Fighting For The Prize.

fight

Yesterday I reflected on the powerful and dynamic faith of Corrie Ten Boom who steadfastly kept her eyes on Jesus while harboring Jewish refugees, being arrested and enslaved at a concentration camp and losing her sister and other family members to the atrocities of WWII.  The entirety of the New Testament promises that when we look to Jesus and remain in Him and in His words, we will have Spiritual peace.  But it also promises that we will be persecuted, hated and even killed because of our faith.  Jesus Himself stated:

“These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace.  In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

– John 16.33

You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.”

– Matt 10.22

Paul even goes so far as to say,

“Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

– 2 Tim 3.12

There it is, in black and white.  Everyone who desires to live godly lives in Jesus will be persecuted.  We will be hated by the world, by everyone who does not know Jesus or have saving faith, because of our faith and our actions.  This is not a license for us to act in an unbecoming way.  We are commanded to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us and to live at peace with all men so much as it depends on us (Matt 5.44, Rom 12.18).  We are to turn the other cheek, give more to those who steal from us and return love for evil (Matt 5.39-40, 1 Peter 3.9).

These commands seem impossible at times.  Sure, we can romanticize them and have idyllic pictures in our minds of being the ever-loving victim that never holds a grudge, but it is an entirely different picture when someone intentionally seeks our harm or attacks us without cause.  We can return good for evil in our own strength once or twice, but it is impossible to make a lifestyle out of the habit without Christ.  Sometimes a soft answer does not turn away wrath.  Sometimes loving our enemies does not heap burning coals upon their heads.  Sometimes they have already made up their minds to hurt or destroy us and it is only years down the road that our loving response impacts them on any level.  All we can do is trust God for His plan in those situations.  Our obedience is driven by love for God, not a desired outcome in the other person – our enemy.

But yet we still continue to believe the lies that God will make our lives soft and comfortable if we follow Him.  Many have sold out to the health and wealth gospel, following false prophets like Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn faithfully.  Consider this:  if God pours out blessings, security and health on those whom He loves, He must have despised Paul and the apostles.  They all had no homes, no security, they were persecuted and all but one murdered simply because of their faith.

Even if we deny the traditional health and wealth gospel with our mouths, we often believe it in our hearts and exemplify it by our actions.  When we find a job, get a raise, have healthy and obedient children, and go an entire year without visiting the doctor, we proclaim “God is good!”  When tragedy strikes, when a job is lost, when a loved one dies, when radical Muslims attack our cities, we cry out “Why me?” and “Where is God?”

Have you ever been hated on account of your faith?

I am not advocating self-imposed suffering or intentionally seeking martyrdom.  Jesus told the disciples to flee to the next city when persecution arose, and it was only by the direction of the Holy Spirit that Paul was led to Rome to be murdered – and that after fleeing numerous other times.  However, it is indeed the promise of Scripture that all – not some – but all who desire to live Godly lives will be persecuted and hated because of our faith.  If you are hated for any other reason, it does not count.  Peter says,

“For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.  For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience?  But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.

– 1 Peter 2.19-20

When we sin, we should suffer the consequences patiently and in humility.  That is just common sense.  But it finds favor with God when we suffer unjustly, and bear it with patience and humility.  When was the last time you were wrongly accused – because of your faith – and counted it a blessing to be able to join Christ in His sufferings?  Or did you cry out “this is not fair”, and rebuke God in your heart?

Peter teaches us that we should always be prepared to give an answer or defense for the hope that we have.  Does your living, in the wake of trial and tribulation, cause people to stop and ask you about your hope?  Or do you only proclaim God’s goodness when things are good and life is rosy?  Isaac Watts bemoaned the point beautifully:

Must I be carried to the skies
on flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize
and sailed through bloody seas?
Sure I must fight if I would reign
increase my courage Lord;
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
supported by Thy Word.

– Isaac Watts

So let’s step back and reconsider.  What is it that we consider a blessing and benefit from God?  What is it that leads us to proclaim God’s goodness and faithfulness?  What is it that we pray for, long for and lose sleep over?  A job?  Health?  Life itself?  Money?  Do you fight to persevere in your faith?  Do you fight for the prize rewarded to those who serve God and die to the flesh?  Does your life look like the American Dream, or like the apostles?  Have you ever had to defend the seemingly nonsensical hope that you have?  If not, we need to reconsider our faith and our priorities.  Let’s start storing up treasures in Heaven and dying to our flesh.

blind

The events of the past week have left our nation hurting, skeptical of one another and even more polarized on the topics of police brutality and social injustice.  As in the wake of all tragedies and disasters, the question is being asked “Where is God in all of this?” and “If there is a [good] God, why is there suffering in the world?”  The Old Testament Law painted a picture of cause and effect for sin.  We learn much about the character and purposes of God in the Old Covenant, but we gloriously have records of the person of Jesus and His explanation for many misunderstandings and misconceptions of God developed by looking at that Law (and from basic human logic).

One such misunderstanding that the Jews carried throughout the generations was that all suffering and misfortune was a direct consequence of sin.  This worldview and belief is still prevalent in many religious and basic worldviews today.  It is exemplified in concepts like karma and “balance” in the universe.  We also expect our social and political systems to respond to evil and sin with punishment to enforce the balance of good and evil where the supernatural fails.

We see brief examples of God’s sovereignty over suffering and troubles throughout the Old Testament with people like Job and the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt, but by in large people prefer to be autonomous and attribute their blessings and successes to their own efforts and character, and thus are left asking “why me” when inexplicable suffering occurs.  Thankfully, Jesus explains suffering clearly.

