Don’t just have an answer. Have the right answer.

“I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father but through me.”

John 14.6

American culture is so different from many other cultures around the world.  One of the cultures amongst which I lived for a few years was what they call a “shame based” culture.  Right and wrong there is essentially defined by getting caught and/or saving face.  Because of that, it takes a certain finesse to talk with people and truly communicate on a heart level when your home culture is so different.  Here is an example:

One day I had a group of tourists from America, and we were staying up in the highlands.  There is a volcanic crater lake that is beautiful with a famous access road that descends from the top of the crater down to the lake through a series of 44 hairpin turns.  The views are stunning, the weather perfect year round (situated at the equator and substantial elevation keeps the temperature right around 75 degrees every day), the water is clear and the people are friendly.  Everyone knows that you have to visit this lake when you are in the region.  Most locals hop buses or hire a driver, but I had rented two cars to drive the tourists around on my own.  This country has roads that connect cities and not many in between, so once you get on the right road – you always end up where you want to go.  So on the way out of the hotel with my volunteers I asked the woman at the desk which road we need to take to get to the lake.  Enter:  Shame-based-culture.  She did not know.  But it was shameful upon her to not give me an answer and it would disrespect me to send me elsewhere to ask, so she made up an answer.

Having not yet had experiences like this, I took her word and we loaded up the car.  We all know – according to the Lonely Planet – that it was a two hour drive.  So we turned on the music and enjoyed the road.  Two and a half hours later we were still not there, and we had seen a few tight curves but certainly not 44 in a row.  Having not crossed any side roads since leaving town, I was sure that we had not missed a turn, so we kept going.  At the three hour mark we decided to stop and ask.  We had gone three hours in the wrong direction.  We had needed to go South East out of town, and we had gone due North.  When we got back to the hotel (we decided to skip the lake that day), my translators told me that they had asked directions in town and knew the way…we could go the next day.  They knew that we were on the wrong road the entire time.  But it would have been disrespectful and shameful to tell me that I was wrong.  So they saved my honor by letting us continue driving the wrong way!

I have been reflecting on this story in light of the post yesterday about “always be prepared to make a defense for the hope that you have”  (1 Peter 3.15).  The reason is that we need to be prepared, not only with an answer, but with the right answer.  Truth is not relative.  2 + 2 is always 4.  If you think 2 + 2 is 5, you will get the question wrong on the test.  If you take the road North out of town, you will not end up at the crater lake which is South East of town.  And Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.  No one gets to go to Heaven apart from Him.  These things are equally true:

“It is only narrow minded to think a subjective opinion is true.” Hazakim

The reason for your hope must be established in the Word of God, our written account of His ultimate Truth.  Do not make up your own answers and send people or yourself down the wrong path.  Jesus is the way.  He doesn’t promise to show you the way, He is the way.  Let’s join Him.  Have your answer, the right answer:  The Gospel.

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.  For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

– Matt 7.13-14

True Success

“A successful man is one who, given the opportunity to wear anyone’s shoes, chooses his own.”

– Jim David

Jim is a friend of mine and he said this to me one day last month.  I have chewed on it and reflected on it many times, as I vacillate between regret and thankfulness for my life story.   I don’t know why our culture engages the question, but we regularly do:  If you could do it over, would you?  Or,  If you could change anything, would you?

Clearly none of us have the ability to go back in time and relive events or change history.  And our culture strives for success.  The American dream of pulling one’s self up by his boots straps, each generation providing more for the next so that our children can have “more than we had” permeates our educational system, our entertainment and our worldview.  While people might value certain things differently as success, we all want to be successful.

Jim argues that contentment is the key.  There will always be someone smarter, more talented, prettier…but success, in Jim’s eyes, is being satisfied and desirous of one’s own life above all others.

“Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance…You shall also observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt; therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a permanent ordinance.”

Ex 12.14, 17

The Hebrew people found themselves in captivity in Egypt, over 600,000 men – plus women and children.  God miraculously freed them from bondage by a series of plagues on the Egyptians.  The final plague that secured their escape was the death of the firstborn of every man and beast in the country.  God warned the people through Moses that the angel of the Lord would come and kill the first born in every household, and to escape this plague the family must put the blood of a lamb on their door frame.  The Hebrews did this and they were spared from the slaughter:  the angel of the Lord literally “passed over” their homes.  After their escape, God established an annual celebration for the people which was called “The Passover” in which they remembered their salvation both from death and their freedom from slavery.

