Humility

humility

I was listening to the radio on my way to work this morning, and a popular song came on the radio.  I started singing along as it is quite catchy and the theme of the song is strong, but I stumbled over one of the lines of the pre-chorus, and was quickly appalled at what I had just sung:

We are Your church.
We are the hope on earth.

Rend Collective’s “Build Your Kingdom Here” spends the entire song asking God to change the world, to bring the Kingdom on Earth, to do a mighty work, and then it throws in that strange phrase that is unfathomably out of place in the song.

Is it just nuance?  Does the author mean that we are the instruments that God uses to make a difference and bring hope to the world?  I truly hope so.  But the problem is quite simply the fact that that is not what it says.

There is a large, Christian non-profit organization known around the world that has adopted the mission statement, “we want to answer the prayers of children”.  Again, we can argue nuance and the heart behind the statement (perhaps more easily in this case), but let us consider what we are actually saying.

God has established the Church on Earth as His body.  Jesus Christ is the head, and each of us has a unique gifting and role to fulfill within the local body.  Some of us are mouths, some of us are feet, some of us are hands, and some of us – as Paul says – are parts less honorable and less presentable (1 Cor 12)!  God chooses to use the Church to be His mouthpiece for taking the Gospel to the world, for pushing believers on to maturity and to worship Him.

We, as the Church, however – apart from God – are nothing.  Paul says that if Jesus was not the Savior, we are the most pitiable people in the world (1 Cor 15.19).  Apart from God we are all spiritually dead (Eph 2.1).  We are not righteous, we do not seek after God, and we do no good on our own (Rom 3.10-11).  And when God brings us to Spiritual life, we are servants or slaves of God.  We are made into new creatures, we are set to walk in His ways, to His service, unto His glory.  In-and-of ourselves we are nothing, but we are made alive in Christ by virtue of His nature.

Jesus Himself was the epitome of humility and He taught us to be humble.  That is why Paul teaches,

For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.

 – Rom 12.3

Jesus Himself said that we should always sit at the seat of least honor, lest we embarrass ourselves when someone of higher honor comes.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

 – Luke 14.11

The point is simple.  We are most assuredly not the hope on Earth.  Jesus Christ and His Gospel is.  We are blessed to be the ones to proclaim the hope, but we are merely people pointing the way to the hope.  We most assuredly do not answer people’s prayers.  God may use us to answer prayers, we may the tool that He chooses to use in His sovereign ways, but we are not the sovereign, the benefactor, the provider.  In fact, we might screw things up if we “answer” someone’s prayers in the way we think it should be resolved, because often times God has a greater plan than we could ever imagine in the works!  For example, the Bible says,

For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.

 – 2 Thess 3.10

If someone is “praying” for food, but it lazy and unwilling to work, and we go in and feed him without the leadership of the Holy Spirit, we enable his habit and do not allow God to work a life-changing miracle in his life, convicting him of responsibility and work ethic.

The heart and intention might be pure behind these two thoughts.  But danger lies in the un-thoughtfulness of using such a motto.  First of all, the person may come to believe what they are saying.  It might start out with the right heart, but in attempting to be what they are saying, people will err.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it teaches error at best and heresy at worst.  If a young Christian is in your presence and you teach him these false truths and he does not have the foundation of Biblical knowledge and understanding, he will go astray from the beginning.

Humility is the key.  Praise God, there is no greater honor than being used by Him to preach His Gospel and His truth to another.  But we are no one’s hope.  We answer no one’s prayer.  God alone is the hope, God alone answers prayers.  Consider your words today, and your efforts.  Are you watching to see what God is doing around you, and joining Him in His work?  Or are you busy being about your own efforts and asking God to bless them?

You can still be a person of faith when you screw up.

faith

Faith.  The elusive attribute that we have, we long for, we trust in, and we turn away from over and over again.  There is a chapter in the Bible commonly called, “The Faith Chapter”:  Hebrews 11.  Most people who have been around the church can quote, or will at least recognize verse 1.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

In our memories we skip over the next two verses and then we hear the list of the patriarchs who are forever recorded as people who exemplified great faith.  They are our example.  The first three verses go like this:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the men of old gained approval.  By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.

