Mercy and The Wretched Woman (John 8:7)

throwing-stonesLast Friday evening, I was cheering on a church member at a softball game, and I noticed a little girl – no older than my own daughter – lugging over a extraordinarily heavy My Little Pony case. She drops the case on the bleacher beside me with a loud thud. Much to my surprise, the case was full of fist sized rocks … Not Rainbow Dash figures. Methodically, she began to pull them out one-by-one and organize them in lines on the bleacher by color and shape. Probably sensing my quizzical look, her mom began to give me what I’m sure is a well-rehearsed explanation: “My daughter’s collected rocks since she was a kid. She’s never really wanted ‘normal’ toys.” Unusual toys indeed. If you gave a collection of large rocks to most kids, it would probably wind up with a trip to the ER, a call to 911 or a large cash payment for property damage. It’s probably why the pet rock never caught on.

Rocks can be dangerous.

Case in point: Stoning was a legitimate method of execution during Biblical times. Stoning was communal. Heinous public offenses against the entire community, such as blasphemy, divination, idolatry and – yes – adultery, were punished by the entire community with stoning, which was the ultimate form of excommunication. Stoning was also gruesome and brutal. The condemned criminal would be crushed with a large rock or pelted with small stones until he died. As one could imagine, stoning was also extraordinarily unpopular with the common man.

So it’s bizarre that the term “casting stones” is now more closely associated with moral relativism, which is the philosophical position that objective right and wrong do not exist, than a method of execution. Plucked straight out of John 8:7, you’re just as likely to hear the phrase “cast the first stone” from the evangelical pulpit as on a DNA testing episode of the Maury Povich show. Offer any sort critique of whatever hot button issue is sending twitter all a-flitter (this week it’s transgenderism) and someone is bound to haul out Jesus’ words from John 8:7: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” An entire unspoken framework regarding acceptance and anti-judgmentalism has been developed in our popular culture: Christians are not supposed to “cast stones” … Don’t judge others … Don’t level criticism … Don’t deem any recreational substance use or bedroom behavior as objectively sinful.

I can’t help but read the account of Jesus and the sinful woman (as found in John 7:53-8:11) and discover a deeper forgiveness and mercy at work. Jesus is talking about real rocks being hurled with life or death consequences … Not about opinions, feedback, judgments or criticisms. Here’s the Biblical text:

[2] Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. [3] The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst [4] they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. [5] Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” [6] This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. [7] And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” [8] And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. [9] But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. [10] Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” [11] She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” – John 8:2-11 ESV ***

At the outset of John 8, we find Jesus teaching the crowds in the early morning in the outer courts of the Temple. Enter Jesus’ erstwhile opponents: The scribes (experts in the Law of Moses) and the Pharisees (popular religious legalists). Horrifyingly, Jesus’ common adversaries have captured a woman caught red-handed in adultery. There is no doubt about her guilt. Based on the prescribed punishment, the adulterous woman is either betrothed or married to another man. Appealing to Jesus’ reputation as a teacher of the Law, the scribes and Pharisees ask how Jesus would apply Deuteronomy 22:22: “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.” Should this adulterous woman be executed in accordance with the Law?

As indicated in verse 6, the whole scenario has been trumped up by Jesus’ opponents in an attempt to turn the crowds against Jesus and/or bring legal charges against Him. Jesus’ adversaries appear to have found the perfect “Catch 22” situation in entrap Jesus. OPTION A: If Jesus condemns the adulterous women to a gruesome and unpopular method of execution, He would lose credibility as a friends of the disenfranchised and – more seriously – run afoul of the Roman government. Israel is not a sovereign state at this time and only the Roman government had the right to issue capital punishment. OPTION B: If Jesus ignored the Law, He would lose all credibility as a teacher of the Law. Either way that Jesus answers the question, Jesus’ opponents assumed that Jesus would be toast. The scribes and Pharisees gleefully drop the problem at Jesus’ feet, waiting to pounce once Jesus makes a certain misstep.

The forced ethical dilemma of the scribes and Pharisees is also dripping with a ludicrous level of hypocrisy and irony. For starters, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery, and it takes two people to do the horizontal mambo. So where is the dude caught in adultery?!? If the woman was indeed “caught in the act,” the identity of the male adulterer would have been known. And if Deuteronomy 22:22 expresses that both persons caught in adultery be executed, then why not bring the man and the woman to Jesus for judgment? It’s a great open question: Has the man caught in adultery been condemned or set free? In either scenario, the scribes and Pharisees have already answered the same “Catch 22” that they’re asking Jesus to now make. Hypocrisy is now served in a silver platter.

Let us also not forget that the life of an actual woman is hanging in the balance, and none of the scribes and Pharisees seem to care in the slightest about this woman’s life. No mercy. No grace. No forgiveness. Her life is just a pawn in their political gamesmanship. A woman would die simply so that they could discredit Jesus. Much less consideration is given to the absolute public humiliation and community embarrassment this woman is experiencing simply to score religious and political points.

So how does Jesus respond to this cleverly crafted trap? Interestingly, He initially does not respond with words. He starts writing in the dirt. What is He writing? We don’t know. But there is a ton of bizarre speculation and unsupported fish tales that somehow migrate their way into sermons, and I think it’s wrong to even guess. Where Scripture does not speak, we should not put words in its mouth. God can speak well enough for Himself without us trying to help. Anyway, verse 7 does seem to indicate that Jesus is hoping that they’ll just go away, but they keep pestering Jesus on the point.

So Jesus responds perfectly to these hypocrites and religious legalists: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” At a basic level, Jesus’ response is a technical reading of the Law: The first rocks must be thrown by those who witnessed the commission of that sin (Deuteronomy 13:9; 17:7). Similar to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus again goes beyond the typical prescription of the Law, arguing the first rocks must also be thrown by those without sin. Which of these self-righteous, religious men had not also hypocritically engaged in sexual sin? It turns out the answer is none of them. Likely deferring to the elders in the crowd, they are the first ones to leave. The younger ones follow suit.

So Jesus, who is the only Sinless One, remains with the adulterous woman. St. Augustine vividly describe the scene: “The two were left alone: The wretched woman and Mercy.” So what does the divine Son of God do? He does not condemn her either.

So a guilty woman condemned to execution is freed. And a brassy bunch of religious hypocrites and legalists get their comeuppance.

If the account ended there, you possibly could make the sweeping overgeneralization in application that Christians should mind their own P’s and Q’s and never, ever critically evaluate anyone else’s sin. But if that application were valid, Jesus would effectually be shipwrecking the entire Law: How could the Law be enforced if no one could condemn anyone else’s actions as right or wrong? Certainly, Jesus condemns many actions as inherently morally wrong: Anger (Matthew 5:21-26) … Lust (Matthew 5:27-30) … Divorce (Matthew 5:31-32) … Swearing false oaths (Matthew 5:33-37) … Retaliation (Matthew 5:38-42). And that’s just in the 1st chapter of the Sermon on the Mount.

But there’s a bigger problem … Jesus utters four more words in Greek: “πορεύου καὶ μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε.” Translation: “Go and sin no more.” And the words “go” and “no longer sin” are imperative commands. Yes, it is clear that Jesus forgives this woman and does not condemn her of her sin. But in the same breath, He commands the woman’s repentance of that sin. In fact, it’s the second time in the book of John that Jesus commands someone to “sin no more” (see John 5:14).

In the mercy of Christ, we find Romans 2:24 on display: “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” In the cross, we find the great Son of God willing to pay the penalty and bear the wrath that lowly sinners deserve for our sins. The unmerited kindness that Christ demonstrates on the cross should lead us to turn away from the sin that drove nails into His hands and feet. The love of Christ makes us into a new creation, which is totally unlike the old, sinful man (1 Corinthians 5:17). The love of Christ sets us free from the slavery of sin – not free to continue in our old life of sin (see Romans 6-8). The love of Christ compels us to surrender everything that we hold dear for the sake of His kingdom and His cause.

His kindness. Our repentance.

The gravity of John 8 seems to have gotten muddled in its crass interpretation. John 8 is a story about an execution. John 8 is the ultimate twist of irony: The condemned criminal is led to the firing squad and everyone lays down their guns. John 8 is about the Judge not condemning the criminal who has been caught red handed and is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. John 8 is about Mercy loving the wretched woman. John 8 is about life and death. And certainly you and I also stand as wretched and guilty sinners without excuse or plea at the feet of Mercy … In the cross, we are also set free to sin no more.

Simply beautiful.

John 8 is not about moral relativism. Not even a hint.

Jesus never says: “Do what feels right to you.”

Jesus never disavows, trivializes, overlooks or disregards the woman’s guilt.

Jesus never tells her its perfectly OK to crawl back under the familiar stained sheets of her adulterous lover’s bed.

Jesus never argues that love and judgment are mutually exclusive concepts.

Jesus never exchanges sin for personal choice, personal holiness for personal privacy or genuine forgiveness for disinterest.

Jesus’ grace is not cheap. Jesus’ cross is not a footnote.

Nonetheless, many vainly hide behind John 8:7, angrily lashing out at anyone who would dare point out our faults, failures and futile rebellions. Wallowing in the sick and comfortable filth of our unrepentant sin, we cower behind a false shield of John 8:7, practically daring anyone to lob a rock at us. Living on our own islands and comfortably resting on our own thrones, we become thin-skinned, numb, callous and deaf to any voice but our own.

Pathetic.

Instead of using Jesus’ words to justify our sins, we would do far better to allow Jesus’ command to “sin no more” to remind us that we are no longer slaves to sin.

We are new creations.

We are free to follow Christ.

May the kindness of Mercy upon our wretched lives move us to repentance.

______________________________

*** For the purposes of this blog, I am going to intentionally sidestep the important issue of whether John 7:53-8:11 is an authentic text. Most early reliable manuscripts of the Gospel of John do not include John 7:53-8:11. My personal position is that the account is an authentic story of Jesus that migrated into the Gospel of John at a later date. But that’s another blog for another time.

