Monday, March 23, 2015

The elephant in the room is Jesus

I attended a panel discussion last week that was advertised with the title, “Good without God.” Knowing that one of the largest-growing groups in the country is the “nones,” those who answer surveys that ask for a religious affiliation that they have none, I wanted to hear what five from academia would say about their own spiritual journeys. I also was intrigued by the idea that there are those who have spent part of their lives seeking to disprove or at least to dismiss the “God idea,” as one of them described what many of you and I embrace.

Let me first say that I respect the panelists and their courage to speak out about what they believe, or don’t believe. I also thank God that we live in a country where that is still permitted. Like the founders, I believe that one of the truths that is self-evident is that human rights come from our Creator, not from government or any other institution of man. May God help us when those rights come under attack.

Second, I was also intrigued by any idea that good can exist outside of God, or that we can call something good or bad without appealing to an objective standard of morality. If we do not have an objective moral standard, then how do we determine whether the Red Cross is good or the Third Reich was bad? If we do not have an objective moral standard, how can we ask others to believe that our beliefs are good? If we don’t have an objective moral standard, and don’t care if anyone else on the planet believes the way we do, then of what value is our belief?

Third, the elephant in the room that evening was Jesus. His name never came up, and yet Jesus is the only founder of a “world religion” who claimed to be God. Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster and Muhammad came not claiming to be God, but to be a way to God. Jesus alone said, “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” One of the panelists said that the whole “God idea” only dates back to Abraham, but that people were good for tens of thousands of years without God. Laying aside the argument over creation, Jesus plainly says he existed before Abraham, even though when he made this claim, Jesus was only 33 years old.

The problem with Christianity has never been Jesus, but it has always been us. We Christians sometimes give it a bad name because of our pride, our prejudice or our ignorance. But make no mistake. It is to Jesus we must look to validate Christianity. If Jesus is found to be a fraud, or a lunatic or self-deceived, Christianity crumbles. If Jesus did not rise from the dead after three days in a tomb, then all we who put our hope in him are fools, at best.

So, here is the challenge: If you would see yourself with feet firmly planted with the nones, would you at least be willing to attack the resurrection of Jesus with every molecule in your body? Do what Lord George Lyttleton, Frank Morison, C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and many others have done. Each of these former atheists were scholars, college professor, journalists or members of Parliament. Each of them sought to disprove the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each of them came to believe in Jesus after carefully examining the evidence with a desire to know the truth.

Be careful. The elephant in the room loves when people seek the truth.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Intolerance Isn't Hateful

The other day I walked into a local restaurant without a shirt or shoes on, and, can you believe it, they refused to serve me. They said that my lack of clothing was uncouth and inappropriate.

Feeling dejected, I decided that I wanted to do something nice for someone in need, so I visited one of the local hospitals. I figured that, of all the good things I could do at a hospital, the greatest is to perform heart surgery on someone. People can die with bad hearts, and so I thought that helping someone stay alive was a good thing. But I couldn’t find anyone who would let me perform heart surgery on him. In fact, the hospital staff ushered me straight out of the building, saying something about me needing “a license to perform surgery on someone.”

After being kicked out of both a restaurant and hospital, I was feeling pretty unimportant and wanted to do something noteworthy, and I can’t think of anything more noteworthy than being the President of the United States. “People are starting to announce their intent to run, so now is as good of a time as any!” I thought. So I contacted the proper authorities to announce my intent, and, would you believe that they told me that I wasn’t eligible? Apparently you have to be at least thirty-five years old to run for President, and I’m only thirty-one.

“What a bunch of intolerant, hateful people,” I thought.

Obviously, this is written tongue-in-cheek, but the message, I think, is clear: Intolerance isn’t hateful. In our current culture, however, the moment a person expresses opposition towards something, that person is labeled “hateful.” But this is outlandishly illogical. If it is hateful to be against something, then it is also hateful to be against someone who is against something, because he, too, is against something. I’m not sure why this is so often overlooked, but it is, especially towards Christians who share what the Bible says about hot button issues like homosexuality.

Timothy Keller, in his book The Reason for God, discusses this very thing in a chapter he calls, “Christianity is a Straightjacket.” The chapter discusses the common mantra towards Christianity that “Christians believe that they have the absolute truth that everyone else has to believe—or else” (35). Keller writes, “Christianity looks like an enemy of social cohesion, cultural adaptability, and even authentic personhood” (37). He continues, “However, this objection is based on mistakes about the nature of truth, community, Christianity, and liberty itself” (37).

