Archive for the ‘Theology thoughts’ Category

I recently answered a series of questions for Third Millennium Ministries covering topics related to Biblical Theology. Here is the first of the videos to be posted.

It is a couple of minutes long. Hope you enjoy it and have your understanding of God expanded.

kingdomofgod

Dan

While working on my masters degree I had a conversation with another student about the resurrection of Jesus. She made a statement that at first might indicate an incredibly strong faith in God; “If the body of Jesus was found in a tomb somewhere, it would not shake my faith at all”. Far from this being an example of incredible faith, I found it to be the height of both hubris and folly. Hubris because it dared to claim a greater faith than even the Apostle Paul could admit for himself. Folly because that same Paul said that if Jesus is in fact NOT risen from the dead, then we are to be pitied above all men.

Paul put it this way when he wrote to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth. “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men”. 1 Corinthians 15:14-18

The woman who said that her faith would not be shaken if Jesus never had risen, did not understand the absolutely crucial, linchpin place, that the resurrection has for followers of Jesus. Paul understood that the resurrection was the game-changer. Because Jesus rose from the dead, everything was now different. It was the resurrection that vindicated Jesus after his humiliating death on the cross. It was the resurrection that demonstrated his victory over sin and death. It was the resurrection that lead to his being seated at the right hand of the Father and at whose name every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

If the resurrection had never happened then Jesus was simply one more religious teacher who led people astray, only to disappoint them in the end. Rabbi Gamaliel understood this when he told the religious leaders to leave the disciples alone. He said that if Jesus was a nobody who was still in the grave then this talk of him as a messiah would fade away, just like it had so many times before with other religious zealots. Paul understood that if the resurrection had never really happened then the whole Christian faith was a sham. It was people preaching lies about God. It meant that their faith was only a faith for this life and that was a huge waste of time and effort.

But Paul was adamant that the resurrection was real. Jesus had risen from the dead. His resurrection was the down payment for us, the guarantee that all who had faith in Jesus would also rise from the dead one day. Jesus is the pioneer who leads the way for all who trust in him and in the reality of his resurrection.

My friend from graduate school is someone who Paul would say is to be most pitied. She has a faith that really has no future. It is a faith that does not need a risen savior. Without a risen savior, one who is still in the grave, there is only the grave for us. Our faith is for this life only. If Jesus had never been risen then there is no reason to follow him. He is just a guy who died 2,000 years ago and is still dead. And no matter how much we believe in him, when we die, we will be just as dead for just as long and stay that way. No hope. No future. No life eternal. If Jesus is still in the grave then Christianity is a giant lie.

But because he is risen, we have life and hope, and a future that is beyond our most vivid and beautiful imaginations. We have a purpose in this life that will find it’s fulfillment in the next. We have a God who is worthy of our adoration and praise. We have a message to take to people that can change their lives, now and forever. We have a relationship with a very real God who loves us enough to pay the ultimate price for our reconciliation with Him. We have the power to bring that reconciliation to the world, healing to the broken, dignity to the oppressed, joy to the grieving, laughter to those who weep. I could go on and on because the resurrection changes everything. From the moment He burst forth from the tomb, nothing would ever be the same again. A world that was spiraling down into darkness and oblivion, became a world that could be lifted higher and more glorious, all because He is risen.

Pat Robertson is quoted as saying that the earthquake in Haiti is God’s punishment for a deal that nation made with the Devil in 1804. Robertson claims that the pact was made so that the Haitian people would be able to defeat the French who held them in slavery. CNN article on Robertson Normally I would not deal with this subject and disagree so openly with another Christian. However in this case, there is a theology behind such an outrageous statement that must be addressed. The statement is that God is punishing an entire nation for an evil committed 200 years ago. Without even dealing with whether or not such a pact was ever made we need to deal with the theology of punishment that Robertson seems to buy into so often. Remember he also said that Katrina was God’s punishment on New Orleans for its sins and that Virginia Beach was saved from a hurricane because he prayed for it to go elsewhere. (I wonder how the people who live in the towns where that hurricane eventually struck feel about that prayer) The net result being that God spared Virginia Beach because of the prayers of the righteous and destroyed Haiti and New Orleans because of the sins of the wicked.

