“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
Martin Luther King, Jr, April 3, 1968
One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I will speak up when it counts. I am usually not looking to be the leader or to make waves; it just happens. I think it stems from my belief that all authority can be questioned.
I hated when friends would grumble about things but reject options and solutions I offered them or chicken out when I took a stand.
Likewise, it always unnerved me when friends from other nations ridiculed America, expressing their own patriotism, but opted to remain in and enjoy the fruit of America rather than to return and make a difference in their homelands. That may sting but there is truth at the heart of it.
Women in Afghanistan
Change and reform are necessary in our world and relationships; and it’s due to the condition of the human heart. We would like to believe in the goodness of everyone, but too often people betray their own capability for doing right.
A problem arises when we think that changing people is something easy to do, like setting a broken bone or leveling and rebuilding a part of the city. It’s never that simple. Humans are intricately caught up in the weave of good and evil.
I was watching television and heard something that really surprised me. A gentleman explained that not long ago women in Afghanistan bore far more rights than they exercise today and were more educated, being doctors, professors, and scientists.
Afghanistan? I thought.
I performed but a small research and discovered a generous women’s rights history in Afghanistan during the 19th and 20th centuries. It all screeched to a halt, however, in the late 1970s and 80s with the influx of communism and war—and the rise of the Taliban, which ultimately ended the forward progress and returned Afghan society back to the strong patriarchalism it once knew.
Although there has been some improvement in the condition of women and children over the last 15 years, post-Taliban Afghanistan, its women and children, remains badly disenfranchised and dehumanized.
Listen, change, like the change needed in Afghanistan, costs something. And it costs someone something. It’s necessarily personal—no way around it. I can only loathe those who expect to sit back and let others bear the consequences for their ease without understanding the price for that ease.
Change is never pleasant; it is uncomfortable at the least. And those who never see the problem and see it as their problem usually do when it finally spins their direction tearing things to shreds. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
For me to have discovered the details about Afghan women and reacted with a self-centered I’m-glad-that’s-not-me attitude, in my opinion, would be to approach grievous immorality in my heart and become part of the problem. It is to participate in the evil, if only by nonchalance.
Hopefully, something in our personal and social constitution—and certainly in our Christian faith—teaches us that our individual well-being finds haven and security in the well-being of the cluster. It’s a collectivist approach that can teach us much. (Psst!—Jesus lived in that type of society.) It would do us well to grasp that we all become better as we hurt, fight, heal, and finally rise together.
Two excellent links on Afghan women and education:
I drew comparison between a parable of Jesus and an idea being debated in a group discussion. A person quickly replied, “You can easily use a scripture to justify your own point.” It was the last statement of the session before we all dispersed; however, I left a little irritated.
The comment offended me for a few reasons. First, it came from a person who knows me very well, my love of the scriptures and diligence with them. So it peeved me that he could think that I should be guilty of sloppy study and a sleazy hermeneutic. His comment was a slap in the face that charged, “You’re like the rest of ‘em, twisting God’s words to prove your own point.”
Second, I recognized how that attitude renders Holy Scripture an abstruse, even esoteric, text irrelevant to 21st century life and modern thought. For either we believe as Solomon said—“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”—and accept that moral and ethical values have been fairly consistent throughout history, making the wisdom of the Bible very much relevant for us today; or we deem life now and ourselves to be exceptional and devalue the Bible and all historical wisdom since they cannot make sense of our experience.
In that case, my only advice to my friend would be, “Okay, just make sure you never use the Bible or some ancient proverb to make a point”—or to live by. We cannot have it both ways, or feel that God’s words comport with any measure of moral relativism.
The truly frightening thing is the possibility that some of us have made the scriptures to say only what we’ve cared to hear. Yet in so doing, we would have merely elucidated falsehoods, which is something Jesus tackles in his Sermon on the Mount.