“As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth.  And His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?’  Jesus answered, ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.'”

– John 9.1-3

Jesus had been teaching in the temple about His identity, the bread of life, and made the Jews angry by claiming to be God.  Thus, Jesus hid himself from them and slipped out of the crowd because they were trying to stone Him to death.  On His way out the door, He saw this man who had been born blind, begging.  His disciples noticed Jesus taking notice of the man, and they piped up to ask Jesus whose fault it was that this man had been born with such a terrible disability.

The prevailing worldview of the day was so dominant that the disciples were unashamed to boldly speak out in the presence of this poor man and ask Jesus if he had somehow sinned in the womb or if his parents had sinned so terribly that he was doomed to an entire lifetime of blindness.  Can you imagine?  There are occasions that we cry out to God or doubt Him because of our current situations, but would you ever dare to approach someone with a handicapped child and speak to him about his sin or the possible sin of his child in utero which led to this situation?  If you can, or ever have, you need to repent.

The disciples were clearly asking the cause.  Whose fault was the blindness?  And Jesus responded simply and profoundly: the cause was not sin.  The cause was God setting up this very situation in which His works could be mightily displayed.

One of the most beautiful promises that Christians (and non Christians alike) claim is that God knitted us together and formed us while we were still in our mothers’ wombs.

“For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.”

– Ps 139.13

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
And before you were born I consecrated you;
I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

– Jer 1.5

God pieced each one of us together in exactly the manner He wanted us.  This promise is true for all people.  God has created us each for a specific purpose, for a specific life, and with an abundance of unique traits and characteristics.  Even the handicapped.  Even the blind.  Even the broken.  And God utilizes the ways He forms us for His own glory and honor.

Sometimes that glory and honor is exceptional service:  vast wisdom, bold preaching, faithful obedience.  And sometimes that glory and honor is through God’s dynamic intervention:  healing of blindness, dramatic conversion testimonies, undeniable miracles.  And sometimes that glory and honor is through God’s sustaining power and faithfulness when we are not healed or changed.

This blind man whom Jesus encountered was created without the ability of sight, in his mother’s womb, so that Jesus could heal him and so that Jesus could teach both the disciples and us an invaluable lesson.  Not every bit of suffering is the direct consequence of our personal sin.  We do understand from Genesis 3 and Romans 1-3 that all of creation is indeed under the curse because of sin and all of suffering is the result of the reality of sin in our world.  But we must also understand that all who are in Christ have been forgiven for their sins and pardoned from the wrath of God as retribution for their sin – therefore while some suffering might be a consequence of their sin, no suffering of the believer is punishment for sin (Rom 8.1).

Some suffering is governed by God for the purification of our faith.  We read throughout the New Testament that God utilizes suffering and trials to teach us perseverance and to refine our faith as through fire (1 Peter 1.6ff).  We also see examples of suffering which God does not relieve for the sake of growing faith, like Paul:

“Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!  Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.  And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’  Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

– 2 Cor 12.7-10

Paul had some sort of physical ailment which caused him great distress.  So much so that He begged God three times to heal him from it, and God refused.  God used Paul to preform many miracles as a missionary and apostle, including bringing back a person from the dead.  But yet, when Paul felt a need in his own body God refused to heal him for the sake of exemplifying His own strength through Paul’s weakness.  Thus we learn that there are times that God will knit together a person in his mother’s womb with blindness and never heal him so as to glorify Himself in this specific weakness.  God will allow us all to suffer a variety of weaknesses and trials without delivering us from them so that we will be forced to rely on Him and His strength and He receive the glory for His power through our weaknesses and trials.

As we continue to process the difficulties in our nation today, let us remember that God is not shocked or surprised by our situations.  In fact, He is orchestrating our circumstances and situations for His glory.  It might be through a radical transformation of our society as a whole, through a mighty miraculous work of God, or it might be to test and grow our faith as individuals.  The greater problem might remain, but we as Christians in a weak and sinful society will need to rely on the strength and guidance of God to live loving, purely and rightly before God.  This will strengthen and refine our faith.

God and Social Justice: As We Mourn Another Shooting.

harmony

This week has been emotionally charged with two African American lives lost at the hands of law enforcement and the retaliatory taking of five police lives by snipers and seven more wounded during a protest.  The nation is once again being polarized by race.  The actions of a few – on both sides of the battle – are causing the greater public to demand change, but all the while growing less and less hopeful of true change.  We are truly on the brink of an historical event whereby interracial relations will necessarily change.  As with any tension, it cannot remain in its current state.  We will either retreat into racist bigotry and continue to build walls and foster hatred towards one another or we will choose to accept, empower and respect our differences.

As Christians, we must remember that Jesus and His Gospel are the answer to this problem.  Our immediate response must be one of love and compassion – regardless of your ethnic background.  Black people and white people are mourning across our nation today.  Black people and white people are more suspicious of one another today.  Black people are feeling more targeted and discriminated today.  Police officers are feeling more hated and scrutinized by the general public, and also more anxious to go to work today.  Each additional negative interaction – each murder – is only building into the distrust and fear associated with these unavoidable encounters and creating suspicious, fearful, entitled individuals who carry weapons , and who react poorly when cornered:  black and white.  The problem is the same for both races.

How then should we respond?  What should we do?  We can all write blogs, we can all get on facebook and post videos, we can all voice our opinions, or we can get out there and actually start making a difference.  The simple fact is that interracial relations have been amplified the last few years and the conversation is on the table.  If you are uneducated on the problem, it is not for lack of information.  We must address the issue.  Thankfully, Scripture teaches us much on the topic.

