Got Good Religion?

NC-ND, Jason, Flickr

NC-ND, Jason, Flickr

Novelist Anne Rice explains that she has lived as a Christian for 12 years and publicly so for four of those years. But on July 28, 2010, in three Facebook entries, she “quit” Christianity—“In the name of Christ…Amen.” Her I Refuse entry laments her broad assessment of the Christian religion that she can simply no longer be part of. Some have said that Christianity draws fire from her due to treatment she has witnessed in the life of her gay son.

I think I know where she’s coming from. She is upset that much of the love and moral uprightness that she cherishes about Christ in the New Testament is either not evident or altogether spurned by those who claim to know him, as she deems it, in their views on science and philosophy and their position on socio-political issues.

She’s right to bring rebuke to a Christian community that may be blinded by its own righteousness. History such as the Crusades and the Inquisition all the way to modern-day radical, Christianized ideology should teach us as much about ultra-conservative idealism.

The Historical View

Allow me now to respond to this issue by stepping back and taking a comprehensive view. One of the greatest tasks of the Church Fathers was their fight against heresy, particularly about Christ, finalizing the canon (the Bible), and explaining the doctrines and teachings of the faith. Their work helped convert a Christian sect into a more developed religion by systematizing its thought and showing those who attacked it that Christianity was philosophically viable and apologetically defensible.

Their work continues to (and will always) help answer the moral and ethical issues that crowd out generations in countless cultural circumstances, which is an amazing thing to ponder. Yet culture is the one thing that makes the issues and questions so difficult to answer in strictly Christian terms—that is, to answer them in a way that coherently and thoroughly responds to an ever-evolving culture and honors and esteems God’s holiness at the same time.

In light of the solid groundwork that has been laid and an almost tangible picture of God’s holiness gathered from the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament writings, Christians still do not always fare well at interpreting God’s heart and character, if only by showing too one-sidedly a God of love or one who loves justice a little too much.

NC-ND, Catherine, Flickr

NC-ND, Catherine, Flickr

So with Ms. Rice I agree that Christians should be present at the forefront of these issues, especially after 2,000 years of developed thought, standing firm in their convictions, yet open to dialogue and not castigating, close-minded, or stranded of thoughtfully deep analysis.

All Other Ground…Sinking Sand

Still, I take issue with her “I quit” proclamation, the old organized religion is full of trouble argument. Anne says that she is not quitting Christ (a good thing), but she is quitting his Church because she can no longer be part of a “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” If by these adjectives she means what I have already attempted to say, then I understand, although I find her reasoning faulty.

She must understand—and why don’t people?—that the true Church of God will always oppose sin, plain and simple. The church will always struggle within itself with the questions of society and come up with responses not to please but to say, This is how best we see God answering this. That will always be a clear and firm ‘No’ to any (new) social immorality and what has already been shunned by scripture. Religion with changing convictions is not worth keeping.

Why do people lose their faith in God when they see ministers fall and Christian institutions being less than reputable? Peter walked on the water with Jesus until he took his eyes off Christ. This is what happens when our faith isn’t grounded in the person of Christ despite the imperfections of his Church.

I believe Anne Rice loves Christ and loves what his Church represents and is existentially, not only in America, but also around the world. As usual, however, error often comes with an overcorrection to abuse. Is she now siding with culture against the church she loves? (Yes, you hear me correctly. You cannot love Christ and think yourself divorced from his Church. To be so is to be at odds with your faith and maybe even outside of it.

There is no way to read the scriptures and not find Christ represented as the “head of the body” [Eph. 1:22-23] and the groom of “the bride” [Rev. 21:2-6].) And why is it that people think Christ would be any more lenient against sin than his Church has been in holding the guard? Surely there would be no Church—it would have died in the first century. Ms. Rice cannot jump ship because Christ is aboard the ship and all else is chaos.

Stay in the Fight!

This reminds me of desert monasticism that arose in early Christian history. Many fled into the deserts to flee persecution and to live out their Christian faith distanced from the immorality that abounded in the cities. It led to spiritual revival and some of the saintliest personages and literature in all Christian history.

CC Celso Flores, Flickr

CC Celso Flores, Flickr

Yet that approach to living the Christian life is not one to be quickly emulated. Christians have to live in this world just like anyone else, and we will have to deal with very un-Christian institutions and situations. Jesus’s high priestly prayer to his Father says it all: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:14-15).

We should count Christ’s prayer a promise of safety to us in our lives and evangelical mission since we trust that his Father heard him. We will get it right some of the time and not so right at other times. Still, we will press on in Jesus’s name and for his honor. But we are not to get fed up amongst ourselves despite inconsistent faith and differing viewpoints and abandon it all. Peter expresses this sentiment when he remembers the glory of Christ’s transfiguration (2 Peter 1:12-19).