“You have heard it said”—because oral tradition, reinterpretation, and commentary had altered and appended God’s own words to claim something he had not said—“but I say unto you…” Jesus’s point stands: don’t misconstrue God’s sentiments. And don’t use him to push your own program but chafe when the Word finally judges you.
The real issue here, in the remark made to me, is certainly not my agenda with scripture, but rather the glaring admission of a poor spiritual foundation and lack of deep study.
Friends, we are not charmers or peddlers of a religious snake oil. We haven’t died to sin and reckoned ourselves ready to die for Christ’s sake for a false hope. No, God’s words are true and powerful, very relevant to life, and will forever stand.
A recent excursion reminded me of all the reasons I despise Global Positioning Systems (GPS). We pay tech companies for the convenience of GPS, not always for any intelligence in the device.
Why does a GPS tell me to take a bypass and then send me through the heart of downtown? Moreover, why when we’re somewhere off course do I have to irritably wait on those who only trust devices, although I follow signs well and can clearly see where to go? Maybe I should stop second-guessing myself. After all, we’ve lived a very long time with only maps, although many of us have never learned to read them.
My disgust includes online web mapping, too. Printed directions are the worst! Many of the step-by-step instructions are needless and actually set drivers up to make errors on the simplest journeys. Call it more hassle than help.
Perhaps your experience is different and GPS rivals the cellphone or internet for “Greatest Invention,” but I think good ole map reading works better most times. All one has to do is look a map over well, use a little common sense, and be at the destination in short order.
The Map of Truth
While I was off-course and stewing about these things, I reflected on how the same principle applies to faith. We have a map; it is the word of God. All we have to do is read it, do what it says, and be on our way.
Sometimes, however, we require for ourselves more than the essentials. Deep theology and philosophy convinces some of us that we’re walking our path the right way and are indeed headed the right direction. I don’t rail against higher theology because I was a graduate theology student, and I continue to deeply value and respect the intellectual aspects of Christian faith. Yet I was astonished at the scores of proponents and their absurd and utterly outlandish ideas about God and faith. You’d be amazed.
The problem is we have young people who feel they need an inordinate knowledge or seminary to live for God; and we find older folk who need to prove something with it. Good doctrine is incredibly important and learning it is essential to personal faith and wholesome churches. But the life of God we desire comes through Jesus Christ. He is the one essential.
And it’s right there—with Jesus—where the immaterial stuff falls to the ground. If the point was to live for God, so much of the fluff I read in seminary would not exist. Thus, the Holy Spirit prompts us to search our map, the scripture itself, and, like Pilgrim on his way to the Celestial City, be about the journey. “Just do what it tells you,” he says. “I’ll give more insight as you go.”
If we really mean to live for Jesus, we can be satisfied with the least that will help us reach him. I’d rather arrive at my destination using my map and feel pleasant than using the GPS and be angry and bitter, maybe even calling off the trip, for all the incongruous or excess information I’ve received. Likewise, there’s enough already in the scriptures to show us Christ and to start us living for him. Any other essential he will bring in due time.
The following poignant words belong to Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his classic, The Cost of Discipleship. He details the believer’s righteousness:
The source of the disciple’s life lies exclusively in his fellowship with Jesus Christ. He possesses his righteousness only within that association, never outside it. That is why his righteousness can never become an objective criterion to be applied at will. He is a disciple not because he possesses a new standard, but only because of Jesus Christ, the Mediator and very Son of God. That is to say, his righteousness is hidden from himself in fellowship with Jesus. He cannot, as he could once, be a detached observer of himself and judge himself, for he can only see Jesus, and be seen by Him, judged by Him, and reprieved by Him. It is not an approved standard of righteous living that separates a follower of Christ from the unbeliever, but it is Christ who stands between them.
