Friday, December 25, 2015

The Hope that Christmas Brings

Merry Christmas everyone!  It's Christmas Day!

Come with me as I reminisce how Christmas has changed for me (which may be similar to your experience) and what I have found about Christmas to always stay the same.

When I was young, the magic and mystery of Christmas surrounded me.  Time seemed to slow the months, weeks, days and even hours before Christmas.  It was as if time played a trick on me every year and dragged its feet like a rebellious child not wanting to enter the room named Christmas, no matter how hard I tried to convince it to get there earlier. 

I couldn't wait for Christmas Day.  I couldn't wait for the opportunity to actually want to wake up at 6 in the morning.  Presents would appear under the tree that weren't there the night before.  The magic of Christmas infected me.  And though I didn't know it then, I had tapped into something about Christmas, its joy and excitement, ultimately personified in hope that should be in everyone's Christmas.

I see that same joy and excitement in my daughter Victoria, who looks forward to Christmastime as a nearly 16 year old young lady, with the same enthusiasm that I had when I was 8.  She loves to give gifts, in the same way that I looked forward to receiving them.  If I had to guess, I would think that she actually has more fun than I ever did as a kid.  I think that she gets it.

Around the age of 19, I came to understand the true meaning of Christmas.  Not the second birthday for myself given by a magical pudgy grandfather figure in a sleigh who seemed to always know if I had been naughty or nice, but still gave me gifts anyway, but the small Child in a manger who was born to be the gift to me (and the whole world).  That revelation has rocked my world ever since and changed the way that I have celebrated Christmas.

As I have grown from a young man to a young married man to a father, there has been a mission for me to make sure that when I celebrate Christmas, Christ doesn't get lost in the celebration, but is the center of it.  How do I continue to celebrate the most profound of mysteries, namely the God of the universe wrapping Himself in flesh and bone to commune and ultimately die for us, and not make the celebration about me?

A number of years ago, my wife and I made a decision not to buy gifts for our family for Christmas.  Rather we would spend our time focusing on Jesus and what He would have us do during this time of year.  During these years, we have bought Christmas presents for others through Operation Christmas Child, served homeless families with our lifegroup at Joy Junction, given to missionaries whom we know are spreading the good news of Christ around the world, provided gifts to needy families within our church, as well as, giving the traditional gifts to friends and family as God gave us leading and joy to do it.  And on every Christmas Day, like today, we sit down and spend time in prayer and worship for the One who's birthday we celebrate.

As I look forward to the years to come, I see many friends who are experiencing suffering and hardship, as Christmas becomes a reminder of friends and family who are hurting or no longer here this time of year.  There is a tree planted outside our church from a dear friend who passed away earlier this year.  His wife and grandson took great care to put some simple decorations on the tree bringing a festive look to the outside of our church with far greater meaning than those who see it will ever truly know.  Another in our church family is experiencing the recent loss of a wife of 60+ years, and though I know he is surrounded by a great family, my heart aches for these wonderful people, and many others like them that I know, as Christmas takes on a different nature than what it began.  I will be praying for them today. 

I know that as I grow older, these realities await me in even greater frequency than I currently experience them.  It is why my Facebook feed today is filled with rightful reminders to remember those who are hurting or missing loved ones. 

So how do I celebrate as this becomes a greater part of my Christmas reality?

I believe that there is a connecting thread of hope that undergirds the true meaning and celebration of Christmas that provides wonder and awe for the child, the joy of selfless giving for the youth and adult, and the comfort needed to those who are suffering loss. 

For it is the same Babe in the manger that would command the waves and the wind and walk on the water as a sheet of glass and give hope to the child that nothing is impossible with God.

It is this same Babe in the manger who would command us to love our neighbors as ourselves and remind us that it is more blessed to give than to receive and give hope to the youth and adult that true joy and purpose comes from following Him rather
than our own selfish desires.

It is this same Babe in the manger who would promise those in a place of sorrow or suffering that there is a place being prepared for them and all who believe where there will be no more pain, no more sickness, no more suffering and no more death and give hope that this life is not the end.  It is only the separation that is temporary, the joy, however, is permanent. 

And this hope is personified in the coming of the Babe in a manger.  He is the reason we celebrate Christmas and is the only One who can bring any true lasting, enduring meaning to it.  He is the reason we have hope.  He is God's gift to the world. 

Makes sense, if you ask me.  After all, it is His birthday.

"Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." -- Luke 2:10b-11 ESV
 

 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Pastoring, Parenting and the Answer to the Problem of Evil

One of the biggest complaints that I receive about belief in God is the problem of evil.  As a pastor, I receive this complaint in two different ways. 