There is also no place for Me-and-Jesus spirituality. In Christ there is no looking back to sin or looking away for isolation. Anne Rice should not flee any error she notices but rather engage it with a call to repentance.

I think this is the higher message to be dealt with, as opposed to other social issues she may actually be supporting. Christians should see Ms. Rice’s situation for what it is: a rebuke where we may be insensitive and less than Christ-like in our attitudes to some. But she need not now lead the army of devils that hate the Church and all religion but work to open dialogue and to transform.

Rogue Conviction

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” ~Pascal

CC BY-NC, SalFalko, Flickr

CC BY-NC, SalFalko, Flickr

One Saturday morning I listened to the public radio quiz show “Whad’Ya Know?” while driving with my family to a nearby town. The whimsical show is hosted by Michael Feldman and features a trivia game with both audience and caller participants. One of the questions in the game this particular morning was “Who turns up the electric shock dial the highest—readers of the Bible or Time Magazine?” Since I am both of these, I knew the answer immediately: the Bible thumpers.

I knew it because I have watched myself evolve from a staunchly conservative individual with high objectives of character and moral living—my Bible leanings—to a slightly more liberal thinker who, still with his strong convictions, can now be conversant with various ideas and those who may accept no religion. So why is it that the people with the most conviction or who are the most unexposed often the most unmerciful and resistant to change? I offer a suggestion.

Perhaps a belief is to be possessed or espoused, not vice versa, lest believers (in anything) risk being driven by their beliefs and so become fanatics. People who sacrifice themselves to their convictions often become instruments of those ideas to beat others into subjection. By turning their beliefs into abject rules their own lifestyle is bound by adherence and that causes people to be legalistic toward others. It is difficult to acquaint those who are diametric and cheerless for need to always convert.

We all know someone who leans a little too far left or right. For instance, some people love money and are only motivated to gain as much as they can get; others cannot enjoy their money for the need to save it all. If you’re not running after money or hoarding every penny you can find, then you probably deserve the poverty coming your way. I watched a news story once of a woman so careful about her home energy expenditures that she turned off the heat each night in the deep of winter. Such is the case of conviction become obsession and compulsion.

When Barack Obama became President, I spoke with a black gentleman who was glad to see a black family in the White House. Yet he was so opposed to the new leader’s politic that he couldn’t relish what the moment represents in American history. It underscores a point to me: any notion, whether of faith or sport or politics or propriety or family—anything is subject to extremes, and this is the negation of true enjoyment.

More on this topic: Acting Against Your Better Judgment

Work That Pleases God

CC BY-NC, MS Images

What does God think about our work? The apostle Paul offers a clue in Ephesians 6:5-9.

First, he admonishes us to obey our supervisors respectfully, underscoring God’s order of authority. We know that not all leaders are good ones. Paul understood this and it is evident in his writing. But his point is that God is honored by our obedience to and respect for the position. When we serve our managers, we please God our ultimate authority. It is not far-fetched to believe that our service to God in this manner is one way he makes an end of bad authority.

Second, Paul advises us to be sincere in our work. He also adds that we should work hard even when we’re not being watched, which can be hard when the work is monotonous or disliked. Working as unto God is no protection from boring, unnerving work. Work can also be personally burdensome when there are other important things needing to be handled. But should we shirk our responsibilities when we get tired or upset? Is it fine to leave our work behind for others to do? Are we to work less because others are loafing? This is when sincerity matters.

Third, Paul tells us to work enthusiastically. There is no better work accomplished than that done joyfully, creatively, and with excellence. Even if the job is doing one thing a thousand times a day, it is the attitude that counts. We should strive for the best thousand of any other worker! We can work on behalf of all the people who will buy the product. We can work with gratefulness that we have a job and money to provide for ourselves and our families. We can work because we truly love it, the workplace and our coworkers. Work this way, Paul says, because the true reward for good work ultimately comes from God and is in God.

(Stop and think: how did Jesus do his work? What did he like and hate about it? Was he ever subject to a bad boss? Was he satisfied with his pay?)

This is how we do our work “as to the Lord” (Col. 3:23, KJV). Paul has presented us with a clear picture of the spiritual life reminding us that faith pervades every area of daily living, even our rote responsibilities. Acting as our Lord did, we become agents of redemption and transform the secular and mundane into sacrament, and all becomes an offering to God.

On Religion

Flickr cathedral spire

Mike Smail, Flickr

Do not be hastily critical of Christianity as religion. It is the door by which we enter faith. We are to blame, however, should we not walk along far enough and discover relationship, for it is the heart of the house.

