reason4thehope

Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the tag “Jesus Christ”

Shedding Grace

majesty21For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)

In America the beautiful, many Christians are shedding grace, but not in a good way. They are setting aside the grace of the Gospel and replacing it with a covenant of works for their nation to follow.

As Christians we don’t impose this covenant even on ourselves, nor should we. And yet some spend untold emotional, financial and political resources trying to hammer the United States into the image of Christ, all by trying to dictate the behavior of the government and the culture. It’s a Christian nation, they say, and then they try to manufacture the proof out of materials that refuse to bend.

In doing so, they like to point to our heritage, a time of greater righteousness and morality. I wonder what time they have in mind. Was it the time when Africans were abducted from their homes, bought and enslaved here, and their descendants oppressed and treated as less than human? Was it the time when Native Americans were subjected to a creeping near-genocide that still echoes across desperate, drug-infested reservations? Or was it when wealth became enthroned and the rawest form of capitalism became the de facto religion?

My point is not to hold every American responsible for all past or present sins; it’s simply to say that if we’re looking to recapture some righteous national legacy, there’s less to it than we like to believe. Past generations may have been more polite, more civil and more churchgoing. But like the superficial goodness of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:27), these external virtues at times were whitewash on the tombs of hypocrisy.

I once wrote here that I believe righteousness does exalt a nation, as Proverbs 14:34 declares. Still, in all history only Israel could ever say, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.” (Psalm 33:12) That nation, the only chosen one ever, lived under a covenant based on the law – that is, on works – and it was exalted when it did right.

We are now in the age when God’s grace is revealed to a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36). The grace God sheds on America is not saving grace. It’s simply His favor granted in the service of His plan, which has made this country into history’s greatest exporter of the Gospel. I’m thankful to live here, but like every other nation that ever was, the USA will fade away. No one in heaven will be wearing stars-and-stripes lapel pins.

The Bible instructs us to be good citizens and to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-3); let’s do as it says, but let’s not try to make our country more than it is. There’s only been one earthly nation that could be saved. And the grace that matters for eternity isn’t shed on nations but on individual people. Christians are here to point them to it.

Advertisements

The Right Questions

question“Has no one condemned you?” – John 8:10

If the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage didn’t turn out the way you hoped, you may have some questions for God right now. How could He allow this? Has He changed His mind about marriage? Is He still there?

Maybe we as Christians need to ask ourselves some questions instead. Principally, if God allowed the battle to be lost, was He ever in it? You may think, of course He was!  God always fights against those who break His commandments, doesn’t He?

God’s judgment has come and is coming. He judged sin at the cross. For those who don’t accept that judgment poured out on Jesus in our place, judgment will come at the end of time, and there will be no intermediary to absorb it. Until then, however, Jesus won’t raid the speakeasy and send the revelers scurrying into the night. He’ll enter, in our skin and on our feet, and invite them to come out into the light.

God invites us into a covenant relationship, and marriage is a sacred, earthly symbol of that covenant, as the Bible repeatedly makes clear. That may be one reason it’s hard to believe God wouldn’t stand and fight with the defenders of marriage as He established it. But when God gives a symbol to represent a deeper concept of faith, the symbol never trumps the spiritual reality.

When venomous snakes attacked God’s people as they wandered the wilderness, God commanded Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it high; all who looked to it would be saved (Numbers 21:4-9). Through this symbol God demonstrated His power and foreshadowed Christ being lifted up to save all who would look to Him. What could be more sacred than that? Fast forward several hundred years. When people persisted in worshiping the bronze serpent, the righteous King Hezekiah destroyed it.

Am I suggesting that God wants traditional marriage destroyed? No, though in the next world, earthly marriage won’t exist; its time will be past (Mark 12:25). But sacred as marriage is in this life, there are more sacred things – such as God’s invitation into the higher relationship marriage symbolizes. We can’t extend that invitation impaled on a sword of judgment.

Speaking of symbols, it’s interesting that the rainbow, which God declared a symbol of His covenant never to flood the Earth again, has been adopted as a symbol for marriage equality. We can sit and fume about that. Or, just as God made the rainbow a symbol of judgment suspended, we can see it as a reminder to suspend our own judgment.

God’s Housecleaning

“It is wDSCN1165ritten…‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.'” – Matthew 21:13

I recently read an article that made me wonder if I had time traveled back to the 1980s or ’90s. The surprisingly young author was calling Christians back to the social battles of the last Bush-Clinton era (are we really headed for another?). She unflinchingly used the term “culture wars,” and the article was illustrated with a young, tattooed and pierced couple respresenting the “Christian Left.”