What I hope you gather from these words is the difference between salvation and human goodness. Expounding upon this quote in my “Reflections On Evangelism,” I stated and restate here, “This is why merely good people don’t get to Heaven. Our best efforts and supreme moral good is worthless to make any difference for our salvation (Isa. 64:6)—and so is a righteousness given by God should we ever try to divorce it from Jesus. The righteousness which is from God ceases to be when we try to take credit for it. Jesus is everything in the ongoing conversion process, for even our confession is by the Holy Spirit.”
Ascending the Hill of the Lord
The rich young ruler (Matt. 19) approached Jesus with an epithet—Good Teacher—and Jesus checked him on the spot. Jesus challenged his reference to him being good, the word used conveying essential goodness or goodness by nature and only in relation to God. “Why do you speak to me in glowing, divine terms but view me as a mere mortal?” Jesus wasn’t trying to vindicate his deity but reprove the man’s flattery and high-mindedness and underscore his need for simplicity.
The more sobering aspect of Jesus’s challenge and expressed humility is the glance we get at the incredibly steep climb to God’s righteousness. God is utterly right (morally pure) and distinct from every other thing (holy); his perfection is the ground of human morality and ethics. Objective moral values exist and they proceed from the character of God.
Furthermore, only God is intrinsically good and of inherent worth. Every other thing derives its value from him. He created the cosmos and deemed it good because it, as it could only be, proceeded from his plenitude of perfect goodness.
One who says “Well I’m a good person” and claims his or her goodness to be deserving of God’s favor…his Heaven…asserts a personal righteousness that even Jesus dared not avow—and he came to fulfill the law of God. In effect, these (prideful) people argue that they have breached the high walls of God’s moral standards, satisfy a compendium of requirements for humankind, and are so entitled to his fellowship.
Really? Just like that? People approach human royalty with some trepidation; God is infinitely beyond their worth. Is there no reverence? Even the angels terrify humans! God is holy. This position makes me think of insects flying into the zapper! Good people just don’t understand their moral trespass and God’s holiness.
You see, Jesus came to tell us that there is nothing we can do about our moral shortcoming. We simply won’t scale that wall, even with our best effort. But Jesus can get to God and get us to God—and make any goodness of ours a servant of God’s holiness.
This is about spiritual transformation, not degrees of right and wrong and ticking off our moral checklists. We have a sin problem and salvation is the answer. Salvation is the flood of God’s holiness and goodness—all that we lack—surging into us, renovating us body, soul, and spirit. Mere goodness cannot achieve that.
Getting to the table on matters of faith is hard for many people, while behaving there is another for some. Sometimes I am amazed at postulation I hear when people are backed into philosophical corners. I recall myself leaving a philosophy club meeting at my Christian university fuming at peers who blamed God for creating evil simply because they could not arrive at a logical answer for it.
Since seminary I have always stated that I begin my personal study of theology—apart from my faith in God’s existence and perfect goodness—with a large dose of “I don’t know.” That stance helps me appreciate the mystery and keeps me searching for truth. Why is the deepest question about life and its most elusive. We are all spiritual seekers, and we have, at some point, found ourselves caught up in some eddy…some wave…some tide in the ebb and flow of higher truth.
I respect those people who fight to know, who wrestle with truth and seize upon the life of faith, although for them it comes in flickers and glimpses. Some people, however, give up and cease all inquests, grow intellectually antagonistic, and never recover from their lack of spiritual knowledge, something I hate to see. I would like to believe that a period of searching is not unlike a teen who goes through turbulent years only to recover his or her “sanity” and grow into a model adult. But my own doctrinal beliefs about sin and fallen humanity disallow that.
Reaching for spiritual truth—to know if God’s resume is really what he claims it is—is normal, even for Christians, and will traverse the breadth of human speculation and emotion. If you’ve read Psalms, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Sometimes it is the only way we can be sure that the faith we possess is able to sustain us. But to overreach only does harm to the person. Overreaching means to bail out and surrender to intellectual suspicion; to give in to the mental and emotional need for stasis; to bring God up on charges; and, at worst, to walk away from faith.
Is There Purpose in Everything?
