Your “Mission Trips” are doing more harm than good.

colonialists
The work of the missionary has been a developing endeavor since the moment Jesus returned to Heaven.  His parting words were,

“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

These are pretty direct and intense final words.  Jesus came to the Earth to make disciples, and He has sent us out to be his mouthpieces in making more disciples.  The second half of the New Testament documents the disciples’ ministry and Paul’s missionary efforts taking the Gospel to the world.  The early Church grew organically as Christians were persecuted and forced to flee to new regions.  Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 AD, and organized Christianity  began to flourish.

The modern missionary movement was sparked by William Carey around the turn of the 19th century and Christians began to develop a heart and conviction to take the Gospel to the world.  Having no experience or predecessors to learn from, there was little understanding of cultural adaptation and early missions functioned by what we understand as “colonial missions”.  White western missionaries sought to make the heathen civilized and westernized as they were converted.  Steepled churches were built, hymns translated, coats, ties and shoes required for worship – even in cultures which had never worn shoes indoors or seen a tie.  The intention was good, but the execution of taking Jesus to the world suffered by our institutions.

The world has dramatically changed with the development of technology and transportation.  It was commonplace for early missionaries to pack their belongings into a coffin as they headed out on a ship for their host country.  Now we can be almost anywhere in the world in two days or less – and at a relatively affordable cost.  Because of this fact, we now consider a “career” missionary as someone who signs up for a three or four year term and then returns home for a year to reconnect, rest, and recharge.  We also have developed a new phenomenon:  the short-term mission trip.  You can go “change the world” in two weeks.

But can I tell you a little secret?  We are not changing the world in two week stints.  Truth be told, most career missionaries are not seeing dramatic results in three or four years.  Tragically, in fact, most of our short-term trips are causing more harm than good.  Research is beginning to emerge about the impact of these mission trips that is startling at best.  We send youth and adults to love on children in an orphanage in Africa for a few weeks – maybe even an entire summer for the really committed.  How beautiful, we think!  We will show these children the love of Jesus, run a VBS, and give lots of hugs.  And then we come home with instagram pictures and facebook updates snuggling those poor children, but they are left in an orphanage with yet another source of love having abandoned them.  Each new wave of love that comes through hugs them, brings a new set of clothing, and seems to care for them and then walks away.  We are damaging these children.  Not only that, but governments are seeing the benefit of having foreigners come in and thus they keep children in poverty and in orphanages when they could potentially be adopted.

Or how about building houses or schools?  Let’s send our youth and unskilled to build a structure in a needy land!  People who have no construction experience.  People who know nothing about the host culture and actual needs on the ground.  We will raise thousands upon thousands of dollars to put unskilled westerners on a plane, fly to the remote world, and build a structure of which they have no expertise.  All the while there are perfectly skilled people who regularly build buildings in this foreign land.  They know the construction style, they know where and how to buy supplies, and more importantly – most of them are looking for work!  We are taking work away from people who want to work, developing a mindset of entitlement and laziness, and leaving the recipients with a sub-par structure.

Ok, ok, so we will be intentional about going and witnessing.  True missions is sharing the Gospel with people, right?  Yes!  Absolutely!  Jesus said,

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

– Matt 16.26

If we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, build homes for the homeless, but ignore the Gospel – we have profited them nothing.  Yes, we should seek the best way to meet physical needs, but only as we boldly and clearly proclaim the Gospel.

However, consider this:  how long does it take to make a disciple?  Jesus never instructed us to go out and preach the Gospel.  He instructed us to go out and make disciples.  Step one of making disciples is preaching the Gospel, but then we must invest blood, sweat and tears in discipleship.  People in the third world or on the mission field do not magically or instantaneously know Scripture, how to fight sin, and how to apply the teachings of Jesus.  They do not miraculously understand corporate worship, evangelism or differentiating between their previous religion/witchcraft and a God-honoring lifestyle.  In fact, many of them do not even have the Bible in their language!  Jesus Himself spent three years making his eleven disciples.  Dare we think we can do so in two weeks?

I once was out in a Muslim country, and was in a relatively remote city.  Everyone you met there was Muslim and they had pride in it, saying “To be from this city is to be Muslim”.  There was a Chinese couple who had immigrated a few generations before and at some point in their life a short-term group of missionaries had come through this town, shared the Gospel with them and they “got saved”.  Then the missionaries were gone.  A few years later, some Jehovah’s Witnesses came through and found these flailing Christians and converted them.  Deceived them.  Led them to believe that yes, they do believe in Jesus…but that is not enough.  There is “more”.  Jesus warns us:

“Now when the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and does not find it.  Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came’; and when it comes, it finds it unoccupied, swept, and put in order.  Then it goes and takes along with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.”

– Matt 12.43-45

It is infinitely more dangerous for someone to be deceived and trust in a false salvation, in a false version of Jesus, than to be practicing sorcery or following a false religion or atheism.  False prophets and those who twist the Gospel are of all to be pitied most for their eternal state.  And when we go in with no discipleship plan in place for someone who would believe, we are opening people up to have their houses swept and put in order only for a worse fate to become them.

On a much smaller note, let us consider the practicality and logistics of a preaching/teaching trip.  How will you communicate?  Do you speak the language?  I can guarantee that if you do not speak the language, you do not speak the culture.  What does that mean?  It means that Christianity in China looks infinitely different than Christianity in Alabama.  Scripture teaches us clearly about sin, but gives very little instruction about corporate worship.  Is it Biblical to have Sunday School in small groups and then corporate worship in a big group?  Or is that our tradition and habit?  Is it Biblical to sing a few songs, then have preaching, then have a response time?  Or is that cultural?  Is it Biblical to go to a church building, dress up, wear shoes, and sit in chairs?  Or is that what is comfortable for us?