Firstly, we must all turn to Jesus.  Jesus understands our sufferings.  Jesus was a Jew who was born during the captivity of the Jewish nation.  The Jews were hated as a race, and He Himself was murdered.  He personally suffered more than any of us ever have and ever will both physically and Spiritually (Heb 2.18, Heb 4.15, 1 Peter 3.18).   He is the “man of sorrows” – acquainted with the grief and weight of the sin of the world, and despised by the world:  both His own race and other races (Is 53.3).  Jesus exemplifies how we can endure suffering and persecution without sin:  by not retaliating, by enduring, and by being a faithful witness who always spoke truth.

Jesus was also compassionate to those whom the Jewish people discriminated and hated, namely the Samaritans.  We see His first interaction with a Samaritan woman who was of ill repute, even amongst her own people, because she had been married five times and was then living in adultery with another man.  He spoke to her – which was a cultural taboo because of her race, her gender, and her social status.  He reasoned with her – caring for her soul.  He pushed her to the point of action – demanding that she respond to Him as the Messiah.  He loved her as the Savior and utilized her and her witness to bring His testimony to her entire town (John 4).

How beautiful that we can see Jesus as part of the persecuted race and as part of the persecuting race.  He gives us the example by which which we should live when in both situations – and all of us will find ourselves in both situations throughout our lives:  hated and hater.

Secondly, we must mourn with those who mourn.  Different people and different cultural pockets will respond in a variety of ways to the events of this week.  Our natural response is to pick a side, get angry at the other side, and justify our personal bias.  The reality is simply that the African American community is mourning the loss, but also is rooted in generations of social injustice.  Police officers and Caucasian Americans are also mourning the loss, and allowing the Dallas retaliation to deepen their racism and distrust.  In the immediate aftermath of any tragedy we must take time to simply mourn with those who mourn.

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

– Rom 12.15

The loss of any and all life is a sorrowful event and regardless of the circumstances surrounding it, people need to mourn.  Whether Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered in cold blood or whether the policemen had good reason to shoot is irrelevant on this point.  Whether the police officers shot in Dallas were bigoted racists or men fighting for social justice is also irrelevant on this point.  Their families, their communities and their ethnic races have lost loved ones and the pain and sorrow is very real.  Let us be broken over the loss of life and the tragedies that have occurred.  Let us lend a listening ear to our friends, family members, neighbors and fellow church members as they process the events and grieve.  It is good and right to grieve, and we as Christians must be empathetic, always pointing to the hope that we have in Jesus and an eternity where there will cease to be sorrow and grief.

Thirdly, we must remember that God is just.  God Himself wrote the moral law, His perfect Law, and will be the judge of all humanity at the end of time based on the deeds we committed in our flesh (Rom 14.12, 2 Cor 5.10).  And He is perfectly just.  He will never punish someone unjustly, and He will never overlook a sin (Prov 11.21, Ex 34.7).  He is also concerned about the oppressed and intentionally cares for the hated (Prov 14.31, Ps 9.7-10).  He is broken over our suffering and grieves with us, and He will judge all accordingly.

Because God is just, fourthly we must remember that retaliation is a sin – for both sides.

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

We are currently caught in a cycle of hatred and retaliation.  These cycles are normal, and much has been examined and written about them in the marriage relationship.  One spouse feels unloved, therefore he retaliates and disrespects the other spouse.  Then the other spouse feels disrespected so he withdraws and intentionally shows no love or care.  It is a vicious, downward spiral that can only be stopped one, or both parties intentionally choosing to love and care for the other spouse – even if the sentiment is not reciprocated.  Sometimes the cycle is set in motion by an intentional act of hatred and sometimes it is simply a miscommunication.  Either way, once we are in the cycle it becomes exceedingly difficult to end it.

We can be empowered, therefore, to end the cycle, turn the other cheek and begin the long road of healing and change by remembering that no sin and no injustice will go unpunished.  Paul does not teach us to simply not seek vengeance, He encourages us that God will do it for us!  God will judge everyone according to their works and He will punish every sin.  We must leave it in God’s hands, however, because God punishes some sin in the person of Jesus on the cross, and He punishes other sin on the guilty individual who does not repent in eternity.  You will be avenged.  And God will do it purely and rightly.  Thus we should never seek our own revenge but leave it to God.

Our current racial tensions are rooted in generations of hatred, misunderstanding, apathy and difficulty.  Slavery was a tragedy whereby thousands of people were kidnapped from their homes and forced into submission to others.  Thankfully, the practice was abolished in our nation in 1863 under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln.  In the 150 years since, American laws and culture has changed and adapted dramatically, so much so that interracial marriage is fairly common, and we are seeing blending of cultures between African and Caucasian Americans.

Racism, however, is present in every culture and will take an act of God to fully be eradicated.  SouthEast Asian tribes who live only miles from each other in the same jungle often despise one another for no other reason than they are from a different tribe, even though it would take years of anthropological study to be able to distinguish them physically.  In those situations, the difference of language or a few cultural traditions is enough to permanently divide them.  In the middle east we daily hear of very close-cultured Arabs killing one another because of nothing more than a religious difference.  We even develop “friendly” rivalries between states, universities and sports teams because it is fundamentally human to have a cause and an enemy.  We must all intentionally submit ourselves to God and recognize the fact that He created all peoples and all cultures, and loves people from all cultures.