These sentiments often surface with moral topics and hot-button issues. I once watched a talk show and a question came up concerning autism. “Is there a purpose for everything, including disease?” I think everyone nodded their heads and agreed as a way of making sense of it and sympathizing with the suffering family. But something didn’t seem right to me.
Based on my spiritual convictions and the wisdom of Christian teaching, I cannot believe that disease possesses purpose and moral value. Unfortunately, sickness and disease occur, and why I don’t know; but they have never been part of God’s revelation or intent for humankind. I could never imagine anything less than goodness and goodwill in God’s character, in his Heaven, and in the original world he created. Again, to say otherwise, I feel, is to overreach.
I am not sure all things have purpose and moral value, and some things, like disease, may exist in a state of failed purpose. I don’t know, and, trust me: I’m not trying to be the philosopher here! But to assert that all things do indeed have purpose, from my Christian standpoint, may be leading to the justification of evil and sin’s existence in the world. (Research theodicy, the problem of evil, for more discussion.)
I will not bend my mind to accept something as true simply because I do not understand it. A better approach might be to realize that although some things are mysterious and without apparent purpose, and perhaps consequently evil and used (by Satan) with evil intent, they can be used purposefully, but only if one possesses the power to cause it.
Only God has the power to use all things in purpose, and here would be a good starting place in understanding his omnipotence and lofty wisdom. Thus, I cannot say it better than scripture itself has done: “And we know that in all things God works for good to those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
I once worked in the photo department of a drugstore. I recall a lady who dropped off her film and promised to promptly return for it that day. I started developing the film and noticed that all the pictures were of a sleeping infant, but something was different about the baby. I was engrossed in the pictures as they came out of the printer, trying to put together what I was seeing. It looked like a wonderfully real doll until I suddenly realized that this was no doll or sleeping child. It was a dead baby.
The lady returned as she had said whereupon I tactfully commented about the photos. She apologized to me and stated that she usually explained the content of her film before having them developed but simply had failed to do so this day. These photos were part of her job: She was head of Pregnancy Loss Services in the maternity ward of one of the major hospitals. When children were born dead or had died in birth, her group went into action with different services the parents might desire to ease their grief. These ranged from photos like these to private funerals and regional commemorative walks.
Although my questions about the photos were satisfied, the pictures had a negative effect on me. They got on my nerves and haunted me for an entire week. I’d have flashes of the dead child while driving down the road or lose my appetite—such were the things that happened to me. Thereafter and almost weekly, the lady brought in film and the photos became more disturbing: babies in all stages of fetal development, some mutant-looking and badly discolored.
Even more shocking were the photos of smiling parents and family cuddled with their child—dressed if possible—and complete with balloons and other party stuffs, as though the child celebrated its birthday. The moments captured in those photos were terribly sad to view, but they were also powerfully consoling to the parents who were able to see a child’s tiny fingers or dark hair or resemblance to a sibling. It was literally a lifetime bundled in a single moment.
The Spiritually Dead
I realize that the story I’ve just related might be bizarre or difficult to read, but I use it as a prompt to discuss a spiritual point. Every person on earth spiritually enters this life as that unfortunate child—dead. There is no worthy goodness, no ability to love God, no self-motivated effort to reach him or ponder thoughts about him, even no chance of assessing our own depravity. We lie helplessly dead. In fact, this is one of Christianity’s classic teachings, the total depravity of humans as a result of original sin, another classic teaching. Every capacity of the human creature is impacted by the taint and destructiveness of sin.
The urgency of evangelism lies in what is at stake, the eternal soul: the soul that will either forever enjoy the presence of God or experience the torment of his separation. Thus, to do evangelism we must have a clear estimation about whom we’re targeting, which should look something like this: A spiritually dead person whose knowledge about church, past activities there, beliefs about Jesus, and so forth have heretofore meant nothing to the salvation of his or her soul (with respect to the Spirit’s unseen work.) Moreover, nothing will mean anything in that regard until that one acknowledges their deep sinfulness and rebellion against God. We were made for God and God’s love, but we, as Jeremiah has beautifully stated it, “…have turned [our] backs toward [the Lord] and not [our] faces” (2:27).