I think many American Christians, myself include, now recognize the long detour we took to the wrong battlefield while that writer was still a child. Not that sin has become virtue; many of the things Christian leaders campaigned against 25 years ago were and are contrary to God’s laws. But to revisit one of my recurring themes, it’s not our job to save secular culture or purge it of what offends us. Our job is to call people out of that culture. No one should take my word for it, however.

What did Jesus do? He didn’t campaign against Rome’s corrupt tax-collection practices. He called tax collectors to abandon their morally hazadous profession for lives of integrity. He didn’t call for stepped-up prosecution of adulterers. He saved an adulteress from a stone-wielding mob, then privately, gently called her to repentance. And even as he spoke against divorce, He proclaimed good news to a serial, cohabitating divorcee.

Jesus was not silent toward institutional or cultural corruption. But when it came to that, notice where His wrath was directed. It wasn’t toward the Roman government and culture, which did what secular governments and cultures always do. It was toward the rot within God’s house: the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the thievery of the money changers and merchants in the temple. And lest we think He called out only the Jewish establishment, remember His words to the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:15-18:

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” (NIV)

The apostle Paul, too, spent little time on secular culture and institutions, except to seize opportunities to preach the Gospel to them, or to remind Christians of what they had left behind and warn them against backsliding or compromise. His first letter to the Corinthians, for example, was primarily a lengthy warning and exhortation to a morally crumbling congregation, and the second letter responded to the growing influence of troublemakers in the Corinthian assembly.

So if Christians as a body tackle any kind of collective sin, maybe like Jesus and Paul we should look within our own house. Are we being torn apart by factions, turf wars and petty feuds? Are we all about the bank balance while we turn our backs on the poor and the marginalized? Are we winking at immorality in our midst? Are struggling individuals, loved and sought by God, getting trampled in our marches against this or that cultural evil?

Some Christians may feel called to the fight against particular cancers in society. It’s certainly not my place to tell individuals what God is calling them to do. That’s between them and God. But as a body, we shouldn’t be making collective enemies of those who practice or promote what we oppose. We should be looking for Matthew, Zacchaeus, the ashamed adulteress and the woman at the well. And we should be inviting them into a clean house.

American Salad

saladI recently had my first exposure to Dr. Ben Carson, who is generating Republican presidential buzz with a growing fan base on the evangelical right. On video, he was a glib and entertaining speaker with an inspiring story, flashing the brilliance you expect of a pediatric brain surgeon. You feel smart just for listening to him. Then you hear more of what he has to say, and with all due respect to a fellow Christ follower, maybe the excitement starts to fade.

Did he really say America has become like Nazi Germany? And reaffirm the claim when given the chance to backpedal? And then draw some strained comparison between ISIS and America’s founding fathers? I’m sure he knows what he’s doing, but I’m not sure what it is. I just know I’m getting the sense of someone who is on a mission to shock people. He’ll justify it as his war on political correctness, and some of us will eat it up.

And what are we eating up? For one thing, I detect that staple of the American political menu, fear. Dr. Carson is just serving it up in an edgy plate of greens instead of the usual steakhouse wedge of iceberg. He’s not alone. Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal, a former Rhodes Scholar who courts the same vote as Dr. Carson, is out pushing the idea of Muslim “no-go” zones, a scare so baseless that Fox News had to back down from it four times in one day.

But my point is not to bash Ben Carson or Bobby Jindal; it’s to ask why American Christians keep responding to the politics of fear. To answer that, consider when we get afraid: when we think something important to us is at risk. Our level of fear reflects how invested we are in that thing.

We invest in certain things with gusto here in the Land of More is Better. “Too much of a good thing” is an alien concept. Americans are so busy going big, they rarely consider whether it might in fact be time to go home. Christians are not immune. Some of us even get over-invested, to the point of entitlement, in the idea of America that we see as our sacred heritage.

At the risk of my own tarring and feathering, perhaps the sense of entitlement springs from our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Life, I’ll give you that. Only God has the right to give it or take it, by His sovereign power or through the instruments of His choosing. Any others exercising that power are merely playing God, at their own ultimate peril.

Liberty? In Christ we are free from the penalty and power of sin, free from Old Testament law, free in debatable matters of conscience, as the apostle Paul declared in Romans 14. But the Bible never promised American-style freedom. God blessed me to be born and to live under it. These very words are protected by the First Amendment, which carries the benefit of a wide-open door for the Gospel. But whenever He pleases, God can let this door be closed and another opened. To Paul, even captivity was an opportunity; in Ephesians 6:20, he declared himself an “ambassador in chains” in his Roman imprisonment. He didn’t protest politically or incite rebellion against his oppressors. He was too busy evangelizing the guards.