Thus, fifthly, we must know and understand that God is in the business of redeeming cultures.  God chose the Hebrew people to be His people from the time of Abraham until Jesus came to the Earth.  It was always His plan to draw people from all nations, and that is why He promised Abraham that through His lineage (namely, Jesus) He would bless the entire world:

“In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”

– Gen 22.18

After Jesus came to the world, paying the punishment for sin for all who would believe, the offer of salvation was blown wide open to every tribe, tongue and nation.  We see, in fact, that there will be people from every nation – every culture – represented in eternity:

“After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’.”

– Rev 7.9-10

What is beautiful here is that all of the nations will not be molded into one people, but God draws us each from our unique backgrounds.  God speaks every language, He understands perfectly every culture, and He receives much glory by people praising and worshiping Him in their own unique ways.  Missionaries and missiologists have spent much time studying this fact and reality, and when they set out to the field it is their goal to introduce people to Jesus and allow Jesus to redeem their culture and plant indigenous churches.  This means, simply, that the sinful tendencies of the culture must be repented of and abandoned, but the beautiful and individual characteristics of their culture are to be utilized in worship and in praise of God.  We help new believers put verses to music with pentatonic or twelve tone scales, we help new believers incorporate dancing and community into a worship service, we set free the religiously devoted to hours and hours of prayer and mediation, we watch God redeem cultures.

What is interesting and quite difficult, however, is that while we understand this reality on the mission field, the American church is attempting to do the opposite – by in large.  Instead of empowering and encouraging people to worship God by the fullest outflowing of their heart, passion and culture, we are trying to force everyone into a mold and have a “multi-ethnic congregation”.  The United States is so vast and so diverse that there are micro cultures all around us, and it is good and healthy to allow these different worship styles to exist on their own.  A church is no more godly just because it has equal parts white, black, Hispanic and Asian peoples.  In fact, it often times squashes the unique cultural dispositions of each one, leaving very few worshiping God by the fullest expression of their joy in the way God has created them.  Yes, as a country we are a melting pot of cultures from around the world.  And brand new immigrants might culturally never adapt to American culture, but their children will have varying levels of both cultures in their hearts.  An African American whose heritage is a few hundred years in the United States and infinitely more in common with his white neighbor than Somalian refugees.  But he still might have a unique enough culture that he would choose to worship God with other African Americans instead of his white neighbor.  This is a beautiful exemplification of God being glorified by all peoples, and not a problem.

It becomes a problem when one church considers their worship better than another.  It becomes a problem when ethnocentricity creeps in.  It becomes a problem when the white church does not support, encourage and love the black church and vise versa.  It becomes a problem when we do not love.

The answer here is not forcing everyone to believe, act and be the same.  The answer here is loving and respecting one another in our differences and standing up for social justice.  Last month Brock Turner – a white swimmer from Stanford – was sentenced to six months in jail for raping an unconscious girl.  He was caught in the act.  Cory Batey – a black football player from Vanderbilt – was sentenced to fifteen years in jail for raping an unconscious girl.  He was also caught in the act.  This is wrong.  Yes, it is true that every situation is unique and there are no absolute comparisons, but statistically we do see that there are still levels of social injustice in varying degrees around the country, and we must fight against that.

We must all submit to authority (Eph 6.5, Col 3.22).  We must all respect the law (1 Peter 2.17, Rom 12.10).  We must all turn the other cheek when we are wrongfully accused or assaulted (Matt 5.39).  We must all follow Jesus’ example in suffering and in trials (Is 53.7).  And until one or both sides of the cycle choose to alter their actions and response, we will remain in the vicious cycle.  Therefore, let us intentionally mourn with those who are mourning this weekend.  Let us listen and love our neighbors.  Let us be purposeful to end the cycle of hatred and anger in our own circles and encourage those around us to do the same.  And let us fight for social justice on the larger scale, remembering that individual cultures and good, beautiful and redeemable by God. Let us not try to force everyone to look, act and smell the same, but set one another free to glorify God in the unique ways He has gifted and created us.

When Jesus doesn’t fix it.

question-mark

How is your faith?  Is it strong?  Is it weak?  Do you doubt or question often?  Or are you rock solid, like a tree planted by a stream?  If you are a normal human being, chances are that you vacillate in between the two extremes regularly!  When Jesus was walking the Earth, He preformed many miracles.  And when the disciples were amazed at his to speak death over a fig tree, Jesus said to them:

“Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him.”

– Mark 11.23

This is truly a phenomenal statement.  Jesus, as God of the universe, promises that whoever has faith without doubting can literally cast a mountain into the sea.  Have you ever seen that happen?  Such an occurrence has never been documented…  When Jesus had sent the disciples out to proclaim His coming, they encountered a demon that they were unable to cast out.  To this, Jesus said,

“And He said to them, ‘Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you’.”

– Matt 17.20

Jesus rebuked the disciples for having to little faith to cast out a demon.  They had enough faith to try, but the demon itself was more powerful than their faith.  Jesus’ answer was that even the smallest amount of faith – the size of  a mustard seed – would not only cast out demons but move entire mountains.  Exorcisms have been documented and noted around the world, but again – no mountains relocating.

This teaching of Jesus has been greatly distorted and abused.  There is no an entire sect of Christianity that essentially worships faith and chastises people for their situations – declaring it to be a result of nothing other than their lack of faith.  Are you sick?  You have too little faith.  Did you lose your job?  You do not believe enough!  Is your child straying form the Church?  You have to believe it for it to be fixed!

