Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Barrier to Compassion

"God helps those who help themselves."

This verse is one of Americans' favorite verses because it lines up so well with our rugged individualism, our "pull myself up by my own bootsraps" mentality, our ideals surrounding our own ability to go forth and conquer.  This idea is so central to our culture in certain parts of America that it could become a rallying cry or fodder for a campaign bumper sticker.

The only problem is, this isn't actually a Bible verse.  I would love to know what percentage of self-proclaimed Christians would be thrown off if asked whether or not this was actually in the Bible.

Here's the punchline - it's not.

If anything, the picture of true human flourishing laid out in the Bible flies in the face of our cultural ideal of radical individualism.  How many times does the Bible have to tell us that true joy is found in how we treat others, not in how many toys and possessions we can collect.  Generously sharing what God has entrusted to us is how life is supposed to work, not collecting another material trophy that satisfies for a moment but ultimately betrays us because it only causes us to want more.

"I work for everything I have.  No one has given me a thing.  If everyone else would make the sacrifices I have made, they'd have what I have."

What a dangerous and foolish stance of the heart.  To recognize ourselves as the source of our blessings, and not the sovereign Lord of the universe, is the first step to a splintered and downfallen society.

The more we take personal ownership and credit for all that is going well in our lives, instead of recognizing those things as the blessing and the work of the compassionate Holy Spirit on our lives, is that we have less and less ability to show compassion and empathy to those for whom it is not going well.   We think the reason things are going well is because of what we have done and continue to do (i.e., our own pride), instead of the blessing and mercy of the Holy Spirit.  When we don’t recognize the grace and mercy upon us, we are unable to show it to others.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

You must lead yourself before you can lead others

Hebrews 12:7 - "If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there that a father does not chasten?"

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that discipline is an outgrowth of love.  If a parent loves their child, they will "train them up in the way they should go".  That training will involve correction at various points, and at times that correction is not enjoyable to the trainee.  But if the priority was enjoyment rather than training, what sort of love would that demonstrate when our growth is stunted?  Does preservation of enjoyment show love on the part of the trainer, or does it show a lack of concern for the longer-term well being of the trainee?

When discipline comes our way, we are faced with a choice.  We can either retreat and exit the process, judging the discipline to be painful and the endpoint of the process not worth the near-term discomfort.  Or we can choose to endure, not because we enjoy the discipline, but because we value what the process will produce in us.  This introduces the concept of self-discipline.  We must have self-discipline in order to receive the gifts brought about by external discipline.

"People follow leaders primarily because they see a life they believe they can trust and one they want to emulate.  We are to welcome God's discipline and respond with self-discipline.  Once we yield both to God's discipline and our own, we produce a life worth following."

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Who are we fooling?

Hebrews 3:12 - "See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God."

Deceit can occur both outwardly and inwardly.  An example of outward deceit is when we attempt to convince someone else that something is true of us, when we know it is not true of ourselves.  Inward deceit can occur when we attempt to convince ourselves that something about ourselves is false, when we know in our heart that it is true.

Take two cans of pure white paint.  In the presence of someone else, add a single drop of black paint to the one of the cans.  Stir it in completely.  Has the compostion of the paint permanently changed?  Can it continue to be referred to as "pure white paint"?

With the second can, tell the other person with you that, prior to their arrival, you add a drop of black paint to it.  By all appearances, it still looks to the other person to be pure white paint.  However, all they have to go on is the proclamation by you that it has been stained and is no longer pure white.  Only you know the truth about whether or not you stained the pure white paint, or if you are lying to the other person.

If you were to deny to the other person that you added a drop of black paint to the first can of white paint, they would know that you are lying.  They saw you do it, and they will not be convinced otherwise.  To argue it didn't happen is to argue a fact that is known to both them and you.  You are clearing lying to both them and yourself.

If you deny to the other person that you added a drop of black paint to the second can of white paint, they wouldn't know which of your statements to believe.  The belief that you added the black paint was solely based on your own disclosure.  Therefore, if that original statement is retracted, the other person has no factual basis to continue to believe that the black paint was added.  All they have to go on is your word.

When someone receives eternal salvation by acceptance of Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior through faith in His atoning sacrifice on the cross, they are transformed into a new living being by the presence of the Holy Spirit in their heart.  The immediate transformation is significant, yet not complete.  Perseverance in the faith leads to progressive sanctification where the Holy Spirit guides one to increasingly develop the character of Christ.  But once this initial acceptance and receipt of grace through faith has truly occurred, a person is never the same as they were before.