Pursuit of Happiness? If we belong to God, our joy is, or should be, in Him above all: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) Happiness for its own sake is just a warm, fuzzy and unreliable feeling, and the Bible doesn’t promise such happiness.

Still, some American Christians seem to expect politicians, usually Republicans, to guarantee a particular vision of life and liberty, without which they won’t be happy or feel secure.

Holly Fisher found fame or infamy, depending on your viewpoint, when she tweeted a picture of herself holding a Bible in one hand and an AR-15 rifle in the other, while standing in front of an American flag. She had every right to do that, and those who cheered or mocked her had every right to react. America is great that way.

As for me, I had the all-too-familiar sensation of looking at a fellow believer, and squirming a little. That picture neatly captures an unsettling feature of our culture: a peculiar American salad of Christian faith, patriotism, conservative politics and guns, dressed with a dollop of fear that everything we cherish is one generation from oblivion. We’re giving it all away, Dr. Carson warns – an appeal to fear couched as a call to courage.

But where is our true security? Some who call themselves believers seem to put the Constitution, as they understand it, in God’s place. By this vision, we’re secure as long as the framework of our government guarantees we can speak and worship freely, and as long as guns can stand between us and the bad guys and/or a government that turns on us. Which brings us back to America as Nazi Germany. The comparison is, for now, thoroughly over the top. But let’s play what-if.

Some day it may become dangerous to be an American Christian. I don’t say this to sow fear. The threat to religious freedom simply is, and it’s more than a threat to countless people of all faiths around the world. Jesus warns that the persecuted church is the norm: “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” The view from where He stood in John 15:19 is far from our blessed existence here in America.

So, what if oppression arises in our midst?

In the Garden of Gethsemane, government thugs came to take away Jesus’ right to speak and worship freely. Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant. And Jesus told Peter to stop, and healed Malchus. In that moment, I think our Lord set the tone for any believer throughout history facing the loss of civil rights, including religious ones.

In the Bible, when God’s people are oppressed where they live, they continue to worship and they wait for deliverance, however God provides it. Think of the Israelite captivities, from Egypt to Babylon. That God has used America so remarkably, though it was born from a rebellion, may merely testify to His grace and His ability to bring good out of anything (Genesis 50:20). Find a passage in the Bible where God calls His people to insurrection against the government He allows to rule over them. If you can find one, please share, but I’m not aware of any in the Old Testament or the New. Yes, Jesus told his disciples – just before that confrontation in Gethsemane – to get swords (Luke 22:36). But the meaning and implications of that passage are debatable, and it’s not a proof text for the notion that Christians must arm themselves, especially in light of what followed at the moment of Jesus’ arrest.

Still, there are American Christians ready for metaphorical or even literal combat. We’ve seen the Holly Fishers, and we’ve seen the anonymous ones blustering in online comment threads about the day’s news. It isn’t always clear who is serious, but they can’t all be trolling. The ones who are serious have some hard questions to answer:

  • To defend your civil rights, given and taken by humans who rule with God’s permission (Romans 13), will you attack a fellow citizen? Or will you extend mercy?
  • For your religious rights, will you strike blows in the name of God, and raise the barrier of aggression between your adversary and the good news that you carry? Or like Paul will you simply take whatever opportunity presents itself under the powers that be?
  • For your right to bear arms, will you choose confrontation? Or will you trust God with your safety and lower your defenses, not to let the enemy in but to let grace out? Does your security so depend on a firearm, even more than on God, that you will shed blood over your right to keep it?

These very ideas may sound extreme to some, but in today’s supercharged, polarized politics, otherwise sane people seem to be wandering out to the fringes. And even if you’re not ready to take up arms against your government, consuming fear can twist your attitudes and actions. Never harbor the delusion that you’re fighting for God. You’re fighting in Him – His power, strength and wisdom, with spiritual weapons – against forces whose defeat is already sure, because God can fight perfectly well for Himself.

If we rethink how we might answer hostility from our own government in the future, we should separate that from issues of the here and now: personal security at home, or military service to repel external threats to the nation. In both of these matters, I believe a Christian may legitimately be prepared to defend family, neighbors or country against criminals or foreign invaders. I don’t believe millions of military men and women have served in vain. It is right to defend the defenseless against the lawless, as the psalmist says: “Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:4) But none of this equates to a divine right or mandate for a Christian to own a gun or any weapon, or to demand that right on our terms.