The first way is from atheists who look at all the evil in the world and posit:  If God were all powerful, why is there evil in the world?  Why couldn't God just prevent the evil from happening in the first place?

There are two major of fallacies within the context of this line of questioning. 

First, an atheist has no framework for evaluating good and evil and must therefore borrow that understanding from somewhere outside his/her worldview.  This is the easiest to see and there are scores of resources referencing this by both theists and atheists.  (I personally recommend Frank Turek's book "Stealing from God".) 

Second, the atheist makes a category mistake in confusing the nature of a human being with free will with that of a toaster oven.  If we look at a defective toaster oven, we assume that the fault belongs to the maker.  However, atheists smuggle in the argument that if there is something wrong with humanity, then it must logically follow that the Creator is at fault.  As a result, in the atheist's viewpoint, we are nothing more than over complicated toaster ovens (or as they might put it, the mere products of our DNA).  The fact that some of the DNA is faulty points to the lack of a Creator, or even the need for one.

As a pastor, I often experience this argument a different way.  It usually involves a person who is going through a crisis because of bad things happening in their lives or the lives of family members.  They make their way to my office and begin to ask the question:  "Why would God do this to me (or them)?"

What they are really asking is, "If God is all powerful, why are bad things happening to me (or others)?  Couldn't He have prevented those things from happening?"  Some, so distraught over the suffering they are enduring, turn their back on God and choose never to follow Him again. 

To help us properly understand this relationship between free will beings and a perfect God, God gave us the privilege of parenting. 

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici
 @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Imagine talking to a mother or father distraught over the choices that their child was making.  They consistently taught them to save sex until marriage, not to do drugs and not get involved with people of questionable character.  They weren't lax in enforcing punishment to encourage this behavior, nor were they lax in heaping praise when the right decisions were made.  They were loving in every sense of the word.  And yet, here they are heartbroken, because their daughter has run away from home and hooked up with a druggie.

In a situation, such as this, who would dare blame the parents for the choices of their daughter?  All of us would acquit the parents of any wrongdoing and place the blame firmly on the daughter's shoulders.

For the majority of the people with whom I counsel, the problem is not with God or His power, but with their obedience.  Yet unlike the parents of the above situation, they blame God for the situation of suffering that they have caused for themselves through disobedience to His commands.

Here are a few of the most common situations that I face:

*They lived with (or married) a non-believer who is now going to leave her (and possibly her child) behind as he chases after greener pastures.  (Why would God cause me to be abandoned?)

*They have consistently chosen not to fellowship with believers (or share struggles with believers) and now in their time of need the body doesn't want to support them because they don't know them (or never knew their struggles, and now the situation is too big for them to help).  (Christians are therefore hypocrites and their God is unloving because they wouldn't help me in my time of need.)

*They continued to give into addictions, such as pornography, sexual activities including homosexuality, alcohol or drugs and want to be accepted for who they are.  (Why would God make me this way?)

These situations probably account for about 85% of all the counseling I do with walk ins (those outside the congregation) and a significant portion of those from within the church as well.  A number of them will end up blaming God for their situation thinking that God should have just prevented them from making any decisions at all against His will.

It was Jesus who said, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  Whoever does not love Me does not keep My words.  And the word that you hear is not Mine but the Father's who sent Me."  (John 14:23-24 ESV)

Most people aren't struggling with the problem of evil, but rather the lack of love manifested through disobedience.  God just becomes a scapegoat for decisions that they have made against His will.  The consequences of their suffering because of their disobedience becomes a convenient reason to impugn the nature of God and disbelieve in Him so they will feel justified in living the life they have always lived without Him.

In the end, we are not truly struggling with evil coming from God, but rather evil that originates in ourselves.  Until we come to that realization, we will never see our need for Jesus and His solution to the problem of evil in our own life through His love for us on the cross.  When we do, however, our only proper response is love.  A love that manifests itself through obedience.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Are you merely infatuated with Jesus?

Imagine you saw this amazing girl or amazing guy.  Everything about this person blew you out of the water:  their looks, their manners, their caring attitude for others, their intelligence, even the goals they had in life were inspirational to you.  As you compare them to yourself, you wonder how in the world you could ever get the attention of such a person, just to be a friend, much less the outlandish notion that they would be the love of your life.

Yet, hope beyond hope, you find out from a very reliable source that they are interested in you.  It's like all of your dreams are coming true.  You courageously take the first step by approaching this person to hear for yourself whether or not this person is interested in pursuing a relationship with you and discover that all the rumors are true.