– Heb 11.2-3

The men of old, the patriarchs, the forefathers of the faith gained approval before God by their faith.  And it is by faith that we understand God’s sovereign power.  Do you believe that God is sovereign?  Do you believe that He has creative and ruling authority over every aspect of creation?  If not, reconsider your faith.  Because the Faith Chapter says that is [one of] the ends of faith.

Abel, Enoch and Noah all received one verse of mention in this chapter.  But Abraham, “Father Abraham” as many know him, received the bulk of the attention.

“By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Heb 11.8-10

Oh to have the faith of Abraham.  God chose him, out of all the people in the world, to start an entire ethnicity.  And not just any people group, the people of God!  Abraham (still Abram at the time) had done nothing to merit God’s favor, but God chose him and went to him and said,

“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

– Gen 12.1-3

And Abram got up and went.  He obeyed with great faith and complete adherence.  Right?  Well, that’s not what Stephen said:

“Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘LEAVE YOUR COUNTRY AND YOUR RELATIVES,AND COME INTO THE LAND THAT I WILL SHOW YOU.’  Then he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. From there, after his father died, God had him move to this country in which you are now living.”

– Acts 7.2-4

Genesis records the account of the initial move like this:

“Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans in order to enter the land of Canaan; and they went as far as Haran, and settled there.”

– Gen 11.31

In the genealogy, because of Abram’s disobedience, the credit is given to his father Terah for the first leg of the move.  God told Abram to leave his country and his family, and Abram packed up his father and his nephew.  We learn later that bringing his nephew, Lot, included his entire family.  It was a massive caravan traversing the countryside!  After Terah died, we understand that God visited Abram in Haran and told him yet again to leave his people, and Abram packed up Lot and Lot’s family.  Now, some might argue that there are familial responsibilities at play here, that the nephew might play a significant role if the brother had died in receiving inheritance, etc.  But God had not yet given his Law, so it would have been cultural responsibilities alone at this point, and we understand clearly that God’s intention was to create a lineage through Abram and Sarai, not through any other line.  Lot was not to be the child of the promise.  We ultimately see that Lot created trouble for Abram and they parted ways, and ultimately Lot’s fortune was lost in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where he settled.

So, in summary, God’s command was:  Leave your country, leave your family and go to Canaan.  Abram left his country, took his family, and made it as far as Haran.  One out of three is pretty good, is it not?  Stephen said that God had to move him out of Haran to Canaan (Acts 7.4).

And yet, this slow, imperfect act of faith is marked in our examples of faith as one of the greatest.  We also remember that God promised Abram a lineage from Sarai, and he slept with the servant to have a baby when God was slow to give Isaac.

The Faith Chapter goes on to give many more examples of faith, many of which demand careful observation.  But the point in observing this example of Abram today is simple:  God is patient towards us, even when our faith and obedience is imperfect.

Faith is a gift from God, it is not of ourselves:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

– Eph 2.8-9

And God gives us faith in measures that He deems appropriate.  Not everyone has the same amount or type of faith.

“For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to eachmeasure of faith.”

– Rom 12.3

And God regularly asks us to do things, both small and large.  Sometimes we disobey.  Sometimes we start obeying and get sidetracked.  And sometimes we obey well.  Even Abram, the first father of the people of God, failed in his walk of faith and obedience.  But he is still earmarked as an example for us.  Why?  Because he did obey.  Imperfectly, and with bumps along the road, but he got there.  Are you in the process of getting there?  God is gracious towards you, and will enable you to do whatever it is to which He has called you.

“…for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

– Phil 2.13

Are you in a New Testament Church?

There is a fad these days amongst Evangelicals when it comes to considering the structure and system of the Church.  Only two generations ago the Church was the focal point of the community where events were held and people attended with or without faith.  During the in-between generation, we fell prey to the entertainment delusion of our society and became event-oriented and age segregated.  In response to the problems this mindset has caused, many are embracing the “Simple Church” model and it is a regular conversation and point of pride to say,

“I want to be [or am] in a New Testament Church”.