Remember President Obama’s famously ill-chosen remarks about rural Americans clinging to their guns and religion. It was elitist and condescending. But if Obama saw Holly Fisher’s picture, I could understand him feeling a little bit vindicated. As for my reaction: If she treats her Bible as a symbol for an idea, not as a vehicle to encounter God, she’s missing its purpose. If she trusts the gun and the flag for her security, she’s forgotten where true security lies.

Holly Fisher may be celebrating the latest election results. Fine; God’s plan is moving forward, and we can always celebrate that, as well as the precious right that we have. On this I can agree with Ben Carson: Vote, and if your faith is truly a part of all you do, bring it into the voting booth. But I don’t assume that God’s plan is to advance the American Christian social or political agenda, whatever that is, or to restore America’s greatness.

Perhaps I’ve come to realize that patriotism, while not bad in itself, is best held loosely in light of my relationship with God. Like anything apart from God, my patriotism can crumble into disappointment or fear if the object of my devotion proves unworthy or impermanent. Better to be devoted to the One who will never disappoint us, leave us or forsake us. And I am less likely to regret what I do in my country’s name, if my nationalism doesn’t blur the vision of my heavenly citizenship.

Photo: pbs.org

No Half Measures

Pleasmathed with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel… – Charles Wesley, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”

If Jesus were a mythological figure, his parentage might make him a kind of demigod: A human-divine hybrid, a superman, fallible and yet with abilities beyond the rest of us. The incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is so much more than that.

It seems enough to say that through Christmas we have Good Friday and Easter. But Jesus’ coming to Earth was not just a relocation to shorten the commute to the cross. Distance is nothing to God. He could have dispensed with the messy business of teaching, healing and discipling, and just made His triumphal entry vertically.

That would have been a good show, but it wouldn’t have completed the humanly impossible math God was working out. One God plus one human did not produce half a god and half a man, or some dual or divided being. Jesus was all God because God alone was holy enough and perfect enough to be an acceptable sacrifice for humanity’s sins. He was all man because he had to identify fully with those he would redeem, from the womb through helpless infancy to all the struggles and temptations of earthly life.

No spinner of myths could conjure the miracle that is Christmas. One plus one equaled one savior, all God and all man, as it had to be.

What Would the Walls Say?

DSCN0563You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house… – 1 Peter 2:5

I must have driven by the old church hundreds of times without knowing what it was. Dense trees, brush and vines yielded glimpses of a roofless square of rough stone. The cemetery next door was completely obscured.

For several months now, volunteers have been reclaiming the church and the headstones from nature. It’s an artifact of local history recovered for a new generation.

The building’s front wall is intact, one side is gone, and the back is completely fallen into the sanctuary. The head of the preservation effort noted that it was engineered that way – to fall inward. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that the church builder looked ahead to the congregation’s demise.

A little is known about how the church began, less about why it closed its doors before the turn of the 20th century. What story would the walls tell? In the best case, the church had its time, played its part in God’s plan, and then He scattered it. But maybe like those stone walls, it got lost in a thicket of worldly entanglements (Matthew 13:7, 22). Perhaps it collapsed inward in a storm of petty infighting and selfish ambition (2 Cor. 12:20). Maybe it became a place where the spiritual dead outnumbered the living (James 2:17).

A hundred years from now, what will the walls of our churches say? God willing and if Jesus hasn’t returned, they will still echo with the praise of another generation of disciples. They will, if we keep the weeds cut back, each stone where it was placed, and the people inside spiritually alive. Because that pile of rock in the woods, fascinating as it is, should sadden any believer.

Cracked Pots

I’m not broke but you can see the cracks, you can make me perfect again – U2,  “All Because of You”

Christians know they’re not supposed to hide the light within them; as Jesus said, “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.” (Matthew 5:15) We hide it anyway – some more than others, but all of us to some degree. It’s not just being afraid to speak about our belief. We hide the light when we lack faith, or put our faith in the wrong things, or simply behave in ways that are a poor testimony to God’s work in our lives. Just being human puts a veil between the light in us and the darkness in the world.

God has a way of getting the light out anyway. When we hide it under our bowls of doubt and sin, He lets the bowls get cracked. Through those cracks of suffering and misfortune in our lives, the light leaks out.

Imagine if God allowed us who follow Him to waltz through life, hiding the light but never facing a trial. People would look at us and marvel at how clever or lucky we were. I doubt they would see God in our charmed lives. Even if we gave Him the credit, they would see it as false modesty or naїve superstition. But when a person endures suffering without self-pity, even with joy, then the world starts to see something supernatural. Sometimes, the trial ends with something far greater than the rescue we wanted – and God gets the glory.