This teaching is not only dangerous, but heretical.  Why?  Firstly, because it idolizes faith and not the object of the faith.  Instead of pointing people to Scripture to claim the actual promises of God like Rom 8.28 – “All things work together for good for those who love God” – it points to the individual’s heart.  If you are in crisis, the onus is on you to muster up faith bigger than a mustard seed so that it will be made right.  Faith in what?  Faith that it will be fixed, of course!  Instead of glorifying God, instead of teaching people to depend on God, this worldview focuses on the individual, the problem, and neatly forces people into a corner.  You have no one to blame but yourself for your situation, and the only hope you have to is press in harder and force faith.  Bland, pointless, self-gratifying faith.

Secondly, this teaching is heretical because it is simply not the intention of Jesus.  When we take this teaching to its logical end, it necessarily fall apart.  Why?  Because everyone is going to die.  Scripture promises that not only will we all die, we will all subsequently stand judgment:

“And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment…”

– Heb 9.27

Everyone is going to die, regardless of the amount of faith that we have.  Even if your life is posh, comfortable and without major crisis, you are going to die and then be judged for your actions while you were alive.  No amount of faith can alter this destiny because it is ordained by God as the result of sin.

What does this one single truth consequently teach us?  Blind faith and object-less faith is meaningless.  You might truly believe that you can fly.  But if you jump out of an airplane without a parachute, you will not fly.  You might concoct a suit that allows you to soar or float, but you do not have the innate ability to fly within your body.  You might truly believe and have faith that your bank account will suddenly be multiplied to millions of dollars overnight.  But unless you work hard, win the lottery or somehow have the money added to your name, your faith alone in a bigger bank account will not generate that money.

But more importantly, it is not “faith alone” that saves us.  Our souls are not saved simply because we have faith.  Scripture says,

“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

It is by faith alone that we are saved.  What is the difference?  We are saved by faith in something, and that something is the grace of God.  We cannot will our salvation by believing that we are good enough, that we have done enough, that we are simply OK.  Our faith must be in the promise and provision of God alone.

And do you know what else?  God never promises to heal all of our pains or satisfy all of our desires.  In fact, eleven of the twelve disciples were killed for their faith.  The early Church was scattered by the Roman Emperors persecuting and murdering them.  Christians throughout all generations have suffered great and terrible persecution, had their land plundered, their families killed and jobs lost.

I wrote earlier this week on Jesus’ miracle at the pool of Bethesda.  You can read that here.   When Jesus approached the pool of Bethesda, there was a multitude – a huge crowd – of people who were sick, paralyzed, physically handicapped and waiting for a miracle.  Jesus went in and chose to heal one man.  Just one, out of a huge crowd.  He healed that man and then slipped out so no one saw Him.

Why?

Did Jesus not come to heal everyone?  We do see in some stories that Jesus occasionally invested much time to heal everyone who was around (Matt 4.23, 9.35), however that is not why Jesus came to the Earth the first time.  He declared that His purpose was to “seek and to save that which was lost” (Matt 18.10).  If you survey every time Jesus declared His purpose in coming, without fail He references salvation and/or dealing with sin.  He did not come to end suffering or bring about the New Earth.  He did not come to take everyone to Heaven, and when people believe in Him He leaves them on the Earth to continue to tell other people and does not sweep them away to Heaven.  Why?  Because He is giving us time to get to know Him and to tell others about Him.  While we suffer.  While we struggle.  While we are persecuted.  While things go badly.

He will come to take away suffering!  He is coming back, and when He comes the second time, it will be to free us from disease, sin, sickness, and pain.  But that was not His intention in His first appearance, and it is not His intention for us now.  Our faith in God is unto salvation, not unto pleasure or health.  This is why Paul consistently talks about his personal suffering and why he encourages the early church as they persevere through tribulations and trials.

Thus we cannot simply have blind faith in a mountain moving, or a sickness being healed, or a physical need being met.  Jesus promises acts of God when we have faith in God, and faith that aligns with His will.  We cannot have faith in God that we will be healed if the sickness we currently have is that sickness which will lead unto our death – because God has appointed a time for each of us to die.  We cannot thwart His will or decree by believing the opposite.  What we believe must be grounded in the promises of Scripture and consequently the will of God.  Jesus left many people unhealed, hungry and desolate.  Why?  Because His purpose was to bring salvation, not comfort.  Therefore if we believe that God will do mighty works to bring about salvation and Spiritual growth, then and only then are we guaranteed the mighty works of God.  Faith the size of a mustard seed in the promises and provision of God will save our souls eternally and move unimaginable mountains for the furthering of the Gospel.

So let us believe great things from God.  Let us attempt great things for God.  Let us continually allow God to grow, mold and strengthen our faith.  But let us remember that God’s primary concern in our faith is not our health, not our success, not our happines, but our holiness.  That one man Jesus healed at the pool of Bethesda was sternly warned by Jesus,

“Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.”

– John 5.14

Jesus did heal him physically – and He will heal us physically, most times, but He was primarily concerned about the man’s holiness.  This man had been paralyzed for 38 years, and Jesus warned him that if he continued sinning something worse would become of him, namely, eternal damnation.

So know the promises of God.  Claim the promises of God.  Enjoy Him and trust Him for eternal salvation.  And trust Him through the trials which He is currently allowing in your life which you do not particularly enjoy.  Because He is working those things together for your good and for His glory (Rom 8.28).