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Ruby Red Slippers (Or Why You Can’t “Handle” Suffering)

The ruby slippersIn my community of friends, it’s been a summer of things falling apart. Marriages ending. Relationships failing. Employment lost. Secret affairs uncovered. Uncertainty ahead. The tornadoes of suffering have been awfully destructive lately, rocking loose foundations and shattering fragile lives. I’ve sat in my orange “counseling” chair in my cramped church office and listened dumbfounded as person after person has tearfully shared the absolute horror going on their lives. As they weep and mourn, my heart has been broken, and I’ve been weeping and mourning alongside of them. I seldom question when the dark clouds of life pour rain on top of me, but seeing the pain sweep away the lives of those that I love has been particularly brutal. In the midst of the unrelenting flood waters of sorrow, I also find that people are looking for whatever life raft to which they can cling: A new job … a new house … a new life partner … a change of scenery … a new mission statement … a new life, period. Across the valley of suffering, hope always seems to extend past the horizon line.

One of my friends, who has been abandoned by his spouse, recently quoted of this line of reassurance in passing: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” With his burdened fake smile and teary eyes, I could tell that utterance was more of a word of re-assurance to himself.

Will God really not give you more than you can handle?

I’ve been pondering that notion what we can or cannot “handle” lately. I imagine that common Christianese catchphrase is actually a misquotation of 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” The verse is actually an encouragement from the apostle Paul in the midst of a shockingly stern warning to the Corinthians church. While Paul strongly warns the Corinthians church about the temptations of idolatry, grumbling and sexual immorality (see 1 Corinthians 10:6-10), Paul also reassures the church that the temptations of this world are “common to man.” Everyone should expect to be tempted by the pitfalls of the world and the snares of the flesh. Every school, job site, store and home in this world is abundant with traps and snares that could lead us astray from worshipping God. Temptation should be expected, because all men face temptation.

Amidst the temptations, there is hope: God is faithful. Even through the times where it seems like we’re drowning in our worldly desires, the strong arms of God will not let us go. Through every mistake, fault, flaw and abject failure, He walks alongside of us like the cheesy “Footprints” poem. In addition, we won’t be tempted beyond our “ability.” God will either give the believer proportionate strength to endure the trial or give us the ability to wrestle against them. In addition to strength, God will provide the believer with a “way of escape.” Our temptations may be lurking in plain sight, but the power of God has defeated sin’s domineering grip over our lives. God’s power allows our escape from sin. The great commentator Matthew Henry states: “There is no valley so dark but he can find a way through it, no affliction so grievous but he can prevent, or remove, or enable us to support it, and in the end overrule it to our advantage.” If the Father has truly set us free from the bondage of sin, He will not leave us as orphans to succumb to our vices again.

Notice the context of 1 Corinthians 10:13: Temptation. The passage is talking about the sinful desire to surrender to the lusts of the flesh and the vain hopelessness of the world. The passage is NOT talking about trials and sufferings. Throughout the New Testament, believers are continually promised that they will face trial and suffering (see John 16:33; 1 Peter 4:12-19; James 1:2-4, 12). In this life, believers are guaranteed to face numerous problems, such as illness, broken relationships, financial ruin, joblessness and (unless Jesus returns soon) death. If we are genuinely following Christ, we will also suffer persecution for the sake of His name (Matthew 10:22; Luke 9:23; John 15:21). Eventually, Christ will return and all pain and suffering on this earth will cease (Revelation 21:1-8) … But that day has not come yet.

So to recap: God has defeated sin’s power over the believer, and, therefore, God promises the believer with a “way of escape” from temptation. God has not yet completed the process of subjugating the entirety of creation underneath His rule, and, therefore, God promises the believer will face trails and sufferings in this life. God provides the believer with an “escape” from temptation … But the believer cannot always “escape” from trials and sufferings.

There’s the scene at the end of the “Wizard of Oz” (spoiler alert?) where Dorothy realizes that the method of escape from the torments of Oz has been there all along. All she needs to do is click her ruby red slippers and chant: “There’s no place like home.” Annnnnnd … *POOF!* … She’s safely back in the comforts of home again. There is tremendous danger of thinking of God as a pair of ruby red slippers that will carry us out of danger to the comforts of home at our beck and call. We can’t just click our heels in ruby red slippers and expect that God will immediately pluck us out the tornado. Sometimes the house gets dropped on our heads instead.

For those battered by the storms of life, there is tremendous spiritual honesty and truth in exchanging the ruby red slippers for some hip waders. Even in Christ, sometimes you’re going have to patiently endure the mess. When your wife walks out on you or your doctor shocks you with a surprise diagnosis, your confidence might be shaken to the core, but it doesn’t mean that God has lost his love for you. Unfortunately, many believers will gather around the sick and wounded like Job’s awful “friends” and chant “curse God and die,” falsely believing that suffering only happens to the unchaste. Like hyenas gathered around a corpse, the last remnants of hope are slowly picked away.

There’s tremendous damage perpetrated by the false notion that Christians can “man up” and “handle” anything. What does the term “handle” mean anyway? That God won’t allow us to have a nervous breakdown? That God won’t put us out homeless begging on the street? That God doesn’t want to make you mad or stressed out? That God won’t hurt your feelings or make you uncomfortable? That God won’t take your favorite stuff away? Whenever someone quotes the phrase “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” the real meaning generally is “I can handle this.” The phrase means that we are able to handle the storms in life without the help of God, thank you very much. It means that He’s given me all that I need to handle everything, so I don’t need to lean on Christ. It’s contradictory of the foundation of the Gospel itself, because, in order to surrender to Christ, we must understand that we cannot save ourselves.

God routinely gives us more than we can “handle” to demonstrate that only He can “handle” the problems of life. God may permit the thorn in our flesh if we understand that only His grace is sufficient for our every need (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). God will allow trial to bring us to our knees if it ultimately brings us running into His arms. The “ability” endure anything in this life comes God – not from within ourselves. The fact of the matter is that we can handle very little in life on our own. Some have been so ravaged by the evils of this world that they cannot get out of bed in the morning except by the grace of God alone. It’s only when we discover our own mortality, weakness, sorrow and hopelessness that we find Christ’s life, strength, joy and hope. It’s no wonder that moments of trial and suffering drive lapsed “Christians” of all varieties to instinctively darken the door of the church again, becoming comforted by the knowledge of the holy and the all-consuming love of Christ.

So here’s the whole point … Once you find yourself resting on dry land at the end of the world-shattering deluge in your life, our first inclination should be to thank God and trust Him more. If we find ourselves patting our own backs while screaming “attaboy” … If we start writing a Godless self-help novel … Or if we completely ignore God’s part in our salvation, that’s plain wrong. We need to treat Christ as the one walking alongside of us through the trials and sufferings of life. And if we don’t get to the other side of trial without trusting God more, then that trial has been completely wasted. The great temptation of suffering is to gleefully wallow in the mud to call attention to our self-destruction instead of rejoicing as Jesus carries us through the mud to reach the safety of the other side.

In the midst of trial, too many Christians turn into the functional equivalent of a spiritual personal trainer, screaming alongside of us as we grit our teeth through every uphill climb: “You can do all things! You can do it!” If the Bible is nothing more than a self-help slogan, then we’re all tragically lost. Instead, God’s Word points us to the Christ, the one who the author of our salvation. Our hope is the glorious power of Christ to save us – not our frailty, timidity and weakness.

To all of my friends going through trial and suffering: You can’t do it. You can’t handle it. That’s why we need to wholly lean on the power of Christ. He is strong in the midst of our weakness.

God Made Daniel Fat

Is-anything-better-than-bacon...no_Do you suffer from bloating, lack of concentration, depression, low fertility, hot flashes, “bad hair,” insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, premature aging and acne? Don’t worry! There might be a one-stop solution for all of these problems. It’s the Daniel Diet: The hottest dietary craze since manna and quail! It’s the 2,500 year old God-designed diet that will detoxify your body of all of those nasty harmful toxins floating in the air all around you. Don’t get chubby like a Chaldean … Get ripped like an Old Testament prophet!

Sound too good to be true? If many of the outrageous claims of those hawking the Daniel Diet are to be believed, most of your worldly health problems will be fixed in one fell swoop. It’s hard to miss the growing popularity of the Daniel Diet. While searching for a home church in the Fort Worth area, my family visited a Southern Baptist church that was promoting the Daniel Diet as a church-wide dieting program. The pastor preached an entire sermon on the diet and was urging the congregation to participate in the program as a method of fasting and losing weight at the same time. Win-win!

So what is the origin of the “Daniel Diet”? After the siege of Jerusalem in 586 BC, the Babylonians hauled many Judeans, including the teenager Daniel, under duress into exile in Babylon. Daniel was a part of a 3 year re-programming effort by the Babylonians, attempting to assimilate young Israelites into their culture. As a part of this program, the participants were required to eat a regimen of food from the king’s table. In order to keep the Old Testament food laws, Daniel asked for permission to not partake of the royal meat and wine. The head of the re-programming program was concerned about Daniel’s health (and his own neck), so he granted Daniel permission to subsist on vegetables for a 10 day trial period. Daniel was miraculously healthy after those 10 days, so Daniel was granted permission to continue on this daily regimen. Over 2,500 years later, someone decided to make a quick buck off of a Bible story by turning it into a fad diet. And there you have it.

There’s a couple clear problems with the “Daniel Diet.” First of all, Daniel was not trying to diet. In the text of Daniel 1, there is no discussion of dieting. There is no talk of cleansing, detoxifying or purifying. There is no hint of Daniel needing to work on his love handles, develop six-pack abs and get ready for the “gun show.” Daniel isn’t Dancing With The Oldies while working out on a Bow-Flex. The meal arrangement suggested by Daniel and his associates was conducted in order to life an uncompromising life for God in the midst of a hostile and idolatrous culture. Daniel 1:8 states: “Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself.” Yep … It says it twice: Daniel’s main concern was to avoid defiling himself by breaking the Old Testament food laws. Daniel did not want to compromise his faith by living as the Babylonians did. In the process, he is putting his life at risk while following God in faith.