The writer of Hebrews was addressing those who were formerly of the Jewish faith, who had since proclaimed their faith in Jesus.  After facing resistance and persecution, some were in danger of reverting back to the Jewish customs.  Those who were in danger of going back to the Jewish faith can logically be placed in one of two categories.  The first is those who truly accepted Christ and received the Holy Spirit, but now would be willing to live as if it did not occur.  The second are those who proclaimed to have received Christ, but now would be reverting to what remained true in their hearts.  Which of the two categories they belong in is only truly known by the individual and God Himself.

The two categories are like the two cans of white paint.  With the first can, we know the drop of black paint was added, the composition of the paint was permanently changed, and to deny this fact is to deny reality.  A denial of the transformation represents both a lie to others and a lie to themselves.  They were previously presented with the truth of the Gospel, accepted such truth, and a permanent transformation of the heart occurred.  We may deny this at certaiin points for whatever reason, but we always know the truth of what has occurred.  And so does God.

With the second can of paint, we are simply telling others one of two stories.  Either we tell them that we are a son or daughter of Christ, or we tell them that we are not.  If the person decided that putting on the front of being a Christian was beneficial to them in some way, they might begin going through the motions of being a "good Christian".  But when the benefits of this false front go away, they turn toward something else that they now perceive as being beneficial.  They are able to make this turn because true acceptance of Christ and the permanent transformation of the heart never occurred. 

So the question becomes, to whom are we being truthful and to whom are we lying?  If we are putting on the airs of being a Christian without truly accepting the Gospel and submitting our lives to Christ, we may eventually fall away from the faith because the drop of black paint (or, more fittingly, the paint that washes us white as snow) that permanently transforms our heart was never really added.  We know the truth, as does God.

To have received Christ in your heart and then to deny that receipt is a denial of reality.  The heart is permanently transformed when salvation is received.  Denial of the receipt indicates a lie of one kind or another.  Either Christ was never received, and the previous proclamation of Christ as Lord was simply words with no meaning.  Or Christ was received, and denial represents a temporary self-deception that will not last.

Perseverance is the key determiner of faith.  And we all have faith in something, whether it is true or not.  So are you persevering in truth or in a lie?  We know which is real for ourselves, and so does God.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Fully God and fully human

John 1:14 - "The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."

The biblical truth of the Trinity or the triune God (God existing in three completely distinct yet completely equal parts) is a difficult concept to wrap our minds around fully. Another truth that I find equally difficult, if not more so, is the truth that Jesus was at the same time fully God and fully human. The inherent contradictions in the nature of God and the nature of humans make it very difficult to reconciile in my mind the existence of both in full measure in the same person of Jesus.

Examples of key differences between God and humans include:

1. God is eternal, but humans are have a finite life.

2. God is all-knowing, but humans have limited perspective

3. God is everywhere at once, but humans are only capable of existing in their physical location

4. God is sinless by nature, yet humans are sinful by nature

It is this last difference that creates some very interesting yet difficult questions when examining the life of Jesus. Jesus perfectly revealed and carried out the will of God. He did this by taking upon Himself human nature, with all of its faults and weaknesses. By doing so, He identified Himself completely with mankind. Yet He was, is and always will be the only One who lived a life on earth without sin. How can all of this exist at the same time, in the same person, and in full measure?

Jesus’ sinless life came about because of both who He is (God Himself) as well as the choices He made in His earthly life. Because He was fully human, He presumably was created with free will. The Bible says that He experienced temptation yet did not give in to sin. If He experienced temptation, then He was faced with a choice that He could have made – to give in to temptation or not. If He was incapable of making a choice other than to deny temptation, how could it be called "temptation"?

He shows us in a perfect way that temptation and sin can, in fact, be resisted. Jesus led a perfect life of obedience all the way to the cross not because he was a preprogrammed robot who was created in such a way where He lacked the ability to make a choice other than to obey. He freely chose to obey, despite the fact that God’s will was contrary to His own. We need look no further than Jesus' heart-wrenching plea to God in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus expresses that His personal desire was to avoid the humiliation and pain that awaited Him on the cross. Yet He ultimately chose God's will rather than His own. But, wait, if Jesus is fully God, how can we say that God's will was different than itself? Because He was at the same time fully human. Human nature leads to a desire for self-presevation and selfishness. Had Jesus never expressed what any rational human would have desired (to avoid the agony that awaited Him on the cross), we would have serious and legitimate questions about the claim that He was fully human.