Even more importantly, however, is our daily devotion to God.  Are your personal spiritual disciplines at a level that would establish strong churches around the world?  In countries where their current religion encompasses their entire lives, and Christians will be persecuted?  Will a few seconds of prayer over meals, a once a week worship service and quiet times when we feel like it be an adequate replacement for the Muslim who goes to the mosque to pray five times a day?  Are you a mature enough disciple to disciple someone like that?

The great-white-missionary, by in large, is enjoying traveling the world on other people’s dollar, and making himself look good by staying in uncomfortable situations.  He is not fighting the causes of injustice and poverty.  He is not investing the time and energy to learn the culture, preach the Gospel in a culturally understandable way, or help apply Scripture and Jesus to the culture to make disciples.  He is making himself feel better by actually encouraging the cycles of poverty and damaging cultures by developing entitlement mentalities and not empowering nationals to thrive in their situations.  And He is teasing people with an offer of eternal hope and leaving them without instruction or help to grow Spiritually and learn how to make disciples on their own.

I, personally, am almost embarrassed by the number of countries I have visited on so-called mission trips.  Don’t ask me, it grieves me to remember.  I was the great white missionary who hugged orphans and “built” homes.  I was the well-meaning evangelist who preformed dramas about Jesus, sang on the street corner and preached the Gospel through a translator.  But we can and must learn from these situations.  Jesus has commanded us to go and make disciples.  So the answer is not to give up or stop trying.  The answer is to grow and do it well.

First of all, in order to make disciples, we must be disciples ourselves.  If we have no personal spiritual disciples, we cannot teach others to have them.  If we are not committed to Jesus and to the Church, we cannot teach others to be.  If we are not fighting sin and growing Spiritually, we cannot encourage and instruct others how to do so either.  In short:  we need to understand discipleship in our own lives first.

Secondly, we must evaluate our Christianity and understand what is Biblical and what is cultural.  We should never set food on a foreign land or engage in cross-cultural work until we understand that Jesus is about the ministry of redeeming cultures, not making everyone look the same.  Asians do not have to wear shoes in their church buildings.  Africans do not have to wear ties.  The entire world does not have to sing European hymns.  And most cultures do not function within strict time frames like westerners:  their prayer meetings probably will go for many hours, people probably will show up late, and they might eat a full meal as the Lord’s Supper.

Thirdly, we must fully invest.  Disciple-making is not a short-term project.  There are many places and cultures in the world where there are still no Christians.  Missionaries unanimously vote the most difficult work to be “from zero to one”.  Why?  Because we are outsiders trying to convince someone of something completely counter-cultural and foreign.  Would you listen to a Nepalese immigrant who is trying to convince you to to convert to Hinduism through broken English?  We Americans tend to find the novelty factor of foreign beliefs intriguing, so they would actually have a higher success rate than an American entering a completely Hindu society with no exposure to the outside world – one that considers their culture their identity.

Once that first convert has been made, or if you are engaging a culture that has any known believers, we must focus our energies on mobilizing the nationals to be the missionaries.  An insider will always have more foundation on which to stand – if for no other reason than they fully understand their own culture and language.  You will have infinitely more sway with your friends than a foreigner, and the same is true around the world.  The more foreigners remain in the background, the more the church can be indigenous and take hold.  This is why Paul refused to baptize people in Corinth.  He had an excellent reputation, and in order to keep himself humble and to keep people from boasting or believing there to be an extra blessing by being baptized by an apostle, he taught the local believers to baptize their own (1 Cor 1.14ff).

Full investment means time.  We must go and stay.  Not everyone will go and stay.  But those who do not go and stay should only go and assist those who can stay.  Those people who are staying will be the ones who do the discipleship and follow up.  They will have needs of short-termers.  They may need English teachers to establish a VISA, they may need travel buddies for nationals to get out into remote areas (some countries do not allow free travel, but we can “hire” national Christians to be our “tour guides” – so we essentially get them into areas they cannot reach on their own).  They may need encouragement because they have no teammates and are still looking for the first believer.  The long-term missionaries will be able to tell you how they can utilize you and your group to further the ongoing ministry on the ground, and going out just to hang out with them and encourage them is absolutely a legitimate use of your time.  Have you ever felt drained when you miss church one week?  Imagine having no community, church or corporate Bible study for years on end.

Lastly, we must remember that missions is not about us.  Ever.  Period.  If you are packing your bags for the “discipleship experience”, unpack them and send the money to a missionary on the field.  Orphans, needy, and the un-reached are not tourist destinations.  They are not there to facilitate your Spiritual growth and development.  Their poverty does not exist to make you more thankful for your materialism and excess.  Yes, going on any mission trip will forever change you.  It will open your eyes, it will hopefully enhance your worldview and understanding of God, and it should give you a burden for lostness.  But those are beautiful and secondary effects.  To go out on mission is, by definition, to focus on serving God by serving and reaching out to others.  It is being mindful of the fact that the people we encounter have no hope and we are seeking their salvation.  It is about making disciples of others.  Not ourselves.

There is a lost and dying world all around us, and Jesus has commanded us to make disciples of all of the nations.  Let’s get busy about understanding what that means, and being obedient.