The Refugee Crisis is Complicated.

complication

Six days ago, Paris was attacked by IS terrorists and the world took notice.  The day before, Beirut Lebanon was similarly attacked, and two weeks before a Russian jet was bombed down killing 224, but the world did not take notice.  The Civil War in Syria started on March 15, 2011 and has continued to ransack the Middle East, causing millions of people to flee for their lives, created the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, some seventy years ago.  Refugee camps have been established, many countries are accommodating refugees as they can, people are suffering, and terrorists are using the mass exodus as an opportunity to infiltrate countries they desire to terrorize and attack.

Some are citing the Jewish persecution to exemplify our human nature of resisting refugees and the terrible consequences that resulted, while others discuss the underlying reasons for their flight – namely, racial persecution vs. refuge from a Civil War.  Some are drawing on the heart strings of compassion while others are responding in fear for personal and familial safety from terrorists.  Some are personalizing the tragedy because of experience and exposure to Paris, Muslims, and loss, while others are systematically examining the situation and making logical arguments for how best we, as a country should respond.

I do not have the answers.  I am not an academic skilled in the study of foreign policy and military strategy.  I do not work with our government (or any government) on the intricacies of helping to settle those who are fleeing for their lives.  I have no answers on how to best screen those who need our help to assure that they will not come in and bomb marathons or shoot hundreds at a concert or football game.

I do know that these refugees are coming from a country that has been ransacked by war, their worldview is not one based on security and comfort, but on survival.  They know the power of a demonstration that turns into a revolt, that kills innocent people and leads to a battle for power.  Can we easily assimilate them into a culture that by-in-large adheres to laws and regulations and submits to the government (except in speech, of course)?  Can we house them, feed them, and educate them to a level where they can support themselves and become a part of our cultural system and way of life?

These questions are much bigger than all of us, and very few of us will be a part of the actual decision making.  If you do happen to find yourself in a position of authority and policy establishment on the topic, I pray for you and do not envy your position in any way.  But for the rest of us, we need to ask a simple question:  What does the Bible say?

None of the New Testament was written from a situation of political and religious safety and comfort.  We do not live in a Biblical culture.  Jesus was born into an oppressed Jewish culture that was functioning under the Roman Empire.  After His ascension back to Heaven, the Church exploded and immediately suffered persecution and the believers were dispersed across the known world, fleeing for their lives.  The New Testament was written to these believers, encouraging them to love their enemies, seek the salvation and well being of those who would persecute them, submit to the authorities – even though they were opposed to Christ, and to love.

It is difficult to apply the worldview of Scripture to our current cultural setting.  We are not the persecuted few, we are not running for our lives, we are not living in a situation where our livelihood, our houses, our families and even our lives could be taken from us simply because of our belief system.  Sure, we will reference the bakeries being forced to bake a cake for those with different beliefs and the rare church shooting, but our government and society protects us from discrimination in any way, and the moment we feel a twinge of intolerance, we lash out.

The early Christians, and Jesus Himself were hated and persecuted daily, for a variety of reasons.  And He taught us to love, even our enemy, lavishly.  The persecuted was to respond in love.  Not crying out for his rights, not pushing back against oppression, not using his voice to change policies, but to love.

Remember the Good Samaritan?  This story is so prevalent in our culture that we actually have a law written in his example.

“Jesus replied and said, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead.  And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you’'”

– Luke 10.30-35

The Jews and the Samaritans hated each other.  We, as Americans, do not have a similar enemy whereby it is a given that every American hates and avoids every [given nation].  The two nations would not interact, they would not mix, they would not inter marry or eat at the same restaurants or do business.  This hatred was deeply rooted and irreconcilable.  Imagine the shock, then, when Jesus said that a Samaritan – one so hated – took care of the Jewish man who had been beaten and robbed when the most religious Jews ignored him.  He cared for him, bandaged his wounds, and paid for his care.

That is the level to which we are to love.

So my challenge today is simple.  Firstly, are loving our fellow Americans for their knee jerk reactions to the situation?  The United States is being polarized by response:  welcome refugees or refuse them.  The vast majority of people who are speaking out have no influence in the decision, and we are bitterly condemning those who respond differently than us.  Can you not understand their emotion?  Be it compassion or fear?  We must love our neighbor – our fellow American – as the Good Samaritan did.

Secondly, are we loving the refugees in their peril?  Again, most of us will have no say in the official decision.  But let’s say a refugee does show up in your community.  He has lost everything he knows and loves, including friends and family.  Are you ready to love him in the manner of the Good Samaritan?  Are you contributing to agencies that are seeking humanitarian relief for those who are stuck in the limbo of running – left in refugee camps, sleeping on the ground or starving?  Many organizations are on the ground trying to help refugees where they are.  If you have so much compassion, are you investing in this?  If you have fear of bringing them home, are you helping them from a distance to establish them, feed them, clothe them where they are?

Thirdly, are we loving our enemies?  Christian response to war has varied dramatically throughout the centuries, some espousing pacifism and others seeking the greater good by neutralizing a threat.  Just and unjust war is another massive topic that I will not seek to define here.  But whatever your position on warfare, we can evaluate our hearts and intentions by our love.  Are you loving your enemy like the Good Samaritan?  Or are you seeking vengeance, justice and retribution?  Do you hate him?  The Samaritan should have hated the Jew.  Culturally, it was not only accepted by expected.  But the Samaritan cared for and sought the good of the Jew.  Do you care for and seek the good of the IS terrorists?