Interestingly, many commentators argue that Daniel’s issue with the king’s defiling food might not have been a strict “meat vs. vegetables” issue. Many varieties of meat (as well as wine) were permitted by the Old Testament food laws, so it’s a bit non-sensical for Daniel to eschew meat for meat’s sake. Another more plausible suggestion for Daniel abstention was that the king’s food and wine were likely used in association with idolatrous practices. In a similar vein, the word used for “vegetables” in Daniel’s dietary request is typically used to refer to animal feed in other portions of the Old Testament. Some suggest that Daniel may have been provided with anything from grains to raw foods to military rations. The point is that what Daniel did or did not eat is actually pretty unclear.

But there’s another important detail to consider: If Daniel and his associates really were dieting, then their diet was a colossal failure. Daniel 1:15 states: “At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food.” The Hebrew word in Daniel 1:15 that the ESV renders as “fatter” is translated as “better nourished” in other translations. But it’s a Hebrew word used in the Old Testament to refer to plump livestock. Check out some other instances of that same Hebrew word in the Old Testament:

  • Seven cows, plump and attractive, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass.” – Genesis 41:18
  • And he presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man.” – Judges 3:17
  • For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek.” – Psalm 73:4

Based on this use of the word, the connotation is clear: Daniel either maintained or gained weight on his vegetable-only regimen. While Daniel may not have gotten too chunky during his 10 day diet, but the reverse of popular expectations certainly occurred. When Daniel hatched his dietary plan, the chief official clearly thought Daniel was putting his life at risk (see Daniel 1:10). But Daniel stayed faithful to his convictions about God … And God supernaturally provided for Daniel. More important to our discussion here: Daniel did not lose weight.

The Daniel Diet is a gross manipulation of Scripture because it takes a miraculous supernatural provision of God and twists it into a routine “ho-hum” act. It’s simply gross that believers and non-believers alike are hawking the Daniel Diet like a carnival barker: “Step right up! Yes … You too can lose weight and experience a cleansed colon just like the prophet Daniel.” But this approach completely misses the whole point of Daniel 1: Only God could have supernaturally provided for Daniel. Only God could have sustained Daniel in his stand against a comprised faith. These young boys had faith that God would provide under dangerous circumstances and God not only sustained their lives … He made them healthier – and dare I say chubbier – than anyone else!

Admittedly, I’m no dietary or nutritional expert. If a real, live nutritional expert states that a diet high in fruits and veggies is healthier, that’s perfectly fine and acceptable with me. If you’ve lost weight using a vegetarian program, that’s cool. If you want to detox, cleanse your colon and lock yourself in your bathroom for an entire weekend, it’s within your freedom in Christ to do so. But it’s not OK to use Daniel 1 as your evidence that God supports your fad weight loss plan or to turn the prophet Daniel into a pre-incarnate Richard Simmons. The Bible is not a nutritional guide.

The popularity of the Daniel Diet also betrays the degree to which modern Christians have not the foggiest clue about the Old Testament food laws. Most Christians are happy that Jesus abrogated the food laws in Mark 7:18-19, since bacon should really be the top of the food pyramid. But we have a difficult time explain why God put those food laws in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 into effect in the first place. If pressed for an answer, most Christians would attempt to explain the Old Testament food laws as the first FDA meat inspection process, where God is trying to keep his people from food-born diseases, such as e-coli and salmonella. Contrary to popular opinion, God as a glorified meat inspector is a concept found nowhere in the Old Testament. Instead, Leviticus 11:45 states God’s purpose for the food laws: “You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” The purpose of the food laws is exactly what is stated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy: To keep God’s people holy and set apart for His purpose and not like the other idolatrous nations. The dinner table was (and still is) the time where people shared and developed relationships with one another. Through the food laws, God was literally keeping the Israelites set apart from other idolatrous nations by the keeping them from sharing a dinner table. This meal-sharing aspect is the missing piece of Daniel 1. By avoiding the king’s meals, Daniel and the boys were asserting that they would not defile themselves by sharing the dinner table with an idolatrous culture.

Here’s what’s really going on with the Daniel Diet: Unscrupulous businesspeople are profiteering off of the Bible and gullible Christians are falling for the trick. Why hasn’t the John the Baptist diet of locusts and honey caught on? Or the Elijah diet of only eating what ravens bring to your house? Or the “wandering in the wilderness” diet of quail? Or the Jeremiah diet of eating scrolls? The popularity of the Daniel Diet simply comes from its similarity to modern fad dieting and bodily cleansing programs. Fad cleanse diet programs (such as the Dr. Oz 48 Hour Weekend Cleanse) just so happen to be vaguely similar in nature to Daniel’s limited diet in Daniel 1. Many undiscerning believers will purchase anything from Christian milk to Christian candy to Christian plumbing as long as the word “Christian” is on the label. Unfortunately, not everything slapped with the label “Christian” or “Biblical” is Christian or Biblical. Meanwhile, the wolves that prey on God’s flock are laughing all the way to the bank.

The ultimate irony is that book of the Bible about having an uncompromised faith is being used to compromise our faith. While Daniel did not want to compromise his faith by dining like his captors, we are now caught up in a “trending on twitter” culture where we rush to experience every hot new thing from fad diets to the Harlem Shake. Have we reached the point where we are chasing harder after the latest trends than imitating Jesus Christ? While I’m not suggesting that we all quit our jobs and go join a Christian commune, I am suggesting that we live out 1 Peter 2:11: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” In the daily war against our souls, we must remember that we are living in exile and truly belong to the kingdom of God.

God sustains our lives … God quenches flames … God shuts the mouths of lions … God does not abandon His people even in the midst of our exile in a hostile kingdom.

Cardboard People (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

"homeless - please help" signIt’s almost an American cliche now: A long-faced, disheveled person standing on a street corner with a “PLEASE HELP” cardboard sign. In Martinsville, IN (where I live and preach), most of the “cardboard people” (for lack of a better term) line up on the street corners outside of the hub of civilized society: Wal-Mart. They’ll line up with cardboard signs like “WILL WORK FOR FOOD,” “HOMELESS” or “HOPE FOR CHANGE” and knock on your car windows while the stoplight turns red. I’m noticing that an increasing number of these people are women with small children. You’ll mutter under your breath, hoping that the light quickly turns green while trying to avoid eye contact. When your small child in the backseat annoyingly asks why that person is begging outside in the cold, you insist that your child just ignore them. Drive on in a cloud of dust and a flash of taillights.

Recently, I had the following awkward conversation with another Christian about a “cardboard person” while idling in my car:

Other Person: “That person has too many words on their sign.”

Me: “Hunh … So what?”

Other Person: “That means that they’re far too educated to be standing on a street corner begging. It’s probably a scam. I judge whether a person is genuinely poor by the number of words on their sign and whether the words are spelled correctly.”

Wow.

I’ve discovered that the usual Christian response to the “cardboard people” is to tell some fantastical over-embellished fish tale of how their friend’s neighbor’s hairdresser’s minister one time brought a beggar food or bought them a meal instead of giving them cash. Or complain about how that beggar will probably want to buy cigarettes, hard liquor and copious amounts of Columbian cocaine instead of food. And then quickly peel out like the Delorian from Back To The Future without offering that “cardboard person” any assistance at all.

Increasingly, I’ve also noticed Christians have started quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10 in relationship to the poor: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” And it’s used as a nice, semi-polite way of saying: “Get a job. God told you so.” So here’s the question: Is it correct to apply 2 Thessalonians 3:10 as a general rule to the poor? Let’s back up and explore the context of this verse.

In both of the letters to the Thessalonian church, the apostle Paul addresses a group of open “idlers” (read: lazy people) in the church body that are capable of working but refuse to work. The reason why the “idlers” refuse to work remains unstated. Many commentators will argue that the “idlers” refuse to work because they feel that the return of Christ is imminent, but there is no solid textual evidence to fully support that claim. Maybe they just decided it was easier to play PlayStation all day in their mom’s basement. We simply don’t know. In 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12, Paul first commands all capable church members to engage in work:

Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. – 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 (ESV)

In the ensuing time between Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, the problem with the “idlers” must have festered within the church, since Paul’s second address to the problem in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 is far harsher:

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. – 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 ESV

In both passages, the principal reason why Paul desires to restrict the “idlers” is a “brotherly” concern. The “idlers” were eating the bread that others had earned and were becoming a unnecessary financial burden upon the working believers in the church (2 Thessalonians 3:8, 12). And the burden of the “idlers” hurting the entire group. Essentially, the “idlers” were created a disorder within the church by placing their needs above the needs of the entire church body. Paul and his crew worked for their food while in Thessalonica, and he expected that the entire church would imitate that example. In addition, the “idlers” were becoming “busybodies” instead of being legitimately “busy,” getting overly obsessed with the household affairs of other believers. In his first letter, Paul expected that the functioning community where everyone supported each other would earn the respect of non-believers (1 Thessalonians 4:12). Their work ethic and mutual concern for one another was a witness to the testimony of Christ. To Paul, the problem with the “idlers” is no small matter. The problem is so serious that Paul considers the matter to warrant church discipline, calling for the “idlers” to be expelled from the community (2 Thessalonians 3:14).

So how do we apply that passage to the modern church? Essentially, believers should not be an unnecessary burden on their church. When a believer is able to work but sponges off the church, that decision impacts the resources of the entire church. Funds and resources should not be used to help the unwilling while forsaking the unable. Paul isn’t talking about communalism or forsaking private property here … He’s establishing that “love your neighbor as yourself” has real financial consequences. If you truly love your neighbor, you will not become an unwanted, uninvited houseguest for an unlimited timeframe … You will work and provide for one another. Be a hard-working Clark Griswold … Not a freeloading Cousin Eddie. Unfortunately, the church leadership may be put in a position to discipline members that are unwilling to work. Again, the reason for this discipline is ensure that all able believers are working and – therefore – able to financially support one another.