Many people do not know what that means, but at it’s core, the sentiment is belief that those first few centuries after Jesus returned to Heaven and the disciples planted churches all across the known world, those churches did it right.  Some people reject a church building and numbers over thirty because stripping the worship service of structure and formality makes it more community based and organic.  Where in the Bible does it say, after all, that we have to have one song, a greeting, shaking of hands, three more songs, a prayer, a sermon, an invitation and an offering?  All in a big building that took most of our offerings for many many years, when we could have been feeding the poor, clothing the naked and housing the homeless?

This type of introspection is good.  We should consider the routines that we establish.  We should examine what ministries and building funds absorb the Lord’s money.  We should step back and make sure that we, as a church, are being good stewards of our time, energy and talents.  But does that mean that the book of Acts should be our model for how we “do” church?

Lest we be deceived, let us consider some of the characters of the early churches that were planted within one generation of Jesus’ ascension:

– Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5.1-11):  The first group of believers that gathered with the disciples were selling their property, their houses and their belongings to make all of their wealth and possessions mutual.  No one had lack, and no one had excess.  Barnabas, one of the first missionaries, sold a field and gave all of the proceeds to the Church.  A husband and wife, Ananias and Sapphira, wanted to receive the praise that Barnabas had received and sold a field as well.  They, however, only gave some of the revenue from the sale, and then lied when they gave it saying that the amount was in full.  The Holy Spirit struck them both dead on the spot.

– (Acts 6.1-7):  That same group, as they were gathering, were distributing their goods and food to everyone, but they were prejudiced.  The Hellenistic Jews (Jews who lived in Jerusalem, but spoke Greek) were a minority and for whatever reason, those who were passing out and serving the food overlooked the Hellenistic widows.  Here we have a group of Christians, united in a body and different only because of language, and those who spoke Aramaic would not give food to those who spoke Hebrew.

– Simon the Magician (Acts 8.13-24):  When the Gospel was taken to the Samaritans, it was accompanied by signs and wonders, and it attracted a certain man named Simon.  Simon worked as a magician and was very famous but when Phillip came to town, Simon was drawn by the signs and teachings and was baptized into the Church.  He then tried to buy the power of the Holy Spirit because he wanted fame and power, not because he believed in God.  They chastised him.

– John Mark (Acts 12.12, 13.13, 15.38):  Peter was imprisoned at the time that James was murdered by Herod, and when Herod set his mind to kill Peter, an angel freed Peter from prison.  Peter fled to a house and the son of the owner was named John Mark.  Barnabas and Saul (Paul) took their first missionary journey to Cyrpus and took him, but then he quit and went home.  He abandoned the efforts.  Barnabas wanted to forgive him, but Paul did not, and the disagreement was so great that the two split ways and Barnabas took John Mark.

– Seven Sons of Sceva and believers in Ephesus (Acts 19):  Paul had planted a church in Ephesus, and there were seven brothers who were exorcists by trade, who attempted to speak in the name of Jesus.  During one encounter with a demon, a single demoniac beat them all up and stripped them all of their clothes.  The fled “naked and wounded” (Acts 19.16).  Those believers who were in the church and saw this finally brought out their magic books and burned them.  They were practicing magic secretly (Acts 19.18-19).

The list goes on and on.  The Early Church, and every church since the resurrection of Jesus has had problems.  Why?  Because it is made up of sinful people.  Consider what Jesus said:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away.  So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

– Matt 13.47-50

The Spirit was moving and gathering believers in massive quantities in those days.  The same happens throughout history, in revivals, awakenings and Church planting movements.  The same is happening today.  But when the net of the Spirit draws in all the fish from the sea, there will be good fish and there will be bad fish.

Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field.  But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away.  But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also…‘Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

– Matt 13.24-26, 30

Not only will there be bad fish inadvertently caught, it is the scheme of the devil to plant tares within the wheat to destroy the harvest.  And Jesus said, in order to spare the roots of the wheat, the tares will be left to grow until harvest.  To uproot the tares would destroy the wheat.  And Jesus planted and nurtures the wheat, so He will wait until it is time to cut it all down to destroy the tares.

