“I am Square,” Said the Circle

(Look carefully) CC BY-NC, zorro013, Flickr
(Look carefully)
CC BY-NC, zorro013, Flickr

More commonly you’ll read in an article or hear someone on television say something like this: “I believe it’s important for you to unashamedly live your truth” or “I have become more successful as I’ve discovered what is real for me.” What is alarming is to hear Christian people pick up this notion.

The “live your truth” idea is a fashion of moral relativism, which purports that there is no absolute moral law that objectively applies to everyone everywhere at any time. It’s a “have it your way” philosophy for which there is no right way and belongs to a secular humanist worldview that shuts God out and elevates the value of humans and human contribution.

Apart from the impossibility of living strictly by relativist notions (what happens when my relativism conflicts with your relativism and whose is right?), live your truth people or “truthers” have to deceive themselves to believe that there do not exist moral and ethical boundaries regarding what they ought and ought not be or do. The argument is simply impossible to overcome logically. It becomes slightly easier, however, when God or a moral lawgiver is excised.

What the Ducklings Teach Us

In psychology the term imprinting is used to describe a period or stage in the life of a person or animal, generally young, when behavior is acquired from its parents or perceived parent. We’ve all learned how crucial it is for certain animals to be with their parents after birth and not with humans or inanimate objects that they could take to be their parent.

The young one’s identity and safety are at stake, so it’s important for it to grow up to live and act as it should and not as it might wrongly think of itself. A boy that would be raised by apes never becomes an ape and certainly no Tarzan; instead, he lives as a severely limited human.

Christian people who sincerely pose as truthers are confused. To start, Christians believe in an open system where God is real and acts providentially in the world and for human life. Christians also believe that God is the only moral lawgiver and that his ways are essentially “written in the wind” and apply equally to all humanity and always have. Humanity, although ingenious and capable of great good, is morally fallen and gains spiritual significance as it adheres to God’s moral and ethical duties.

God has never told us to discover what is right for us but to learn his ways, understand his truth, know his will. We are to be holy as he is and lovingly do his bidding. He stands as the rightful imprint of our lives, for we bear his moral image. We walk the way he walks, exactly how he walks, and no further than where he walks. There is no place for “our truth” because we have none to offer. The Battle Hymn of the Republic has it right—“His truth is marching on!”

Further, it’s inadvisable to define ourselves by things we discover about ourselves—what if it is unbecoming or antagonistic to God’s will for us?  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn more about who we are, our strengths and weaknesses or the issues or vices that operate in our lives. But it does mean that what we discover is placed under the lordship of Christ and either serves his will for us or is diligently eliminated from our hearts.

Why Being Good Doesn’t Cut It

Segovia Castle, Segovia Spain
CC BY-NC, ktran_wz, Flickr

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.

The Golden Rule: “Mirror, Mirror…”

CC BY-NC, Joanna Paterson, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Joanna Paterson, Flickr

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matt. 7:12)

The Prescription: Expect to be treated to the degree people perceive the respect you grant yourself.

How you treat yourself is a message to others of how they may treat you. It is a circular process that teaches us how to love and esteem ourselves highly.

When we are excellent in our own matters and affairs—like our health, attitude, and finances—we tend to become empathetic persons preferring one another’s well-being and dignity because we have, in effect, dignified ourselves. Our relationships improve also because our own lives have done just that as we’ve sorted out the kinks in our character. The obverse is that we will not treat others how we don’t want to be treated.

The Description: Our general manner toward others explains how we view ourselves.

People that truly love themselves and seek happiness and enrichment approach others hoping to connect with like quality. Those who belittle themselves are negative, distrustful of others, and hard-pressed to find any good in people.

Do you think I’ve overdone explaining this Rule? But we definitely act this way toward people we consider our superiors, perhaps for a prestige, title, or wealth. We do so because we feel there is something in it for us, not because we truly care. The deep insight of the Golden Rule is that therein we all become dignitaries, not for possessions but self-worth.

The lesson here is more than one of mere courtesy. It is a philosophy of self-respect that raises the quality of our lives and enhances the relations we share. Thus, we discover a social approach firmly rooted in personal integrity of character.