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When your numbers plummit.

empty seats

We live in a world that is governed by numbers.  Statistics, revenue, attendance and bottom dollar are how we discern our success in most areas of life.  It is normal and right in most situations to evaluate our business practices, spending habits and effectiveness by response and budgets.  If we do not keep our spending in check, we will run out of money.  If we do not tailor our businesses to the market, we will never make a profit and fail.  We can learn much about culture, history, trends and predictions from statistics and make informed decisions for our every day lives and also for our nations.  Numbers can be extremely helpful.

But there are also times that numbers are extremely detrimental.  Sometimes for the sake of data collection businesses will dishearten customers by requiring registration.  Sometimes people will double or triple register for benefits, and thus the numbers are inaccurate.  But for us in the church, we regularly evaluate our effectiveness by numbers – either intentionally or unintentionally.  We might count our attendance, or our new baptisms, or tithes and offerings and consider that a direct reflection of our success and/or Spiritual impact.

To evaluate the work of God by numbers is extremely dangerous.

Western 21st century culture is that of the entitled consumer.  We want to be successful, beautiful and comfortable.  We buy more than we can afford and we expect the world to recognize how wonderful we are.  Thus the extremely successful people are entrepreneurs at heart:  they figure out what people want and they sell it to them, convincing them that they will have a better life in the process.

We are consequently seeing churches follow the same pattern.  There is an entire movement of so-called churches that are drawing a crowd by preaching the health and wealth gospel:  God wants you to be successful and healthy, and all you need to achieve it is faith.  These churches draw huge crowds of people hoping to find a quick fix to a better life.

We are also seeing churches that might have started strong but find that people are “changed” and stick around in response to self-help style messages and books.  Every sermon is another three-step guide to happiness, contentment or self betterment.

Most tragically, however, we are observing the culture at large make peace with sin and continue to alter the moral compass of our country as a whole.  For the sake of not wanting to offend, to be seeker-friendly, and to allow people to define right and wrong on their own, churches are taking no position on sin or the concrete doctrines of the Bible like Hell, depravity, our need for a savior, or grace.  We just preach a secular love and make people feel good.  The old adage rings true:

Even a circus draws a crowd.

We are making ourselves a circus.  And a pretty bad one, most of the time, to be honest.

Let us once again consider Jesus:  our perfect example.  Early in His earthly ministry, Jesus drew extremely large crowds.  People came to Him to hear Him speak and for healing.  One day Jesus was out with His 12 disciples and a large crowd was following Him because He had been healing people.  Scripture says that there were 5,000 men – plus women and children.  This was a huge crowd – at least 10,000 people.  Just watching and waiting to hear what Jesus had to say.  Jesus felt compassion for them and proceeded to take five loaves of bread and 2 fish and multiply that food to feed the entire crowd – to the extent that there were twelve baskets full of leftover food.

Jesus saw a need in the people, He met that need, and worked a mighty miracle.  The crowd was amazed and wanted to continue to receive the benefit of being near Him.  They were following Him.  In everyone’s eyes then – and by all methods of modern evaluation, Jesus was extremely successful at that moment in His ministry.

That night, Jesus left the crowd and went to a town without telling them where He was going.  The crowd figured it out, however, and followed Him.  The very next day He began teaching the same crowd about eternal life, true bread and following Him.  His teaching was so difficult to hear and in vocabulary so offensive that the entire crowd left.  Jesus turned to His twelve disciples and asked if they were going to leave as well, and they said that they had no where to go, and Jesus simply observed:

“Jesus answered them, ‘Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?’  Now He meant Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him.”

 – John 6.70-71

In twenty four hours or less, Jesus went from having well over 5,000 people follow Him to 11.  All of the peripheral followers left, and even one of those who appeared to be devoted was deemed worse than all the rest.  The 5,000+ could not bear His teaching and one of His hand-chosen twelve was wicked to the core, such that Jesus called him a devil.

Have you ever been a part of a church that is dwindling?  Do you wonder if it is dying?  Have people started joking, or worse yet – believing – that “Ichabod” has been written over the door?  Are your loyal congregants and even leaders pouring out of the door to find other churches or to just stop going altogether?  It is definitely a good and right thing to evaluate the tendencies of our congregation.  First of all we need to pray.  We need to remember that our churches are not our churches.  The only person who can truly call the church “my church” is Jesus.  He is the head.  He directs, He guides, He is sovereign over them.  And we must submit to His leadership.  We also need to find out why people are leaving.  Is something sinful or heretical being taught?  Is there a faction within the church?  Is there a predator working with our children?  Or are people just bored, or convicted, or looking for more friends?  In short:  are they being driven by the Holy Spirit or by their flesh?

Jesus’ teaching and the Gospel in and of itself is offensive and difficult to hear.  Jesus was charismatic enough and preformed so many miracles that the crowds continually grew and were even oppressive by their vast numbers, but they regularly receded back – even to just the disciples – when Jesus began to preach the Truth.  People do not naturally want to hear the truth.  They want to have their ears tickled, their bellies filled, and their backs patted:

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”

 – 2 Tim 4.3-4

Jesus appeared to be unaffected by the crowds.  In fact, when the crowds grew to be certain sizes, He often left them to go off to pray by Himself or to go somewhere else to teach and heal.  This is the exact opposite of our goal in western Christianity.  We want to be successful, we want to draw in the masses and be a big dynamic church.  We will start multiple campuses and use videos to broadcast our pastors, we will make our mark on this city.