Elated, you begin a relationship that starts so well.  You begin to learn about their past and what they hope their future will be.  You also begin to share the things that are important to you.  A newfound feeling of exuberance starts to penetrate a budding friendship.

However, just as things seem to be going so well, something threatens to hijack the experience.  Slowly but surely, each conversation starts and ends with you.  Your dreams, your plans, your fears, your hopes, your expectations all begin to dominate what used to be a two way relationship.  All of a sudden, dates are broken, commitments are forgotten and tension builds in this relationship.

Ironically, like an abusive partner, you begin to blame this same person you called "amazing" for all the lack of intimacy that you are now experiencing.  You don't understand why it seems they are no longer there for you and actually claim that you don't understand this person anymore.  If this is the way that they are going to treat you, then it might be better off if you never met in the first place.  If they aren't going to care for you, the way that you care for you, then they must not love you and any "relationship" that you actually had was, in reality, an illusion.

The truth is that anyone looking objectively at this situation would come to the quick evaluation that what you experienced during this time was merely infatuation and not truly a relationship of any sort.  What may have started off so well, only happened because you were interested in the other person solely for how they could benefit you, not because you truly cared for them and desired to know them.

Image courtesy of Naypong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
And yet, this is often how we have treated God.  The God we say that we love.  The God who gave His only begotten Son for us so that we may have life.  The God who knows us so completely (see Psalm 139) and desperately wants us to know Him that He has left knowledge of Himself for us to get to know Him in His Word.

This knowledge of His love and forgiveness through Christ attracts us to Him.  This knowledge that He actually wants us and cares for us overwhelms us to the point where we learn the basics about Christ and His nature.  

But like the seed that is planted in shallow soil or weeded terrain, we quickly cool to the idea of a loving God when it is expected that we grow in our relationship or sacrifice time to actually consider the nature, hopes and dreams of a God who gave everything for us.  Our times of prayer become a list of things we want.  Our time in the Word, non-existent.  Other things more important than this relationship consistently crowd out any time with Him.  And then, we begin to feel a distance from the One we we so sure would never leave us or forsake us.  Until one day, we claim, because God let us down in our expectations in this relationship, that we don't even know this God we serve or even if He exists.  So we give up and blame God that He didn't try hard enough to convince us that He is there and that He cares for us.

Don't be fooled.  That's not a relationship...it's merely infatuation.  It is of those people whom Jesus will say, "I never knew you."  Not because He doesn't want us to, but because deep down...we really don't want to know Him.  And just like every other relationship we have...we show it with our actions.  

Monday, August 24, 2015

But...it doesn't affect you

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Choices matter.  I think that we can all agree with that.

Choices also have a varying degree of impact on our lives.  For example, outside of the embarrassment that it may cause me, the choosing my favorite pair of checkered knee length tube socks to be worn with my running shorts isn't going to have the same impact that the acceptance of a job offer halfway across the country would have on me, my family and my friends.

Choices can be good or bad, beneficial or destructive, personal or corporate in nature.

However, in the current climate in which we live, I believe there has been a confusion over the categories which our choices actually fall under.  Many people have fallen victim to the false assumption that the personal choices that they make are ONLY personal and therefore should not affect how others view them.  Erroneously, they believe that because their choice was a personal one, the only person that it should affect is them and if it affects someone else or someone else's view of them, then that person is in the wrong for feeling this way because in the end "it doesn't affect them."

But is it true...

Let's test this theory against the most ultimate of personal choices...suicide.

(For those who have been personally touched by this tragedy, I am sorry for your loss, but I do pray that by the end of this post you will understand why this example was used.)

Suicide by nature is a personal choice but one that universally we understand affects much more than the person who commits the act.  Family and friends are left mourning.  Some never get over such an act committed by someone they love.  They question in their minds over and over again what they could have done different to see the signs, to instill hope, to be a listening ear and wish that somehow they could have helped share what a blessing life was and how temporary the problems they were facing really were.  Every thought and suggestion comes to mind to think of a way they may have intervened, no matter how they may have been viewed at the time, to preserve hope and stop them from going down this destructive path.

With suicide, there is a finality to the act that exposes the fact that choices that we make, even personal ones, have a profound impact on those whom we love and associate with.

Choices have a cost to them and a ripple effect through the relationships that we have with others.

Much is being made over the recent Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage across all 50 states.  One of the mantras that I continue to run across from those sympathetic in the media and individuals on social media is that legalizing gay marriage doesn't affect you, so get over it and move on with life.