Love is not easily definable, as often times genuine love must intervene and correct wrong doing and wrong thinking.  Love does not tolerate and accept unconditionally.  If it did, Jesus would not have had to die to pay the ransom for our sins.  God does not overlook sin and accept us in our sinful state, we must be covered in the blood of Jesus.  But love always seeks the best for the other person or nation.  So examine your response to the crisis today:  Are you responding in love?  Or are you simply reacting?  Turn to Jesus, and let Him transform your heart.  And be ready and willing to love your fellow American, the refugee and even the terrorist.  Because that is what Jesus would do.

When we are oppressed.

refining fire

There are a few books that have radically changed my life throughout my Spiritual walk, and one of those books is The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards.  Jesus, throughout His earthly ministry, sought to teach the disciples how to love God and love Him, not simply to serve routinely – as was the practice of the Pharisees and others.  He compelled obedience and service as an overflowing of love, not duty.  Many in the early church grasped this foundation and by the time catechisms were being penned, the answer to the primary question, the meaning of life, was understood as thus:

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

We have been created to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.  Some have concluded that we most glorify God by enjoying Him fully, and forever – as God has created us for relationship with Him and commands us to remain in Him.  Thus our religion is driven by an affection of love that is rooted in thankfulness for what God has done for us – namely, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to ransom us from our sin debt and offer us eternal life.

Without affection, Edwards argues, our religion is cold and dead, and simply that of the Pharisees.  But he looks also at the reality of affliction and suffering in the Christian life and he makes this beautiful observation:

“True virtue never appears so lovely as when it is most oppressed; and the divine excellency of real Christianity is never exhibited with such advantage as when under the greatest trials; then it is that true faith appears much more precious than gold, and upon this account is “found to praise and honour and glory.”

– Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections

Paul teaches us in Romans, and James teaches us in his letter that our faith is purified by the fire of suffering, persecution and tribulation (Rom 5.1-5, James 1.2-4).  We understand from natural laws that we can purify and refine metals and natural products by fire.  If you want to make gold more pure, you heat it up.  You place it in the fire to burn out the impurities because gold can withstand a higher heat than most of the dirt and other elements that might be mixed in.  The higher the heat of the refining fire, the more pure the gold.  We have mastered the art of purifying metals and making steel as strong as it can be and gold as pure as it can be.  You never leave it in its natural state.

In the same way, Edwards argues, our faith is never at its most glory at its primary state.  The greater the oppression and the hotter the fire of trial, the more beautiful and pure it becomes.  God promises that all who desire to live godly lives will be persecuted:

“Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

– 2 Tim 3.12

He utilizes trials to refine, mature and grow our faith:

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

– James 1.2-4

And He promises to discipline everyone that He loves:

“For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.”

– Heb 12.6

We know and understand that it is God’s will that we suffer in order to purify our faith (1 Peter 1-3).  If we have not walked through seasons of suffering or trials, if we have not experienced the discipline of the Lord in our lives to root out sin, then we can assume that we are not saved.

One of the greatest lies and tactics of the enemy is to keep us complacent and comfortable.  No one desires suffering.  No one wants to be confronted in his sin.  No one enjoys the pain of discipline and the refining fire.  But when we look back over our lives, an honest assessment sees the maturity and growth that came through this times.

When is it that your attention is caught by the faith of another?  When a person walks in regular discipline of quiet time, prayer and daily chores?  Or when a person is walking through an unimaginable trial and remains faithful to God, serving others and exemplifying the peace of the Spirit.  The faith of a man on his death bed, ready and eager to meet Jesus is much more beautiful than a rote prayer uttered over a meal.  The faith of the persecuted who is clinging to Jesus as he is unemployed for his faith or his church is burned down proclaims the excellencies of God more than hosting a Bible study in one’s home with one’s comfortable friends.

Yes, praying over meals and hosting a Bible study are good things.  But it is in the moment of testing that our faith is refined and proven to be more beautiful and more precious.  It is in those moments that we grow.

The enemy draws on our flesh, on our tendency and desire to be comfortable, and teaches us the lie that if God loves us He will give us everything we want and will make our lives easy.  He distorts the beautiful promises of Jesus,

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

– Matt 11.28

Jesus indeed will give us rest.  We will have peace and joy that is un-explainable and full of glory (1 Peter 1.18).  But the rest is spiritual.  We will have confidence in God, in our salvation, in our eternity.  Our eternal life begins at the moment we are born Spiritually and we are made into a new creation – one that understands and takes joy in the testing and refining of our faith.  We no longer have to strive to appease God and earn our salvation, we can rest in Him.  We no longer have to chase the pleasures of the world, we have the joy of God established in our hearts.  And the trials amplify that.

Throughout history, the church has grown and matured the most under persecution.  The early church multiplied and was rich in faith, but when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, people grew complacent, lazy and nonbelievers began to desire to be a part of the church.  Offices were sold, the Gospel was distorted, and the church suffered.  The Church today is bursting in countries like China – where the oppression is still real.  And believers around the world pity American Christians because we are distracted and infatuated with the world.  Our faith is not being tested and refined like most around the world, even today.

So when we enter into trials, let us cling to Jesus.  Let us abide in Him.  Let us rejoice that our faith is being purified.  Let us seek what it is that God wants to teach us, and what impurities need to be removed from our lives.  Let us praise God that He is refining our faith.  Because it is in those moments that we grow, and that our faith is most precious and most beautiful.