So it becomes our responsibility to explain that coming to Christ marks a renaissance, a quickening to life, a spiritual transformation that purposes to dominate everything about a person. It is more than getting one’s life together or “turning over a new leaf,” for one cannot ascertain God except the Holy Spirit gives light whereby to see. When this light does come, the first thing one will see is the disease of sin that destroys; the next thing will be the remedy, Jesus the Savior.
Why Being Good Isn’t Enough
Until we present a full call to repentance we accept the charge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that we offer only a “cheap grace” to the sinner. The grace we invite the sinner to accept is characterized as being cheap because it entails a convert merely holding to rules and regulations—going through the motions of being saved and doing church—rather than one’s radical self-denial and death to sinful ways to take up the cross of Christ. Such a grace only cumbersomely gets one through the door of faith, then, woefully, continues without effective discipleship.
Again, until we present an unswerving call to repentance, we will deceive men and women that their faith is genuine when they actually stand in need of full conversion. Bonhoeffer also makes a powerful point that a believer’s life and righteousness is possessed only in association with their fellowship with Christ. He says, “…righteousness can never become an objective criterion to be applied at will.” This is why merely good people don’t get to Heaven. Our best efforts and supreme moral good is worthless to make any difference for our salvation (Isa. 64:6)—and so is a righteousness given by God should we ever try to divorce it from Jesus. The righteousness which is from God ceases to be when we try to take credit for it. Jesus is everything in the ongoing conversion process, for even our confession is by the Holy Spirit.
Following His Lead
Now I’d like to transition from the condition of the lost and our preaching to some matters that determine our evangelistic effectiveness. First, we must recognize the Holy Spirit’s leadership in the conversion process. As much as I believe in outreach and missions, we must avoid an imperial attitude that makes us regard the unsaved as pawns to be captured or won instead of sinful souls in need God’s salvation. Too often that zeal is short-sighted (saving souls is easily done) or comes with wrong motives (numbers for our crusades and membership).
Real evangelism that brings souls to Jesus is not centered in how we can ‘work it’ but in the power of the Spirit to draw men and deliver them from death to life. We must preach simply and dependent on the Spirit’s help resisting the need for tactic or gimmick to lure people to the message. Now I’m not the biggest fan of witnessing campaigns…a much more conservative evangelical in this area than some. Still, I believe that an integrated faith in one’s life is important. I will never be ashamed of professing my faith in Jesus Christ before the world and sharing how his life makes every difference in mine. I think the Holy Spirit can sometimes use this better than our agendas to “win” the lost.
It’s important to pause here to say that prayer is our first labor. We must pray earnestly for the sinner. We must ask God to develop his heart for the lost within us. He longs to save and commune with those who are carried away in darkness. We must ask God to open their minds to the truth and to make their hearts receptive; to set us in their paths that we might share a word of encouragement with them whether it’s accepted or rejected. It should tear our hearts to learn that one has passed into eternity without Christ.
Just as following the Holy Spirit’s leadership is important, so is being sensitive to his unseen action among us. We can never be sure who the Spirit is dealing with, but we can be sure that he is moving in hearts around us because we labor in prayer. In this way he precedes us.
Note: It is not for us to assume that just because someone we’ve witnessed to is apparently receptive he or she is ready to confess Christ. The nicest people can be the most resistant to God. But could it not also be true that the one that fights and rejects us does so because he or she has been resisting the Spirit of Truth already whispering in the ear? Expect the Spirit before you ever open your mouth!
Aiding the Spirit
Now if giving way to the Spirit’s leadership is to help ourselves labor easier, then our procedures and support systems must be our way of helping the Spirit. Let me explain what I mean.