What do you seek? If religion is what you seek, then religion is all you will get. But if it is Christ whom you desire, then he will surely be found by you—and your religion will lead you to him. It is not possible to enjoy relationship apart from religion. Godly practice guarantees fellowship and fellowship sanctifies the practice.

What the Bible Says About Judging Others

It was election season and I worked with a Christian woman who was also a staunch Democrat. We often enjoyed spirited conversation on politics and the presidential candidates. One day I decided to explore her ideas on a hot-button topic, same-sex marriage, one her camp supports. “It’s not for me,” she said, “but I can’t judge them. I can’t judge what they do because I don’t have a heaven or hell to put them in.”

I was disappointed with her response, tinged with relativist notions and biblically questionable. She finished: “The Bible says, ‘Judge not that ye be not judged.’”

Who Gets to Judge?

I think society and many Christians get what it means to judge wrong. My friend cited God giving us free will to do as we please. This was meant to suggest that we all possess the right to act on our own terms and that, in the end, judgment belongs to God. Who are we to speak out against another’s action when God has given that person the freedom to do it?

So I countered: Is the preacher wrongly passing judgment every Sunday when he cries out against sin and evil? Is the parent being unduly judgmental when he or she cracks down on a teen’s misbehavior? Her response was that her opinion doesn’t matter. Whatever she could say would indeed be to wrongly judge another; however, if she added that it was wrong because God said so, then it held weight and was a worthy judgment.

Semantics? Confusion about to judge? A cop-out? Or nonsense? I can accept that being a follower of Christ may give me little room for personal opinion, but how could this bar me from judging, or forming opinions about others and issues? If anything, it should mean that I am more resolute in my beliefs.

Judging: A Natural Thing

I argued that each day I act, reason, and make decisions based on my convictions, amongst people and apart from them. But I don’t necessarily have to add that God approves or disapproves the what-why-and-how of my actions or any other’s. It also brought me to a major point in our discussion: Everyone judges.

Judging others is a very natural thing we humans do. Even animals judge. Humans are highly rational creatures and, with complex minds, live each day assessing things, ideas, and other people. Further, we make decisions based on those assessments, which are informed by many factors, including spiritual and moral beliefs. We naturally judge (or analyze), need to judge (or scrutinize) for survival, and will judge (or inspect) daily.

The Best Way We Judge

The scriptures do not refute this. The New Testament speaks about judging in several places; however, the inclination is never about whether we judge, but how we judge.

We get it wrong for a simple reason: We don’t know what the Bible says. So let’s start where my interlocutor did, in Matthew 7:1 and Jesus preaching his Sermon on the Mount. The verse does say, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”—but what does this mean?

Jesus is advising against harsh, condemnatory, and unjust moral assessments about another person. The next five verses do more to explain. Verse 2 warns that cruel judgments have a way of finding their way back to us, not from God but our fellow man. It is in verses 3-6, however, that the first verse is best clarified.

In a humorous stroke Jesus questions the people about looking into the eyes of their brethren and pointing out “specks,” or personal flaws but doing so with 2×4 beams sticking out of their heads! His illustration suggests that a person is unable to properly assess another’s flaw because he himself is not seeing clearly to do so being blinded by his own greater flaw.

NC-ND, Laura Taylor Flickr

NC-ND, Laura Taylor Flickr

The point is that one of the best ways we judge is by taking careful inventory of ourselves before we chance to rule on others. Thus, making private, weighty character assessments about people, whether we wish to call it Christian or not, is a moral matter and should never be done hastily, with cruelty, or in an unforgiving manner.

The Moral Guard Within

Paul adds a notable thought in 1 Cor. 2:15 where he says, “But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one” (NKJV). Paul had been contrasting natural wisdom and spiritual wisdom, indicating that the two are incompatible and that the natural, or carnal, man is incapable of attaining Spirit-derived concepts.

Then (v. 15), he says that a person born of God is capable of analyzing all things because he does it by the Spirit and according to God’s moral self-disclosure, although this person himself is not easily understood by others.

It is a startling equivalence to Jesus’s own words to Nicodemus in John 3:6, 8 where he says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit;” then, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (NKJV).

The importance of both Jesus’s and Paul’s words is not merely the contrast between spiritual and earthly knowledge. They also draw attention to the moral front that God has placed in the earth in his people and, by common grace, in the hearts of all who endeavor to do right.

It is why the world doesn’t fly apart in chaos and evil. It is why we have public defenders, police, judges, prosecutors, and policy advocates—to bolster truth and justice and eliminate wrongdoing. Paul calls these people the “ministers” of God (Rom. 13:4, NKJV).