I’ve pondered the question of human suffering before, and I stand by those thoughts. But I don’t kid myself that I have it all figured out. Maybe our cracked pots are another piece of the puzzle.

The Regression Progression

carriageCheck your brains at the door. I’ve heard that phrase used to mock religious belief. It implies that to believe in God, you must suspend rational thought. If you’re a defensive kind of Christian, you may rise up in protest against this and invoke the great thinkers of the faith, from St. Augustine to C.S. Lewis to Ravi Zacharias.

But wait.

If you’ve come to faith in Jesus Christ, in a sense you’ve done exactly what the atheist accuses you of doing, and exactly what the Bible tells you to do. Hear Jesus’ words in Mark 10:15: “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”

As I read that recently, my mind turned to all the imagery of birth, childhood and renewal in the New Testament. Jesus emptied himself to enter the world as a baby; from the first moments of life, wherever we find ourselves, He has been. The grown Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again – an image not just of renewal, but of going back to the start, to the clean slate of infancy. Jesus held up children – those little people who are capable of believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy – as examples of the right attitude toward God. Later, the apostle Paul called for the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), and John often called his disciples his little children.

I’m also reminded of when I came to faith as a teenager. It made rational sense, but there was something childlike about it as well. I didn’t understand everything about my decision, but if everyone waited for that full understanding, no one would ever come to faith.

So what does this mean? Do we forget right from left, up from down, and how to tie our shoes? Of course not. But it does mean we take everything the world calls wisdom, everything that has shaped our thinking, and check those earthly “brains” at the door of faith. What you get back will be infinitely improved – cleaned up, emptied of lint and clearer than it’s ever been. By regressing in worldly terms, you progress in heavenly terms. You don’t give up thinking; you become a better thinker.

It took about 30 years to fully realize this in my life. I got the first part – renouncing worldly wisdom. But I didn’t understand that there’s a next step. For a very long time, I stuffed down a lot of questions in deference to the anti-intellectual strain that too often infects the church. Turning those questions loose and turning them over in my renewed mind – which had been there all along – made my faith stronger, and had a large part in the birth of this blog.

I still don’t have all the answers or a proof to satisfy every doubter. But it’s not our job to understand everything or to win arguments – just to be teachable and available. God will take care of the rest. It starts with emptying yourself, and letting Him fill you.

Receive the Child

Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me. — Mark 9:37

Jesus commands us to receive the little children. They are the powerless, the helpless — the very kind of people Jesus always stood up for against the powerful and self-sufficient. But the little children are also what He became.

If you ever feel that Christmas is just a wallow in consumerism wrapped as gooey sentiment, maybe it would help to remember this: Christmas is where we mark the divine becoming flesh, the indispensable beginning of God’s earthly journey to change the eternal destiny of all who would believe. If we don’t believe that He came in this way and rejoice in it, nothing else about Christianity is believable or makes very much sense. Without a flesh and blood Jesus, the Gospels become uplifting mythology. There is no cross and no resurrection.

There are many ways to receive the children. Sponsor one living in poverty on the other side of the world. Mentor one in your own community. If you’re really daring, adopt one who otherwise would have no family. But for any of it to have permanent significance, we first have to receive the Child of Bethlehem. He became the Lamb of God, offered in our place on the cross for our sins, and then He became the only dead man ever to raise Himself from the grave.

The gift has been given, but it’s not ours until we receive it. Receive the Christmas Child, and all that He became.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Signs and Wondering

Sign“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it…” – Matthew 16:4 (NASB)

Why doesn’t God erase all doubt?

If God exists, it should be easy for Him to prove it. One spectacular, globally visible, supernatural display, and He’s got the world at his feet. It would be easy, but it would be thievery, and God is no thief. He’s not going to steal back something fundamental that He placed in each of us: our will.

There would be something coercive in the kind of sign that unbelievers seek. We would no longer freely give God our belief and devotion. He would drag them out of us – unshakable, cold and loveless.

I’ve been over this ground before, here and here. But I think it’s worth revisiting, because the more I think about it, the more compelling it gets.

The will is a kind of spiritual junction. With it we yield to the Holy Spirit and connect to God, or resist and disconnect from Him. The last act of the believer’s will may be surrendering it. But when unbelievers choose to resist instead, they stroll right past the supernatural thing that is under all of our noses: the will to make that choice.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: