reason4thehope

Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the tag “sin”

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.

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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.

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 Peril of a Soft Heart

Vintage Chenille Red Heart Pillow

(Photo: Nesha’s Vintage Niche)

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? – Jeremiah 17:9

Let me be clear up front: a Christian should have a soft heart. Soft with compassion, soft with forgiveness, soft with refusal to judge or condemn people God longs to redeem. That would be everyone.

So where’s the peril of a soft heart? It arises when our gracious choice not to judge people becomes a foolish choice not to judge sin. Or when we call morally neutral, or even celebrate, what God calls sin. With this kind of soft heart we can deceive ourselves and raise our own risk of falling. Or we can deceive others that a saving relationship with God doesn’t have to change their lives.

This struggle is most visible right now surrounding homosexuality and gay marriage. I have said before, and I will say again, that it’s time for Christians to drop the culture warrior mentality on this issue. It’s not our job to chase after a culture that’s running from God; these fights can only raise barriers between us and individuals outside the faith. So I applaud the Christians who are reaching out, even apologizing to the gay community for hateful behavior, both past and unfortunately present.

But some Christians are walking right up to a very fine line and crossing it. Suddenly, God accepts not only homosexuals but their behavior, and the advance of gay marriage is a victory.

It all feels like earthly values of tolerance and enlightenment bundled into a happy package with heavenly virtues of kindness and compassion. It also doesn’t square with what the Bible says. It’s just another case of trying to live with one foot in the world and the other in God’s kingdom.

This kind of thinking extends to other behaviors, mostly in relationships. Premarital sex, living together before marriage, hasty divorce with no effort to reconcile – even abortion in some Christian circles – are things to tiptoe around. God’s teaching is too hard, or our fear of rejection is too strong, for our kind hearts to lay the truth on the table. Again, we shouldn’t be slamming doors on people who have engaged in immorality, or beating them over the head with their behavior. Jesus certainly didn’t, and every believer lives under the same grace. But that’s not the same as saying these behaviors are okay.

If we deceive ourselves on moral matters, we become unreliable witnesses to others, and we passively deny God’s power to change hearts. We also become vulnerable. Are you married? It could end; tomorrow you could be widowed. How would you behave in a future relationship? Would you think yourself entitled to whatever makes you happy, because that’s what your soft heart would want for others? Or would you remember and follow the Bible’s teachings?

And if someone asked you point blank what your faith teaches about relationships, would you be able and willing to answer with the truth? Or would you give tacit approval to lifestyles that are incompatible with committed Christianity? If it would be the latter, chances are your soft heart has become shapeless as to God’s truth, choosing to spare feelings even at the cost of endorsing sin.

Hypocrites Are People, Too

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'” – Matthew 15:7-8 (NIV)

"No drama" sign with the dramatic ma...

“Church is full of hypocrites.”

This refrain surely keeps thousands if not millions of seats empty in sanctuaries every Sunday. For some people, religious hypocrisy makes church truly distasteful. Others find it a convenient excuse when really, their weary bones want to stay planted on the sofa for the Sabbath. For still others, the real issue is indifference or hostility toward God, if not outright unbelief.

Whatever the truth behind the excuse, let’s be clear about a couple of things:

• Yes, there are hypocrites in church.

• All of them are human.

The “so-what” of hypocrisy in church depends on how you define it. If Jesus were talking today about hypocrites in the religious elite, I wonder if he might have used use the term “posers.” The word he used literally meant “actors.” He was speaking of a cynical, fraudulent religiosity adopted for personal gain – social status, power, influence, money, whatever motivated the Pharisees and teachers of the law in His day. So yes, if you see a church full of Christian posers, it’s probably best to stay away. Pray for them to one day find authentic faith. But unless God clearly calls you to be a light for Him in their midst, steer clear. If the poser is in the pulpit, steer doubly clear. Such a person has a long road to real redemption, as he’s apt to believe his own press clippings, even if he’s the one making them up.

If your definition of a hypocrite is someone who professes to be a Christian but still sins, still shows negative personality traits, still struggles with pride or prejudice – meet the human race. If you’re a believer, you’re still commanded to love those people, as they are commanded to love you with all of your foibles. That doesn’t mean you grit your teeth, shut your eyes and grunt until the feelings of love well up within your heart. It means you draw on the love the Father and the Son give through the Spirit, and you behave lovingly toward those people, personal feelings aside. You can only do that by being with those people, obeying the Bible’s teaching: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Also, ask yourself this: If you look around church, or any assembly of Christians, and all you see are hypocrites, what is the real problem? Maybe you’re holding your brothers and sisters in Christ to a standard that no one, including you, can meet. If we could achieve that standard in this life, we wouldn’t have needed Christ to go to the cross for us. Or as Paul succinctly put it: “You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.” (Romans 14:10 NIV)

If you’re outside the faith, and you say hypocrisy repels you and destroys the church’s credibility, then please understand the meaning of faith. The cross is not a magic wand that ends all sinning, nor is it a token earned through good behavior. It is, to use a well-worn metaphor, a bridge between us and God. Jesus’ death on the cross in your place makes you clean in God’s sight as soon as you receive the free gift – even though you’ll continue to struggle against sinful behavior until the day you die. Jesus’ resurrection ensures that your death will be merely a passage to eternity with Him, where all sin will be gone.