The Day I Was Doomed to Hell

CC BY-NC, Beau Ramsey, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Beau Ramsey, Flickr

A little old lady regularly shopped the drugstore where I once worked. She always had a smile and a joke. Sometimes she would be nicely dressed and on her way to church, and she dutifully extended to me an invitation to visit.  I made her a promise, indicating that I’d let her know when I was coming. I kept it on the back burner until it was simply time to make good on it.

I like visiting other churches. I like to see what community in other parts of the “family” looks like. Of course, there is the awkwardness of being the newbie anywhere, but that’s easily remedied by welcoming folk. I hoped for such people this time because I knew everything about me and this place was different, except Jesus. Still, I’ve preached a little everywhere, so acculturation was not difficult for me.

I went to the Sunday evening service. The little white church on the hill was quaint and about as dated as its congregation. Still, the people were very nice and cordial. I truly felt welcomed. I sat alone since my customer showed up just after the service began. Then it came time for the sermon. The minister, a senior but sprite man, ushered me into the most humiliating church experience I have ever had.

Somewhere after his intro, he started into a diatribe about this denomination, why it was right and why outsiders (like me) were on their way to hell. He taught and clarified, railed and complained, preached and evangelized straight dogma. I honestly wondered if this was what he had prepared for the people that evening because everyone else there, members of the church for years, certainly knew the script. I was the only guest present.

At times I nearly melted to the floor since it was evident that he was using the moment to give the visitor ‘a learning’ about why he didn’t have good religion. Then, I’d feel anger at his manner and entrenched ignorance. Everything he would say would cause something I learned in seminary to race to my wounds like white blood cells staving off infection. All that was left for him to do was point and say in a booming voice, “YOU, SIR!” and interrogate me on the spot.

What’s Your Motivation?

Why do we do this kind of stuff? I mean, at church, in our personal conversations, right here in the blogosphere? We regularly waste time arguing, criticizing, and lambasting others when we could be demonstrating the love of Christ to people who are hurting and conspiring good works that edify. Being factional is harmful; being right is counterproductive; making heretics out of people who only peeve us is not Christlike.

Behavior like this brings us into the condemnation of the ungodly minister described by Jude. In just 25 verses, Jude delivers a vivid, scathing criticism of false leaders that reads like an Old Testament prophet. He describes their glibness and failure to be conscientious in their speech and to weigh their words and actions. Jude skillfully references the fable of Michael the archangel refusing to be disputatious with Satan over Moses’s body.

And my point, using Jude’s illustration, is that if even an archangel wouldn’t allow himself to become reproachful of Satan out of respect for the Lord but opted to leave the matter with God, how do we cavalierly denounce our Christian brothers and sisters? Our methods may not please the Lord.

There are ways to deal with true spiritually destructive problems, but it seems that most of our squabbles result of our own pride. Let us not take the low road. We dishonor God and wreck the church in the process.

Probing the Parable of the Ten Virgins

CC BY-NC, Waiting For The Word, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Waiting For The Word, Flickr

I am a booklover. I own hundreds of books and have read just as many. I don’t have a favorite one because their subjects are so diverse and interesting. But the two that stand above the rest for me are the Bible and the dictionary. (Yes, I’m one of those people!) It only follows that I am infatuated with words. I love how words work and grasp that they are important to knowledge.

Like letters that symbolize sound units, words too are symbols for ideas, concepts, and things of concrete reality. They offer information and carry shades of meaning. They possess an inherent ability to raise the level of one’s intelligence. But in order to use words we must understand them, or they must be defined. To define a thing is to make it distinct or clear.

In the New Testament, we discover a spiritual example of this. John states with his very first sentence, “In the beginning was the Word.” John intended to explain the profound reasoning of God spoken into the gloominess of human depravity in the person of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 1:3 further describes Christ as the radiance of the glory of God and the icon, or representation, of the Godhead. This explains what Christ often told his hearers, that when they saw him they saw also the Father. Jesus defines what God is all about.

