew, the needs grew as well. Further, the money was entrusted to the Apostles who then distributed to others as they showed need (Acts 4:34-35). When a church has only a few hundred people, the expectation that leaders know names and faces, backgrounds and situations is entirely reasonable. As more are added, it becomes less likely that a few leaders know everything and everyone. In this case, some of the widows had been overlooked or neglected. I doubt that it was intentional; but because the widows were Hellenistic, many from that background took it personally. They did not think the best of the Apostles, but rather the worst: “They don’t care about us. They favor their own.”
THE SOLUTION IS MORE GROWTH...IN STRUCTURE
I suppose the Apostles could have become defensive and could have dismissed the rumored charges as inaccurate and unsubstantial: “Those griping Greeks always find something...” They could have downplayed the problem and pointed out that it was only a few widows – which would not have addressed the real issue that Hellenistic Jews felt like second-class citizens. They could have dropped what they were doing, succumbing to the loud demands for action, and changed their focus to solve the problem and serve the widows.
They did none of that.
What did they do?
1. They quickly acknowledged the problem as legitimate, and offered a workable solution. Too often, leaders simply say, “Not my job,” and leave it at that. It might not be their job, but it is their job as a leaders to address situations and offer solutions, or at least give constructive guidance.
2. They reaffirmed what they were called to do, and therefore their priorities in ministry. They needed to attend to proclaiming and teaching God’s word and praying for the church – in other words, they continued to focus on the spiritual side of ministry. There is wisdom in doing a few things well and foolishness in attempting to do everything yourself. Disgruntled or disappointed people can be so vocal that leaders are tempted to drop what God has called them to do to solve problems they aren’t called to solve. Even with the best of intentions, if a leader abandons his responsibilities to meet legitimate needs, he has made a bad decision. Everyone has a part to play, and no one plays all the parts. Playing someone else’s part robs them and violates your responsibilities.
3. They recognized that the leadership structure must grow to meet the needs of a growing church. Sometimes an organization outgrows its administrative structure; it needs to address problems that didn’t exist when the structure was set up. The leaders of the early church knew that for the church to continue to grow, problems must be addressed––and one of the first problems now facing them was the lack of leaders to deal with specific problems!
The Apostles’ solution was to decentralize––to share the ministry of leadership with others. They had to trust that there were other believers who cared, who were gifted by God and who could address the problem wisely and tactfully. Delegation is often difficult for competent leaders because it requires them to trust someone else with a problem they could solve if they directed their energies to it. The too-high price tag of not delegating is a neglect of the current responsibilities of those same leaders. So, they decided to delegate not only the responsibility of attending to benevolent needs (and the corresponding handling of cash to do so), but also the authority to make good and wise decisions regarding that ministry.
HOW YOU GROW IS CRITICAL
As Luke relates the story, the Apostles simply gave guidelines for the quality of individuals needed to lead this ministry and let the people select them. If silence suggests anything, it is striking what the Apostles didn’t do:
•They didn’t select the people themselves. This invited those who were vocalizing the problem to be part of the solution. If the Hellenistic widows were being neglected, perhaps some Hellenistic people could be selected to ensure that the widows would be attended to.
•They didn’t even mandate how these new leaders were to be selected. The method was clearly flexible, whereas the qualifications were set in concrete. Focusing on clear qualities and not specific procedures, the Apostles wisely indicated that good people were key to solving bad problems. I am often reminded that if you have good people in a bad structure, you’ll probably be fine; if you have bad people in a good structure, you’ll constantly be in trouble.
•They didn’t micro-manage. Once they laid hands on the newly selected leaders and entrusted to them this ministry (and its present challenges), the Apostles never addressed it again. They let it go, and let these servants (or “deacons”) do their thing.
NOT JUST WARM BODIES...
So what kind of people are needed as leaders of this (and other) ministries? One might think, “any warm body will do”––and if we thought so, we’d be wrong. Whether the focus is “spiritual” or “physical,” whether it involves finances or educational programs, every ministry is about people. No wonder, then, that the Apostles advised that they choose individuals with good reputations, who were controlled by the Holy Spirit’s presence and marked by wisdom (6:3). They would need all those traits to effectively deal with the hurts and disappointments of two cultures clashing over slighted widows.
And it worked.
GROWTH CAUSES GROWTH
Luke’s last word in this passage is one of success: “And the word of God continued to increase” (because the Apostles didn’t ignore their own calling), “and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (implying that the church was once again unified and healthy).
In fact, Luke states that the impact of this administrative change had an unintended spiritual impact: “and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” The “priests” were the same Sadducees who once disbelieved in resurrection, in any unseen world, in miracles or in angels. So great was the love and impact of the church among its own, and so wise was the Apostles’ handling of this potentially volatile situation, that even these who had been resistant to the faith were now drawn to believe in the Savior. Such was the impact of good and wise leadership when faced with troublesome problems of growth.
Too little structure or too centralized a leadership, and problems do not get addressed. Too much structure, and flexibility suffers. An organization should have just enough structure to address the needs that growth brings, but not too much that strangles creativity or flexibility.
THE GROWTH PRINCIPLE APPLIED
The church of which I am privileged to pastor, Redeemer’s Fellowship, has grown from a small Bible study in the front room of physician’s home to a large church of over 1800 individuals; meeting in a rented facility in 1987 to owning three buildings on the corner of Lookingglass and Harvard, and one downtown; from two founding pastors with a part-time secretary to 19 full- and part-time ministry and support staff. The number of our ministry leaders and our structure has increased to address the challenges and opportunities that growth has brought. In all, we have been able to retain both creativity and flexibility in leadership and ministries, though we are constantly in need of more leaders who have the reputation of being “full of the Spirit and wisdom” and “full of faith” (6:3, 5).
If a person is healthy, he or she will grow––physically, emotionally, spiritually. We expect families to grow––there should be children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Successful businesses and organizations will grow. And churches in whom the Spirit of God is working will certainly grow – not only in numbers as people hear the Good News and believe, but also in depth of character as individual believers become increasingly Christlike, and in ministries, structure and leadership as they face the problems growth brings.
Where have you seen growth in structure solve or create problems? Let me know in the comments below.
Pray that all of us, especially at Redeemer’s, would do as the early church did, so we might see what they saw – God multiplying the number of individuals who find and follow Jesus.