NC-ND, amy-wong.com Flickr

NC-ND, amy-wong.com Flickr

Further, to claim that judgment solely belongs to God, as my friend did, would be to risk forsaking what God has to say (or has said) explicitly about a matter. Christians should always be taking their cues from the Spirit of God, just as Jesus did (cf. John 5:30), for such is what permits us to preach in pulpits and move beyond there to protest in the public square and pound the pavement against social evils.

How We Judge Others

Now, how do we judge? There are a few biblical insights to learn here that are difficult to deal with independently because they operate together in scripture. So I will list them all and then present them in biblical scenario.

Christians are to judge: 1) lovingly, 2) considering the state of the other person, 3) restoratively, and 4) with pure motives.

There are a few places in the New Testament where we find these lessons. In both Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8, the apostle Paul discusses issues Christians were having concerning certain foods and meat. In Romans, the issue concerned converts that were hesitant about foods their personal faith outlawed; in Corinthians, the concern was whether Christians should purchase and eat meat that had been used in idol worship. What Paul has to say regarding each scenario is very interesting and worthy of study.

For here, however, the scenarios serve to backdrop a Christian civil duty, and it is Paul’s response that needs a thorough examination.

Paul’s position is best summed up in Rom. 14:21: “It is better not to eat meat nor drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.” What is more important to see, however, is how Paul deals with the fact that many people had begun to make judgments about others based on their decisions to participate or not in certain foods.

SA, Marc Smith Flickr

SA, Marc Smith, Flickr

For instance, in 1 Cor. 8:1, he begins by quoting the people, then turning their argument back on them. I will paraphrase here since most translations don’t showcase what’s happening: “Now concerning things offered to idols: You say, ‘We have full knowledge that idols are nothing’—and you’re right. But it is not knowledge that matters here. What we know often gives us a big head and leads us astray! It is love, however, that builds folk up, and love is what matters regarding your weaker brother.”

It merges into the point the apostle makes in Romans 14 that any judging we do of others must be done fully considerate of a person’s state of need. People act based on their maturity level. Those who are more advanced should not be critical of those that are immature or whose faith they know little about (and vice versa, but Paul places more responsibility on the stronger brother.)

Paul makes the case that we are not to judge our brethren unfairly because we all belong to the Lord, and we are not to judge all others unfairly because, ultimately, all judgment does indeed belong to God and we are stewards of his righteousness and not lords of our own opinion.

Judging and Restoring

Moreover, to act with love and consideration means that judging others will be restorative. It will give light whereby a person may see their shortcomings or wrong. (One cannot repent from sin he cannot see.)

Galatians 6:1 is the hallmark scripture here: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you may also be tempted.” It is the exact message of Matthew 7:1, John 3:6, 8, and 1 Cor. 2:15 with the extra note that we have the same capacity to harbor the very sin we may wish to condemn in others.

The Sin of Moral Disrespect

CC, Sudhamshu Hebbar, Flickr

CC, Sudhamshu Hebbar, Flickr

Finally, our judging others must be done with pure motives. In Colossians 2, Paul warns Christians to avoid those that would seek to deceive them through philosophies and a reversion to works religion. These people, taking advantage of the apostle’s absence, hassled the fledgling church with the many requirements of the Law of Moses, plus added their own stipulations as a means of controlling the people.

A sound study of this chapter produces a real distinction between God’s law, which was good, and human legalism. The legalistic injunctions these people used to sway the church represent not only impure motive, but also a lack of moral respect.

False and censorious judgment is a moral trespass and the kind of disrespect often highlighted in the Prophets as drawing the indignation of God. What we cannot miss in scripture is that God is a God of love, but he is also a God who loves justice. He desires justice in the earth because he is righteous and cares about civil order and fairness.

It is difficult to believe that a Christian stranded of conviction and confused about his or her role in stemming the tide of darkness brings God much glory. That person will collapse beneath the weight of a small inquisition.

A History of Preaching

CC BY-NC, Luther Seminary, Flickr

In two thousand years of church history, preaching has undergone an evolution of purpose and meaning. The earliest form of what became Christian preaching is witnessed in the declarations of the Old Testament prophets. The prophetic tradition ended with Malachi (John the Baptist for some) and gave rise to a different style of proclamation. This was the rabbinic tradition with its Jewish sages who, like the Greeks, taught in a master-disciple approach. Jesus followed this method of preaching and demonstrated to his culture his stellar ability to teach—”Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to him?” (Mark 6:2).