On the other hand, there is a presumption within the passage – as well as throughout Scripture – that God’s people will care for those that are legitimately poor, hurting or marginalized. The Old Testament Law is filled with commandments regarding how the Israelites must care for the poor. God commands His people to freely give to the poor and considers failure to give to the poor as a sin (Deuteronomy 15:7-11). God commands a portion of each harvest be left for the poor, which Ruth and Naomi will later take advantage (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22). Special provisions were provided for sojourners, orphans and widows (Deuteronomy 24:17-22). God commands that anyone enslaved due to poverty be treated like a hired hand (Leviticus 25:39-43). One of the reasons that God brought judgment upon Judah and Israel was their ill treatment of the poor – particularly orphans and widows (Amos 2:6-8, 4:1-3, 5:10-13, 8:4-5; Ezekiel 16:46-50; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 5:28; Micah 2:9; Malachi 3:9). Similarly, the early church was well known for systematically caring for its widows and orphans. Deacons were established to ensure equitable treatment of all widows, whose care was carried out throughout all the early churches (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Timothy 5:3-16). And James states that the measure of true religion is care for orphans and widows (James 1:27). Repeatedly, Scripture presents an image of God as caretaker of the poor and His followers will imitate that gracious character.

The main problem with the modern Christian’s use of 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is not interpretation … It is the way that many Christians stereotype all of the poor with a broad brush as a bunch of lazy scam artists. You hear that tone in the way that many Christians condescendingly presume that every “cardboard person” will go out and buy hard liquor with any financial donation. The horrible thought process runs that the poor are just lazy and the lazy just need to drop their cardboard signs and enter the Wal-Mart to fill out a job application. The problem is the assumption that most of the poor simply refuse to work.

In my many interactions with Martinsville’s homeless population, I have anecdotally found that most of the people that I meet don’t fit the “lazy” stereotype:

  • The young mother whose husband walked out on the entire family for another woman and refuses to pay child support, leaving them financially destitute.
  • The family who was illegally evicted because the landlord didn’t want to fix the rental property where they used to live.
  • The couple who husband lost his job in the last recession and seems to be under- or over-qualified for every job position.
  • The family whose medical bills crippled them into spiraling debt and homelessness.
  • The reformed older man who spent hard time in jail but few legitimate workplaces will offer viable long-term employment to someone with a felony record.

In addition, there are the “working poor,” who work entry-level minimum wage jobs that are struggling to meet the rent and are just one large medical bill away from losing everything. And let’s not forget some of our seniors whose budgets are so tight they practically squeak louder than their hip replacements. Many of our seniors are so poor that they’ll turn down the household heat to dangerously cold levels in the winter just to avoid high electric bills. And so many people are without any savings whatsoever and are one emergency situation or one high utility bill away from being out of the street.

Yes, it should go without saying, but there are a myriad of reasons why people are poor. Duh. When we encounter someone in need, the first thought that pops into our head should not be “lazy,” “scam artist” or any number of awful stereotypes. I have met a few impoverished people whose full time profession seems to be playing Wii, shoplifting, partying with Oxycontin and making babies. I’ve also met families that are Einstein-level brilliant at finding new methods of stealing their children’s government assistance and minimizing their work hours to keep their food stamps. I have met wacked-out pill-heads so perpetually high that they can’t remember the last lie they told you or the last thing they stole from you. But not every poor person is lazy or a scam artist. Not even close. We are far to quick to presume that the poor are unwilling to work and – therefore – they should not eat.

Instead, our first thought should be to imitate Christ and have compassion upon the lost and the broken. In most cases of lack of generosity, the issue is not the person in need … It is the crooked heart of the person clinging to his cash. Lack of generosity is a heart condition. The apostle Paul states in 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Unfortunately, many will give only out of a sense of obligation or acclimation, which is not the type of giving that God desires. Gimmicks of adulation abound in our churches, where givers get their names engraved on everything from the pews to the front doors. Many Christians find it more important to advance their own legacy at the expense of Christ’s mission. In addition, Deuteronomy 15:9-10 states that God’s people must not be “grudging” or “show ill” in their giving to the poor. Our giving to the poor must also be removed from a sense of condescension or ill will towards the poor. The beauty of the Gospel must penetrate the believer’s heart and compels us to give richly as Christ has given richly to us. The believer’s motivation for giving must be an unquenchable desire to be gracious that comes from a radical change of our heart by Christ.

And as we give greatly, God lavishly gives to us. In 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, the apostle Paul tells somewhat of a parable regarding a farmer. If a farmer plants a couple of kernels of seed, then the harvest will be small. If the same farmer scatters a large amount of seed across an entire field, then the harvest will be far greater. So the same principle applies to our giving: Those that give much will be rewarded much. 2 Corinthians 9:11 states: “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” What a principle! God generously provides to believers so that believers can generously provide to others, and – in the end – God will glorified. In an age saturated with prosperity-centered drivel, the modern church is probably most out-of-touch with this truth from Scripture. Wealth, surplus income and social status are not signs of the blessing of God. We must not become like the dragon Smaug from The Hobbit, unswervingly hoarding over our treasure and labeling all guests as thieves. When the believer gives cheerfully and willingly, then God will continue to provide for them so that they can continue to do give.

Here’s what we should do when we encounter a “cardboard person”: Give them some money. Or – at minimum – give them something to help. And here’s where the protests begin: What if they buy cigarettes and porn? What if they buy liquor and weed? What if they buy non-nutritious Cheetos instead of broccoli (yes … I have heard this argument)? What if they hire a terrorist Marxist prostitute on acid? What if they buy a Red Rider BB gun and shoot their eye out? What if … What if … What if? And here’s my big, fat response to your protest: So what? (Add giant raspberry sound effect here.) My heart is to be generous as Christ was generous with me. And for that matter, why not pray with them? Why not actually bother to give them food or buy them lunch? Why not invite them to your church … And offer them a ride to boot? Why tell the fish tale of that one time that pastor bought food for a “cardboard person” if you’re perfectly unwilling to do the same? Call me naive but I’d rather be labeled as a sheep than a goat by my Father in Heaven (Matthew 25:31-45). We may not be able to earn or give our way into Heaven, but generosity should be the mark of person who has been given riches in Christ.

My prayer is that Christians would give so generously, lavishly and extravagantly that the world would call it complete foolishness. As John Bunyan once said: “A man there was and they called him mad; the more he gave, the more he had.”

St. Augustine and the Naughty Nuns (Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin)

SmokingNuns

Back in 2010, Eminem, who is no stranger to controversy, stirred up yet another controversy with his duet with Rihanna: “Love The Way You Lie.” The song explores a highly combustible, abusive relationship, which is compared to a volcano meeting a tornado. While the characters’ passion for one another fuels the fire of the relationship, the couple frequently descends into fits of knife-fighting rage, complete with hair pulling, cursing, punching out drywall and punching out each other. The cycle of warm fuzzy feelings transforming into fist fighting plays daily like a broken record. After the woman finally escapes the relationship, the man earnestly apologizes and begs for her return … Then pronounces that if she ever leaves again, he’ll tie her to the bed and set the house on fire. Sounds like the guy you want to bring home to meet your mom and dad, right?

Throughout the years, one of the difficulties for Christians is how to reconcile the seemingly competing views of the God who sent His only Son to die for us and the God who wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah in a hail of fire and brimstone. How do you adequately explain how God is simultaneously wrathful and loving? Many ham-handedly describe God in terms similar to the abusive relationship from “Love The Way You Lie”: “God loves us with a great, combustible passion … But is prone to fits of wrath.” How do we avoid describing God as a bi-polar monster that loves you one moment but ties you to the bed and sets the house on fire in the next moment? Many modern Christians suggest the cliche “love the sinner, hate the sin” as the correct alternative. But is this cliche really any better description of the wrath and love of God?

The phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” is most commonly attributed to St. Augustine, who turned the phrase in his Letter 211 in 424 AD. The letter rebukes the nuns of a monastery where Augustine’s sister had been prioress (meaning head honcho nun-in-charge). The quote comes from a portion of the letter where Augustine warns the nuns against making “wanton looks” at men or being the subject of men’s wanton desires. Augustine then explains how the church discipline process (from Matthew 18) would apply to a “naughty nun.” In the midst of this discussion, Augustine describes the merciful attitude that believers should have when the church rebukes and corrects another believer’s sinful behavior:

When convicted of the fault, it is her duty to submit to the corrective discipline which may be appointed by the prioress or the prior. If she refuse to submit to this, and does not go away from you of her own accord, let her be expelled from your society. For this is not done cruelly but mercifully, to protect very many from perishing through infection of the plague with which one has been stricken. Moreover, what I have now said in regard to abstaining from wanton looks should be carefully observed, with due love for the persons and hatred of the sin, in observing, forbidding, reporting, proving, and punishing of all other faults (St. Augustine’s Letter 211).

Let’s establish this point from the outset: St. Augustine more or less coined the phrase “love the sinner but hate the sin” as a description of how Christians should behave in the church discipline process. He’s (apparently) talking about about those man-chasing “cougar” nuns that like to flirt with men and can’t keep their naughty bits covered. It’s hard to believe that this was a serious problem in 424AD, but – in respect of his sainthood and all that – we’ll give St. Augustine the benefit of the doubt.

In an attempt to better describe the love and wrath of God, the modern Christian cliche “love the sinner, hate the sin” has emerged in an attempt to capture the often-perplexing paradox of how God can simultaneously demonstrate wrath and love for mankind. There are hints of Biblical truth within the cliche. In His perfect holiness and justice, God is opposed to the open rebellion of sin (Romans 1:18-32). Yet, God loved us while we were still sinners and the enemies of God, and sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the price for our sin (John 3:16; 1 John 4:7-21).

On the other hand, the Bible really does speak of God’s wrath against sinners – not just their actions. Consider the following verses:

  • Psalm 5:4-6: For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.
  • Psalm 11:5-6: The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. Let him rain coals on the wicked; fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.

And there are plenty of other verses in the Psalms about the God’s wrath resting on the sinner. Similarly, the New Testament also speaks God’s wrath being against both the sin (Romans 1:18) and the sinner (John 3:36). If we do believe that the Bible is the inspired truth of God, we cannot overlook or ignore these passages. These perspectives must be fully integrated into our theology.