Obviously, people chanting this mantra must be thinking that gay marriage occurs only in a vacuum where the only two people it affects are the two exchanging vows.  However, as with any decision, the personal choices made by these two individuals affect family and friends who have differing and conflicting views concerning this arrangement.  Some think that there is nothing wrong with it and believe that it should be celebrated.  Others believe that it is harmful, physically and emotionally, to the beings involved (not to mention spiritually).

So a simple evaluation of differing views concerning the personal choice of one person ends up having profound relational effects.  Some parents and friends celebrate while others grieve and are torn by how to show love while withholding support for a decision they deem destructive.  No one is left unaffected through this personal decision.

Apply this logic to any "personal" decision of similar nature and you end up with equal turmoil.

What about abortion?  Or one's views on Planned Parenthood?
What about the use of weed for recreational purposes?
What about alcoholism?
What about pornography?
Or sex outside of marriage?
Or marrying a non-believer?
Or divorce?
Or believing in Christ from a devout Muslim family?
Or believing in Christ in the current climate that will get one branded as intolerant, bigoted, uneducated and hateful for merely holding a contrary viewpoint of the culture?

All of these decisions are personal in nature, but have a relational cost to them no matter what side of the issue you take.

So as believers, and even as non-believers (if any are reading...and I hope that you do), can we please stop pretending that the personal choices that we make only affects ourselves?  Can we stop being shocked over the fact that our strong stance on any controversial issue actually has an effect on how other people view us, even people we are closest to?

Jesus told His followers to count the cost for following Him and even showed how belief in Him would divide families.  If the choice to follow Him has such far reaching ramifications to the relationships we have, how could we not believe that other important decisions we have would not have the same effect?

The next time someone tries to stop the conversation by saying..."but it doesn't affect you", feel free to share this article and maybe by the end they will understand why what they said wasn't true to begin with.  And I hope that all of us will carefully begin to consider our "personal" decisions and count the cost each of those choices will inevitably have on those around us...because it doesn't just affect us.


Monday, August 10, 2015

Do you have a plan for your kids?

Discipleship...we are all called to do it.  But do any of us really know how?

The following post is for every parent who calls themselves a believer in Christ and sees as their calling the fulfillment of the Great Commission.  But it begins with some penetrating questions, not to discourage, but to open our eyes to reality so that we may be fulfillers of the commission Christ has given us.

I begin with parents because I have worked with youth for 14 years and have strong feelings toward this subject of discipleship.

According to Scripture, parents are the ones that God has entrusted to pass down the faith to their children (see Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Psalm 78:1-8).  As such, I do not worry too much whether or not any youth come to my youth group.  Now that may seem like a shock to many parents, but if you, as parents, are discipling your children, then you will have many more opportunities to teach them about the Lord than I will in my 2 hour slot on Wednesday night.  Sunday is the gathering together of believers and every family should be involved in that, but a specialized time not representing the entire body but an outreach to a group of peers, is optional, because families could create a similar environment themselves within their own home.

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However, many Godly Christian parents lack a true plan of discipleship for their children.  This is in stark contrast to all of the other plans parents have for their children.  I have had many parents tell me the plans that they have for their kids as it pertains to sports or schooling and stressing the importance that can be found in those activities.  In sports, it is to win state or district or just keep them out of trouble.  In school, it is the importance to get a good education for a future career.  I have seen parents run themselves ragged over the school year taking their children from one sporting event to another or one school event to another to fulfill these plans.

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No one is saying that these things are not good, but godliness is more important.  Consider the words of Paul to his young apprentice Timothy:  Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.  1 Timothy 4:7b-8  Yet in our culture, a loud voice tells us that if we don't get our kids involved in sports or extracurricular activities we are somehow depriving our children of their future.

So let me ask some questions to shed some light on this ridiculous assertion:

How many of you as adults make a living as a sports figure?
How many of you as adults reference American history on a daily basis in life?
How many of you as adults do math at a higher level than Algebra 1 on a regular basis?
How many of you as adults have dissected a sentence or even a frog in the last 2 years?

Chances are you might have been able to answer "yes" to one of those questions, but only if you worked in a specialized field that required that specific knowledge.  Yet here we are as parents, taking our children and youth to every practice to every sporting event and quizzing them every day concerning the particulars of this subject or that...or at least harping on them to get their homework done.

Compare, if you will, the answers that you might give to the following:

How many of you want your children to grow up to be honest, respectable adults who love God passionately and love others in such a way that Christ is seen in their lives?