Keller offers a handful of arguments that show the logical fortitude, and loving motivation, of Christianity and its claims. He first discusses how “truth is unavoidable.” For example, a person who says, “There is no such thing as truth,” is making a truth claim, showcasing the inescapability of it. C.S. Lewis illustrates this beautifully in writing, “You cannot go on “explaining away” for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on “seeing through” things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the garden beyond it is solid. How if you saw through the garden too? …. A wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see” (38).

Truth, therefore, is unavoidable. To deny it is to prove it.

Keller also discusses how community can’t be completely inclusive. He employs an example that illustrates both sides of the issue on the topic of homosexuality:

Imagine that one of the board members of the local LGBT community announces, “I’ve had a religious experience and now I believe homosexuality is a sin.” Imagine that a board member of the Alliance Against Same-Sex Marriage announces, “I discovered that my son is gay and I think he has the right to marry his partner.” No matter how personally gracious and flexible the members of each group are, the day will come when each group will have to say, “You must step off of the board because you don’t share a common commitment with us” (39-40).

The idea is that “Any community that does not hold its members accountable for specific beliefs and practices would have no corporate identity and would not really be a community at all” (40). To deny the exclusivity of a community is to deny the idea of community itself.

Keller finally discusses the concept of freedom. The allegation towards the Christian is that their faith “constrains one’s freedom to choose his own beliefs and practices” (46). It is thought that an enlightened human being is one who trusts in his or her own power of thinking. “The freedom to determine our own moral standards is considered a necessity” (46). But such a concept of freedom is misguided. “Freedom cannot be defined strictly … as the absence of confinement and constraint” (46). For example, if you have musical aptitude, giving yourself to practice for years and years (restricting yourself) can unleash the totality of your musical ability. The full potential of the freedom of your musical ability cannot be totally realized unless a restriction exists to allow it. “Constraints, then, liberate us,” Keller writes (47). “A fish, because it absorbs oxygen from water rather than air, is only free if it is restricted and limited to water. If we put it out on the grass, its freedom to move and even live is not enhanced, but destroyed. The fish dies if we do not honor the reality of its nature” (47).

Thus, true freedom necessitates restriction, and it’s not hateful to suggest, or to employ, restrictions, such as a license to perform heart surgery. It’s actually quite the opposite.

The Christian believes that the Bible offers the restrictions by which mankind must abide. This is a good thing, because the God who designed the universe and everything in it has left us with a testimony of how we ought to operate in his creation. The Bible’s eternal truths should not bend or break under the weight of culture’s temporary truths, but the other way around. In today’s world, it is not always easy to employ the boundaries of God’s Word, as any Christian knows too well, but it is necessary, because the moment we dismantle the restrictions of God’s Word in the name of freedom is the moment we forgo freedom altogether. When we remove or redefine the Bible, things like life (pro-choice abortion) and marriage (“same-sex marriage”) become anything and everything, and thus become nothing.

This is all to say that the Bible is the window through which we can see the garden, and if we make the garden transparent, then what’s the point to even having the garden to begin with?

Picture Credit

First, conquer yourself

A young man asked me recently how far he could go with his girlfriend and not sin. I asked him if he thought he would marry this girl one day and he shrugged. I said that if his future wife was ‘out there’ somewhere, what did he hope other guys would be doing with her? How far would he want them to go with his future bride? He got the point. Young men are to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness,” not just in the dating or courtship stage, but at all times before marriage. Young men, this is almost impossible without help. Seek out an older Christian brother to hold you accountable. Young husbands, you may have come into the marriage with a track record of giving into your lusts, and now you realize that doesn’t disappear magically when you say “I do.” You need help to resist giving in to them, and what better partner to help you than your own spouse? Many times it is the younger wife who is the stronger spiritually, especially when it comes to these matters. I know it was that way with Cindy and me, and I am so thankful that she had the courage to say to me several times early in our marriage, “I don’t think we should watch that movie.”

A younger man is almost always ruled by his desires. It might be a desire for sexual pleasure that finds its empty fulfillment in sinful substitutes for the marriage bed. Or it might be a desire for entertainment pleasure, which can find its fake fulfillment in bingeing on video games. Or in being consumed by anything with a screen. It might be a lust for power or for success, which can lead to sacrificing everything on the altar of climbing the economic ladder. The truth is, you don’t break the commands of God; you break yourself against them. The longer and the harder you throw yourself into any pursuit other than God, the more you hurt yourself, and those around you. But when you submit yourself to the Lord and allow Him to teach you self-control, there is no end to what He can do in and through your life.