In close conjunction to the passages about God’s wrath resting upon sinners, God also metes out some severe punishment in response to sin. Shortly after the Fall and the entrance of sin into the world, God states that He “regretted that He had made the man on the earth, and was grieved in His heart” (Genesis 6:6). Then God proceeds to wipe out all of mankind with the exception of Noah and his family, whom He send the ultimate cosmic escape clause in the form of the ark. Then, God permanently erases Sodom and Gomorrah off the map in a rain of fire and brimstone … And then turns a woman into a pillar of salt just for turning back and witnessing the destruction. Hundreds of years later, God states in the Law how the Israelites must relate to the idolatrous people currently residing within the promised land: “You must completely destroy them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy” (Deuteronomy 7:2). When Joshua and the Israelites assault Jericho, they adhere to this command from the Lord to exterminate their conquered foes (with the notable exception of Israelite-sympathizer Rahab the prostitute). The prophets speak of the Exile as the wrath of God being poured out on disobedient Israel. Even in the New Testament, mention of the wrath of God appears twenty-five times. And the final image that we have of Jesus in the Bible is of a warrior king wielding a sword and robe dipped in the blood of His slaughtered enemies (Revelation 19). Again, these examples of the wrath of God cannot be ignored … It must be integrated into our theology.

Confronted with the dual imagery of wrath and love directly in Scripture, there are only a few options of how to deal with these seemingly competing images. You can argue like the first church heretic, Marcion, that there are two different gods: The Old Testament god of wrath and the New Testament god of love. Similarly, you can argue that God took some time to mellow out and pop a Xanax between the Old and New Testaments, taking on a more grandfatherly, sweeter disposition. You can argue that God is like a bi-polar incredible Hulk, unable to control His violent mood swings. Or you can declare that God is still justifiably wrathful about our sin with bullhorns and homemade picket signs while standing on a soapbox on the sidewalk.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” seeks another option: To argue that God isn’t really mad at you … He’s mad at your sin. In certain instances, this cliche seems to make some legitimate sense. In our modern therapeutic culture, we have recast many sins into afflictions and additions that can be permanently remedied given proper time laying on the counselor’s leather couch and pharmaceutical assistance. Vices of gambling, sex, pornography, pedophilia and thievery are commonly cast as complex additions that can be exorcised through loving ones self, higher self-esteem and 12-step meetings. Within this context, a woman could legitimately say to her adulterous husband: “I love you but I don’t like it when you stay out all night, tell me lies, go to extraordinary lengths to deceive me and have sex with multiple different partners.” The spigot of that unfortunate behavior just needs to be shut off. In this manner, a person should not be defined by their sins, mistakes or failures, because that person can always just stop that behavior.

Here’s the problem: “Love the sinner, hate the sin” fails because you can’t really draw a distinction between a person and their sins. The cliche boils sin down to merely an action or – at most – an addiction. That’s not what the Bible states about sin. Sin is an impurity that infects us (Isaiah 64:6). Sin is an inherited depravity that is part of our fallen human nature (Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12). Sin means an willful and open hostility to God (Romans 8:7). Sin is an open rebellion against the worship and rule of God (Isaiah 1:2). Sin means resistance and fighting against God (Acts 5:39, 7:51). In sin, there is no one that seeks God or desires God (Romans 3:10-11). Sin is not just what we do … Sin encompasses everything that we are. We cannot shut the spigot of sin off. Perhaps D.A. Carson describes sin best in Christ and Culture Revisited:

The heart of this evil is idolatry itself. It is the de-godding of God. It is the creature swinging his puny fist in the face of his Maker and saying, in effect, “If you do not see things my way, I’ll make my own gods! I’ll be my own god!” Small wonder that the sin most frequently said to arouse God’s wrath is not murder, say, or pillage, or any other “horizontal” barbarism, but idolatry – that which dethrones God. That is also why, in every sin, it is God who is the most offended party, as David himself well understood: “Against you, only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge” (Psalm 51:4).

Interestingly, that’s why the cliche simply fails in the context of those who believe their thoughts and actions are ingrained as a part of their personal identity. For the LGBT community, their sexual identity is a celebrated part of who they are, and it simply cannot be turned on or off like a spigot. In this context, people wind up hearing “love the sinner, hate the sin,” and translate that cliche into a confusing message of how God loves and hates them simultaneously. And the Gospel message should not be clear as mud. For this reason, the LGBT community is actually correct in pointing out the simplistically bankrupt nature of this Christian cliche. Apart from Christ, our sins are our identity.

Fortunately, there’s another alternative to the cliche. God’s love is far different and greater than our limited understanding. God doesn’t love us but hate our sin – as if the two things could be reasonably separated. God loved us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). We were enemies of God (Romans 5:10). We were objects of wrath (Acts 17:11). We were dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1). We were children of disobedience following our own passions and desires (Ephesians 2:2-3). We deserved death for our rebellion against God (Romans 6:23). But God knew (and knows) about our sins, hangups, problems, rebellions and innermost evils but loved us anyway (1 John 4:9-10). Like Gomer in Hosea, we have prostituted ourselves out to lesser gods but the true love of Jesus Christ has purchased us back and reconciled us to God. In this light, “love the sinner, hate the sin” is not only a complete cosmic cop-out … It unjustifiably diminishes the majesty and the might of the great love of God. God’s love is greater than all of our sin.

There is also much to be said about God taking the initiative to restore our broken relationship. There’s a big fat theological word called “propitiation,” which means to appease the wrath of an authority. In the Old Testament, the Israelites propitiated the wrath of God through various sacrifices offered at the Temple. In the New Testament, the wrath of God has been propitiated through the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:23-25; Romans 5:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10). In Classic Christianity, theologian Thomas Oden describes this propitiation:

It is not that human beings conciliate God, but that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19). God does not passively wait to be reconciled but actively goes out and humbly suffers for sinner to reconcile them. God does not wait for humanity to approach but approaches humanity. The saving event is not about God receiving our gifts, but God giving His own gift, His Son, in order to offer us the benefit of salvation. The Word tabernacled in our nature. Our humanity is enriched by his coming to dwell with us. 

God has made the first move to restore our relationship … And it’s up to us to respond. To paraphrase Mark Driscoll: Jesus shed His own blood instead of demanding our blood. For those that trust in Jesus, the wrath of God has been fully satisfied in the beauty of the cross, where mercy and justice kiss. For those that don’t trust in Jesus, His invitation remains extended during this lifetime.

Which brings us all the way back to St. Augustine and his naughty nuns. Lost in the popular debate regarding God’s unconditional love is the notion of God’s transformational love. The love of Christ radically transforms us into new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17), changing our hearts and renewing our minds (Romans 12:1-2). Believers hate the lingering slavery to sin within us that hinders us from fulfilling Christ’s desire for lives (Romans 7:21-25). Whenever a believer gives a “wonton look” like a naughty nun, it occurs because the bondage of sin still lies within us. It occurs because – as Paul ineloquently states in Romans 7 – we do what we don’t want to do. The lingering bondage of sin should drive us – like Paul – crying out for more cleansing from our Savior: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:24-25). And we must trust that Christ is actively washing His beloved bride clean (Ephesians 5:25-27) and that God is actively disciplining the children that He loves (Hebrews 12:3-11). And the role of the church is encourage and hold believers accountable in their ongoing transformation from a naughty nun to the image of Christ.

It’s well past time to stop casting stones at believers who long for Christ’s deliverance from sin and the pursuit for holiness. God’s love is transformational and we should long for that transformation. To remain content in the bondage of sin is antithetical to the transformational love of God. God demonstrates His love by changing us and turning our hearts away from sin.

In short, God does not “love the sinner, hate the sin.” God simply loves sinners. And the way that He demonstrates that love is by setting sinners free from the bondage of sin.

A Sucker With No Self-Esteem (Matthew 22:39)

I may be dumb but I’m not a dweeb. I’m just a sucker with no self esteem.” – The Offspring

I have grimaced and groused my way through many a bad sermon in my lifetime, but I have only walked out on one sermon. And I remember vividly what torqued me off. The associate pastor at the church where I was attending was filling in for the senior pastor, who was on vacation. The text for his sermon was Matthew 22:34-40:

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Here’s where things went awry. The thesis of his message was “You can’t love God or others unless you first love yourself.” In other words, self-esteem is essential to loving God. The topic and delivery of the message had smoke coming out of my ears as a uncomfortably squirmed in my seat. About 40 minutes through the meandering message, the youth pastor then looked in my direction and stated: “We have a Seminary student in the audience. Don’t you agree?” Flummoxed as every eye in the congregation turned squarely toward me, I gave some sort of non-answer, got up and walked out.

In hindsight, it was 100% the wrong thing to do, and I don’t take any pride in my actions. On the other hand, I’m still vehemently opposed the thesis of that message. Can you love God or others if you don’t love yourself? Absolutely. Because Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22:39 is qualitative – not quantitative. We love our neighbor in a similar manner as we would love ourselves – not in terms of the capacity to love ourselves. Unfortunately, I’ve heard this horrible therapeutic interpretation of Matthew 22:39 several times since that one sermon.

The issue of the Christian’s “self-esteem” is thorny because “self-esteem” is a modern psychological concept. While the terms “love yourself” and “finding yourself” are commonplace in the modern lexicon, the self-esteem movement is relatively new, credited to a slew of 1960s psychologists (including Morris Rosenberg, Stanley Coopersmith and Nathaniel Branden). Self-esteem can be most simply defined as what we think about ourselves. Many psychologists of that time period linked low self-esteem to common psychological problems, such as suicide and depression. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, “self-esteem” somehow meandered into the mainstream American lexicon. Politicians began to blame every teen problem from teen pregnancy to drug abuse on low self-esteem. Public schools began equating academic achievement with self-esteem. Then the self-esteem movement became a parody in SNL skits (Stuart Smalley) and The Offspring songs.