At first glance it is easy for many to buy into a theology of destruction and mass punishment from God. You can point to Sodom and Gomorrah as an example. But here is the difference. Prior to the destruction of those wicked places, God had a conversation with Abraham. The result of the conversation was that there were less than five people in those two towns who were not guilty of grievous sin and God insured the safety of those people. He was not going to destroy the just with the unjust when he punished someone for their sins.

During Jesus’ day there were a great many people who held to the theology of destruction as punishment that Robertson pronounces so often. The idea was simple. If something bad happened to you it was because you were a bad person and had done something to deserve it. Jesus shot down that theology as strongly as possible. In Luke 13 he deals with this issue:

1Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

People had the idea that the Galileans who Pilate killed and the people who had a building fall on them must have deserved it because they were very bad people. Jesus says that they were no worse than anyone else. They were no more guilty than anyone else in Jerusalem. The implication being that all of us are guilty of sin and all of us, not just Haitians, or people from New Orleans, have sinned and could face the consequences. Earthquakes happen because we live in a world that is spiritually fallen. Tragedies strike because of sin, but it is most often the general condition of sin and not some specific national or group sin that brings the hurricane or tornado. A tower fell on a bunch of people in Jerusalem because in a sinful world, towers do that sort of thing from time to time. They don’t fall only on “bad” people. When they fall on people, “good” people and “bad” people can all get killed. But of course we need to remember that because of sin we are all “bad” people. That was Jesus’ point. Those people were no worse than anyone else who did not have a tower fall on them.

In a passage in Matthew 5 designed to help us learn how to respond to our enemies Jesus says this: 43“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust and the sun to rise on them as well. What Jesus is saying is that God makes good things happen to everyone, even your enemy, so love them and care for them as God does. The flip side is that God also allows tragedy to strike the just and the unjust. Why is another question for another time. But the point being, everyone faces good times and hard times in life and when those times are faced by a massive group of people it has little to deal with specific sins or 200-year-old deals with the Devil. It has to do with a world that is fallen in general.

We live in a fallen world. Earthquakes happen in such a world. Buildings collapse on people in such a world. Our response is not to be one of smug self-righteousness that says “those people deserved the earthquake” or “those people deserved to have the tower fall on them”. Rather, our response is to love such people as we would want to be loved. So if you lived in Haiti how would you want to be loved? You could have someone say, “Too bad, your ancestors brought this on you with a deal with the devil” or you could have someone pray for you, provide shelter, food, medicine, and Christ-like love for you. I think it is clear what Jesus would do.

As one final thought, I wonder, which of those two people will you listen to when they say you need to surrender your life to follow Jesus?

Reba McEntire is an amazing talent and an inspiration on many levels. Please don’t take this as a personal attack on the Country and Western icon. But among the list of her many talents, theologian is probably not near the top of the list. Why do I say that? It comes as a result of reading some comments she made in a recent interview. (Reba interview) In the interview she affirms a belief in reincarnation which comes as something of a shock to most people due to her clear statements of faith in God and having grown up in the Bible Belt of America. Reba said, “People said I can’t be a Christian if I believe in reincarnation, but I always felt God loves us so much He’d want to recycle us and not just throw us away”.

There are at least two things seriously wrong with what she says. One is simple from a Biblical point of view. The other is more subtle but perhaps more profound. As to the first thing. The Bible is clear that reincarnation is not part of God’s plan. Hebrews puts it this way; Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” Hebrews 9:27,28. We don’t die and come back and die again and come back again. Just like Jesus died once, we die once.

Part of what is fascinating is that like many westerners who embrace reincarnation, Reba sees coming back again and again as a good thing. In the article she muses that maybe she is part Christian, part Buddhist. The problem is, Buddhists don’t see coming back again and again as a good thing. Just like Hinduism which also has reincarnation, they are trying to escape this life. In their system the world is nothing but pain that we are trying to escape and reach Nirvana. If you come back reincarnated it means you failed. No Buddhist wants to come back. They want to escape this reality.

The more profound part of her statement actually has to do with the implied view of God’s love and what eternity with Him would be like. Somehow the notion is expressed that once we die, we are just a throw away. Apparently it would be far more environmentally friendly on a cosmic/spiritual plane for God to “recycle” us. Like most westerners she misses the point that God does not recycle us, He redeems us. The Bible teaches that eventually Heaven and Earth will become one. God will restore creation to its intended purity and restore us to a right relationship with Him. His love for us is so vast and overwhelming that far from simply recycling us, He redeems us to be His people and to walk with Him again in the Garden.