Jesus truly is like us, and has experienced what we experience. He chose the path of obedience and brought glory to the Father in the process. We can have confidence in our ability to do the same, not in a sinless way, but knowing that One who knew no sin and therefore was a perfect atoning sacrifice has gone before us. When we sin, we have been reconciled and reconnected with the Father, who graciously forgives us when we repent and turn away from such sin. We have the opportunity to persevere and carry on despite our own sin and disobedience because Jesus persevered and provided us the path to the Father.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Thank God that He allows bad things to happen to good people

Hebrews 10:36 - "You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised."

A common theological question that is debated among both believers and none believers is "if there is a God who loves us, why does He allow bad things to happen to good people?"  No doubt that in the midst of hardship, most of us have questioned whether God was present. 

A related but different question worthy of consideration is this: which is worse - bad things happening to good people within God's control, or outside of His control?  In other words, is it in any way better or easier for us to operate in the belief that God is in control of all (including the bad things), or that bad things happen outside of God's will?

Our initial reaction might be that we want to believe that a loving God would not purposefully allow bad things to happen to good people.  This belief allows us to maintain our image of a protective Father who only wants and allows the best for us.  To the extent that bad things occur, those things are directed by forces outside of God's will.  This belief creates an image of us and God always playing on the same team, facing trials and hardships and reacting to those hardships as they come.

To believe the other side of this debate creates much angst in our minds and hearts.  How could God allow some of the terrible things that happen in this world to occur?  If He does allow those things, how can we say that He truly loves us?  The underlying assumption behind this line of thought is that love translates only into the provision of a life of peacefulness and prosperity.  To allow anything other than peace and prosperity to enter our lives either points to an absence of true love or a challenge to the notion that God is good, all the time.

So which side of the argument is better or somehow easier for us to operate under?  More importantly, which side of the argument is the truth?  I would propose that an unwavering belief in the sovereignty of God is not only true, but is our source of comfort and confidence in the storms of life.

If bad things happen outside of the will of God, then it says there are forces in this world that are equal to Him and acting opposite of His will and purposes.  No doubt there are forces in this world that are operating against God.  But the God who created all is sovereign and has dominion over all.  Otherwise, when bad things occur and catch us off guard, they would catch God equally off-guard.  God would fly into reaction mode at the same time we do.  Is that really what we want to believe about our God?  Is it better to believe that there are forces in this world that throw Him for a loop just as much as they do us?  Do we take comfort in a reality where God has to scramble and make contingency plans because He didn't see something coming?  If that were the case, why would I ever pray to Him for protection that He is incapable of providing?

Or is it better to believe that nothing catches God off-guard?  If He created all, then there is nothing in this world that He does not hold dominion or power over.  There are no forces that are remotely close to being equal to Him.  There is nothing that happens outside of His control, and He is never forced into a reactionary mode. 

The main reason I would contend that this side of the argument is not only true but should be the source of our strength and confidence during bad times is what God promises to us.  Contrary to some current philosophies, God does not promise us constant peace and prosperity.  It would not demonstrate love if all He did was make our lives easy.  We need look no further than the lives of Paul and of Jesus Himself to see that God is not solely interested in providing a nice cushy life for those He loves.  If God didn't provide this for His One and Only Son, why on earth would I believe that His sole interest is to provide this for me?

My job as a parent is to raise my children in such a way that they are loved and equipped to the extent that I can provide these things, and that they come to know the Lord who can provide these things in perfect measure.  In carrying out my job, I do not always make life easy and cushy for them.  I do not always give in to their desires and preferences, but I guide them toward what is best and most fruitful for them in accordance with God's principles as closely as I understand them.  They often interpret this guidance and direction as the introduction of "bad things" in their lives, at least in the immediate term.  However, I am relatively confident in saying that when I have introduced what they interpret to be a "bad thing" in their lives, they may not like it, but they have a level of trust in me and an unwavering core belief that I love them and always want what is best for them.  It may not be until much later that they can look back and see why we did or did not allow certain things to occur in their lives as a means of teaching a larger lesson that is for their beneficial growth.  Importantly, I am careful to not subject them to more than they are capable of handling based on where they are in their growth and development.  All of this I do based on my deep and passionate love for them.

If this is what I do, how I do it, and why I do it for my own children, why would God be any different?  If we are created in His image, don't we feel for our children what He feels for us? 