For the sake of argument, let’s presume self-esteem is a valid concept (or else this blog post would be over). There are generally two ways that individuals generally measure their self-esteem. Principally, we can measure our personal value on what other people think of our performance. In our childhood, we initially seek to measure up to our parents’ rules or face the time-out corner. In our educational career, teachers and parents review their child’s future based on grades and test scores. In our jobs, our worth is often judged on our boss’s annual review and how many TPS Reports we can produce in an hour. Even in church settings, pastors get caught up pursuing their congregation’s desires instead of seeking God’s heart. The mantra of this viewpoint is: “You are what you produce. You are what other people think you are.” Here’s the problem: We can never cope with the enormous pressure of coping with others’ standards. After all, we are all full-time rebels and rule-breakers that cannot meet God’s standards … Much less anyone else’s (see Romans 3).

In response to the pressure of “measuring up” to society’s standards, many choose to instead chart their own course and please themselves. The rebellious teenager within us desires to respond the pressure of the world’s standards by sending up a righteous middle finger to the world while throwing “Anarchy in the UK” on the car radio. Increasingly often, the acceptable solution to the crushing pressure of meeting society’s expectations is to eat, love and (sometimes) pray in an extended wine-infused vacation to Tuscany, Italy to “find oneself.” The self-help section of your local Barnes and Noble is filled with guides on how to stop being a victim and “take charge” of your life. In an overtly therapeutic American culture, this is presumed to be the more noble and valid path. The mantra of this viewpoint is: “Who care what other people think? … Please yourself!” But yet again, there’s another problem: We do care what others think and we can never please ourselves. We wind up meandering in a circular path.

Fortunately, there is a third path to how we determine our self-esteem: Our self-esteem must be based on a new paradigm that God has established through the work of Christ. While we are abject failures that cannot meet God’s standards, Christ died for us and we now bear the righteousness of Christ, becoming fully pleasing to God (Romans 5:1). Although we were hostile enemies and estranged aliens to God, we have now been adopted into family of God and are joint heirs with Christ (Colossians 1:21-22). The wrath of God has been completely satisfied by the cross of Christ, and we are fully loved by God (1 John 4:9-11). In summary, our old lives have been washed away by the precious blood of Christ and a wholly new life has begun (2 Corinthians 5:17). In Christ, we are fully accepted, fully adopted, fully loved and fully reborn. We have a new identity in Christ. And we discover that all the world valued in us was cheap and hallow and all that Christ values is genuine and noble. We view ourselves through the lens of Christ … Not the world.

Now I’m going to zig when you think I’m going to zag for a moment … I actually think that self-esteem is a huge issue. As a former youth minister, I’ve spent my share of late nights counseling kids that confessed that their greatest desire is to end it all by swallowing an entire bottle of pills. As a former guidance counselor, my wife has dealt with a litany of middle school age girls who cut themselves in hopes their parents will actually bother to notice them. I’ve broken down while hearing the story of the kid who says he hides in his room unloved and unnoticed while his parents violently and physically fight to the brink of divorce every single night. I’ve listened to the young ladies who weep over their parents’ decision to openly choose work and pleasure over her shining moments. There’s an epidemic brewing in the next generation of youth, who largely feel unloved, unvalued and generally worthless. But this generation doesn’t need to spend a lifetime chasing the approval their inattentive parents or engaging on a circuitous journey to find themselves. This generation needs a self-esteem grounded in the knowledge that the God of the universe inclines to hear our cry and is mighty to save. Proper self-esteem is grounded in the love of Christ … Not in the love of others or ourselves. We need Gospel and not gimmicks.

I’m discovering how much our lives mirror the path of Ruth from the Old Testament. Like Ruth, we are wandering foreigners praying for a redeemer to have mercy and grace upon our destitution. Like Boaz, Jesus is our glorious redeemer, who provides for our every need and invites us to dine at His table forevermore. And like the relationship between Ruth and Boaz, the reason that Jesus provides is true graciousness and compassion – not because we are lovely or have anything to truly offer in return for His love. The overwhelming beauty of that story resonates with me: Jesus has loved the unlovable … And we love Him in return. Our self-worth must be grounded in the great love that God has lavished upon us … not our love of ourselves. 1 John 4:10 rings true: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

Frankly, I have been through moments of severe depression in my lifetime where all I want to lock myself away from all of civilized society and eat an entire bag of cool-ranch Doritos while watching reruns of Law and Order. In the midst of these moments, I can pause and know that my God still loves me enough to send Jesus to die for unlovable me. In spite of my idolatry, my egotism, my pride, my anger, my callousness, my jealousy, my impatience and the litany of other sins residing in my heart, God forgives me … God loves me.

One prayer that I find myself praying over and over throughout my life is: “God, make me love you more.” And in the providential moments where is discover that God is perpetually saving me from the pit and the miry clay, I find myself compelled to love Him all the more, singing a new song of praise to Him in adoration.

We love because He first loved us.

Put Down That Bow And Arrow

Some days, it seems that part of my job as pastor solely consists of repeatedly telling children: “Stop running inside the church!” I don’t get after the kids because I hate the art of running or jogging (although my flabby physique is rather averse to the notion). I do it because our church floors are poured concrete with a thin layer of unpadded burlap-like carpet on top. It’s a concussion waiting to happen.

One of the worst offenders of the “no running in church” rule is (unfortunately) my daughter. So it came as no surprise last Sunday when my daughter tripped over her white flower-covered dress sandals (clearly the perfect running shoes) and then landed knees and noggin first onto the floor in a mess of tears. While no permanent brain injury was sustained (I think), my daughter lamented over the giant carpet-burn “strawberry” on her knee for the remainder of the long weekend.

While Gwen and I were tying her tennis shoes to get ready for school this morning, she remarked: “I’m sorry that I made a mistake and hurt myself, Daddy.” We then had a discussion about why knowingly breaking the rules is not a mistake.

The same kind of bizarre illogical thought process haunts Christian theology. When did the concept of sin get reduced to a giant personal mistake? The Christian hip-hop artist tobyMac has a fantastic new song out called “Forgiveness,” speaking about how everyone needs the forgiveness of God and others. However, the first description of sin within the song is “we all make mistakes sometimes.” This softening of the concept of sin is rampant in contemporary Christian music, which often nuances sin as “stumbling” or “falling” (think: “What If I Stumble” by dcTalk). Essentially, you didn’t really mean to sin … It just happened.

Admittedly, I’m no foreigner to mistakes. Anyone ever showed up to a meeting (or church) an hour early (or late) because you hadn’t changed a certain clock before or after daylight savings time? Have you ever accidentally poured sugar that you thought was creamer into your coffee? Have you ever worn one blue and one black sock when they really both appeared to be black back at your house? Yep. Guilty as charged. The essence of a mistake is either a misconception (unclear information) or a misunderstanding (unclear comprehension). Mistakes go hand-in-hand with a lack of clarity. Either someone gives you unclear information or you don’t understand the information.

Using driving directions from Mapquest provides great insight into the anatomy of a mistake. Sometimes you get lost because the directions state “take a slight right/left” when – in reality – you’re actually staying on the same road. That’s unclear information from the sender (bad computer). Sometimes you get lost because you’re tired, haven’t had enough coffee and should have read the directions better. That’s the fault of the person attempting to process the information. However, getting lost because you blatantly blew off the directions given and attempted another route entirely is not a mistake (although I would hate to admit that to my wife).

If committing a sin is a genuine mistake, then it must have occurred due to a lack of clarity. However, it’s unreasonable to categorize a blatantly intentional sin as a mistake. When teens and young adults get pregnant out of wedlock, get involved in the drug scene or get thrown in jail, their parents often tend to soften the blow off what has happened by saying: “They’re just young and made a mistake.” Let’s clarify again: If someone clearly knows God’s commandments and willfully violates God’s commandments, then sin is not a mistake. Calling intentional sin a “mistake” is just a method of nuancing the gravity of sin in the eyes of gullible friends and family.

However, there is no need to get bogged down in the minutia of whether a sin that has been perpetrated is a mistake. Scripture still categorizes mistaken sin as sin. In Numbers 15:22-31, there is a lengthy discussion of the difference between and the consequences of unintentional and “high handed” (intentional) sins. While some sins were considered to unintentional, the end result was still the same. In the eyes of the Lord, unintentional sin was still considered to be a corruption and pollution of God’s people that required sacrifice and repentance on the part of the sinner. Even with unintentional sin, Hebrews 9:22 still applies: “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.”

So why is sin routinely called a mistake in Christian circles? I believe that much of this misconception relies on an over-reliance on and potential abuse of one Greek word for sin: “hamartia.” You’ve probably seen the cliche pastoral illustration from the pulpit that describes sin as an arrow missing the mark. That’s the literal definition “hamartia”: Missing the mark (as used in archery). Back about 20 years ago, I actually saw a pastor in Richmond, VA bring a bow, arrow and target on stage to illustrate sin in this manner. So the verbal picture is often painted of sin is that you tried your best but just couldn’t do what God asked. That’s actually how my pastors and teachers defined sin for me in my formative years. You want to please God but you’re not able. You give life your best effort but you just can’t live up to God’s standards.

While there is a nugget of truth in the “missing the mark” definition of sin, a giant word of caution is necessary. An entire doctrine of sin cannot be developed based on the illustration of one word. In addition, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary states: “Hamartia is, literally, ‘a missing of the mark,’ but this etymological meaning is largely lost sight of in the New Testament. It is the most comprehensive term for moral obliquity” (emphasis mine). I actually had to look up that word “obliquity” … It means immoral conduct. It amounts to a deviation from God’s standards. Unfortunately, we are often poorly trained to read the word “sin” and think about that bow and arrow missing the target. We need to stop all of the discussion of sin and bows and arrows, because it dumbs down the broader concept of sin.