In the 1960s and 70s, psychologists at Stanford conducted the now-famous “Marshmallow Test.” They handed a child a marshmallow (or a cookie, whichever they liked best) and told him or her, “If you wait 15 minutes without eating this, I’ll give you two marshmallows.” Then the researcher left the room. Some of the kids gobbled up the first marshmallow or cookie; others waited. The way in which the second group waited is hilarious. Many kids paced the room. Some would pat the marshmallow or just stare at it. Others turned around so they couldn’t see it at all. Nonetheless, they chose delayed gratification. When these researchers tracked the kids’ progress over the years, they found that the second group far exceeded the first in life skills: they had higher SAT scores, were in better physical shape, even had a lower BMI (Body Mass Index) thirty years later, and were more likely to be happy in life. The only difference between the two groups in this study was self-control.

An interviewer asked Sir Edmund Hilary, the first man who conquered Mount Everest, about his passions for climbing mountains. He said, "It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves." Younger people, God calls you first to conquer yourselves. It will look a lot like taking up your cross daily and following Christ.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Needed: Spiritually vibrant elders


Hippocrates, the Greek physician from whom we get the Hippocratic Oath, said that there are seven stages of life, and the next to last starts at age 56. He called that person, Old one. And that stage, he said, is marked by perfection of judgment and reason. Hey, all of us over 55 could tell you that. The last stage starts at 70 and Hippocrates called that The End. But wait! He said it is the uttermost, highest, best and last, and is marked by the exercise of wisdom and honor with no obligations. I figure when I make it to 70 I will have 25 or 30 years to just sit around and exercise wisdom with no obligations. My grandkids will say, “What are you doing, Granddad?” And I will say, “Just sitting around, exercising wisdom. You feeling it?”

No. There is no move toward fossilization of the elderly in the church, at least not according to Scripture. There is no encouragement for the seniors, the seasoned saints, to just check out and move to Florida and spend their twilight years playing golf or checkers or collecting shells. In fact, the Bible teaches just the opposite. That’s why when Paul writes to Titus and begins to address the needs of different groups in the church, he addresses the older men and the older women first. You would expect a modern letter to a church to start with the young people, or even the children, and to say, “You are the future of the church.” In one sense that is true, simply because the current graybeards will be replaced one day by new graybeards. But if a church is going to thrive and even survive into the next generation, it will be because the older men and the older women in this generation have done their job. They are vital to the health and the legacy of the church.

Paul says older men are to be “sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness.” Maybe he stressed these characteristics because of a tendency we older men, and sometimes older women, have to gravitate toward one of two extremes. We can tend to either be sentimental old fools, or crusty old cranks. The sentimental old fools live in the past and are not really engaged in the present. They’ve checked out, for the most part. The crusty old cranks are obstinate and set in their ways and hard to reason with because they “know what’s right” and nobody can tell them anything. Don’t be that guy.

Older women are to be reverent in behavior, or as one scholar puts it, “practice the presence of God.” From that platform, they have something good to teach the younger women.

If older men and women are not biblically strong in their beliefs, the church will suffer, for these are the ones who are to lead the way. When the older generation is leading the church into a ditch, and the younger folks who are sound in the faith stand up and try to bring correction, even respectfully, they are often rebuffed and sent on their way. That’s part of the reason why there are literally thousands of churches filled with graybeards and their wives, slowly dying, wondering where the younger men and women are. They were run off, and so they went looking for churches that are still vibrant in the truth.

Older men and older women: it is not the end yet. Don’t check out. Stay engaged, for you are vital to the health and the legacy of the church.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Clearing the Roadblocks: Does God Care About Our Government?

Recently I challenged all of my Facebook friends (the believers and skeptics) to send me some of the biggest things they find challenging or confusing about Christianity and Jesus. Here's the first submission and my answer:

Laura's question: if we believe that God is all-powerful and truly sovereign, then how do we reconcile with politics and laws that go against Christian principles? In other words, is God invested in our national government?

A: To answer your second question first, yes, God is invested in our government (and all the governments). We understand this by reading Romans 13 when Paul writes "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." (Romans 13:1 ESV). After all, Paul wasn't writing the book of Romans to a group of believers living in a Christian country. He was writing to them in Rome, the political entity that was currently oppressing and occupying Israel and had played a part in the death of Christ! So it's clear to us that there was no contradiction in Paul's mind between God's involvement in our governments and yet God not orchestrating every governmental decision so that it supports and accomplishes Christian principles and values.

After all, while first century Rome was not (and 21st century America is not) continually moving upward and to the right according to our Christian values, one has to admit that both civilizations are better off than if they were both subjected to mere anarchy. So while government isn't perfect, civilization is better with it than without it.