I want to believe that God loves me enough to help me grow and develop for His good purposes.  I want to believe that He cares enough to mold me and guide me toward the character of Jesus.  I understand that much growth and development occurs during times of trial and hardship, and therefore to achieve growth and development, He may choose to lead me through such times.  Most importantly, when He does lead me through these times, He is ever-present and provides me with all I need to make it through to the other side.  Isaiah 41:10 says, "So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, because I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with My righteous right hand."

When bad things happen, I would rather draw comfort from the fact that He is with me and will provide me with all I need to meet the challenge than to engage in a pointless debate about whether or not He allowed the bad thing to happen in the first place.  It would be a much scarier and uncertain reality if I believed that God and I are both sitting around with crossed fingers hoping that bad things aren't around the next corner.  Instead, I will trust in His unfailing love for me and that in good times and in bad, His ways are above my own.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Contentment through restriction

"I find my mind more restricted upon God every day.  It is like a man who at first is free to roam the city, and then is confined to a house, and then to a room, then to a smaller room, then to the cellar, and finally bound and blind-folded until there is no way to escape.  With no comfort except in God who was doing this all along through love and great mercy, I came to a place of great contentment."

"When God finds a soul that rests in Him and is not easily moved, He operates within it in His own manner.  That soul allows God to do great things within it.  He gives to such a soul the key to the treasures He has prepared for it so that it might enjoy them.  And to this same soul He gives the joy of His presence which entirely absorbs such a soul."

--- From Life and Teachings, by Catherine of Genoa

Friday, April 4, 2014

Somewhere Beautiful

Our Sunday School class has started a study of the Book of Proverbs.  Proverbs is primarily the account of Solomon, who is generally considered to be the wisest, most powerful and most successful man who has ever lived.  As Matt Chandler says, any level of success, wealth, power, etc. that any of us achieve in this life is junior varsity-level compared to what Solomon achieved.  So what were the conclusions of this man who has seen, done, and had more than we will ever know?  Two things we can summarize from his writings in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes:

1.  Wisdom is to be sought and cherished above all else (and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom); and
2.  Seeking to fill the hole in our hearts by the acquisition of things or the achievement of earthly success and wealth is ultimately meaningless and never satisfies.

The "Wisdom Literature" in the Bible holds a storehouse of the Lord's instruction.  If only we would read it and follow it, oh the pain, heartache, wasted time and effort, broken relationships, etc. that we could avoid!

But the reality of our brokenness is that there are many things we just can't (or won't) learn by reading or hearing the words of others.  Our stubbornness and self-worship leads us to try things countless others have tried and which turned out badly.  Why do we follow such a foolish path?  If we are honest in answering this, it is because we think we are so immensely awesome that we will succeed where other lesser beings have failed.  Um, right.

Below are the lyrics to one of my favorite songs.  I think the words perfectly illustrate the frustration felt by an older, wiser, more experienced person watching others walk the same paths they walked.  They know how that story ends, and would dearly love to prevent others from making those same mistakes.  They've discovered something much more and much better, and are desperately trying to steer others toward what they have found the hard way.  Insert whomever you wish as the narrator of these words: an older person watching kids on the street, a parent watching their child, or God watching us.  The words ring true in all cases.

Somewhere Beautiful

Looking down at the strip from my hotel room,
It must be a full moon, cause their all out tonight
All the insecure boys in their muscle cars,
Young girls in their pushup bras under neon lights,
They come here for freedom, freedom from anything
And for miles and miles down this road, you can hear them sing
With their voices, and their engines, and their pounding radios
It seems like round here, no one knows

No one knows that there’s more
Beyond these dead skies and these filthy streets
Take my hand and let me pull you
Out of the blindness of your weary soul
To somewhere beautiful
To somewhere beautiful

Is there any way to learn from what you’ve been told
Or do you really have to hold the experience?
Cause you can hear me now, and come out clean
Trust me, I could spare you the consequence
I can tell by your eyes, that there ain’t no getting through
Cause you’re hell bent on doing exactly what you’ve gotta do
So welcome to a long line of sinners and saints
Is there anyone around here who ain’t

Don’t you know that there’s more
Beyond these dead skies and these filthy streets
Take my hand, and let me pull you
Out of the blindness of your weary soul
To somewhere beautiful
To somewhere beautiful

Don’t you know that there’s more
Beyond these dead skies and all these filthy streets
So take my hand, let me pull you
Out of the blindness of your weary soul
To somewhere beautiful
To somewhere beautiful
Yeah, to somewhere beautiful…