How many of you want your children to be able to make the right decisions in life when the pressures of the world come crashing in on them, to choose the Godly thing, even when it hurts because it is right, not because it is convenient?

How many of you want your boys to grow to be men who have been instilled to treat women with a respect that comes from God?

How many of you want your girls to grow to be strong women who can resist temptation and find their identity in Christ who has made them special instead of being swayed by feelings of wanting to impress someone else for the wrong reason?

How many of you want your children to know the sound reasons you have for believing in Christ and trusting in His resurrection and His Word, in a world that challenges them that God doesn't exist at all?

How many of you want children who will humbly admit mistakes and not cover them up, no matter how hard it is?

I am sure that all of you would say that that you want all of those things for your kids.  And some of you might even object to this line of reasoning because it is possible to do both.  I agree, it is.  But which set of questions are more important?  I believe that if a parent was forced to choose, we would rather choose the second set of questions over the first, if we had to.  However, if the truth be known, I have met very few families who have majored on the second set of questions by having an active discipleship time with their children in the same way as they focus on the first set of questions.

In 14 years of being a youth pastor, I know less than 14 youth who have read the entire Bible by the time they have left High School (this number includes my 2 kids currently in youth group who had to read the Bible before they were allowed into youth group at 6th grade.  Btw...this isn't a bragging point for me and my family, but rather the realization that many parents do not challenge their kids to the level of faith their children can comprehend...I had to learn this lesson too.)

Consider what the Psalmist says in Psalm 119:9-11

How can a young man keep his way pure?  By guarding it according to Your word.  With my whole heart I seek You; let me not wander from Your commandments!  I have stored up Your word in my heart, that I might not sin against You.

Or these words from Psalm 1:1-3

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night.  He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.  In all that he does, he propers.

These promises of purity and salvation only come to the one who continually thinks about the Lord and His word (see also James 1:19-25).  And while this is what we truly want, we often get distracted by the priorities of the world without even knowing it.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
As a parent, when was the last time you encouraged your child to read the Bible on a daily basis?  When was the last time you recommended a Christian book for your child to read to bolster their faith?  When was the last time you outreached to the lost as a family or served those less fortunate in the name of Jesus?  When was the last time you prayed together or worshiped God at home just because He is God and He is worthy?  Or had a Bible trivia night?  Or talked about current issues/situations in the light of God's word?

Or just developed a plan to start doing all these things?

Your head may be swimming thinking about all of these things.  You may feel clueless on where to begin.  But begin you must...in the same way as you have begun in all of the other areas you have by asking for help by those who have gone before you.

This is the true role of your pastor/youth pastor/children's pastor.  Not to just entertain your kids or try to teach them for a few hours once or twice a week, but to come alongside parents and help them create a real plan of discipleship for their children.  I believe every parent needs to be meeting with their pastor/youth pastor/children's pastor at least once a year and developing a plan of discipleship for each of their children.

As I look back on my many years of ministry, one thing I wish I would have done differently, would be to do less events for youth and more planning with parents because, in the end, we both want what is best for your children...and what is best for your children is that they know Jesus.  And parents are best equipped for the job.

So what are you waiting for?  Get on the phone, talk to your pastor and start planning for the spiritual success of your children.  It's never too late to start!



Friday, July 31, 2015

Why Saying You Are A Christian Doesn't Necessarily Make You One

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Are you a Christian? 

Now before you answer, please understand, this is not a trick question.  But it also isn't a question that can be flippantly answered because you have gone to church, been baptized, walked up front at some camp or conference during the altar call or even read the Bible.  If you were about to base your answer on any of those qualifications, you might have a little anxiety right now.

Many people who have done many or all of those things and who would enthusiastically proclaim "yes" to the question posed at the top of the page will find themselves standing before Jesus on judgment day hearing the words they never thought was true...Jesus never knew them (Mat. 7:23). 

It speaks to the point of this post:  Claiming that you are a Christian doesn't necessarily make you one.

It is just like me claiming that I am an auto mechanic.  I can give myself the title.  I might even be able to fool those who knew less than me about cars.  I'm not sure there are any, but for the sake of argument let's pretend there are.  I can have fancy cards made up that look professional.  I can dress in mechanic scrubs.  I can learn some of the lingo of the trade.  Sure, I could probably change a tire (as long as the rim was on it) and check the oil and fluid levels, almost anyone could. 