So now to your first question, which seems to be, "Why isn't everything moving upward and to the right politically and culturally if God is all-powerful and sovereign?" But behind that question I hear a few potential assumptions:
  • One might be that culture and history in general ought to be heading upwards and to the right, that God wants it to. This is debated among Christian circles, and while I don't have a strong opinion on the matter, the Bible seems teach that things will stay the same or even get worse until Jesus returns. And since I believe God is perfectly sovereign (on that I do have a strong opinion), then I also believe that God doesn't intend for human history to continually move upward and to the right politically and culturally. Paul seems to be saying as much when he writes to Timothy, "Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived." (2 Timothy 3:12-13 ESV)
  •  Another possible assumption is that government is supposed to be God's means to redeem and restore creation and humanity, rather than through the gospel and the church, and ultimately, through the return of Christ to rule at the end of time. The reality is, we're stuck in the in between time where Jesus' kingdom has been inaugurated and heralded, but it is not yet fully in place. And as we wait for Jesus to return, it is the church equipped with the gospel that should be changing our culture and thus our government (bottom-up) not our government that should be fixing our culture (top-down).
One interesting thing to note here is that, if the gospel rather than government is God's ultimate solution for humanity, then history (and the book of Acts) has shown us that un-Christian and even anti-Christian governments may actually be part of God's plan. After all, the thing that ultimately kick-started the rapid spread of the gospel in the book of Acts wasn't a government friendly to Christianity, but rather a government trying to eradicate Christianity. It was the wind of persecution that scattered the seeds of the gospel so far so quickly.
"Suffering saints are living seed." ― Charles Spurgeon
"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." ― Tertullian, 1st century AD
In short, my answer would be that, while government never has been God's plan to fix the world, it is a sign of God's common grace to the world because it's existence keeps things from getting as bad as they could be. And while God could just "wiggle his fingers" and cause every government to make their decisions in line with Christian virtue, that's not God's ultimate goal. God's rescue plan doesn't rest with the government legislating His values, it rests with the church proclaiming his gospel till there's no place left, and then Jesus will return and set up the first and last government we will ever need or want!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Be someone worth imitating

Paul gives strong encouragement for pastors in Titus 2 that all would be wise to heed, whether you are a leader in a local church or not.

First, he is to teach what accords with sound doctrine. In short, he teaches the Bible. That is the first and most important responsibility of a minister of the Gospel, and nothing can replace it or cover up for the lack of it.

He is also to be a model of good works. Good leaders should never show off, but good leaders will always show up. And stand out. And that’s because we all need people to follow. Even people to imitate. Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” It was Jeff who inspired me to do triathlons, at least a few. I had heard Jeff talk about triathlons a lot, but then I started training with him, and learning from him, and that changed everything. It was Shawn who inspired me to start memorizing books of the Bible. I had heard Shawn and others talk about memorizing chapters and books in the Bible. But then I heard him recite a couple of chapters of Philippians and, several months later, I followed his example. John Calvin said, “Example draws where precept fails.” Do you get that? We can tell others how they are to live, but how much better to show them.

This is why parents who develop good strong relationships with their children are going to be the most palpable persuaders of sound doctrine that results in godly living in their children’s lives. In a recent survey of 9300 millennials who were raised in church-going homes, the most powerful predictor in children of Christian belief and practice as an adult, of satisfaction in life, of civic and community involvement, and many other positive results, was the presence of a strong relationship with their parents as they grew up. It’s just a fact that children grow up to be like their parents, for good or ill. The pastor’s job, then, is to teach the parents how to be godly role models for their children.

Not only must the pastor be a model for good works, but also he must have integrity, dignity, and sound speech in his teaching and preaching. Integrity means “incorruptness,” and it sits in contrast to the message of those who teach for shameful gain and will say whatever draws a crowd, or sells a book or CD. If integrity is your motive, dignity is your manner. Richard Baxter wrote, “Whatever you do, let the people see that you are in good earnest…you cannot break men’s hearts by jesting with them.” There’s a balance here, I know, but teaching the Word must be serious business. I don’t mean dry and boring, but certainly we must be serious about the Word and how we present it. If our manner suggests that we only want to make people feel comfortable or light-hearted all the time, then we may very well be leading them down a comfortable path to destruction.

Finally, if integrity is your motive and dignity is your manner, then sound speech is your message. This does not refer to diction or enunciation but the validity of the message that we are presenting. Again, we who speak for God before His people must preach the Bible.

Is it enough to just do good works and ignore the Scriptures? No. Neither is it enough to teach the Bible and not live out its truths through good works. The church and the world must see both.