They had quite a hard time in the wilderness – even though God physically and miraculously gave them food to eat every day, they grumbled and longed for their life of slavery back in Egypt.  They disobeyed God and did not trust Him to preserve them, even after he parted the waters of the Red Sea for them to cross over as the Egyptians pursued them.  But every year they still celebrated the Passover to remember the things that God had done.

The promises of God, of the faith, are those which sustain us in good and bad times:

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Heb 13.5)

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”  (Rom 8.28)

“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1.6)

Thus it becomes and exercise of faith to be satisfied in the paths which the Lord has established for us and not wish to change things.  Whatever path you have walked, the Lord has guided your steps (Prov 16.9).  He has never left you, and He causes everything to work together for your ultimate, spiritual good.  And He will perfect and complete the work that He has begun in your life.

Are there things I would change about my life?  My flesh wants to scream out, “YES”.  But when I choose to trust God I become confident that the trials, the failures, the struggles are all a part of His perfect plan and will enable me to honor Him the most with my life.  And therefore, when we trust God we can become “truly successful” by enjoying the benefits of faith and our security in Him, and still choosing our own paths – no matter how difficult they may have been.

“I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands.”

– Ps 143.5

Unconditional Love

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

– Romans 5.8

I have been reflecting on American culture and our concepts of love/offense the last few days.  American individualism and self-determination elevates and idolizes the concept of unconditional love – and the theme encompasses how we view the world:  tolerance, acceptance, post-modernism, etc.  The idea of unconditional love, in my opinion, is most commonly associated with the idea of “motherly love”.  But a few weeks ago my father said something that struck me.  He was reflecting on the “household rules” that we had growing up, and talking about children moving home when they are adults.  He said that as adults now, to live under his household we would be required to live by God’s standards.  Because he loves God first, and his responsibility is to God first.

My father would not cease to love me, and it would greatly break his heart if I abandoned the faith and lived according to the world, but he has chosen to honor God with his life first.  And Scripture has very strict guidelines for how to interact with a believer who is unsubmissive to the mandates of God.

In reflecting on these types of truths I wondered what it was exactly that led us to believe that God’s love is unconditional.  The verse that came to mind was Romans 5.8.  God chose to send His Son to die for us and to take our punishment while we were yet sinners.  In fact, while we were enemies of God (James 4.4).

In this very real sense, God’s love is unconditional.  He did not choose to love us because of anything that we have done or because of who we are.  He just did.  He sacrificed His Son and offers us salvation on the simple ground that He Himself is love (1 John 4.8).  But God is also holy (1 Peter 1.16).  And he does not tolerate sin.

The weight of sin is directly proportionate to the dignity of the one against whom the sin is committed.  For instance: to utterly destroy a brown recluse spider is considered (at least in western, non-Hindu culture) a good deed.  If a child pulls off the legs of a daddy long leg spider, we would not question his disposition as that of a severely disturbed psyche.  However.  To utterly destroy a cat or dog would cause a portion of our population to become enraged, you would have to answer to animal rights organizations and you would be labeled as a disturbed person.  If you were to murder a human being, or even kill another person accidentally, our legal system would lock you up, if not kill you.  To sin against God, in any way, because of the extent of His holiness, earns us eternal damnation in Hell.  Even the sin of eating a piece of fruit when told not to was enough to separate Adam and Eve from God – because His value is so high that even the smallest sin is so grievous that an eternity of suffering could not satisfy the offense.

And His perspective on sin is to not overlook it.  In fact, Scripture says that the one who overlooks or justifies sin is an abomination to God (Prov 17.15).

Therefore his love is not unconditional, in the sense that to walk in unity with Him, to be accepted by Him, and to spend eternity in His rest is contingent upon our faith, repentance, transformation and obedience to Him.  All sin is punished.  The sin of the redeemed was punished on the cross.  The sin of the lost will be punished, on the offender, in eternity.  God does not love and accept us regardless.