But words can be problematic, especially when we are not as sure of their definition as we could be. Often, in attempts to explain them, we use alternate meanings that fall short of a true definition. I must confess that faith is a concept for which the definition I am not always sure of as I’d like to be. It is a nebulous essence as tangible as grabbing a chunk of air. Defined enough for spiritual life and relationship, it retains enough of the mystery of God to hold us back in wonder of him and his doings.

Under the microscope of theology, one will observe that faith is a gift: none are born with it. And being a gift, faith is a gift of sight, for it is impossible that a dead soul should raise itself to life or an unregenerate person should think godly thoughts. But God shines his light upon the soul that it might live and, in living, ponder thoughts of him.

Fundamentally faith is belief—in God and the words of God (Rom. 10:17)—and belief is our light by which we spiritually see in a dark world.

The Apostle Paul comments on this in Ephesian 5:14 when he says, “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (KJV). He goes on to add in verses 15 and 16, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.”

In the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25, the marriage story is told of the bridegroom who was to return and the virgins who had to go out to meet him. Five were wise because they took extra oil in jars for their lamps, and five were foolish because they took no thought to do so. Moreover, what is important to see is that a qualitative decision had been made, particularly, by the wise virgins prior to all the other circumstances (and what they might symbolize) that occur in the text.

Here is a good resting place to discuss the wisdom faith brings. With faith comes the ability to see God and to walk according to his will. We develop tuning our hearts to his words and we learn to enjoy him. Most importantly, we mature to understand God’s motives, to know that he only loves us and wishes us no harm. Thereby, we gain discretion to know what he is doing without seeing the whole picture.

All of this is developed with persistence in the prayer closet. The prayer place is not only a routine the spiritual undertake, but also the believer’s intimate place with God. Prayer should encompass our endeavors to develop spiritual habits and discipline—and with it should be included a catalog of classic disciplines that leave us nothing less than naked before God. In the end the point is simple: personal holiness.

Hence we discover the problem with the unwise virgins and those without spiritual sight. They have not understood the responsibility that comes with a life of faith. To relate it to our first theme, they have critical problems defining faith and have never mastered its language. For many, their view of God has become distorted by indifference, suffering and hard times, offenses, vain philosophies, and other complexities until their spiritual enlightenment has been snuffed back into darkness.

The division between the wise and the unwise becomes very clear where it concerns the practical outflow of faith. How one carries out his or her belief is important. Many claim to be Christians but not all are devout. Everyone is not in the press to live holy. Not all strive against the tide of sin. Not all have in the river turned to swim upstream. In the end, one will abuse and ultimately lose what he or she doesn’t understand. This is why Jesus chastises the religious leaders in Matthew 16 that they were so able to predict the weather but didn’t have the sight to discern the signs of the times.

We cannot criticize the wise virgins as selfish or arrogant because they didn’t share their oil. Their attitude explains to us that forerunners in our spiritual walk can only take us so far in defining faith; to them we may be entirely grateful. But to mature in God will take a conscious effort to follow the way God leads for growth, personally.

The oil in the virgins’ lamps represented their personal conviction and an individual righteousness. It was personal holiness that could not be shared. It was their learnedness and literacy in the things of God—costly, labored for, unsharable, and, in the end, not worth the possibility of missing Christ.

The Beatitudes Paraphrased

CC NC-SA, Will Humes, Flickr
CC NC-SA, Will Humes Flickr

Joyful are they who keep a humble opinion of themselves, for the treasures of the life of faith belong to them.

Joyful are they who grieve for their sins, for they shall have lasting spiritual comfort.

Joyful are they who with patience endure injury, for they shall receive abundantly in this life.

Joyful are they who crave godliness, for their souls shall be satisfied.

Joyful are the compassionate, for they shall receive compassion.

Joyful are they with pure motives and singleness of heart, for they shall be the friends of God.

Joyful are the peacemakers, for they shall be those who most resemble their Father.

Joyful are they who are oppressed for their godly lifestyle, for they have proof of their sanctification and evidence of their entrance into the heavenly kingdom.