I don’t fault Reba at all for her ideas. They are becoming more common all the time. I place the blame on those of us who claim to follow Christ. We have not understood or promoted the Biblical teaching of God’s love being a redeeming love. When we have it has only focused on being forgiven of personal sin. But redemption is so much more. All creation groans in expectation of the day when God will set things to right. It will be a day when sin, and pain, and sorrow, and suffering are no more. It will be a day of rejoicing, and dancing, and delighting in God our King. That is how much He loves us. He loves us so much that He sent His only son to redeem us and the world. He will in fact make us New Creatures and not a recycled retread.

Does God Need a Therapist?

Posted: September 14, 2009 in Theology thoughts

I recently got involved in an email exchange in which a gentleman asked, “Why does god have petty human emotions like jealousy and anger? History has proven that these emotions have never been good for anyone”.  A bit later in the email the writer made it clear that if God saw a therapist then He would certainly be put on medication.

Asking why God has emotions like anger and jealousy is a great question but they way this gentleman presented the question also loaded it with lots of subtle yet powerful implications. The way the question is posed practically defies anyone to try and answer it in a way that defends God’s emotions. After all, history has proven that these petty emotions are always destructive. In a way the question is not a question at all but a dare. It is a dare for anyone who would possibly consider swimming against the riptide of all history. Well, I love swimming against the tide so here goes.

First of all let’s look at jealousy and anger. Our email friend is convinced that such emotions are never good for anyone. Be careful whenever you make such a blanket statement. All it takes to refute you is one contrary example that is accepted as true. So what about anger? Is it always harmful? Are there never any times when it is good? I just read a story about a woman who rescued her toddler from the jaws of a wild animal. The animal literally had the child’s head in its mouth. The mother flew into action and beat the snot out of the animal to save her child. Do you think the mom was angry at that animal and at what was happening to her child? You bet she was and rightly so. When you hear about children getting sold into sex slavery by the millions each year, do you get angry? I hope so! Certainly you experience a flood of different emotions over such a travesty. But somewhere along the way you better be angry. There is a righteous anger and an unrighteous anger. Jesus Himself was angry at injustice. Our problem is not anger but anger at the wrong things and indifference to the suffering and pain of others.

What about jealousy? Is it ever a good thing or always bad for people? Paul makes it clear that just like there is a righteous and an unrighteous anger, there is also a godly and an ungodly jealousy. “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.” 2 Corinthians 2:11 Jealousy that seeks to maintain the sanctity of a relationship is a good thing. If your spouse begins to get involved with another person and you don’t have some feeling of godly jealously that seeks to preserve the relationship then you need a therapist, not the other way around. This is the same thing with God. His jealousy in the Bible is demonstrated when we break the sanctity of our relationship with Him by engaging in spiritual adultery. It is called idolatry, giving other things the place of God in our lives. God’s jealousy in that is not so much for His own needs as it is for our benefit. He knows that we are on a path to destruction and hurt when we attach ourselves to our idols. So far from being “petty”, the emotions of anger and jealousy, when expressed for godly reasons and in a godly way, are actually always good.

But that is not the only thing we need to get from the question and it’s implications. For starters, anytime someone adds a derogatory adjective, in this case the word “petty”, we need to see it for what it is worth. It is a value judgment that must be dealt with and removed from the equation. I think I have done that. Emotions in and of themselves are not wrong, what we do with them can be. Secondly, whenever someone makes a blanket and emphatic statement it is essential to dissect it and understand it. To say that history has clearly shown something to always be true is a dangerous and uninformed statement. What makes it dangerous is that it is one of those statement that will often have people shaking their heads in agreement. It sounds so informed that people dare not challenge it. As something of a student and teacher of history I can tell you that history has shown no such thing as the writer claims. One can certainly pull out examples of history in which it is correct that anger and jealousy were damaging. But there are also examples from history in which they were beneficial and necessary for the good of others.

There is new energy in the debate over celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church. The pedophile sex scandals that have rocked the church in recent years have certainly stirred that debate. But more recently it is the revelation that a wildly popular priest in Miami has admitted his love for a woman and an ongoing relationship. The priest is Rev. Alberto Cutie. I know, Hollywood couldn’t even come up with a name like that in a situation like this.