First, we need to see the entrance into the life of faith as a process. One of the most intimate and powerful baptism experiences that I’ve witnessed occurred when I lived in Japan. It involved a Japanese man with whom I shared budding friendship. His wife was a believer but he was not. He had long been attending Alpha meetings, a Bible-based discipleship support group. I came to the church in time to witness my friend’s baptism and announcement of faith in Jesus. It was a deeply moving experience.
My friend’s coming to faith didn’t produce my belief in faith as a process; rather it was the gift of God to me to witness what I had always felt was true about it. Jesus conveys this in his parable of the seed in Mark 4:26-29. Yes, I believe that salvation can be instant and genuine. People all the time come to church resistant to God until the Spirit suddenly opens their eyes and causes them to see Jesus.
But many of our churches don’t possess enough insight to see that the ‘one stop shop’ approach will not (and does not) reach everyone. I hate it when I hear preachers going through the formula—“Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God; that he died and rose from the dead…” Well sure they do and many people do, but it has done nothing to save them so far. (They’re dead, remember?)
And we can be sure that our formulaic approach and come-to-Jesus-right-now attitude will always fail should we maintain that the process 1) hinges on a mere decision for Christ (usually meaning all one has ever heard about Jesus) that can 2) be so easily made by the person having no discipleship precede conversion and certainly none following it. Lord, help us!
So we lend assistance to the Spirit (1 Cor. 3:9) when we take the time to answer the questions of those who genuinely inquire of the Christian life. People have questions and we should respect their right and need to have answers. Could we go further and say that the Holy Spirit himself places questions in people’s hearts? That he understands that the personalities of some need questions answered before they will unlock their hearts to him? Of course he does because he created us all and knows us perfectly. This is partly the understanding of 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 when Paul speaks of “casting down imaginations”—arguments and theories. This is what the Holy Spirit seeks to do: dismantle the structures Satan has erected in people’s minds that cause them to rebel against God (2 Cor. 4:3-4).
Our churches have to be sure that their methods are not blocking the work the Spirit may be establishing in people’s hearts. This even means we need more intimate prayer settings in our churches where workers in our services can explain the gospel and help seekers understand the life they’re choosing. It means that we need more cell groups and focused support groups, like Alpha, that embrace those with questions about God, the church, and spirituality.
(Let me stop and say this: Evangelism is an off-campus event. We are to go seek and save. No more seeker-sensitive services! The worship service is meant to edify the body of believers.)
A Rationally Viable Faith
It is a sobering thought that some people do not shadow the door of the church because it doesn’t meet them where they are. Some perspective here: Our world is a highly advanced place these days, and we (Americans) live in the most advanced nation on earth and in its history. The task for us Christians is to be able to clearly speak the unchanging and powerful gospel in the agora, the public square that might be better reckoned today as the marketplace of ideas.
Many out in this bazaar will not enter our churches without a higher level approach to the Christian system. So right here we must toss away the what-worked-in-times-past approach because it won’t fit the bill today or with all people (Mark 2:22). But although we preach an unchanging gospel, it doesn’t mean that the system of Christian faith is outmoded as many in our culture have written it off to be.
Two thousand years of church history has made the Christian faith more than ready to answer the complex questions of our advancing society. Most of our churches focus squarely on the devotional and primary aspects of the gospel message and forsake the church’s voice in the global and secular scheme of things. But the church has something to say about the broader society and matters like environmentalism, biomedical ethics, technology, and an array of topics and issues that have often been viewed as being irrelevant to our holy purposes.
In the same vein, sometimes we’re just not prepared. The Christian faith bears a very real rational aspect. It is a theological system as well as an ethical and philosophical system of belief that offers a full-spectrum perspective on the human experience. These kinds of intellectual discussions and forums must also be hosted by our churches because they too belong to the Church and have strongly existed in it since its spread throughout the Roman Empire. The church should always have a voice about current topics. We must appreciate our earliest heritage because there would simply be no church today without the rational prowess of the earliest defenders. We can only overlook intellectualism in our armory of spiritual weapons.