But I'm not claiming to be anyone, I am claiming to be an auto mechanic.  It is a title that carries with it the reasonable expectation of a sophisticated knowledge of the inner and outer workings of automobiles that the average person is not going to have.  While anyone can claim the title, there is more to a title than just the name itself.

As soon as someone entrusted their vehicle to me, my ruse would be quickly discovered.  Using duct tape to fix oil leaks or WD40 on annoying squeaks or knocking sounds isn't standard protocol.  Ultimately it doesn't fix the problem at all and probably makes things worse.  After you got what was left of your car back from me...probably towed back to your house with a note saying it was unfixable and you need a new car.  You wouldn't say that I was a bad mechanic.  You would most likely say that I wasn't a mechanic at all and possibly sue me for misrepresentation as well as damages.  This is getting expensive...let's change the subject.

I am sure you get the point.  So how does this relate to our relationship with Christ?

Well, let's take a look at the fuller context of the passage quoted above:

Not everyone who says to Me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day many will say to Me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and cast out demons in Your name, and do many mighty works in Your name?"  And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you, depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.  --Matthew 7:21-23 ESV (emphasis mine)

Even in its fuller context, the stories above (7:15-20 a tree and its fruit) and below (7:24-27 building your house on the rock) tell us that we can confidently and righteously infer those who are true believers in Christ and those who are false based upon their teachings and their obedience to Christ and His commands...no matter what they claim for themselves.

In other words, those who claim the name of Christ, but know nothing about Him, have no desire read His word or more importantly put those words into practice, according to Jesus, have no part in Him, no matter how many great things you have done in His name. 

Some of you may be getting uncomfortable right now.  Good.  Too many for too long have been allowed to label themselves "Christian" without ever producing the fruits Jesus promised came with the relationship we have with Him.  For too long many Christians, myself included, have tiptoed around uncomfortable truths, such as this, affirming those in a constant state of rebellion as if their continual disobedience to Christ could ever prove to Him that they love Him.  Those in this condition are on the precipice of judgment, no matter how they label themselves, and it is the kindest, most loving act I can do to expose such a condition so that they may truly come to the only One who makes the word Christian mean anything in the first place.

The desire to know Christ is the longing produced by faith  (Phil. 3:8-11).  Conformity to the image of Christ is the work of the Spirit in our lives  (Rom. 8:26-30).  Obedience to Christ is the act of love that faith produces  (John 14:23-24). 

Anything less than this is counterfeit religion posing as Christianity.  I pray you don't find yourself there.  And if you do, do us both a favor and don't call yourself a Christian.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Danger of Living in the Land of Plenty

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I admit, I love my electronic gadgets.  I love my smartphone and the music I can play from it.  I love my computer and the ability to write this blog...and play games on occasion.  I love the fact that I can watch Netflix or the current NCAA tourney from my computer or phone.  I love the advances given by man that make it easier to be entertained.  (Have I ever mentioned how much I love Disneyworld?)  I love discovering the "new" thing...whether that new thing is a movie I'm looking forward to, a new electronic gadget that I am sure will revolutionize my life, or a new ride at my favorite amusement park.

While many of my enjoyments revolve around being entertained, I'm sure you could easily fill in the blanks of the above paragraph with the interests you find so easy to enjoy, as well.

Despite many of the grumblings we may have in the current state of affairs in our nation or world, we are living in a land of plenty.  And while there are many ways for which we should count our blessings for living in such a land, the blessings of the land itself are a danger to our walk with Christ.

Let me explain how this happens.

When Jesus was asked what was the greatest of all commands, He answered by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5.  This, of course, was to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.  We will often read this quote from Jesus in Mark 12:28-32 and think that we fully understand what Jesus was saying.  However, whenever Jesus (or Paul or anyone else in the New Testament) appealed to the Old Testament as the foundation of anything, it wasn't just to pull a few verses out of context.  Actually, it was the exact opposite.  Jesus was appealing to the verses found in Deuteronomy and its fuller context so people would understand exactly what He meant.  His audience would have known both the verses that He quoted and the surrounding context.

So let's take a look at the surrounding context of Deuteronomy 6 and see if it helps us understand what Jesus meant by loving the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  --Deuteronomy 6:4-5

This is what Jesus quoted as the greatest of all commandments.  In other words, for those who serve God, it is a command, not a suggestion.  But what is so great about God is that He doesn't give a command without an instruction on how to keep that command.  The rest of the paragraph is the outline of how God wanted us to keep that command.

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.  --Deuteronomy 6:6-9

In other words, we are to be thinking about God all the time.  We are to be talking about God to our children...all the time.  We are to have reminders in our home that point us and anyone who enters our house to our belief in God...all the time.