Churches in persecuted areas understand much more clearly the heart of Jesus for His church on many levels:  they are wary of big numbers, they facilitate strong discipleship, the stick to the truth, and they launch small groups of believers all around the cities rather than establishing themselves in a big, worldly, and visible way.  You would expect to hear that they are slower to evangelize, but quite the opposite is true in most circumstances.  We are complacent and expect “the church” to reach the lost, so we rarely share the Gospel and only on occasion invite people to join us at church hoping they will get saved inside the walls of the church.  The persecuted church has experienced Jesus changing their world, and they seek to protect the church by only bringing in other believers, but yet they are excited to share what God has done in their lives so they get out and talk about the Gospel on their own.  We have much we can learn from them.

But while we live in our “bigger is better” society, we are given clear instructions of how we are to respond to a difficult culture that does not want to hear the truth:

“But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

 – 2 Tim 4.5

We should approach every decision, including our church devotion, by prayer.  Where is God leading you to serve?  There are certainly times that churches die.  It could be because of false teaching, it could be because of sin within the congregation that is not being addressed, it could be because the members are complacent and God is scattering them to get them out of their comfort zones and making the useful again, God could allow a church to die for any number of reasons.  But if He has called you to a body, then you must be faithful and follow His leadership even if it is difficult and if other people are leaving.

We must also fight the temptation to evaluate our success by numbers.  If we follow the example of Jesus, we will find that people might be intrigued by the good deeds that we do, but the vast majority of them will not stick around.  We will even find that within our “core” and faithful few, there will be devils who are there for the wrong reasons and will fall into gross sin.

We must be sober, and we must endure hardship.  We must share the Gospel boldly and we must fulfill our ministry, even when it appears unsuccessful to the world.  God is our judge, not man.  And in the end it is only His opinion that matters.  You will always do right if you obey God and do what He teaches.  And if we look like Jesus, chances are we will not have a crowd the size of the one the circus draws.

“But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself.  For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.”

 – 1 Cor 4.3-4

Sometimes betrayal is the plan.

betrayal

There are few worse experiences in life than being betrayed by someone you trusted and loved.  All amicable relationships inherently hold some level of trust, and for many of us trust is extremely difficult to extend after it has been broken.  This tendency leaves our Churches and Spiritual circles vulnerable to rapid disintegration.  All it takes is one leader to be caught in any form of deception or sin and the masses flee – because our trust is primarily in a man and not in God.  If two dynamic church members can be pitted against one another for any reason, then the congregation becomes divided and they lose their effectiveness in the kingdom by wasting all of their energy fighting, reasoning, rebuilding internally.

Any breach of trust is a terrible sin.  However, God sovereignly and beautifully orchestrates it to accomplish His will on occasion.  Let us consider what is perhaps the most tragic and also the most purposeful betrayal of all time:  Judas.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, He chose twelve men to walk with Him daily.  These twelve men were bonded to Jesus as their mentor or “rabbi” who had special insight into Scripture and the ways of God and they would soak up everything He taught.  Jesus intentionally chose each of them and called them by name.  For three years Jesus walked with them, explained Scripture and grace to them, gave them supernatural powers to cast out demons and represent Him in cities and towns, and lived life with them.  They were His friends, they were His comrades, they were His family.

Included in this number was Judas.  He was given the role as the keeper of the money, and was included in every activity that the rest of the disciples did (John 12.6).

Imagine your group of college friends – those ones who were thick as thieves, who did everything together, who stayed up late, went on adventures, talked about the meaning of life and discovered themselves together – after all of those years of trust, fun, experience and interaction turning out to be a participant of a sleeper cell and you “closest friends” were his mark.  You did not simply lose touch after graduation, he actually sought your harm.  This would be a similar level of relationships, except the twelve disciples did everything together – every day – for at least three years.

Judas, however, was the subject of a predestined plan from the beginning.  His betrayal of Jesus was foretold hundreds of years beforehand and was an integral part of the Gospel story (Zech 11.12-13, Ps 41.9).

Jesus also, being God, knew that Judas was the one who would betray Him all along.  Jesus knew, as He called Judas to come and walk with Him, as He empowered him to cast out demons, as He explained prophecy and scripture and as He loved him, that Judas would turn Him over unto death.

“For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him.”

– John 6.64

Interestingly, however, we see no evidence of condemnation or premature revelation of Judas’ role.  He was allowed to experience everything that the other eleven experienced and then, at the appropriate time, God allowed “Satan to enter into him” and he betrayed Jesus (John 13.27).

It was God’s plan from the beginning of time to send Jesus as the Savior and redeemer.  It was prophesied in the Garden of Eden and we see the prophecies and promises throughout the whole Old Testament.  In the New Testament, we learn that those who are saved have been written in the book of life since before the world was created, and it is by this book that God allows people into eternal rest at the end of time (Rev 17.8).  Part of the Gospel story was Judas’ betrayal.

“For the Son of Man is to go just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!  It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.”

– Mark 14.21

Judas was created as a vessel of wrath (Rom 9.22).  He served a very specific role by which God was glorified, the Gospel was written and Jesus made atonement for sin.  It had to happen.  Judas is also responsible for his choice of betraying Jesus, and thus we see that there is a mutual responsibility for the betrayal.  And Jesus said simply, it would have been better for him if he had never been born.  Even after all of those years of walking with Jesus.

Jesus gives us a small insight into the reality of Judas and his situation:

“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.  But there are some of you who do not believe.”  For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him.  And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.”

– John 6.63-65

Judas was welcomed and even empowered with the disciples, but Jesus knew all along that Judas did not believe.  Yes, Judas believed the signs and sought the benefits of being around Jesus just like the crowds who would form for healing, for food, for teaching…but he did not have the belief that led to salvation.  Jesus, after feeding the 5,000, rebuked the crowd because many only believed for the sake of the food that perishes and not for the “food that leads to eternal life” (John 6.26-27), and he lumped Judas into that group.  He knew who had true faith, true belief, and who did not – and consequently who would betray Him.