CNN.Com has two commentaries that look at opposite sides of the issue. One supports the Roman Catholic position of required celibacy for priests, http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/05/15/barron.why.celibacy/index.html and the other does not. http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/05/15/cozzens.celibacy.discussion/index.html Having received my Bachelors Degree in Theology from a staunchly Roman Catholic university, www.franciscan.edu I was naturally curious as to how each commentator would approach the subject.

Now you may be wondering what place this subject has on this blog and what it has to do with you. Well you must admit that discussions about Rev. Cutie having a day at the beach with a bikini clad woman, and him in swim trunks and no collar is somewhat provocative. But that is a different kind of provocative all together. The main reason why I am writing on this is that the whole subject deals with how we interpret scripture and what personal arguments and traditions we allow to trump a basic understanding of God’s Word. In this case it is pretty clear to me that the argument for required celibacy flies in the face of Scripture.

In the argument for required celibacy on CNN.com the author acknowledges that many of the arguments for the practice do not stand up to scrutiny. In particular would be the argument that married life is not as “spiritual” as celibate life. I am sure he would add, that the argument since Jesus was not married then priests should not be married is also pretty lame.

The argument he does put forth is that celibacy points us to something future. The author says “God chooses certain people to be celibate. Their mission is to witness to a transcendent form of love, the way that we will love in heaven. In God’s realm, we will experience a communion (bodily as well as spiritual) compared to which even the most intense forms of communion here below pale into insignificance, and celibates make this truth viscerally real for us now.” I agree completely that God chooses certain people to be celibate. But not for the reason of giving us some glimpse into what heaven will be like. His idea is that since there will be no marriage in heaven that the celibate priest functions as a symbol and reminder of a life to come. Somehow I get the feeling that no one ever thinks of heaven when they think of priests being celibate. He continues along that line, “the priest is fascinating and that a large part of the fascination comes from celibacy. The compelling quality of the priest is not a matter of superficial celebrity or charm. It is something much stranger, deeper, more mystical. It is the fascination for another world.” My suspicion is that for most people the “stranger, deeper, fascination” is more along the lines of, “Can someone really never have sex?” and not with some eternal state of bliss.

The basic problem with the argument is that it is trying to support required celibacy for priests from philosophical argument about a potential benefit and not from a Biblical argument.  As a result it misses the very practical and understandable Biblical teaching on celibacy. The Apostle Paul writes about marriage, sex, celibacy, and ministry in 1 Corinthians 7. He says that it is good for some people not to marry. But he also makes the point that not everyone can do this and if they find that they really like and need sex, then get married. “1Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.[a] 2But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. 3The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. 5Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 So celibacy is a gift and so is sex. You just need to figure out which gift God wants you to have.

Paul’s reason for people not getting married is purely practical and has nothing to do with modeling eternity or living a fascinating or even provocative lifestyle that gets people thinking of another world. In Paul’s mind, the person who is celibate has more time and energy to devote to ministry. They are not concerned with the daily domestic affairs of a family and household.

“32I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34and his interests are divided.” 1 Corinthians 7:32-34

That is a very simple and understandable reason for celibacy. But it is also the argument for it NOT being required of people in ministry. Paul never says that if you are married then you can’t be involved in full-time vocational ministry. He simply says that you will not have as much time and energy to devote to it if you were single.

It seems perfectly clear and simple that the answer for the Roman Catholic Church should be for optional celibacy. That is the simple teaching from Scripture. The only reason that the move has not been made prior to this time is that tradition is being allowed to trump Scripture. Now before you jump all over the Roman Catholic Church for letting that be the case, make sure to take the log out of your own eye. Even the most “Biblical” of Non-Roman Catholics have traditions that have nothing to do with the teachings of the Bible and often run counter to them. We all have our blind spots.

Tonight I spoke at a college class on World Religions. I was the guest speaker and given two and a half hours to explain Christianity. The class is taught by a Muslim whom I have become friends with over the past few years. He teaches this class a couple of times a year and this is the fifth time I have been invited to present Christianity. My goal in the class is always to get the people in the class to consider who Jesus was and is and how they should respond to Him. Pointing out the claims of Jesus and his uniqueness is a big part of the presentation, as well as Christianity being all about trusting Jesus by faith for salvation.