Preaching was very simple in the New Testament church period and accompanied only by the scriptures. It was common that the teacher would sit as the people stood in attention. Interestingly, whenever the discourse was very good, the people would applaud, offer vocal acclamations, wave handkerchiefs, and even toss garments. Many would write the sermon word-for-word in order to save it for posterity.

Lakesides, private homes, synagogues, and public streets were all used for preaching; for a time there were no edifices specifically designed for such public discourse. In fact, it was considered corrupt practice when churches later began to be constructed for ceremonial display with great alters, images, and processional aisles. This became more common throughout the fourth century as heathen temples and basilicas were converted to Christian churches.

During the second century the church began organizing itself into a more unified body, and its preaching adapted to these changes as well. The bishops or an appointed presbyter bore the responsibility of speaking the word of God. Preaching was mainly hortatory, or exhortative, and termed by purpose: tractate (exposition), disputation (polemic), allocution (doctrinal thesis), and homily (popular conversation). Preaching was also done to reflect on events and occasions.

The homily has characterized preaching for most of church history. It is not greatly different from the sermon (lecture providing religious instruction), except that it is given to free, explanatory discourse on a familiar topic, whereas the sermon holds tightly to homiletics. Eventually, the homily shortened to a form known as the postil that was a mere glossing over a text with brief explanation.

In time preaching began to lose its original intent and was gradually replaced by ceremony, panegyric (eulogistic oration) for saints and martyrs, and veneration for Mary in the growing Roman Catholic tradition. The Protestant Reformers are credited with returning preaching to its early roots in the saving message of Christ.

The Person God Chooses

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)

Nothing is news to God. Our common, human customs and contingencies are atypical of Heaven. What are recent events or developing stories to us were in the mind of God before time. Astounding as it may be, God’s omniscience should be encouraging to those who trust him. His providence means that he mightily and lovingly controls all that can be known. Nothing happens that is outside of his intelligence.

That includes us, too. God knows every aspect of our lives. He understands the range of our unique personalities, our likes and dislikes, desires and temptations, potential, and even the possibilities of an infinite combination of our choices. He knew the when-and-where of our birth before the world existed. He knows about our work, finances, relationships, goals, and health. He has already seen our final days and cross into the afterlife. Again, this is encouraging to know.

NC, Stef Lewandowski, Flickr

NC, Stef Lewandowski, Flickr

He Knows Us

Sometimes we get moody with God, however, because we too know some things about him and ourselves, if only meager by comparison. One thing we realize is that his great holiness and our sinful imprudence don’t comport, and we find it inelegant and awfully hard-to-believe that, beyond our relationship, he still chooses us for his service.

Then, with what has to be exasperating to God, we find other non-issues with which to excuse ourselves from the divine call. Jeremiah saw himself as too young (1:6). Gideon felt he was too poor and wrestled feelings of God’s abandonment (Judges 6:13, 15). Moses deemed himself insignificant, speech-impeded, and ignorant of God (Ex. 3:11-13; 4:10). The first task seems to be God getting us out of the way of his using us!

God tells Jeremiah in very concrete language, “I knew everything there was to know about you before your life began. And I had already determined to use you as my prophet!” This had to be an eye-opening moment for Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 1:5 is one of those verses people often whip out with some use of emotional provocation; however, if we stop and think about it—and put ourselves in Jeremiah’s place—we might catch a glimpse of God’s greatness implied therein.

Still Within His Reach

In 1 Timothy 3, Paul gives a list of qualifications for overseers and deacons in the church. The bar of moral character is set high. They are reasonable qualities by traditional leadership standards and Christian ideals. Even the secular world today affirms such expectations of Christian leadership.

But to say that Paul’s list requires perfection in any way is to miss the point. God doesn’t call perfect people because there are none. All people, even the most spiritually disciplined ones, daily deal with the very personal problem of sin; and let no one convince you that he or she does not.

Let’s be honest about this: There are many reasons for God to reject us for his service, reasons well beyond the ones we can point out to him. He knows what else lies within our hearts and what will develop there; the circumstances that might activate vice; and how we will deal with it. Still, he chooses us.

Despite all our failings and misgivings, he is eager to make us his ambassadors and to display his strength where we can only prove weak. It is the depth and glory of his love.

So after we’ve messed up big-time, lost our heads and sinned to the max, wanted no part of God and his ways, and then regained our spiritual composure and wondered if he could possibly still use us, let us rest assured that he never left our side and tells us, as he did Peter, “I’ve already prayed for you that your faith wouldn’t fail. Now that you’ve repented and returned to me, go strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32, my paraphrase).