But Judas had to be a part of the inner circle and group of friends to fulfill his role as inside betrayer.  And in like manner, the faith of the Church will be chastened by the role of inside betrayers and false prophets.  It is devastating indeed when a pastor, a leader, or a mentor falls but we see from the example of Judas that there is always an intentional plan for failure and sin.  Thus we can claim the promise of Rom 8.28 in a new way:  God is indeed working all things together for good for those who love God.  And sometimes that good is learning to never put our faith or hope in a man but only in God.

Studies have been preformed and statistics analyzed about the flow of people in congregations when a pastor leaves a Church and when a pastor falls.  It is a notable and consistent percentage that leaves when a pastor leaves, and a notable consistent percentage that leaves when the new pastor comes.  God certainly can call people to serve and be involved in different churches during interim periods, but we can also expect that many come and go because their belief is only to their own, temporal benefit and not unto salvation.

We also see that Judas fulfilled his role by being a part of the group.  Jesus taught a parable on such a situation.  He stated that for the sake of those who do believe he allows those false believers to remain in the body – at least for a season:

“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.  The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, “Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?”  And he said to them, “An enemy has done this!”  The slaves said to him, “Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?”  But he said, “No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them.  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 13.24-30

So we see that the uprooting of false believers and false prophets at times may cause more harm than good to the local body of believers.  But we are also sternly warned to keep an eye out for false prophets and false believers and to keep our distance from them (even removing them from the Church), when they are evident (Matt 18, 1 Cor 5, Matt 7.15).

It is also important to remember that there are betrayals and failures that are not rooted in a lack of salvation.  Peter denied Jesus three times within twenty-four hours of Judas’ betrayal, and he went on to be one of the most dynamic leaders in the Church.  How do we tell the difference?  By the response of the guilty party:  repentance.  Peter repented and turned back to Jesus.  Judas knew he was guilty, but instead of repenting he went out and killed himself, he never repented.

God utilizes sin and even betrayal to grow and develop the faith of the Church and of individual believers.  There will be times that the betrayer is a believer, and there will be times that he is not.  It will all develop in us the discipline to keep our eyes and faith in Jesus alone and not in a man.  It will also develop in us humility to remember that we are not above falling ourselves.  It will teach us to forgive when the offender repents and it will teach us to stand firm on truth when the offender does not repent.  It all serves a beautiful purpose to glorify God.  So let us not shy away from the confrontation.  Let us not be surprised when it happens.  Let us press on in the faith and remember that Jesus was betrayed much more deeply than most of us will ever experience, and it was all to the glory of God.

 

Quit your job and earn your salvation.

loaves and fish

Sometimes Jesus said some really out there stuff.  The people in the New testament sometimes get a bad rap for not understanding what exactly Jesus meant as He was teaching them, but consider some of His statements:

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

– John 2.19-20

They responded that it had taken them 46 years to build the temple…they did not understand.

Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

– John 3.3

Nicodemus asked how a grown person can re-enter his mother’s womb.  He did not understand.

While sitting on the side of a well:

Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”

– John 4.10

The woman responded that He had no bucket to draw water.  She did not understand.

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.

– John 6. 53-56

All of the people who were following Him just walked away.  They did not understand.  And were kind of grossed out.

In the twenty-first century, we now have the blessing of the completion of the Scripture – in which Jesus explains Himself, we also have the gift of the Holy Spirit who illuminates the Spiritual meaning in these statements, and we have the benefit of two thousand years of Christians’ study and theology on which to build.  Many Spiritual and brilliant men and women have had beautiful insight into Jesus’ teaching and have left us helpful insights on which we can build our understanding.

Consider this teaching of Jesus, however:

“Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.”

– John 6.27

Jesus had just fed the 5,000+ with five loaves of bread and two fish.  He left the crowd of people and went to another city overnight.  When the crowd saw that He was gone, they came looking for him and found him.  Jesus rebuked them and said that they were only following Him because He was able to feed them, not because they truly believed in Him (John 6.26).  They wanted a king who could feed their bellies.  And thus He said, “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life”.

What does that mean?  Are we supposed to quit our jobs and try to earn our salvation?

This is one of those situations where we need to examine Scripture as a whole and let the Bible interpret itself.  What else does the Bible say about working?

“He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need.”

– Eph 4.28

“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

Quite frankly, the Bible tells us never to entertain freeloaders.  Yes, we are commanded to meet one another’s needs in hard times and we are to support and take care of the widows and orphans, but if someone is unwilling to work then he should not be fed – as a general rule.  So clearly Jesus does not mean that we are supposed to quit our jobs.  In fact, Paul says that the one who does not feed and take care of his own family is worse than any sinner (1 Tim 5.8).

So what does it mean, then, to not work for food that perishes?  It means that our temporal jobs and our temporal success should not be the end goal – rather our end goal is the food that endures to eternal life.  We will not reach our epitome or climax in this life, it will come in the age after – and will last forever.

So how do we work for that food?  Are we trying to earn our salvation?

“[Work] for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.  Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?”  Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”

– John 6.27-29

Thankfully, the crowd asked him exactly that:  “What shall we do?”  What are the works of God that lead to Jesus giving us the bread that endures to eternal life?  Thankfully they understood that it is indeed the works of God that lead us to the receiving of that bread.  And thankfully, Jesus answered clearly and concisely:

Believe.

The works of God, that which leads to Jesus giving us the bread that endures to eternal life, is simply to believe.  We are not trying to be better people.  We are not trying to do great and might acts of service.  We are believing in Jesus and abiding in Him.