That's a heavy order.  It's one that I fall short of all the time.  It seems like the faithful today are more challenged than ever, because we are more distracted than ever.  Have you ever wondered why it is that way for us?

Well, I believe God provided the answer to the Israelites in the very next verses...

And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you--with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not full, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant--and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  --Deuteronomy 6:10-12

You see, while in the desert, Israel was totally dependent upon God for everything.  Food was given miraculously by way of manna...everyday.  For 40 years, God allowed the Israelites to wander in the desert, but He took care of their needs, their feet didn't swell (though they constantly traveled) and their clothes didn't wear out (though they were in constant use).  Even the land where they were going to, God was providing.  It was described as a land of abundance and flowing with milk and honey.

Things were about to get a whole lot easier for the Israelites as they transitioned as a people under the yoke of slavery, to a freed people under the guidance of God, to the temptation of a self reliant people with the illusion that they didn't need God to provide for them. 

That's what the land of plenty does to you.  It tempts you to forget the Lord in the land of distraction.  It tests you to see whether you will keep the greatest of the Lord's command as a command...or merely a suggestion.  It provides the illusion that somehow we can provide for our own needs or pull ourselves out of our own situations that we have gotten ourselves into instead of relying solely on the Lord who has brought us into this land of blessing in the first place. 

This is why well meaning Christians can tell me that they haven't had time to get into the Word during the week, but they have had time to watch a full season of their favorite show on Netflix...or 17 hours of March Madness over the weekend.  It's why many Christian parents have children who neither know the Lord nor what He has done for them.  It's why many Christians find it hard to witness to the goodness of Christ to their friends around them, though God tells them to talk about Him all the time.  We have replaced what Jesus meant by loving the Lord with all of our heart, which came with specific instructions on how to do it, with our touchy, feely version of love that requires nothing but a feeling of good intentions to the One we say we are serving...without our actions.

Don't get me wrong.  I love the land of plenty that we live in.  But I have fallen victim to its temptations enough to know that amidst the blessing, this land is a dangerous place.

We would do well to learn how to put these blessings in their proper place...behind, not before, our relationship with Christ.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Myth of the Moral Atheist

I find it ironic that some of the biggest online arguments with atheists I've been a part of revolve around morality.  As I have mentioned in a previous post, the atheist worldview doesn't ultimately allow for good and evil.  As such, their claim that God is evil (or unjust) falls flat.

Yet, in many of these conversations that I have had, atheists tell me that you don't need God to be a good person.  Often, right after those statements, they will point to themselves as an example of this being true.  They just happen to be led by science and logic.  That doesn't make them a bad person, but it does give them freedom from what they claim is the false god in the sky.

Then they will go on and use examples from the Bible or the actions from those who claim Christ as examples of why religion is evil, unjust or immoral.  They will bring up slavery in the Old Testament as an unjust treatment of people or the Israelites slaughter of the Canaanite peoples in the conquest of the promise land as immoral.  They will talk of failings of Christians who have cheated on their wives, stolen from others, and lied just as much as any non-believer for the justification of their position...that they are just as good as anyone who follows a god.

And while these are definitely problematic...there is a deeper misunderstanding that the atheist is missing.

Whenever I press an atheist concerning four areas of logical inconsistency that most atheists or agnostics believe (Creation from nothing, order from disorder, life from non-life and morality from an amoral source), the response I receive in return is:  I am not making a positive truth claim therefore the onus is on the one who is.

However, if that is the truth, to what is the atheist comparing the immorality of God or his followers?  What standard is he/she appealing to, if indeed, the atheist is making no positive truth claim?  How do they have any authority to debunk a truth claim being made? 

In the area of morality, the atheists I've encountered fall back to the "science" of morality.  The idea of "doing no harm" to another person becomes the measuring stick.  But what is "harm"?

Richard Dawkins recently tweeted that he believed it would be immoral for a mother of a child with down syndrome (or I assume any major birth defect) to keep the child rather than abort the child.  His conclusion was based upon the amount of perceived suffering and happiness that would be taken away if the child was born.  But how was that suffering and happiness measured?  And at what point was the value of life deemed not worth having according to these measurements?

Many atheists affirm the inherit right of a homosexual lifestyle because "it does no harm".  But is this true?  Lifespans of lifelong homosexuals are between 8-30 yrs less (depending on the study) than that of the normal population.  While this is scientifically proven through many studies, how does this not constitute as "harm"? 