There are tares in every local Church.  There are bad fish in every local church.  Having a New Testament model does not free the Church from prejudice, pride, lying, seeking of power, using money to gain that power, false witness, magic and cowardice.  These things will plague the Church until Jesus comes and reaps the harvest.

Let us beware of the temptation to think that the New Testament Church was perfect.  Let us beware of throwing out the baby of healthy structure with the bathwater of frivolous traditions.  Let us examine our hearts and every activity which we preform in the name of Jesus Christ, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our worship and service of Him and in our methodologies as a Church.

wheat and tares

We must obey God rather than men.

evangelism

Often times we consider obedience as blatant morality.  We have pep rallies in our churches and small groups, banding together under the motto:  “We obey God and not man” and part of that obedience is submitting to the authorities that God has put in place over us (1 Peter 2.13).  We imagine the day that speaking about Jesus will be against the Law, but all-in-all we live comfortably because the government does not ask us to do anything that goes against what God forbids, or forbid us from doing anything that God commands.

Or does it?

The separation of Church and state was instituted because of the power that the Roman Catholic Church held in the Roman Empire and throughout much of Europe.  The United States was founded (in part) so that people could have freedom of religion and escape the dominion that was un-Biblical.  This is a good thing.  We, as Christians, understand that salvation comes by faith.  We cannot force someone to have faith, and we know that it is God alone who gives faith.  So, if we had a government that attempted to force faith on someone, it would go against the commands of Jesus.  We preach the Gospel, and God causes the growth (1 Cor 3.6-7).

There are issues that are arising which are slowly infringing on Biblical commands, like abortion and birth control.  The government does not force us to have abortions or to use birth control which might go against our conscience, however.  It is attempting to make room for a variation of beliefs within our society and (I believe wrongly) assuming that the option is mankind’s right, and Christians must make provision for it.

But consider with me the primary command that Jesus has given us and the laxity with which Christians approach it.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

– Matt 28.18-20

Jesus’ final words were, “Go and make disciples”.  The disciples themselves prayed continually for boldness to preach the Gospel.  Everywhere they went they were talking about Jesus and following Him.  Everywhere they went people were coming to faith because they shared the Gospel and showed signs and wonders to back it up.  The Holy Spirit even supernaturally moved Phillip to meet a man on the side of the road to share the Gospel, and after he baptized him, took Phillip back.  Jesus said do it, and they did it.

We, however, by-and-large, are not doing it.  We have been indoctrinated that religion is not appropriate for the workplace, so we hope that our outstanding morality and happy faces will be enough.  We want people to think, “There is something different about him”, and leave it up to the observer to ask.  We are not going and making disciples, we are staying and waiting for the lost to try to be found.

And we are completely comfortable doing so.

In fact, we think it is the right thing to do!  We do not want to force our thoughts on someone else, we do not want to try to answer a question that someone is not asking, we just want to be a listening ear and only say something if someone asks.  And when someone asks, we are afraid that we do not know the right answer, so we chicken out.

The disciples went out and preached Jesus.  They were arrested and thrown in jail.  Then the Holy Spirit took them out of jail, without the guards knowing, and the next morning they went to the temple and started preaching and teaching again!  They did not go into hiding.  Then they were arrested again, and beaten.  They went back out preaching more, and even rejoiced that they got to suffer a portion of what Jesus had to endure.

But yet we go in to work and the moment Jesus crosses our minds, we squash the thought because we might get fired for talking about Jesus.

I challenge you today to consider Jesus’ final words.  Go and make disciples.  Everywhere, all the time.  Not just at church, not just in your free time, all the time.  And take the position:

“We must obey God rather than men.”

– Acts 5.29

Is your job, security, or position more important than obeying God?  You must do your job and preform your duties as unto the Lord, but we have been commanded to preach the Gospel always.  With our words.  Actions are not the Gospel, the story of Jesus is the Gospel.  God has promised to meet all of our needs and to take care of us, and if it so be that we lose our jobs because of Jesus, He will take care of us.