Jesus goes on to explain in the chapter – stating five times – that He Himself is the bread that comes down from Heaven and satisfies and gives eternal life.  He gives us the bread:  He gives us Himself.  When we believe in Him, we receive His words at Truth, we submit to Him as Lord and He begins to transform us into new creatures.

In short, we need to stop striving for success and looking for bread and provisions, but yearn for and remain in Jesus.  Believe.  And He will give us the bread – Himself – which endures to eternal life.  So do not go quit your job, do not start trying to earn salvation.  Just believe and let Him transform you.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good;
How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!”

– Ps 34.8

Are there really two sides to every story?

witness

It is ingrained in us to state – and believe – that there are two sides to every story.  We sympathize with our friends when they tell us their woes, but when we debrief in our hearts or with our spouses we typically caveat the story with “this is her perspective” or “I’ve only heard one side”.  We so value individuality and the lack of absolute truth that we have muddied the reality of actual events into a philosophical goulash in which people’s perspectives and logic are more important than what happened.

For instance:  a man stands in a street intersection, pulling a gun and aiming at an approaching driver.  The driver stops, the man opens the car door, throws the driver to the ground, speeds off in the car and shoots the driver as he speeds away.  The driver dies.

These are the cold, hard facts.  Now, we can add circumstances and perspectives that alter this story to make either party appear innocent or excusable.  Perhaps the driver stole the car from the gunman, and the gunman’s child was in the back seat.  Perhaps the gunman was fleeing from a robber and his gun accidentally discharged while he was getting into the car.  Perhaps the two were convicts who escaped prison and turned on each other the moment they cleared the prison walls and both were running for their freedom while trying to frame the other.  Perhaps one of the parties is mentally handicapped and did not understand the ramifications of his actions.

It is always good and helpful to gather as many facts as possible when evaluating a story and situation.  Circumstances can add dimension and understanding to an event and help us to rightly evaluate events and guilt.  This is one reason God gave clear instructions that whenever a case was brought to the court, it could only be tried on the account of two or more witnesses:

“A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.”

– Deut 19.15

Where we often fail, however, is to allow the evidence of two or three witnesses to confirm an event.  We have become so softened to nuance that we desire everyone to not only have the opportunity to defend his actions, but to offer sympathy and alternatives to punishment.  We think that if we can understand why someone did something then we can help him change at the core level.  We believe that everyone is fundamentally good and we can help or rehabilitate them with the right understanding.  In short, we make excuses.

The Church has been given quite the opposite command, however.  We, as believers, have been taught clearly the reality of sin.  Lying.  Cheating.  Fornication.  Adultery.  Murder.  Stealing.  Idolatry.  Pride.  Gossip.  The list goes on and on, and even if we cannot quote the ten commandments or the deeds of the flesh which are listed in various places throughout Scripture, believers have the indwelling Holy Spirit to convict us when we indulge in sinful activities (John 16.8).  As harsh as it sounds, sin is black and white.  Sex outside of marriage is wrong.  Period.  Gossip and slander is sin.  Period.  There are times that we might find ourselves in a philosophical dilemma of self-defense or looking out for the greater good, but by in large our experience with sin is simply to gratify the flesh.  Most people do not lie, steal, or kill with pure motives.  And this is why God sets the standard for multiple witnesses:  to protect the accused and to hold accountable the accuser.

But since we understand the fact of sin and its consequence, the Church has been strongly commanded how to handle it:  accountability and church discipline.  These things go hand in hand.  It starts on the individual level:  If you see your brother or sister in sin, or if someone has sinned against you, you have been commanded to go to that person and confront him.

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”

– Matt 18.15

Notice that this assumes fault.  Jesus does not say, “ask him what he was thinking” or “evaluate the circumstances”.  No.  Jesus says, “show him his fault”, and then the sinner has the opportunity to repent or continue into the discipline process.  There very well may come an explanation for why the sin was committed, but Jesus is not concerned with the logic or excuse.  Jesus is concerned with repentance and change.

Thus, if the one who sinned does not not listen, we take the next step:  take one or two people with you to confront him again:

“But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.”

– Matt 18.16

Notice here, that this is not necessarily an ongoing sin.  Sometimes we think we should just get over a sin and utilize Church discipline for someone who continues in sin consistently.  But again, Jesus is concerned about our repentance and heart towards that sin.  If someone stole from another, the restitution of property is part of the repentance.  If someone cheated on his spouse, confession of the sin is part of the repentance.  If someone lied, gossiped or shamed another, apologizing and making right what was broken is part of the repentance.  If these things are refused – even if the sin or offense is over – we must take witnesses to confirm the event.  Because God is primarily concerned about our hearts and attitudes towards sin, and if we are unwilling to repent or confess sin, then we most likely are not saved.

If the offender still does not confess or repent, we take the next step:  go to the church at large:

“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

– Matt 18.17

If someone can stand unrepentant in his sin when the entire church agrees that he has sinned, we are to remove him from our midst.  He has proven himself to not be a believer because he will not submit to God by confessing his sin and repenting from it.  Recognizing our sin and guilt is the first step on the path to salvation.  If we are not guilty and condemned, then we do not need a savior.  Thus if a person is choosing to embrace sin and his own autonomy over his life, He has not submitted to Jesus as Lord and is not a Christian.

But what about “his side” of the story?  Most people can make themselves sound innocent or present themselves as the victims in their circumstances.  It has become common place to say that situations like divorce are always two sided.  But the simple reality is, that is just not true, always.  Yes, it is true that no person is perfect.  No marriage is perfect.  No friendship is perfect.  But one person’s imperfection or sin never warrants another person’s sin.