Our Joyful Obligation

This underscores another point. The fact that God is relentless to use us in his service should drive us to serve him better. Paul writes in 2 Cor. 4:1-2, “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.”

Such mercy should strike the chord of spiritual discipline within us and cause us to yield to the Holy Spirit’s work to transform us in Christlikeness. This includes our resolution to fight and conquer sin, our willingness to accept our eternal status as God’s debtors, and our conscientious endeavor to think about ourselves as God does.

And to be clear, this isn’t just about those called by God to special or highly visible ministry, such as a pastor. God will use anyone that avails him- or herself to him for the smallest of tasks that spread his character, name, and kingdom. It’s just a matter of degree on our part: how much of ourselves are we willing to give him, including those weak areas of our lives?

No Need to Hide

Let’s be even more candid about Jeremiah 1:5. God, knowing everything there is to possibly know about us, knew the sinful penchants and weights we would deal with in life—the excesses, vile urges, secret rages, and sinful comforts we all have faced.

We hide our indecencies from others like we conceal our naked bodies. We act this way toward God, too. We feel that what is odious and shameful before others should also be hidden from God, for he certainly detests it more; ergo, he will certainly reject us as people do.

First, it is pointless to hide anything from God because he knew about it before we did. Second, we are right to evince an attitude of shame and culpability for the weak and sinful parts of our lives. Yes, Christ took our shame so that we wouldn’t have to be shamed by our sin; however, we respect God’s holiness and should feel uncomfortable about sin controlling any part of us.

NC-ND, Fabrizio Lonzini Flickr

NC-ND, Fabrizio Lonzini, Flickr

But, third, God doesn’t reject us in our sin but asks us to draw near with naked honesty. Only then can we find “the grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). God is not like us. Exposure to his light gives freedom. Remember, Jesus came and took our sin upon himself in order to place his righteousness on us.

Concealing weakness and sin, apart from being a silly thing to do in God’s sight, is unbiblical and more harmful than helpful. Solomon states it best: “Those who conceal their sins do not prosper, but those who confess and renounce them find mercy” (Prov. 28:13).

David says, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long” (Ps. 32:3). God can do more with the heart that prays, Lord, I’m struggling and I need your help, than with the one, like Adam in the Garden, who runs to hide from him.

And let’s be real—some things from our past lives we may struggle with until we die. But God honors the one who keeps fighting while relying on his grace not to be overcome.

Even Our Weakness…an Offering

Moreover, God doesn’t only use us despite our vices but also because of them. Two fish and five loaves of bread were useless to a crowd of multiple thousands. But such a weakness given into Jesus’s hands became a miracle. This is ministry.

The weak areas of our lives that we’re willing to place in God’s hands can be the starting place of healing for someone else. What we are willing to share of our own struggles and deliverances, God can use to draw others to himself. We may not be able to share every detail about our troubled or sinful past, but our honesty before God, in the least, will keep us compassionate and empathic toward others who suffer in ways we did or still do (1 Cor. 6:11).

And as we know of Christ’s ministry, compassion is a portal of the glory of God.

This is why a revamp toward deep spiritual discipline is important. The fruit of the Spirit growing where sin once abounded in our lives is the safeguard that we won’t disregard those who find themselves in our former, unenlightened state. We have an obligation to God to be transformed by what has altered our circumstance.

Jesus, in Matt. 18:21-35, tells the story of the unmerciful servant who was forgiven his debt of 10,000 bags of gold but couldn’t forgive his fellow servant’s debt of 100 silver coins. This incurs God’s judgment. When we’ve received grace, we can offer grace; however, to refuse to do so is egregious sin.

Content to Be His

NC-ND, Dustin Bryson, Flickr

NC-ND, Dustin Bryson, Flickr

Thank God that sin and weakness isn’t enough to change God’s mind about us. He still desires us and can use our lives and various situations to bring others closer to himself. So to all of our shamefulness, outrage, incredulity, and excuses, we are still his choice.

He could send the angels in dazzling displays of heaven-on-earth to preach us out of sin and convince everyone to believe. But, no, he uses “jars of clay” instead (2 Cor. 4:7), cracked and stained and fragile, to show other cracked pots how they too can display the beauty of salvation.

The Root of Faith

CC BY-NC, RWShea Photography, Flickr

CC BY-NC, RWShea Photography, Flickr

“The testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:3-4)

Jesus describes the behavior of seed that falls upon rocky soil in a segment of his parable of the sower (Matt. 13). The plantlet that sprouted grew but quickly succumbed to the sun’s heat for lack of roots. Jesus uses the illustration to explain a spiritual temperament that, although quickly and emotionally responsive, collapses in times of trial because faith was not rooted deeply enough in the heart to cause one to persevere. The entire parable is a masterful description of faith in the heart, but the seed on rocky soil provides a sobering lesson: People of faith are not immune to trouble, persecution, and tests, but quality faith makes a difference in how they handle circumstance and how God rewards those who endure.