Is it wrong to pray for signs and wonders?

“An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign…”

– Matt 12.39, 16.4

“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.”

– 1 Cor 1.22-24

We are very familiar with Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings warning people of the danger of miracles.  Jesus condemned the Pharisees for asking for signs, calling them evil and adulterous.  We tell ourselves not to test God (Deut 6.16), and we make excuses for God when we ask Him for something and He does not come through.  Have you ever noticed, however, that the apostles and followers of Jesus asked God to preform miracles shortly after Pentecost?

“And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus.”

– Acts 4.29-30

The disciples and followers of Jesus received the Spirit in the miraculous day of Pentecost:  the whole building shook, there were as flames of fire, tongues on each person, they were empowered to speak foreign languages, and the result was that three thousand people came to faith.  Peter and John then healed a man who had never walked in his life, and five thousand more people believed.  Because of this miracle, they were arrested and after they were released the disciples all gathered and prayed for boldness and more miracles.  How can it be that the disciples prayed for miracles, but Jesus said that those who demand miracles are evil and adulterous?

When Paul and Barnabas went into Iconium, one of their stops on their missionary journey, they spent a long time there preaching and preforming signs:

“Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands.”

– Acts 14.3

God Himself was preforming signs and wonders that were testifying to the Word.  They were not a distraction, they were not in place of, they were merely a support to affirm the Gospel.  Paul was preaching that Jesus had the power to heal physically and eternally, and Jesus was proving Himself by healing physically.  But why then is that not adulterous?  Let’s consider who exactly it was the Jesus called evil.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.”

– Matt 12.38

Jesus had just healed a mute man, giving him the ability to speak and casting a demon out of him.  The Pharisees had seen it, and heard Jesus’ preaching in the aftermath.  The people were asking and discussing amongst themselves if Jesus was the Messiah and some of the Pharisees and religious leaders did not believe.  They accused Jesus of casting demons out by the power of Satan himself (Matt 12.24).  It was based on this hardness of heart and disbelief that they confronted Jesus and said, “prove yourself with a sign”.  They did not believe, and no sign would cause them to believe.  Jesus knew their hearts and responded by calling them evil and adulterous.  Adultery is when a spouse has an intimate relationship with another.  The Pharisees were essentially acting like a hardened mate who has already decided not to love his spouse, and saying “If you love me, prove it!”  This is the adultery.

But Peter and John were loving and serving Jesus, believing the Gospel and preaching it boldly.  They knew that Jesus has the power to heal, and they were asking Him to confirm their testimony about Himself.  They were asking him, through love and devotion to validate their preaching.  This honors God!  It is the faithful and loving spouse pointing out the glory and magnitude of the groom.

Scripture never says that God will no longer preform signs and wonders.  There is one benchmark verse for people who believe that God no longer preforms signs and wonders:

“Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.”

– 1 Cor 13.8-10

Paul was speaking of the new age:  when we will live on the New Earth with Jesus.  That is the perfect.  It has been misunderstood that the completion of the Bible is the coming of the “perfect”, but in context we understand that “then”, when the perfect comes, we will no longer see dimly but clearly (v 12).  When all things are made perfect, when sin exists no more, there will be no more need for God to affirm the Gospel through signs because everything will be complete.  Love, however, will continue forever!

Scripture also teaches us that as we near the end, there will be many false prophets who work miracles (Matt 24.24).  The supernatural is not limited by our culture’s disposition or the completion of the Scripture.