Philosophy aside, consider this:  A gay man marries a Christian woman because he thinks marriage will change who he is and hopes that her faith will wear off on him.  He never tells her of his disposition, and lives a life of turmoil until he can no longer handle it and eventually divorces her and gives in to the homosexual lifestyle.  Is the woman perfect?  No.  Of course not.  She might lash out at him for being unwilling to be physically intimate with her.  She might get angry or bitter because they will never have children.  She might get angry or bitter when she realizes the fact that he deceived her.  Is there something more she could have done to save the relationship or marriage?  Is she at fault for the divorce?

No.

This is not a two-sided event.  Sure, the man can paint a sad picture to make his friends feel badly for him: that he has spent so much of his life confined by society, that he is finally being true to himself, and that his wife was a terrible person anyway…but the fact of the matter is he sinned.  He deceived his wife, he entered into a covenant with her and did not keep it, and he divorced her for unbiblical reasons.  This is not a two-sided event.  Her sins of anger, bitterness, and just normal life failures do not justify his sin, and there is nothing she could have done to save the marriage.

It takes three people (God, husband and wife) to make a marriage work and one to break it.

Rape.  Child molestation.  Deception.  Gossip.  These things are never excusable because of the other person’s sin.  The old adage is true:  You can only control yourself.  If someone sins against you, you do not then have the freedom to turn around and sin against them.  The wife is indeed guilty of the sin of bitterness, and should seek to love her husband.  If he has been unfaithful to her or divorces her, the Bible says that she is free to move on and remarry because she is not guilty in the divorce – but anger, bitterness, gossip and sins of the like are not excusable and she must confess and repent from them (1 Cor 6-7).

Consider Jesus.  He came to the Earth declaring Himself to be God.  It was because “He made Himself equal with God” that the pharisees and Jews were trying to kill Him (John 5.18).  If we consider their side of the story, it would be extremely convincing.  God had given a promise to Abraham to make the Jews a great nation who would inherit the land of Israel.  They had lived in the land and then were sent into captivity because they had not kept God’s Law.  The very foundation of the Law was to have no other gods or idols, and to only worship God.  To claim deity is blasphemy, punishable by death (Lev 24.16).  Yes, they did not understand Jesus, yes they were wary of His power, but they were weighing Jesus’ claims against the Law and found Him guilty.

Unfortunately for them, Jesus is God and therefore was neither lying nor blaspheming and therefore not guilty of death.

So do they get a pass?  Can they justify themselves by explaining their side of the story?  No. Jesus pronounces terrible judgment on them (Matt 23).  Their sin is not justified or excused just because they thought they were obeying the Law.  They sinned.  Perhaps the most terrible of all sins.  And yet our logic would offer them a chance to defend themselves.

We need to get real about sin.  Yes, we need to remember that the voice of two or three witnesses is vital to avoid false incrimination and to help establish the facts, but we also need to validate the person who has suffered injustice.  We need to get real about confronting sin, but we also need to get real about moving on from sin.  If a person confesses and repents from his sin when confronted, then it is over.  Jesus says that person “has been won”.  Paul says that we should address these conversations carefully because of our own tendency to fall and sin:

“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.”

– Gal 6.1

The reality is, we are all going to sin.  We will all need someone to point out sin in our lives throughout our entire lives.  And our love for one another should help us to confess and move on from those sins without permanently damaging our reputation or standing.  Peter was blessed to preach at Pentecost and lead thousands of people to faith just days after he denied Jesus.  God hates sin, and so should we.  God identifies sin, and so should we.  God honors repentance, and so should we.  God does not keep a record of wrong, and neither should we (1 Cor 13).

We might find that we are tempted to believe that there are “two sides” to every story, but sin is sin and one person’s sin never justifies another’s.  We are all responsible to confess and repent of our own personal sin, even if we have been sinned against.  Why?  Because our sin is ultimately an offense against God, and He judges sin with the harshest judgment.  And while our actions may cause an offense to another person, they never justify another person sinning against us.

Are you afraid?

terrorist

The point of terrorism is to instill fear; the use of heinous crimes to insight terror.  That is why it is called “terrorism”.  This fear and intimidation is utilized to gain political ends, either to influence or to overpower.  I have seen many of my homosexual and straight friends respond exactly as the terrorists desire in the last few days, citing attacks from all types of murderers to claim that we are not safe in malls, movie theaters, planes, churches, and now bars and they are afraid.  I have also seen many of my homosexual and straight friends muster up their pride and confidence to stand “firm” in the face of terrorism and not let a threat deter them from their normal life or activities.

Terrorism is not a new wartime tactic, but we did have a substantial relief its prevalence in the west after the end of the Cold War.  Gen X, by in large, did not grow up with the fear of being attacked in the same way the Baby Boomers did and now the Millennials are.

Are you afraid?  

Are radicals and wicked people influencing how you live your life?  Perhaps you are afraid to fly because someone might hijack or blow up your plane.  Perhaps you are afraid to travel because you never know who or what awaits you at your destination.  Perhaps you are afraid to go out by yourself because someone might kidnap or harass you.  The reality is that we live in a wicked world, and there are many who would seek the harm of others for a myriad of reasons:  political, religious, self-pleasure, and many many more.  We all live in this world and thus take calculated risks based on these facts every. single. day.  Some let the actual fear alter their decisions while others stand up in courage against the fear while still others look at the statistics and realize the chances of becoming one of the victims is so marginal that it truly should not affect our daily decision making.