So if you see Christians still sinning, there’s a reason: they’re still human, still works in progress. Their bad behavior will give you no excuse when you stand before God. It will come down to one question: What did you do with Jesus?

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Heaven Folds Its Hands

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. – 2 Corinthians 4:17 (NIV)

The next time a major tragedy strikes, take two aspirin and delve into the discussion threads below the online news stories. You’ll discover plenty of compassionate people, but also many whose comments shake your faith in humanity. You’ll almost certainly see the following line of argument played out.

It starts when someone weighs in with prayers for the victims or thanks to God that it wasn’t worse. Close behind are the Atheists on Patrol, who seem to camp out on these threads, scanning for any expression of faith to challenge. Believers respond to them, some with patience and gentleness, others with caustic glee for the day when the atheists learn they were wrong.

The skeptics raise many serious objections, but the one that has always made me pause and squirm amounts to this: God fails as cosmic lifeguard. It’s the question as old as humanity. How could a good God allow so much disappointment, suffering and tragedy, in our lives and in the world? Where was He in the loss of that job, that relationship, perhaps my very health? Why did he allow that earthquake, that famine? Or as CNN asked, drawing more than 10,000 responses, where was God in Aurora?

I started out to write an entirely different post, but God pulled me aside and into some very deep waters. Let me try to retrace the steps.

Believers offer many answers to the question of suffering. God is testing us. He’s refining us. It’s His discipline. It’s setting the table for God to show His power, directly or through His people. He’s teaching us something. He’s preparing us for a greater tomorrow that we can’t foresee. At different times, in different places, all of these explanations can apply. Taken together, they don’t nearly add up to a complete answer.

Dig a little deeper, and the reasoning may be that we live in a fallen world; evil and suffering are the unavoidable consequences of this. Also true, but still there are holes.

Why is the world fallen? Basically, through the exercise of free will, which humanity has misused to rebel and sin against God. And yet, while suffering may be a consequence of human rebellion, it’s not necessarily punishment.

Free will is, after all, a gift from God. To me, it’s among the strongest clues that God even exists. What I didn’t grasp until recently is how profoundly precious that gift is. Its value is measured, in part, in human suffering.

If we say that some suffering is simply the result of people exerting free will, suffering becomes mere collateral damage. That would be true if God had no power to prevent it – and He would look like a reckless God for giving us this dangerous toy we call free will. But God does have the power. Why does He so often refrain from using it?

Perhaps it comes down to this: Every time God intervenes in human events, He encroaches on free will. Satan thought God intervened a bit too much, and challenged God to His face as he sought permission to ruin Job’s life. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?” Satan asked. “…But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9-10, NIV)

Satan underestimated Job’s faith, but he put his finger on something pivotal. Under the same blessing and cursing as Job received, how would we be affected?  With a strict diet of force-fed blessings, would God steal our freedom to choose or reject Him? If He let it all be taken away, would our faith remain? The life of cradle-to-grave safety and prosperity under God would be a life of comfort without liberty. The life exposed to free will and its consequences, however dire, is one in which we can freely give Him trust and love that have real worth.

Job trusted God to know how much protection was enough. So do I. But imagine if God’s hand shielded everyone, all the time, from every misfortune. To do so, he would have to change our choices and bend the laws of nature and probability, displaying His power so clearly that with any remaining will, we could do nothing other than bow to Him. We would become a race of robots God never intended us to be.

God loves us too much to do that. He loved us enough to sacrifice the perfection of His original creation – even the angels of heaven had free will, and so Satan exists. All this, so we would have freedom to choose the full, deep, satisfying relationship God desires with us.

Perhaps then unexplained suffering is not the collateral damage of free will, but rather the cost God willingly assigns to it and shares with us. Human suffering hurts us and it hurts Him, but the gift is worth the price. It may be among God’s greatest gifts short of redemption itself, which cost the death of His son Jesus on the cross, His blameless body and spirit bearing heaven’s full wrath against sin.

So where do we go with this? Three things come to mind.

First, don’t stop caring. Mercy and compassion are woven through the Bible from beginning to end. God loves us whether He is sparing us pain or allowing it,  and we are to let His love flow through us to a world full of hurt, whatever the cause.

Second, you may be able to make peace with God about the suffering you have endured or witnessed. God might have clearer, more specific reasons for the pain He allowed into your life. But even if you can’t see any reason, you can kn0w that the suffering had meaning.

Third, you may be able to make peace with God on the most basic level. Suffering may have left you too angry at God to bow to Him, or too skeptical to believe He exists at all. The very will you assert to push Him away is a precious gift from Him, bound up with the hurt you have seen. You can use this will to receive His greatest gift – redemption through Jesus Christ.

Then you can begin to surrender your will to His, in large chunks or in small pieces, because you want to. All of our suffering will be eternally forgotten in the glory that is waiting for us. It will have been worth the cost.

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