The culture can be a real drag on spiritual growth. I’m not naïve enough to believe that the earliest Christians didn’t have their struggles drawing close to God; otherwise, Paul would not have advised, “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it even without thinking” (Rom. 12:2, MSG). But modern-day Christians must constantly recalibrate relative to technology and invention, things without conscience but powerful enough to dictate it, which raises serious concerns.
I know what change looks like. I have been fairly good at producing it. Something I know about personal change is that there is often a visceral prompt about it that spurs action and precedes any logistics.
Every New Year people make their rounds up Resolution Hill. We’ve all done it. There’s nothing wrong with attempting to enhance at the start of a year because it really can be the beginning of something life-changing. I marched off that hill years ago, however, and never looked back. I got tired of making promises I was not going to keep because I was not ready to keep them.
Parable of the Pounds
I watch people. I listen to them. And I’ve learn to tell if they’ll really change the way they hope. In business, laying out a plan or strategy for change is standard practice. An organization that fails to draft important next steps could ruin itself for a small oversight. Planning is helpful for personal change as well, although it may not require the extensive planning a business might. Plans are good, but remember I mentioned a visceral element as the impetus to much change? Let me help you understand what I mean by that. I’ll use weight loss as an example and two fictionalized people–Stacy and Brenda.
Stacy is excited about losing weight. January 1 is closing in and she’s already purchased a gym membership, athletic wear, and an array of diet products and appliances. She’s even convinced a neighbor to take the plunge with her. On New Year’s Day, she’ll be the first one knocking down the gym door because the time for change has come.
Brenda, however, has been frustrated and concerned about her weight. For months now she’s been altering the way she eats little-by-little and getting to the track for extended walks. She finally stopped by the gym today and committed, purchasing a membership so she could have access to the weight machines. Her chagrin has morphed into enthusiasm about her slow but steady progress.
Now, who goes the distance–Stacy or Brenda? If you said Stacy, then you’d better rethink it.
Here’s my point: There is little run-up to genuine personal change. Deliberation will always kill the tough thing to do. The people that change really are the ones who are ‘tired of being sick and tired’, and they make moves. Brenda couldn’t have cared less about new clothes and even the gym membership at first. The time for change for her could wait no longer, not for a date, not for ideal accessories. It was now or never.
Tired, Weak, and Worn
Jesus seems to tap into this same urgency in Matthew 11:28. He beckons, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens…I will give you rest” (NLT). Not only is he drawing religious contrast between following the Law of Moses and himself, but he is also prodding their spiritual discomfort with sin and limited grace.
“Aren’t you tired of this rigmarole?” he asks. “It’s time for better.” It’s the same tone we hear in Lady Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Jesus shows us already in Matthew 11 the ones who change. He says, “And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people are attacking it” (v. 12). He speaks of those in the press. Those who just won’t do without. Those who are mad about it. They are those who will lay hold on the change they seek.
A sage old professor of mine would sometimes say, “God can strike a mighty blow with a crooked stick.” The saying is a rendering of a medieval adage, and it has never left me since hearing it. The apostle Paul explores the notion in his epistle to the Philippians.
As he explains to them that his imprisonment is due to his advancement of the gospel, he draws attention to other preachers who in his absence are attempting to sway the masses with their interpretation of the gospel.
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains” (Ph. 1:15-17)
We don’t know these preachers’ agenda; however, we can make a strong case for Judaizers who leaped at the chance to debunk Paul’s preaching now that he was bound and unable to evangelize, shepherd the congregation, and, importantly, oppose them. If you’ll remember, Paul had warned the Ephesian elders that “savage wolves” would appear and devour the flock—“even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30).
These particular Macedonian ministers were much closer to orthodoxy than those John and Jude warned their readers about. Yet their motives were still impure and far from the heart of the gospel. From the little we can deduce in Paul’s words, their purpose didn’t lie in the exaltation of Christ, spiritual transformation, and the care of the soul with grace and godly love. Instead, they were in it for control, indoctrination, and whatever other self-centered, contentious reasons that figure in Paul’s description “envy and rivalry.”
The Diamond in the Ruff
Paul then says something truly remarkable: “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (v. 18).
Given the crooked hearts and devious purposes of these preachers, Paul suggests that there is more than enough gospel and truth about Christ to be learned by their preaching. It was sufficient for those who didn’t know Christ and those needing edification; and, to Paul, this is a splendid thing. God was not limited by the moral character of these persons, but rather served his own purposes with them. In fact, if necessary, he could save one by their preaching and raise him up to condemn their ungodliness!
It should give many of us pause when we chance to pass a vote on a preacher in the cause of Christ that we feel is serving his or her own purposes more than the Lord’s. Something may be wrong about them, but we should nevertheless rejoice that people are hearing the Word of God. Further, we should be responsible and spiritually perceptive enough to pray for the many these ministers lead and influence, that their eyes be fixed on Christ; that God would align that leader’s heart with his own; and that we might see more clearly where we may have only judged incorrectly.
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Try your hand at this Pew Research Center quiz entitled U.S. Religious Knowledge. It should be fairly easy, but let’s see. Leave your score in the comments.
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