There are many more Biblical words out there that describe the nature of sin. The Hebrew word “awon” means wickedness and is rooted in the concept of bending or twisting. The Hebrew word “pesa” means transgression or breaking of the Law. The Greek words “paraptoma” and “parabasis” generally mean to overstep a boundary or stray onto the wrong path. In total, Scripture describes sin more like a corruption … a pollution … a poison  … that has pervaded its way into our hearts and our world like a drop of poison sinking into a glass of pure water. After the filth of sin has spread, there is no part of our lives where sin has not touched or permeated. Our thoughts, motives and actions are all contaminated to the point where Paul’s discourse on sin in Romans 3:10-18 is apt:

No one is righteous, no, not one; No one understands; No one seeks God; All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; No one does good; Not even one. Their throat is an open grave; They use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; In their paths are ruin and misery; And the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

In addition, sin is described as a tyranny or bondage, where the sinner is completely entangled, strangled and controlled by wickedness. Sin is also described as turning away from a good path to walk on an unhealthy one. Unlike the “bow and arrow” description of sin, the real problem is we don’t want to please God and we’re not able. We’re not giving holiness the good, old college effort. We’re happy like pigs wallowing in the muck of our sin. We desperately need the Word of God to wake us up and the work of Christ to cleanse us from the filth of sin.

There is an inherent danger to dressing up sin as a mistake … Like saying a cow pie is a work of art. Just as the Devil’s most dangerous tactic is masquerading as “an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), infinite damage can be done by whitewashing sin as a mistake. In his excellent breviary of sin Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be, Cornelius Plantinga jr. states: “To do its worst, evil needs to look its best. Evil has to spend a lot on makeup. … Vices have to masquerade as virtues – lust as love, thinly veiled sadism as military discipline, envy as righteous indignation, domestic tyranny as parental concern.” In a scenario perfectly fit for The Screwtape Letters, the minimization of sin as an ignorant mistake is used by the Devil to dissuade sinners from running to the cross of Christ. If sin is perceived as just a casual and harmless infatuation then sinners become reticent to submit to the gravity of the cross. Only when we understand that sin is a deadly pollution that has seeped down and poisoned the essence of our being do we realize the magnitude of our helplessness and greatness of God’s forgiveness.

The good news is that God forgives all sin regardless of our intent. The blood of Jesus Christ covers all sins, marks and stains – intentional or unintentional. At the end of the day, the debate about whether sin is a mistake is somewhat moot, because the great mercy and grace of God is greater than all of our sins.

Hallelujah! What a Savior!

St. Francis Said What?

“Preach the Gospel at all times and use words when necessary.”

Have you ever heard your Sunday School teacher, small group leader or pastor use that phrase? They might even attribute this phrase to St. Francis of Assisi, the famous 12th century Italian monk and preacher. The story of St. Francis is a riches to rags one. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, who was convicted to disavow his worldly lifestyle, identify with the poor by street begging and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ out on the mean streets of Assisi. While it might seem natural to attribute this phrase to St. Francis considering his radical vow of poverty, it’s been fairly well debunked that St. Francis of Assisi never uttered that phrase. Mark Galli, a biographer of St. Francis, gives a strong argument why the impoverished monk never uttered that phrase here.

Regardless of the mythology regarding the origin of this phrase, many Christians will still rally around the essence of this phrase, because it gets to the heart of the central plight of the modern church: Hypocrisy. Here’s the essential argument: “Christians are complete hypocrites because they preach the Gospel but continue heinously sinning. If Christians would just speak less and live out a Biblical lifestyle more, then they would be more effective in winning people to Christ.” After decades of highly publicized ministry failures (think: James Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard), many younger Christians are rightly frustrated and disillusioned with the seemingly never-ending litany of Gospel ministries that end in scandal and disgrace. A more “authentic” faith – if that is possible – is desired that shuns overarching theological precision or any notion of “doctrine” and embraces a meandering personal journey of faith.

So even if St. Francis never uttered this famous phase, is it OK to use this phrase in relation to the church’s evangelistic enterprises? Should the church focus less on door-to-door visitation, handing out tracts and inviting their neighbors to their stuffy traditional worship services? And should the church redouble efforts to end global hunger, to end human trafficking and to build schools and wells in Saharan Africa.

First of all, the notion that the Gospel demands action is thoroughly Biblical. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares to His followers: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Jesus’ expectation is that His followers will obediently conduct good works. However, good works are not an end unto themselves. Good works also don’t earn God’s favor or improve our standing the Kingdom of Heaven. Out of the overflow of love for Christ and the abundance of concern for God’s creation, believers perform good works to point the world towards the redemptive nature of Christ.

Frankly, Christians performing good works should be expected. It’s a bizarre age that we live in that serving at a homeless shelter or donating money to build a well in a 3rd world country is considered “radical Christian living.” That should be the norm. In this fashion, the critique of the emergent and social justice types is correct: Much of the evangelical church has devolved into hiding behind stain glass windows and barking at the headlines on the local news. To their complement, many younger Christians are swinging the pendulum back again by urging the local church to become engaged in hands on solutions to poverty, homelessness and human trafficking. That’s a good and necessary course correction that shines the love of Christ into the darkened world.

On the other hand, there’s also a certain prideful audacity in assuming that someone is going to ask you about your spiritual life just because you give them a free sandwich. I mean … Isn’t there a hint of arrogance to assume that a crowd will gather to watch you drive a nail and then ask why you drove that nail? If non-believers aren’t “wowed,” mystified, bowled over and/or entertained by the church’s performance, does it mean that they won’t repent of sin and believe in Jesus? Moreover, it’s a surprisingly passive approach to evangelism: Don’t let the “C” word (Christ) slip unless someone gives you the perfect conversational opening. Let the person who doesn’t understand why they need Christ condescend to you to ask you why they need Christ. Some of this approach may stem from watered down relativism and an attempt to politely not offend the delicate religious sensibilities of others. Often, it simply masks a fear of sharing about Christ with others and – particularly – a fear of being flatly rejected.

Here’s the main problem with the whole “actions vs. words” debate in evangelism: It’s a logical fallacy called a “false dilemma.”  The false dilemma presents two extreme choices in a debate with no shades of grey in between. Here’s a good example of a false dilemma: “If you’re not for us, then you’re against us.” What is the false dilemma about evangelism current being touted? The world is so turned off by hypocrisy that Christians should stop talking and start walking. The “false dilemma” is that Christians can either present the Gospel through words or actions and not both.

This perceived tension between actions and words in evangelism is extraordinarily contrived. If we examine the missionary works found within the Gospels and Acts, there is no heated debate about whether to focus on healing the sick or proclaiming the Gospel message in the synagogues. Both were freely conducted together to the glory of God. A prime example is Jesus’ sending of the seventy-two in Luke 10. In His commission to the seventy-two disciples that He was sending out to proclaim the Good News, Jesus instructs His followers: “Heal the sick in (the town) and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10:9). Both words and actions living symbiotically together pointing the lost to their Father in Heaven. In Acts 3, Peter heals a man lame from birth through the power of the Holy Spirit and proclaims the Gospel to the masses in Solomon’s portico. Both words and actions drawing the masses to the risen Christ. In Acts 14, Paul heals a lame man and preaches to a truly unreached people group only to get stoned and left for dead. Yet again … no tension between words and actions.

Without the proclamation of Christ, there is no difference in the believer’s works and the good works of the rest of the world. It’s well past time that Christians starting facing the facts: Christians don’t have a monopoly on good works. The Red Cross can more easily and effectively respond to disasters ranging from hurricanes to tornados to tsunamis than any local church, but they certainly are not going to share Christ with every person to which they give food or medical attention. Muslims and atheists are building schools and digging water wells throughout the world, but they are not going to tell the masses much that is positive about Jesus. The modern Christmas holiday experience virtually shames Americans of all spiritual flavors into getting that “warm fuzzy feeling” from helping those in need. The difference that the church has to offer to the world is the spiritual nourishment of Jesus Christ. The church cannot be relegated to another run-of-the-mill social service organization, because Christ is greater than anything the world has to offer. The believer’s good works mean nothing if they don’t point others to the saving power of Christ.

The church cannot be passive about the truth that the strong work of Christ is far greater than the feeble works of man. Jesus Christ has done a work that is completely unreproducible by any man to ever walk the face of the earth. Many men can cook a meal in the church kitchen to feed the poor but only Jesus Christ is the bread of life that feed our souls. Many men can bring a bottle of water to a thirsty man but only Jesus is the fount of living water. Many men have sacrificed their lives for others but only Jesus Christ has sacrificed his life for the sake of all. Many men can exhibit strong leadership skills but only Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd that carries the lost sheep homeward. If Jesus is greater, then let’s start actively sharing about He who is greater.

Paul says it better than I ever could in Romans 10:14-17: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (emphasis mine)” It is not too fine a point to argue that faith comes from hearing the Gospel … not in a non-believer witnessing a believer conducting good works. Driving a nail for the sake of the Gospel does not magically drive the informational content of the Gospel into the brain of a non-believer. The Gospel doesn’t work by osmosis. The Gospel works when believers care enough to move their beautiful feet down to the road to share their testimony in word and deed with their friends, neighbors, family and – even – relative strangers. Believers cannot duct tape their mouths or tie up their hands and expect that God will be magnified.

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The Fog (God Moves In Mysterious Ways)

As a kid, my favorite TV cartoon was Scooby Doo. It was only until I watched them again 30 years later with my daughter that I realized how predictable they were. The Mystery Machine surreptitiously stumbles upon a monster in a ramshackle haunted house/boat/castle/ski resort (pick one) … Scooby and Shaggy get chased by the monster … Velma loses her glasses … Fred sets an overly elaborate monster trap … Velma solves the mystery … The culprit states that he would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids … Daphne looks pretty. As a kid, I was totally captivated by the mystery. I needed to know the real identity of the ghost in the diving suit!! To the adult, it’s very milquetoast.

From Sherlock Holmes to Magnum P.I., it seems that everyone loves a good mystery … Except when it comes to real life. Nobody really likes the early morning mystery of “Where did I put my car keys last night?” Or the never ending mystery of “Where did I park my car at Wal-Mart?” Most days, it seems like we step out of bed right into a fog of confusion and riddles beyond our comprehension. When tsunamis rage, tornados level entire neighborhoods and chronic disease shatters our lives, we shrug our shoulders and utter the phrase: “God moves in mysterious ways.” More than anything else in life, we are confused by God (and the opposite gender … but that’s a different blog). Just when we think we’ve got God neatly figured out in a simple 5 point plan, God throws a bag of marbles across our path to trip us up.