Since it was a class on World Religions and they have already had presentations on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, with Islam yet to come, I asked the class this question, “Why does every religion want a piece of Jesus?”. Hinduism considers Jesus to be an Avatar, or incarnation of the God Vishnu. Buddhism honors Jesus as a Bodhisattva or enlightened guide who leads others to Nirvana before going himself. Some teachers within Judaism consider Jesus to be a moral Rabbi who pointed people to God. Islam honors Jesus as one of the five greatest prophets, even believing that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born.

No other religious figure is some revered by so many different religions. Buddhists don’t honor Mohamed as a Bodisattva. Jews don’t respect Vishnu as some sort of messenger from God. Jews don’t look to Buddha as a spiritual teacher. So what is it about Jesus that everyone wants a piece of Him? I think the answer is in some ways found in Romans chapter 1. In that chapter Paul makes it clear there God has made Himself known in creation. There is something about creation that points all people to God. We have this innate radar that sees the divine in creation. If that is true of creation in general, how much more so is it true of Jesus in particular, God made flesh. I am convinced that the reason so many religions want a piece of Jesus is because our built in God radar, as broken as it is by our sinful nature, detects the divine in Jesus and wants to know Him and lay some claim to Him.

Of course Romans also explains why we distort who Jesus really is. We can’t take Him as God in the flesh because our sinful nature is at war with God. So we twist Him into Vishnu or a prophet, or a good Buddhist, or a moral teacher and we feel good about that. We feel good about it because we have made our God manageble and twisted Him to fit our image. That fact that we go through all of that to keep something of Jesus, but make Him fit our image, tells me that Jesus really is who He claimed to be. He is the Lord God, come in the flesh, the Messiah, the Savior, the King of Kings. He is the one to whom we all know, we must bend the knee. The day will come when every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Some will do so with joy because they love Him. Others will do so through gritting teeth and with anguished hearts because He will no longer be in the image the tried to force upon Him. But they will bend the knee and He will be honored.

Jesus is unique. He is the Lord. He will not be forced into our image of Him, not matter how hard we try take only the parts of Him we want. Bow down and worship Him. Honor Him. He is the Lord.

It seems that in the past few weeks I have come across a number of people who claim to be Christians but do not think Jesus was God. The real question I suppose is, “Did Jesus think that he was God?”. The short answer to that question is clearly yes. In fact, that is the reason why the religious leaders wanted to have him crucified. Consider this encounter with the religious leaders in John 8:54-58

54Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and keep his word. 56Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

57“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

58“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” 59At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

Jesus claimed that Abraham, who had died twenty centuries earlier had actually seen and been seen by Jesus. The religious leaders mock Jesus by pointing out that he is not even fifty years old so there is no way he and Abraham could have seen one another. They were convinced that Jesus was a demon possessed nut job. Jesus responds by saying, “Before Abraham was born, I AM”. What would have made sense from a word tense standpoint was for Jesus to say, before Abraham was born, I was. But he says, I AM. At that point they pick up stones in order to stone him to death. Why?

The reason they want to kill him right then and there is because in their minds, Jesus has just committed blasphemy. He has claimed an equality with God that in their eyes is as sinful a thing as there is. By using the term I AM, he is reminding them of the name God used for Himself when He spoke to Moses on Mt Sinai in Exodus 3

14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am . This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”

That story and the name I AM was ingrained in the mind of every first century Jew. It was God’s name for Himself. By using that phrase in the way he did, Jesus was saying as clearly as he possibly could, “I am divine”. I am the same one who spoke to Moses on the mountain. That is why they wanted to kill him.

There are numerous other places where he makes the case for his divinity in other ways. The Gospel of Mark, chapter 2, is nearly as blatant as John 8. In that event Jesus tells a paralytic that his sins are forgiven. The religious leaders are shocked and murmur among themselves that no one can forgive sins except God. Jesus then shows them that he is God, can forgive sins, and the proof that he has forgiven this particular mans sins is that he then heals the man of his paralytic condition.

In addition to Jesus own understanding found in the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament is crystal clear that he is God in the flesh as well. The second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians makes the case that Jesus who was equal with the Father and in fact divine. He did not let his divine status keep him from also becoming a man. He did that in order to secure salvation for everyone who would believe in him.