It is here that we discover the leading front of the battle between light and darkness. The way we think affects generations. After all, God loves these men and women, too, and needs the Albert Einsteins and Steve Jobs of the world. They are the Apostle Pauls and C.S. Lewises who could do more for the kingdom than we all combined! We fear these deeper subjects because we feel that they’re irrelevant or unnecessary in the saving of souls but we err. For goodness sake, we oppose anyone who would stand in the pulpit and preach theology! No, every person won’t need deep exposition to open their eyes to God but many do, especially today, and often those who could draw scores to God with their own salvation.
So just because these subjects are deeply rational and perhaps new to us doesn’t mean that we should avoid them. Think on it: Do we just let the intellectual masses of youth streaming out of our universities go headlong into hell? No! God needs their minds, their youth, and their fervor. Each of us can only benefit from a philosophy or apologetics text. Not only would we be made better Christians by it, but God sends us—guess where?—back into the marketplace; this time you’re a sharper tool (no pun intended!) The question is not if we can communicate Christ to the world but how willing might we be to do everything in our power to do so.
“Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Eph. 5:14, KJV). When God awakens that baby from death, we should be the ready life support staff of spiritual physicians equipped with every tool in our power to make the work of the Spirit complete. The Spirit has done the hard work. He has breathed new life; now we work on the vitals.
With that said, evangelism is necessary and discipleship is not optional (Matt. 28:19). In fact, discipleship occurs on both ends of the evangelism process. Our manner should be direct, simple, enabling, and thoughtful. And when that one finally says Yes! to Jesus, with genuine conviction, we can truly call in the party because that child will live to never die again. Isn’t that great? We have awoken, once and for all, to life everlasting. Let us examine ourselves, for we are each God’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20).
Source: Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1968.
Part of the reason we attend school is to learn how to think critically. The better we are able to reason, to answer deep questions and solve problems, the more our maturity develops, and we become capable of handling a future of responsibilities. I would like to put this same idea in a Christian context. Christians profess thinking with a Christian worldview in order to better solve spiritual problems and answer deep moral questions and to grow spiritually mature and capable of meeting life head-on. I think this is a reasonable assumption.
Now why would we not learn to think for ourselves? Even our earliest ancestors had to think, naturally so, just to get food in their bellies each day, not considering their self-awareness to ponder their role as humans in the world. The truth is that civilizations arose, some faster than others, according to people’s ability to think. We are much further along today in most places. The Stone Age is now the Information Age. We know more in this age than in all the earlier ones combined, consequently owning a quality of life inconceivably better than the earliest humans.
I often grow concerned that I do not observe this priority and progression of thought with many of my fellow Christians. Christianity, they would say, defines their approach to life morally, ethically, and religiously; however, many don’t seem to think with a Christian worldview.
When I say “think with a Christian worldview,” I mean to think through the deep meaning and implication of their Christian heritage and doctrine tackling the easy and difficult issues therein. I mean to approach the entire sphere of life, its various ideologies and moral dilemmas, with the guidelines they claim God has revealed in life and through Christ. I mean to read between the lines of scripture to find where life situations then might corroborate with life situations now to support authentic answers about what the Lord requires. So to me a Christian who does not think Christianly turns the point of learning on its head.
The apostle Peter wrote that we should make every effort to add to our faith various godly virtues in order not to become ineffective and unproductive (2 Pet. 1:5-9). I think what we should first assess in his words is the possibility that we can march along the Christian path without a clue that our way does not please the Lord. Peter charges this person with having “forgotten that you have been cleansed from your past sins” (v. 9).