God has an interesting vantage point on fear.  It is poignant and it is life-altering.  Through Jesus He teaches us,

“Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

– Matt 10.28

Jesus fundamentally teaches us that there is something much worse than physical death, and that is eternal damnation.  And the only being worth truly fearing is God:  the one who dictates who goes to Heaven and Hell.

Now, we see regular examples of people in the Bible being fearful of or not wanting to die.  Jesus Himself did not want to die.  Death is not a pleasant experience and most of us are not anticipating it – unless we are at the end of a very long and difficult battle with illness or peril.  But far greater is the weight of eternity and the potential future of condemnation, judgment and wrath without end.

Without end.  Imagine the worst possible pain, sorrow and misery going on forever.  When I was a child I used to cry at the thought of eternity – the fact that life would go on forever.  This is a glorious and beautiful reality if we are saved and will enter into eternity with God, but if we enter into eternity at enmity with God, we will spend that time in the lake of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Where mourning never ends and in the presence of the Devil and all things wicked.  It will not be a giant party where our friends are present, God will be actively destroying our souls and flesh for eternity.

Therefore, the only thing and the only being worth truly fearing is Him.

When we know God, and our future is secure in His promise of salvation, and we consider life here and also life in eternity with Him, there is truly nothing to fear.  Why?  Because the worst that can happen to us is we can be killed and ushered into His presence.  If a terrorist blows up our plane, if we are shot at a movie theater or at a church, if we are murdered and our earthly goods stolen, we have lost nothing.

Thus we must ask ourselves, in what are we placing our hope and trust?  Are we focused on the here and now, making our lives as comfortable as they can be and living with a fear of death?  Or do we have a relationship with God and know that no matter what happens here on the Earth, we will spend eternity with Him without suffering or sorrow?

It is normal and natural to fear death.  It is also a sin to live in fear.  And the best way to combat that fear is to address it directly, praying for faith and claiming the truth and promise that we have nothing to lose and when we do die we will spend eternity with God. This, of course, does not mean that we live foolishly and make unwise decisions, but it does mean that we do not let the fear of mankind deter us from God’s calling or living our lives to the fullest.

Do not fear man.  Only fear God, and His power.  But also love Him for the provision that He has made and the promise that we do not have to spend eternity in Hell.

Let us weep with those who weep.

usa-orlando-shooting

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

– Rom 12.15

Yesterday we woke up to the news that Omar Mateen had murdered 49 people and injured 53 more at a popular LGBT club in Orlando, making this the most deadly attack on American soil since 9/11.  The people of the United States are in the process of grappling with the event and are experiencing varied emotional responses in the grieving and acceptance process.  Some people are scared.  Some are angry.  Some are numb.  Some are distancing themselves by reason of lack of association.  But we, as Christians, must carefully consider how to respond.

It is no secret that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin – just like lying, stealing, cheating, any fornication or sex outside of marriage and all of the other sins which are more easily recognizable by social norms and our current legal mandates.  It is also no secret that no one enjoys being told they are living a sinful lifestyle, and thus the LGBT community and Biblical teaching are at odds with one another – causing much tension and difficulty in decision making as a nation.  Understanding of discrimination and the freedom of religion/belief has been headline news for months, compounded by issues like the Target bathroom fiasco.

But here we are in a completely different scenario.  Over one hundred people have been injured or murdered, and many have entered into eternity by the hands of a man with hatred in his heart.  It is time for Christians to step up.

Sometimes our situations and problems are a direct consequence of our actions.  Sometimes our situations and problems are an indirect consequence of our actions, and sometimes things happen purely by being at the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time.  When a person is hurting or broken in the wake of a tragedy, regardless of how they got to that point, it is the God-given duty of Christians to respond in love.  It is always our responsibility to act and respond in love, but we have a very real opportunity to portray the love of Christ in the midst of suffering.

Paul gives us a very clear picture of how we should handle ourselves on a regular basis:

“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.  Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.  Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

– Rom 12.9-19

This is merely a portion of Paul’s instruction.  He speaks directly to how Christians should interact with one another, and also with the outside world; with friends and with enemies.  We, as Christians, are given the almost impossible task of blessing those who persecute us.  That means when we are shot during a church service or martyred for our faith, we should respond in love to our captors and murderers.  But we are also given the command to meet people in their circumstances – to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  When someone else is murdered or attacked for their lifestyle, we grieve with them.  We do not have to agree with someone’s philosophy or worldview to sympathize with his grief.  We do not have to condone someone’s lifestyle to be a friend or comfort.  Just as God comforts us in our sorrows, we should be ready and willing to comfort those around us who are suffering.  Even if their suffering is a result of their choices.

The events in Orlando are the result of one man’s choice, not the direct result of a homosexual lifestyle.  We can and must respond in love:  with sympathy and grief over the tragedy of lives lost – certainly some of which were lost without Christ.

This is indeed a chance to present the beautiful hope of Christ, by presenting the Gospel.  This is also a chance to present the beautiful love of Christ by being present, and silent if necessary.  Some people are looking for answers immediately, some people need time to process and grieve before looking for an answer or for hope.  This is when we weep with those who weep.  There is no science to sensitivity, only awareness and direction from the Holy Spirit.

God often uses tragedy to awake in us a contemplation about eternity and our mortality.  God also uses tragedy to help us keep in perspective those things that are of eternal importance.  We must love.  We must mourn.  We must be sensitive, all without compromising the truth.  We must be wise with our words, knowing when and how to speak truth.  We must be the voice of hope.

“Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders,making the most of the opportunity.  Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.”

– Col 4.5-6