God wants what is best for His children.

perseverance

Are you a Christian?  Have you confessed your sins and repented of them, and asked God’s forgiveness by the power of the blood of Jesus Christ?  If you have been saved, then you can rest confidently that God wants what is best for you.  God wants what is best for you even more than you want what is best for you.  The thing that we must learn – sometimes painfully – is that often times we do not know what is best for us.  Thankfully, God does.

Scripture teaches us the primary desire of God for our lives, His will for our lives:

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification…”

– 1 Thess 4.3

Sanctification is a big, theological and heady word which is not typically on the forefront of our minds when we consider our life choices and decision making.  Sanctification is the ongoing process of salvation by which we are being made more like Jesus and less like the world.  It is getting to know God more fully, and in response putting to death the deeds of the flesh.  It is becoming Heaven-minded and not worldly minded.  It is our Spiritual maturation process.  So, in short, it is God’s will that we mature and grow Spiritually.  Paul explains what sanctification looks like for the Church at Thessalonica and for us, at least in part:

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you.  For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification.”

– 1 Thess 4.3-7

The Thessalonians needed instruction and discipline in their sexuality and relationship with one another.  Throughout Scripture we see more exhaustive lists of the sins and deeds that God hates, i.e. Gal 5.19-20.  But Paul summarizes His teaching simply, “God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification”.  This is God’s will for us.  And if we have begun the walk of the Christian life, if we have recognized and begun to confess our sins, then we also should be growing in our hatred for and conviction of sin and desiring to become more like Christ.  Our will should also be our sanctification.

That is the best for us.

We also can claim the promise of Scripture that if we have begun that walk with the Lord, He will complete it in us:

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

– Phil 1.6

When we come to God for salvation through Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit takes up residence within our lives and begins the process of Sanctification from within.  We then get to practice dying to the flesh and letting Him live through us.  He is at work within us, and He will complete the work of sanctification.

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

– Phil 2.13

So if we know that Scripture teaches us clearly that God’s will is for our sanctification, for us to become more like Jesus, and that He promises to complete that work in our lives, we can know fully that all things will work out for our best:

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

– Rom 8.28

Our best, however, is rarely what we desire in our hearts.  Consider the things you long for, work for, and pray for.  Do you desire a nice house?  A new car?  Nice clothes?  Fancy food?  Do you desire to have a consistent life that is not interrupted?  A schedule that makes sense and allows for the right amount of sleep, exercise and socializing?  Do you pray for good health?  For people around you to live forever?  For your children to be perfectly behaved?  Do you pray for those things that are making you uncomfortable to be taken away?

These things are not bad in and of themselves.  Jesus, in fact, promises rest and peace to those who come to Him (Matt 11.28-29).  He desires to give us peace and rest.  But have you ever reflected on a season of peace and rest and said, “I grew so much during that time”, or “My faith is at a place it has never been before”.  No, you have not.  And do you know why?  Because God knows that our faith only grows and is refined through testing – through the fire.

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

– James 1.2-4

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.  And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

– Rom 5.1-5

We grow in sanctification, we mature, and we develop perseverance, character and hope through suffering and trials.  It is after a season of tremendous difficulty and suffering that believers look back and are amazed at the faithfulness of God and the development of their faith.  Faith is not developed by comfortable lives, it is developed by relying on God through the storm.

Think about it this way:  If sanctification is becoming more like Jesus, should we not expect to live the kind of life that Jesus did?  Jesus had no house, no earthly possessions and treasures.  He lived a life fully devoted to God, and He suffered hatred, persecution and death on a cross because of it.  Jesus Himself said,

“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”

– John 15.20

Non believers hated and persecuted Jesus.  If we are becoming more like Jesus, non believers will hate and persecute us as well.  We also know that Jesus, in His greatest hour of suffering, asked God to take away the suffering, but God did not:

“Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”

– Luke 22.42

Have you ever been in the midst of suffering and begged God to take it from you?  And He chose not to?  What was the result?  Did you ultimately grow and mature in your faith?  Or did you become embittered and resent God for the trial?  If you are a servant of Jesus, you can expect great suffering.  And you can expect that God will bring about your sanctification – your best – through it.

For four years I lived a life that many thought was one that required great faith.  I loved the opportunity to serve, and relished every moment of it.  It was indeed a life the required much sacrifice and conviction, but because of the desires God had placed in my heart it required minimal faith in the sense of perseverance through trial and testing.  Then God rocked my world and completely changed my life’s trajectory.  I then was forced to live a life that few would consider a life that requires much faith, but for me – because of those convictions and desires I have – it requires a daily submission and new step of faith.  And I can honestly look back on the last three years and see immensely more faith, trust and hope developed than in the four years before.

God is testing my faith.  And I am thankful that I can see growth through it.  I am also thankful that I know it means He is working in me, for my best, and for my sanctification.

We naturally want what is easiest and what feels the best.  But God has promised to develop faith and Spiritual maturity in His children.  And the way He does that is by testing and refining our faith through the fire of tribulation and suffering.  He wants what is best for you more than you want it for yourself, and He knows what is best for you – much more clearly than you know.  Are you in a season of peace and comfort right now?  Or is your faith being refined?  Can you look back over your life and see those seasons of testing and purification?  Or have you lived a relatively comfortable life that required little faith?  Trust God.  Know that He tested Jesus and even asked Jesus to surrender His desires and will.  Know that we, as Jesus’ servants, are not greater than our master and that we will be hated, persecuted, and tested by God.  And if you have not, then I would go back to the foundation and see if you have surrendered your life to God and asked for salvation.

He will work the best out for you.  And it will be through discipline and testing.  Trust Him through it, and you will be amazed at how you grow.