Dawkins and others like him have also been advancing the dangerous narrative that raising a child in a religious household is akin to child abuse and brainwashing, proclaiming it by the mere allegation...evil and immoral.  By what diametric has he come to this conclusion?  Did he separate the moral implications of each separate worldview by which the different religions would define their morality or did he just lump them all together because his non-belief in any god makes any god seem immoral no matter the morality they promote?

And do all atheists agree with the three situations mentioned above...not even close.  Some are horrified by the comments of Dawkins and their fellow atheists in some or all of the areas mentioned.  Some have accepted the logical consequences of their belief...that there is no imminent morality binding to all people, if there is no god.  Still others believe that science will hold the ultimate answer to this moral dilemma, a kind of "science of the gaps", if you will.

But within the "scientific" answer of measuring "harm" comes the great justification for any and every behavior.  The scientific answer to morality and doing no harm to others has to take into account the physical, emotional, social and psychological measurements.  Whenever a desired behavior causes "harm" within one parameter, one can simply jump to another vaguely defined metric in another parameter for justification.  (Such as the case of homosexuality physically causing "harm"...to the emotional, social and psychological "harm" it causes by suppressing such behavior and claiming that the latter outweighs the former.) 

Abortion becomes a choice, not of the life and death of a child, but the well-being of a mother, both financially and emotionally.  Life, because it lacks a clear definition of when it begins, in an atheist point of view, is not conferred upon the child, so the only life that is considered is that of the mother.  Do you see what happens there?  The emphasis of well being is transferred from child to mother to justify the willful loss of life, while maintaining the moral high ground.

The same can be said for any morally questionable activity one wishes to justify.

This is how President Obama can declare in 2008 that "marriage" should be solely defined as between a man and a woman.  Then later, in 2012, announce that his view concerning "marriage" has evolved and yet hold himself to be morally right in both statements, even though they are contradictory to one another.

(While the examples listed above have been chosen because they are the moral issues of our day, a brief look at history under atheistic regimes can also find the rational and scientific justification for the slaughter or oppression of those of a differing race, religion, disability or dissenting viewpoint, while maintaining the moral high ground that such action was necessary and right.)

This is why arguing with an atheist concerning morality is seemingly stacked in the favor of the atheist.  As a Christian, I have a fixed point of reference for what right and wrong is as defined by God.  And it is at this point that an atheist pounces on.  Of course, the Scriptures declare that we all fall short of the standard of God (Rom. 3:23), so anyone looking at our imperfect lives has plenty of ammunition to show that we don't live up to what we believe.  An atheist, on the other hand, simply uses this information to declare themselves as "moral" as Christians, while using the example of our failings to justify disbelief in God and set up their own morality...which unlike followers of Christ...has the uncanny ability to evolve and remain correct, even when, over time, they have believed in contradictory things.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles
 FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Which brings us back to the problematic question:  Why do many atheists go to such great pains to prove that they are just as good as believers when, over time, their standards continue to change?

I believe that the answer is simple.  They are human and they are fallen.  As a fallen human being, the one thing that we cannot stand is for someone to tell us that we are not good, especially when we are trying so hard to be good.  For the atheist, they have equated being moral with being good and assume that being as good as anyone else is good enough. 

And while I agree that any atheist can be as good as any Christian, my view about myself isn't that I am good...but just the opposite, according to God, I am evil.  I am in rebellion.  I am a slave to sin.

It isn't that I cannot do good things in this terrible state, I can.  Jesus speaking to people about Himself and the goodness of God said the following:

What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you thenwho are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!  (Luke 11:11-13, emphasis mine)

However, as stated by Jesus, just because I can do good things doesn't make me good or moral.  I am in a wretched state of need.  And while I am capable of doing good things, I am also capable of unspeakable atrocities.  These evil acts begin with my rebellion to the law of God and only find deliverance through Jesus Christ, not in my righteous acts.

Paul puts this conflict felt by the Christian and atheist in context:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!  So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.  For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.  By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
(Romans 7:21-8:8, emphasis mine)

The ultimate difference between the morality of the Christian and the atheist isn't the amount of good things that a person can do.  Rather it is the recognition that the only One who is good is God (Mark 10:18).  It is admitting that we have fallen short of God's standard and are in desperate need of a Savior.  It is choosing God's righteousness found in the person of Jesus Christ, over our own, and trusting Him more than we trust ourselves.

Because the atheist cannot or will not do this, his standards will always be changing to suit his individual fancy or the changing whims of society, forever giving himself the moral high ground.  This ironically, in the eyes of God, makes the moral atheist a myth.  



  







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