The stew of religions, cults, and immorality that the fledgling church faced in the first century was much tougher to deal with than what we face in the Western world today. The Roman world was highly polytheistic and without dogma. Religion was personal and unorganized. There was no need for heretics or martyrs because it was unthinkable to deny another’s god or way of worship. One was free to worship, as he pleased and what he pleased. Many religions came with perks, especially those with gods whose identities were associated with vice, like sex, debauchery, or revelry.
We should also take from this that the church would have been comprised of an array of converts that now served Christ with the pangs of sinful appetites reverting back to their former days. Imagine it—a church of former gambling addicts located in the greatest casino city in the world! Think on it though: Men who patronized temple prostitution in Ephesus or Corinth would have still lived in town. There is something to learn from our spiritual ancestors and scriptural admonition.
What we learn is that if we don’t take Peter’s advice and continually build onto our faith—like adding onto a house—we risk taking our cues from the prevailing worldviews around us andour former lifestyle will resurface. This is why the New Testament writers warned the churches about sliding back into sin: It was easy to do without clinging to Christ. So Peter continues his exhortation: “If you do these things, you will never stumble” (v. 10).
I believe that God gives us a faith worth having that profoundly addresses every area of life. Therefore, it ought to guide our practice in word and deed. For example, it assures me that God is providential. Part of what this means is that God has not flown the coop but is present among us guiding and controlling all things to achieve his will even when we don’t understand him. This is built into my Christian conscience, into the worldview by which I evaluate life, and grounds me so I don’t fly apart when things aren’t going well. To put it another way, it prevents me from doubting God. Sometimes, however, it seems that I am overrun by people whose faith has never informed them of such basic knowledge of God and the faith, at least their behavior tells me so.
The point is we must be aggressive with the ideas that vie for our attention and watchful of the words we speak. What enters our minds and hearts should support and add to our faith in Christ. We are less Christian when we allow carnal ideas dominate our thinking and decision-making.
I should also extend this to any Christian music that elevates plight and hardship and keeps us living at the mercy of life. Christians aren’t excluded from the troubles of life, yet the abundant life Christ offers inspires and assists us to overcome everything oppressive life can throw at us. A dirge just isn’t helpful.
I’ve heard people lament, “We never know what state we’re gonna be in before we leave this world.” Well we all know this. Wouldn’t it be interesting though to see how our biblical heroes met their end? Who among the persecuted died valiantly and who didn’t die so bravely? Who grew feeble and senile? Who suffered the agonies of cancer or emphysema? Who passed away so suddenly, maybe even tragically, that it sent shock across the land?
Death can be difficult to handle but eventually we reckon it a natural part of life. So why let its somberness distort our Christian perspective? A Christian worldview offers me a splendid hope regarding death. Christ says death is only the beginning. The Fathers explain that death makes an end of sin. The apostle Paul challenges our faithlessness outright—”If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all others” (1 Cor. 15:19).
I feel that it’s important for me to qualify my expectation. I am not requiring that we become Christian intellectuals; if that is what you hear me saying, you are mistaken. It is not necessary to be a scholar any more than any of us need to learn Hebrew or Greek to get the real message of the scriptures. I consider myself a follower of Jesus, a student of the scriptures, and an examiner of Christian history and doctrine—in that order. My hope is that every fellow follower would move toward becoming devoted students and researchers, feeling it their reasonable service. And if one day they stand as Christian intellectuals, we should suppose it but one possible result of a life aflame with God.
Our Christian worldview is important in many regards but especially as it relates to those who might become Christians one day. I refer to those who live at the fringes of Christianity, Christian sympathizers and seekers and those who may have deep religious or philosophical questions. If we Christians do not possess a mature, wholesome, life-giving relationship with Christ that thoughtfully addresses life’s questions and issues in superior fashion, why should any outsider want what we have?
Our lack will be evident when we don’t understand Christian ideology ourselves; when our superficial answers only produce more frustrated questions; when we haven’t spent time mining to the heart of our scriptures. Where it will show is in the marketplace of ideas—and are we ready to publicly put Christ to shame?