Why is God so confusing? And does God really move in mysterious ways?

Interestingly, the phrase “God moves in mysterious ways” is not Biblical in origin. The source of the phrase appears to have come from the 1st line of William Cowper’s 1774 hymn of the same title:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

The sentiment of the hymn closely matches the Old Testament Psalms and prophets. In Isaiah 55:8-9, God proclaims: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Many preachers compare the intellectual gap between God and man to that of a child to his father or a dog to a human being. Honestly, neither one of these analogies do justice  when comparing the infinite wisdom of the Creator God to the finite understanding of the human brain. The finite simply cannot grasp the infinite.

Similarly, Job 38 is an overwhelming symphony to the utterly incomprehensible ways of God:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

Obviously, we weren’t there when God spoke the earth in existence. We didn’t take a yard stick measurement of the blueprints of the earth. We weren’t there when the heavenly creatures shouted for joy at the creation of the world. Even if we actually developed the Back to the Future DeLorean time machine, we couldn’t go back to before time existed to meet the Creator of time itself. The conclusion: Man cannot fully grasp the character of God even if he tried.

And if that were the end of the matter, our outlook would be bleak. We would live our lives like confused children abandoned by our parents. God would seem like a chaotic, destructive child throwing a temper tantrum instead of a loving Creator. Or – even worse – it would seem like God spun the world like a top, checked out for vacation and left the world to slowly and violently cease its rotations. No order or meaning would be found in creation. God would be either dead or worthless.

But God does not leave us to guess what He is up to. In the midst of his hymn (“God Moves In A Mysterious Way”), William Cowper states “God is His own interpreter.” Since the finite cannot understand the language of the infinite, God gives us a translation that we can understand. God stoops down to man to feed us His master plan in chewable morsels. In Ephesians 1:7-10, the apostle Paul states: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” What God is doing in creation is an orderly, wise plan. God is in the midst of fixing His Creation through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. This has been God’s single-minded plan from before the dawn of creation. Christ comes not only to reveal God’s redemptive work .. but also to complete God’s redemptive work. Through Christ, God is in the midst of painting a masterpiece of the restoration and salvation of His creation.

In a sense, the role of the believer becomes more challenging. If we believe that God is painting a masterpiece, then we have to believe that everything is merely a brush stroke in a larger picture. Every illness … Every struggle … Every trial … Every natural disaster … Every minor bump in the road is a small puzzle piece in the picture that God is putting together. The apostle Paul states the matter best in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” We only partially understand the movements of God – as if we’re looking at the world through foggy sunglasses. One day, we will see God face to face and fully understand the glory and majesty of the King of Kings.

There’s a famous Georges Seurat painting entitled “A Sunday Afternoon on LaGrande Jatte.” You know … The one from the art museum scene from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. Seurat spent two years meticulously painting single miniature dots across a 6’ x 10’ canvass to form the painting. Upon close inspection, the painting is just unrelated dots. From a distance, the eyes (through optical unification) see the dots as one consistent hue that forms the masterpiece image. Our lives require the same perspective. In the eyes of finite man, our lives often seem chaotic and random. From the perspective of God, every single event comes together to form His masterpiece.

So how should we live in the midst of the mystery of God? Well, that leads us back to our 18th century hymn writer, William Cowper. Cowper struggled with depression throughout his entire life. One night, Cowper decided to commit suicide by drowning himself in the Thames River in London. After hailing a cab, neither Cowper or the cabbie could find the Thames because a thick fog had descended over London. After several hours of searching, Cowper gave up on his suicide plan and asked the cabbie immediately let him out of the cab. Providentially, Cowper found himself at his own front doorstep. Cowper believed that God sent that fog to ensure that he wouldn’t commit suicide.

When you’re in the midst of the fog, we should pause to remember that God might be using the fog to save us. His ways are not our ways.

Man vs. Vision (Proverbs 29:18)

I love those television survival shows where the survivalist goes out to a deserted island with a hunting knife, a toothpick and a can of sardines and is forced to survive for a month. I could never do it … I like air conditioning, cookies and processed meats too much. But it’s fun to watch folks “getting back to nature” just to remind yourself why the droll suburbs is actually a fantastic gift from God. In particular, part of the fun of watching survivalist shows is watching the host eat bugs and then see the grossed-out, barf-ready reaction of my wife squirming on the couch.

There’s a “teaching” segment of every survivalist show, where the host tells you why the white, bitter bark of some exotic tree with star shaped leaves (which you could never realistically distinguish from an oak tree in real life) is absolutely essential for you to live in the wild. The host eventually runs through a litany of things that you can’t live without while away from civilization: Fire … Clean water … Shelter … Sea snails … Bugs. Let’s face it: If my whole survival on a deserted island hinges on eating a meal worm that eats tree bark and spurts forth warm cream colored innards inside your mouth, then I’m toast.

What is essential for a church to survive? The common answer to this question is VISION. The foundation of this assertion is a folksy mistranslation of Proverbs 29:18. It’s one of those verses that people believe they know by heart: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The common misapplication is that churches will die without a clear mission statement and a strong CEO-style pastor. By proxy, purposeless, anti-missional churches without a “clear” mission statement consisting of multiple alliterative words (i.e. go … grow … gobble … giraffe) wind up meandering around the figurative wilderness and dying a slow death of hipster deficiency.

Unfortunately, the cliche misquotation of the verse completely ignores the second half of the proverb. Proverbs 29:18 (ESV) actually states: “Where there is no prophetic vision, the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.” Many Old Testament proverbs have a negative and positive component to them, and the actual proverb cannot truly be understood without a comprehension of both sides of the coin. The negative element of this proverb relates to “prophetic vision,” which is referring to God’s special revelation through his chosen mouthpiece (i.e. the prophets). The term does not refer to mission statements, vision statements, purpose statements, corporate planning retreats, comprehensive plans or cutesy acronyms that form the term “GIVE,” “HEART” or “LEAD.” The actual proverb is kind of like an 80s teen romantic comedy (think: Sixteen Candles). When the parents leave on vacation, the kids turn into wild barbarians, throw a wild keg party and destroy the house. The lack of authority leads to debauchery. Similarly, man is unbridled and sinful without the clarity and conviction of the Word of God. However, that’s not the end of the proverb. The positive element of the proverb is that God has not left mankind without revelation … God has spoken through His Word. Accordingly, a man will be blessed by living according to what our creator God intended and commands. Carrying the proverb into a New Testament context, Hebrews 1:1-2 states: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” God has now perfectly spoken through Jesus Christ, and His blessings now continue to those who repent and believe in His Gospel.

Proverbs 29:18 is an extraordinarily Gospel-centered verse. Prior to being pierced by the Word of God, we all run around wild like savages, content and ignorant within the cocoon-like bliss of sin. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, following the prince of the power of the air (read: Satan) and living according to the passions and desires of the flesh (Ephesians 2:1-3). We need the revelation of the Holy Spirit to give us spiritual understanding, to move our hearts with spiritual truth and to draw us near to God (1 Corinthians 2:6-16).

So how does this Gospel saturated proverb wind up being so egregiously misapplied? Most commonly, the verse is misappropriated to support some iteration of a strong-pastor or CEO-model of church leadership. The argument goes that churches die if they don’t have strong pastoral leadership. And insubordination to the church’s vision statement (and the pastor) by the congregation is a deadly offense. Many pastors also use to the verse to strongarm their followers into granting them excessive authority without challenge, feedback, “checks & balances” or resistance. It turns churches into the Borg (“We are the Borg. You will be assimilated!”). While the correlation between pastoral leadership and church health is certainly debatable (and I won’t argue for/against that point in this particular blog post), Proverbs 29:18 is not a church growth strategy. Moreover, the proverb should never be used to strike fear into the heart of the congregation that the church will die if the pastor is not granted excessive authority. The hubris and egotism of a pastor that abusively drives a congregation away from Scripture can kill a church. Altogether, the dubious argument for a corporate-model ecclesiology cannot (and should not) be supported from the Book of Proverbs.

On the other end of the theological spectrum, the verse is also used to attack “traditional” churches and modes of worship. Essentially, the argument is made that the reason that many traditional churches are dying is because they lack in vision and innovation. There are many wide and various reasons why churches die, and some problems are unique to a particular local church. We should not oversimplify church decline by saying all church problems could easily be solved if the congregation held a corporate-style retreat, clogged up a white board with “ideas,” and condensed them into a cutesy mission statement.

Is it essential for the church to have a mission statement to survive? Sure … It’s called the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). Before Jesus ascended into Heaven, He commissioned the disciples by stating: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Carrying the Gospel to the ends of the earth is the work and ministry of the local church. And the Great Commission doesn’t need to be reformulated, reinvented, reconsidered or dumbed down … It is basic enough for every believer to understand and simply needs to be embraced by the local church as its mission. The church that has a heart for discipleship thrives and rejoices like the churches in Acts. When the church veers away from the Great Commission, then the church tends to morph into an ugly chimera that God never intended: A fraternity … A country club … A social service organization … A fan club … A psuedo-psychological therapy session … An empty building. Unfortunately, Proverbs 29:18 is used as a bully pulpit to argue that the church’s original mission statement has failed and the church needs a “do over.” While I would argue that the church needs to engage with elements of its modern context (i.e. music style or technology), the mission statement of the Great Commission has not failed … Nor will it ever fail. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Great Commission is God’s design for the spread of the saving Gospel message.

I’m new to the whole tornado siren culture of the Midwest. When the deafening and eerie neighborhood siren thunders through the walls of our house, you frantically rush your family, a bottle of water and your portable radio down into the basement. Then you realize that you forgot to put batteries in the radio so you rush back upstairs again. The siren blows to let us know that the tornado’s on its way and we must take definitive action. Similarly, the church is intended to be like heralds and sirens shouting out throughout the corners of God’s creation that the King has come and will return again. And if the King is coming, then we must take the definitive action of repenting and believing in His name.

Let the siren call out that the King is coming!

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