The Nature of Faith

Faith is the gift of God to us. It comes from above to give sight—light to the spiritually dead that calls them to life and causes them to ponder godly things; sight to believing hearts to see new things about God and themselves. The orientation is always God-to-man: God is always reaching down to us, for we can never reach toward him unless he makes the first move. Our moving toward God is always a response. Faith is God’s channel for getting his supply—whatever it may be—to us, never our means of summoning him. Faith is indeed our assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things unseen (Heb. 11:1), but only those things God indicates are possessions granted by him (cf. 2 Pet. 1:3).

This is an important lesson to learn early in our walk with God because there will be tough days for the Christian. Those who come to Christ rightly approach with great joy and relief because the heart, fully awakened, is reunited with its Maker. But it is also the beginning of a process of acquainting God and his rich plan for our lives. That process, however, is often painful and unavoidably so. First, life never ceases to be what it is, and believers have to deal with its cares just as every other person does. Then, we don’t always see how carnal and sinful our faculties are and that, without refinement, we will oppose God’s plan and purpose for us. So God chooses to prune our hearts that we might bear abundant fruit, and this requires cutting.

Faith Determines Our Response

God never acts punitively toward us. Whenever he cuts, or allows pain in our lives, he does so as a surgeon to give us better life, not as a robber to take life away. And if we understand this well, then our attitude should be to willingly lay ourselves before the surgeon to do his work, an attitude produced only by spiritual discipline.

The apostle Paul interjects a small aphorism in his treatise in 2 Corinthians 5. He says, “We live by faith, not by sight” (v. 7). Rephrased: On this journey we proceed by the assurance and conviction of God himself and the promises given to us by him, living relationally toward them as if they were plainly evident and not according to the course of this world and our current situations. This is the root missing from the sapling in the rocky soil. What we know about God, by means of faith, and what he has promised us makes all the difference in how we respond when trouble arises and how a carnal Christian or non-believer responds.

Furthermore, how do we respond when we possess the promises of God in our hearts, but our circumstances find us moving further away from them? And when it seems that we will never fulfill God’s plan for our lives, let alone see it? What do we do when everything in our lives is being tested, but we are certain God spoke in our hearts? What do we do when we disqualify ourselves from the grace of God because of our own inadequacy or sin and yet find ourselves grimaced toward him for yet choosing us to his high and holy calling? You see, life happens to us all. Thankfully, believers have the assurance that in all they face God is at work perfecting their faith (Rom. 8:28).

Confidently Enduring Trial

Still, it is never easy. It is not always easy being the believer when what seems to be most certain is the chaos happening all around. It may be tough to stand and hold your ground when others give you the right to concede to options your faith and the Spirit within are telling you to avoid. But the person who wholly trusts God will allow faith to dictate how he endures trial. The heart that trusts him, though it bends, won’t snap when the winds of trouble come because it deems God’s promises surer than circumstances. James keenly observes that perseverance is born of faith (1:4).

Further, appearances can deceive. The scriptures show us a God who is sometimes ready to reveal his promise at moments when circumstances seem to shut out hopes for anything good. Thus, our confidence must remain and mature in God until his answer arrives. He wants to teach us that we are not to be victims of circumstances but champions with the promises of God. And let us also be certain that the Lord will himself test us. It is not always Satan or the trials of life that may buffet us. A test from the Lord is real and often experienced in his silence. God’s silence serves to try us with the promises he has already spoken in our hearts. Do they abide within? Are we clinging and relying on them?

When God’s time is fulfilled, he will bless the faithful, one more thing faith teaches the heart. He will come and save, and he will reward. He will reward us with answers, glimpses at how trial has perfected us, his presence and anointing, and anything more he has promised. Our knowledge of him will be deeper; his word will be more meaningful. And the result will not be due to our roots having deepened in God, but rather because we permitted faith to implant itself within us.

Who is My Neighbor?

CC BY-NC, More Good Foundation, Flickr

CC BY-NC, More Good Foundation, Flickr

When Jesus was cornered about the significance of the law of God, he delivered what I consider a cataclysmic redefinition of spiritual devotion. Peculiar, however, is the question that was put to him and how it is rendered in each of the synoptic gospels. Matthew has it as the greatest commandment. Mark showcases the most important one. Luke divulges what one must do to inherit eternal life. Convincing arguments could be made for the differences based on the biographer and audience. Whatever the reasons, Jesus discloses a poignant message about the life of faith and its interrelation with the people around us.