So what is the conclusion?  Do we believe that God can and does preform miracles?  What in your life has put God out there, with an opportunity to validate your claim to His power?  Or are you skeptical of God, and test Him to prove Himself with little sign-games?  “God, if you are real, then do this…”

Signs and wonders accompanied every church plant in the New Testament, and Paul and others often refer back to that fact when validating people’s faith.  Signs and wonders, however, are not given to convince the doubtful.  If you approach God without faith, loving another, then it is an adulterous request for Him to prove Himself.  But let us pray like the disciples, that God would move through our nation, that He would give us boldness to preach and that He would validate His Gospel with the miraculous!

miracles

Traditions: Good or Evil?

fasting

Do you enjoy traditions?  Or are you a rebel?  I have many friends who grew up in progressive churches, seeker friendly churches, the normal protestant church, and in their maturity have found a beauty and comfort in tradition and liturgy which marks many of the classical traditions.  Likewise, I have many friends who grew up knowing only routine and structure and find joy in the freedom which is in the protestant, non-denominational church.  I personally think this is a reflection of our individual personalities and values.  Many of us who struggle with legalism find comfort in tradition, but in fighting our temptations throw it out as evil.  Many of us who struggle with discipline enjoy the freedom and non-conformism of today’s Church habits, but in seeking to grow in maturity can hold ourselves to non-Biblical habits.  Traditions [of the Church] are not in-and-of themselves evil.  Most were developed with strong conviction and desire to honor God and help a congregation remember and glorify Him.

One such tradition is Lent.  It was developed as a discipline to commemorate the incarnation of Christ and to follow His example of fasting in the wilderness for forty days before He began His earthly ministry.  It begins on Ash Wednesday,the day after Epiphany (or Fat Tuesday), celebrating Jesus specifically, and offers a season of introspection to repent from any sin and to prepare the believer to celebrate Easter:  the date on which we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of salvation through faith in His atonement.

It is a little strange in its execution, however.  Jesus did not eat anything for forty days or nights.  It has evolved and varied over the generations, with some ancient traditions abstaining from all food until late in the day, some allowing only bread to be consumed throughout the season, and some abstaining from only meat (and at times a variety of definitions of meat).  Today many people will choose a vice from which to abstain, rather than limiting their diet.  The goal, in each of these endeavors, is to replace time spent on eating or on a specific vice with prayer, repentance and giving back.

Fasting is indeed a spiritual discipline.  Jesus encouraged it, the apostles practiced it, and we neglect it.

Biblical fasting has a greater depth than the traditional understanding of Lent.  Jesus taught (quoting Moses),

“MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.”

– Matt 4.4

Jesus went into the desert and did not eat or drink for forty days.  The human body is not capable of or created to survive that long without nourishment.  Jesus, in His example of fasting, exemplified in dramatic form that God can and does sustain our bodies:  not merely food.  Biblical fasting is not simply reassigning time for prayer, but it is conditioning the heart and soul to rely on God for life.  For everything.  Food alone is how humanity sustains itself (in worldly understanding), and to give up food is to practice a faith.  It is putting our trust in God for our very survival.

Biblical fasting is also intended to be between the believer and God.  Jesus taught that we should not let others know that we are fasting, because it draws attention to the discipline and gives the faster reason to boast.  Fasting is an intimate discipline between sustainer and the sustained, leading to deeper faith, repentance and love.  By announcing it to the world we rob ourselves of the blessing that can be attained through the discipline (Matt 6.16-17).

The traditions that are arising of setting aside time for prayer and removing a vice from our lives is a good thing.  But let us be acutely aware that we are not practicing Biblical fasting.  Lent is a man-made tradition that is not an instruction from Scripture.  So if we decide to set aside forty days of intentional Spirituality and self-deprivation, it can be a good thing but it is not required for salvation or Spiritual maturity.  If you set aside social media for the next six weeks and refocus that time towards prayer and repentance, you will meet God and you will grow.  If you set aside social media and fill up your time with another hobby or activity, you will not meet God.  You might realize time wasted, but you will not blossom in your relationship with God.  If you choose to fast Biblically, remember to not make it public knowledge.  Trust in God for your actual life, by putting aside food.  Turn your attention to prayer, self examination and repentance and you will meet Him in a fresh way.