So let us press on to know the Lord (Hos 6.3).  Let us put away the things of the world and die to sin (1 Peter 2.24).  Let us always remember the glory of the One who has satiated his own wrath in the person of His own Son so that we might live a life that honors Him…not to earn His love, as His love is above anything we can do, but to honor His love that He offers us and not defame the One who died for us.

The Foolishness of Toothpaste.

I lived four years in a foreign country.  When you interact with a different culture you naturally observe the traditions, beliefs and habits – as well as reflect on your own.  Most everyone there rides a motorcycle.  The streets are full of cars and in every free space, weaving between cars and buggies and ox-carts are motorcycles.  In talking to people I learned that the appropriate question was not if one had had a motorcycle accident, but how many accidents one had had!  Along those same lines, most everyone has a large scar on the inside of their right calf from where they have burned themselves on the exhaust pipe.

What caught me by surprise was the first time my neighbor came over after having burned herself.  She was in her fifties and had burned her leg many times.  The burn was large, at least 6″ long.  But it was white.  And gooey.  Completely confused, I asked her about her burn and she said “It is toothpaste”.  Being still new to the language I thought surely I had misunderstood her.  So to clarify I asked again.  Toothpaste.  I made the motion as though I were brushing my teeth and she nodded.  Yes, I had understood correctly.  I came to understand through observance and asking my language teacher that yes, this culture used toothpaste to heal burns.  I googled it and there are mixed reviews according to Americans…but the point is that it is certainly not common practice in the US, while it is common practice there.

So much of who we are and what we do is a product of our culture and the things that have been passed down from generations before.  I learned much about myself and about the nature of humanity over those four years.  And I learned to be thoughtful about random things, habitual things and cultural things that I do.  The Scripture says:

“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, ‘He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness’; and again, ‘The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless’.”

– 1 Cor 3.19-20

Now, to you and me it might sound foolish to put toothpaste on a burn.  Google says that it can irritate it and even make it worse.  But a country of hundreds of millions of people believes this to be helpful.  And Paul says that the fullness of the wisdom of the world is foolishness before God.  To God, it could be, that we are all putting toothpaste on our burns.

But we have insight into the wisdom of God:

“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written, ‘I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.  Where is the wise man?  Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.  For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

– 1 Cor 1.18-25

We have the wisdom of God at our fingertips, written down in the Scriptures.  The Gospel of Jesus:  His life, death, burial and resurrection offer us fullness of life here on Earth and eternity with Him.  Let us put away our toothpaste.  Let us check our daily habits against the Scripture.  Let us cling to the wisdom of God, and allow Him to establish our ways and our thoughts and abide in Him.

Break their ankles or stab them in the heart?

“When driving the forklift, keep your forks low so that you only break someone’s ankles.  If you leave them high you’ll stab him through the heart.”

– Kevin Ryan

This extremely practical advice was given to me second hand, but I highly respect the man who gave it!  What does that have to do with anything?  Last week I read an article.  It was reflecting on a very controversial subject within Christianity today.  The topic, though I have a strong opinion, will remain unidentified as it is not the debate to which I desire to speak.  It is the argument used.

“[The topic] in and of itself is not sinful”.

How many times have we justified our actions or our inaction with this statement?  Or how many times have we just coasted through life with the mundane as we consider our actions inherently neutral?  Contemporary western Christian culture facilitates nominal believers who ask the wrong question.  The question aught not be, “is this wrong?” but rather, “does this most glorify God?”  “How far is too far?” should be replaced with “How can I honor God in this dating relationship?”

The Bible says that “whatever is not done from faith is sin” (Rom 14.23).  Do you grasp the depths of that statement?  To coast, to perform any action without faith is sin.

This leads us to an obvious moral dilemma:  Can a nonbeliever perform good deeds?  That obviously depends on our definition of good.  Morally, socially, economically…Yes.  According to the standards of the world, a nonbeliever can do a “good deed”.  Humanitarian efforts, feeding the hungry, helping an elderly woman cross the street and caring for the environment are daily and regularly carried out by people without faith.  But if our definition of a “good deed” is one that honors God, one that has eternal results, then the answer is a resounding no.  Because a nonbeliever does not act in faith and to the glory of God.