“‘Love the Lord your God,'” he says, “‘with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Luke 10:27). Additionally, what Luke provides that Matthew and Mark do not is the riveting parable of the Samaritan helper. Jesus tells this story in exposition of his initial response after his interrogator presses him further: “Who is my neighbor?”

The Purpose of Life

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine” (Luke 10:30-34).

I won’t attempt to exegete the text and will trust your knowledge about the significant aspects of the story. But drawing from Jesus’s answer to the question—and only part of what I could hope to write on his exposition—I discover his implication that the love of God must be the context of all our action. Everything we do in the life of faith must be accomplished having God as our object of affection and, foremost, be a service to him.

So no matter how happy or sad, relaxed or urgent life becomes for us, God should remain the spur to our progress and answer any curiosity about how we bear the hardships we may face. Where his love supports us, our love renders all to him in return. In good times, we live with gratitude; in bad times, we trust that he foresaw them and provides us the strength to persevere.

This concept extends to how we treat the people around us. Another point from Jesus’s profound statement is that there is a real interrelationship between loving God and loving our fellow man. I am convinced that Jesus’s explanation is a wrapped package on the purpose of life itself—”All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:40).

The full revelation of God seems to consist in enjoying the fellowship of our Creator and his gift of creation expressly witnessed in human relationship. It is the prize of humankind—the image of God in people—that lends our relationships incredible significance and possibility, especially among those who together fellowship with their God. Further, we can only understand some things about God and his ways as we peer in the faces of others and not necessarily those who treat us well and fit our image of what godliness might be.

What Being a Christian Means

The kingdom message, so revealing of God’s heart, comes into focus as we love God’s way by serving and cherishing and helping and empathizing, having lost sight of the particulars of whom we serve. In acting this way we acquaint ourselves with God’s character and against it measure the worth of our own human dignity, although we act simply by extending a hand toward another. Yet it is an act of worship to Jesus, the ultimate servant.

It has everything to do with the verdict of the sheep and the goats: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt. 25:35-36).

Jesus’s words are bold and lean—how do we ever miss him? I hear in his teaching and my own experience with less-than-stellar individuals these words: You cannot be Christian on your own terms. It’s simply impossible. Christ, his kingdom message, and his example are the basis for our action. What these actually accomplish more often is the exposure of flaws in our profession of faith.

I find myself more and more vexed by those whose notion of living for God and being Christian is merely attending church religiously. These people can ‘do church’ and consider that they have done God a favor or appeased his anger or earned points on their spiritual progress chart, all of which is nothing more than buying indulgences! They think highly of their own spirituality and look down on those Christ calls them to serve. But nothing could be more reproachful to Jesus and his message.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies; to pray for those who persecute us; to bless those who curse us; to offer the other cheek; to leave our offering and make sure we’ve not caused an offense. But God, we pine, I don’t care anything about them! Look at how they treat me. You expect me to go help them out and wash their nastiness now that they’ve gotten what they deserve? Why? Besides, they’re not getting saved anyway—there’s nothing in it for me!

What we’ve usually missed in Christ’s words is a simple point: This is not about us. It is about God alone and that he’s gaining ground in us. We only reveal how low a priority faith is in our matters of judgment and decision; that the piety we wear on Sundays makes no practical difference beyond the pews we’ve sat on.

Serve Christ and Be Satisfied

When we have a real moment to make an impact for the kingdom (and non-believers know who the church folk are), we miss it big or take no further interest until there’s a spot for us to shine: “I led 50 people to Jesus on the mission trip!” or “Our church has won 500 souls to Christ so far this year!” On the contrary, it is the daily, seemingly insignificant opportunities that God is more concerned about with most of us.

The truth is, many people we will serve do not want to know God and will reject all offers of religion. Of course, we want folk to turn to Jesus, but our concern about “winning” people shouldn’t always be the aim. In fact, God may even be reprimanding us for a hyper-evangelicalism, our feeling that anything we do toward those who need help must be preachy and witnessing and converting. But this attitude can rob us from demonstrating the simple love that expects nothing in return.

So, for instance, if a person who always treated us badly that we help should, thereafter, continue to treat us disdainfully, our behavior toward them will remain genuine if it was first done in service to God. This is the safeguard that our actions are not lost and wasted. We err to forget that God is our sole audience and commands us, “Be me to them—period.” The problem for many of us, tragically, is that we’re not as Christian as we think we are.

Jesus finishes his discourse with a classy, in-your-face, moral self-assessment: “‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The experts in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise'” (Luke 10:36-43).