For those of us who bristle at the very mention of the season of Lent, let us remember that Spiritual disciplines are healthy things taught by Jesus Himself, and having a time set aside every year for Spiritual discipline and introspection is a good thing, when approached with a heart that wants to know and honor God.  No, Jesus did not declare Lent as a tradition for us to keep, but if someone desires to know God more intimately and decides to follow Jesus’ example and instruction of fasting once a year, do not begrudge him.  Perhaps you should consider your own personal Spiritual disciplines and see if you have room to grow!  You will not earn your salvation or favor with God through traditions, but you can get to know Him more and grow Spiritually if you will die to yourself and rely on Him for your life.

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.

– 1 Cor 11.2

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.

– 2 Thess 2.15

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.

– 2 Thess 3.6

What does Mardi Gras tell us about ourselves?

mardi gras

Yesterday was Mardi Gras, 2015.  While it came and went for many of us without notice, it was celebrated in all its glory in New Orleans and many societies around the world in a manner we can all describe and know.

It originated as a day of self examination and repentance.  A few hundred years after Jesus returned to Heaven, Christians began practicing forty days of fasting before Easter, to examine their lives and repent of any sin that was present, following the example of Jesus fasting in the wilderness for forty days.  Taking into account the six Sundays that would stand between the Easter celebration (which were not days of fasting), they came to note “Ash Wednesday” as the marker for the beginning of the fasting season.  Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday, was an opportunity for the believer to consider the changes that needed to be made in his life, and eat one last fatty, heavy meal before the season of fasting and repentance began the next day.  It was a feast, celebrating “Three Kings Day” , or the Epiphany, which celebrated the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Over the years, it has been greatly distorted and abused, culminating in its current form of debauchery.  Here in Denver last night, I saw a neon sign on the side of the road that read “Beads for boobies”, and we are familiar with the traditions.  I am pretty confident that celebrating Jesus’ incarnation and self examination of sin is not best exemplified by drunkenness, exhibition and partying.

So what does our current state of “celebrating” Mardi Gras say about us?  I fear it exemplifies a lack of understanding about grace.  There are many protestant denominations that claim a doctrine loosely defined as “Once Saved, Always Saved”.  This is an elementary explanation of the doctrine of Justification.  Justification is that exchange that happened when Jesus took our guilt and punishment on the cross, and we take his standing of righteous.  It is erroneously defined as “just as if I’d never sinned” by many – but the heart of the understanding is correct:  We can now stand before God righteous, holy, clean and acceptable.  It is not “just as if I’d never sinned” because Jesus paid the penalty.  The punishment was not wiped away, the guilt was not overlooked, it was dynamically judged on the person of Jesus.  But the exchange of our guilt for Jesus’ righteousness is what happens.  The doctrine of “once saved always saved” looks at that exchange and argues that Jesus cannot un-pay our debt of punishment.  Once the debt has been paid, we are found pure in Jesus.  Once we are given Spiritual life by repenting, we are Spiritually alive – we cannot be unborn.

And while these things are true and taught throughout the New Testament, they are not a license to sin.

“Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.”

– 1 Peter 2.16

“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

– Gal 5.13

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?  May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?  Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?”

– Rom 6.1-3

These types of verses had to be written because people misunderstood (and still misunderstand) grace.  Because Jesus has paid our penalty, we should stop sinning.  Why? Because every time we sin we essentially put Jesus back on the cross.  And if we understand from what we have been saved and if we love Jesus and praise Him for what He did, we will never want to dishonor Him and put Him back on the cross (Heb 6.6).

But Mardi Gras shows that we think little of sin, that we consider ourselves good enough, and that God – if He even exists – will accept us just how we are.  It shows that a season of fasting and focusing on God is actually a chore and a burden, so we are going to take a night (or a few days in some places) to binge on worldly pleasures and make ourselves feel good.  We are Spiritually anorexic.  We binge and purge on sin, hoping that we will be skinny and beautiful while still getting to enjoy those things that we like the most.

Please, consider the origins of the debauchery we now call a “Christian holiday”.  Do not consider it an opportunity for the flesh, but examine yourself today to see if there be any unrepented sin in your life.  And on this Ash Wednesday, remember the call of the season:

“Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

And

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

(Roman Missal:  Ash Wednesday)