Therefore we are implored as believers to daily die to ourselves (Luke 9.23).  We are exhorted to put aside all aspects of our flesh (Rom 8.13).

The Corinthians had the same problem that we have.  They wanted to know if it was inherently sinful to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  Paul spends substantial energy to explain through apologetics the fact that everything in the world is God’s and whatever He has created is good and there are no other true gods, therefore to eat something that has been sacrificed to an idol is not inherently sinful.  But he does not conclude the argument there.  He then states that our perspective must be bigger.  If you, by eating meat sacrificed to an idol, put off a bad witness or cause a brother (or nonbeliever) to stumble in doing so, it is sinful.  You are hurting another’s conscience and not being aware of his spiritual well being.   “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable…not all things edify” (1 Cor 10.23).  Read 1 Corinthians 10.  Paul states that he eats for the benefit of many, so that many can be saved.  Therefore the very basic act of nourishing one’s body can be purposefully used to the glory of God:

“Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

– 1 Cor 10.31

I lived for four years on the equator.  In the tropical rain forest.  At sea level.  And I wore a long sleeved shirt every day, because I lived in a Muslim context.  Are short sleeve shirts sinful?  Absolutely not.  I love T-shirts and wear them regularly here in the US.  That is an extreme example, but applicational to the conversation at hand.  It is necessarily bad to drive with the forks of your fork lift four feet off the ground?  Nope.  But is it best practices?  If the options are to break someone’s ankles or stab them through the heart, let’s take the first.  Let’s not stab anyone in heart for the sake of our “Christian liberties”.

“Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus…”

Col 3.17

Can You Do All Things?

“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

– Phil 4.13

How often have you heard and/or quoted that verse?  Jesus gives us the power to do everything.  All things.  We can interpret this in a variety of ways:

  1. I can do all things – therefore I can be über successful, I can set my mind to my work and I can do whatever I set out to do because Jesus, who is God, provides my strength.  This is the core of the Health & Wealth Gospel that blinds many people to the reality of God’s establishing faith and building disciples.
  2. I can do all things – therefore Christ will give me the power to do the things that he wants – I can be Spiritually successful.  Like Jesus told the disciples, I can follow Him.  I can share the Gospel boldly, I can fast well, I can love my family, I can serve the Church.  YES!  Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit does empower us to be obedient and to do all of these good works.  But I think this is only half of the picture.
  3. I can do all things – therefore I can suffer as well.  Let’s look at what Paul said just before he made that statement:

“…for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.  I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.”

– Phil 4.11-12

Let’s take a minute and reflect on the life of Paul.  I will let him speak to his own circumstances and experiences throughout his ministry:

“Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep.  I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”

– 2 Cor 11.24-27

Can you do that?  If you live through the power of Christ who strengthens you, YES!  You can do that!  God miraculously called Paul through a radical conversion.  As with all of the disciples, the command was simply “follow me”.  And then God established the path.  The path for eleven of the twelve disciples was a lifetime of persecution and martyrdom.  And joy.  Joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1.8).

So often we focus on the blessings of God as physical and obvious benefits to our daily life.  Seeking relief as it were.  We do not want to suffer and when we do suffer we turn to God to ask Him to take it away, because if God is love, surely He would not want us to go through this.  If God is love, he wants me to be comfortable, to have a house, two kids and a dog, and go to Church on Sunday.  And give my 10%.  Right?  Doesn’t God want us to be comfortable?

“…but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.”

– 2 Cor 6.4-10

If you have not yet had that moment where all you have is God, and He is the only one who can establish you and lead you, you will.  And if our picture of God is that he is primarily concerned about our happiness, we will be sorely disappointed and frustrated and angry when such trials come.  But if we trust Him fully and stand in the strength and power of the Holy Spirit through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can say with Job, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1.21).

Paul tells us that he has learned to happy, content and satisfied in any situation.  He lived in wealth, success and with a good reputation and he lived in poverty, persecution and as one hated.  And neither life situation affected his faith because that was not his primary concern.  His primary concern was honoring God always and trusting God’s provision and plan.  Let us learn to do the same.