Okay, so what? Jesus claimed to be God. What difference does that make for you and me? The so what is that you have to do something with Jesus and who he claimed to be. C.S. Lewis popularized the dilemma and the choices with his Lord, Liar, Lunatic options. Jesus claimed to be God. His claim is either true or it is not. If is is not true, then he either knew it was not true and thus he was a liar, or he thought it was true and thus he was a lunatic nut job with a divinity complex. The other option is that it is true that he is God, the Lord, and as such, we must devote ourselves to following Him, where ever He leads and no matter what. The command that He gave his followers right before He left them in Matthew 28:18-19 is that they were to make disciples, followers of Jesus who would obey everything He commanded. That is the implication for us. Jesus claimed to be the Lord and demonstrated that He is. We are then called to follow, love, and obey Him with everything we have and everything we are.

Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!
Hebrews 12:9

Any discussion about a life of submission in the 21st century has to take into account the growing popularity of Islam. The reason is simply this, the word Islam is derived from the Arabic word “salema”. The common meaning of the word is “submission”. Ultimately it is about submission to Allah who is the supreme deity in Islam. An oft-quoted phrase among Muslims is “insh’Allah”, which translates to “if God wills”. It is indicative of a mindset of submission to God in all things. If tragedy strikes, “insh’Allah”. If something wonderful happens, “insh’Allah”. If your plans are changed due to circumstances out of your control, “insh’Allah”. All of life is seen as being subject to the will of Allah.  

But, like any oft-repeated phrase, especially religious ones, insh’Allah can become a meaningless mantra. For Christians The Lord’s Prayer or even saying “God bless you” after a sneeze come to mind as common examples of phrases with powerful meaning that has been lost in the repetition. One only needs to hear a football team rush through the Lord’s Prayer after a victory, or a congregation say it in a mind-numbing monotone to know what I mean.

Yet in spite of the fact that there are times when such phrases are meaningless because of our human tendency to be shallow and glib, there is still power in such phrases. When they come from the heart, when they express our deepest longing or highest dreams, they become powerful symbols of reality. In some way they even serve to turn those dreams into reality. To pray with all your heart to the Lord that He “forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us” is to in some way bring reality to the prayer. You can’t pray that prayer from your heart and not be in some way changed by it into a more forgiving person. When the mouth speaks from the heart, the heart is in turn made more like the thing spoken.

So when a Muslim says, “If God wills” and does so from the heart, he is saying that he is completely and totally dependent on Allah for all things. It means that his own will as a human being is of no real consequence and the only path to peace in life is to submit to the will of Allah. It is an amazing statement when viewed alongside a western, post-enlightenment mindset, that holds individual freedom and self-determination to be among the most important of all human rights.

That Enlightenment mindset, that has so powerfully influenced Western Christianity, rejects any notion that we should submit ourselves to anyone or anything, even God. It is in part why I think so many are comfortable with a nebulous belief in some unknown supreme being who is out there somewhere. By holding to such a belief it is possible to still claim to believe in God but yet have no need to respond to or certainly not submit to Him. The Deists of the Enlightenment saw God as something of a great watch maker who made the world, wound it up, and then let it run on it’s own. That kind of philosophy has man at the pinnacle and the real power in the world, with no need to submit to God.

A Biblical worldview, certainly as it relates to submission to God, is far closer to the Muslim idea of insh’ Allah than it is to the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The previously mentioned Lord’s Prayer is probably the clearest example of this truth. Jesus said that we are to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven”. Jesus echoed this in His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was faced with his impending death on the cross and asked if possible that there be some other way, some other cup to drink from. But in true submission to the Father be prayed, “Never the less, not my will, but Thy will be done”.

For some this sounds like a defeatist’s path. It is the path of one who has given up and has no hope. It sounds like the choice of the weak and faint of heart and a choice in which one has resigned oneself to pain and suffering for no reason. If however, we truly understand that our God loves us enough to send Jesus to the Cross and we understand that our God is in fact all wise and the sovereign King of all Creation, then whatever He decrees is in fact the best for us. Instead of us resigning ourselves to His will in an attitude of defeat or depression, we need to embrace His will and the freedom it gives us.

That freedom may just be lure of Islam that Christians must understand. It is something we can have in reality and not in the false way of Islam. There is an amazing comfort that comes when we embrace the fact that our God is sovereign and that our path is to submit to Him. It means that when things are going well we can rejoice and delight in knowing that our God is blessing us by His grace. When things are going badly from our perspective, then it means that we can rest in the comfort of knowing that even though we cannot see or fully understand, we have a God who loves us beyond measure. He is a God who does not abandon us but orders our steps for His purposes and glory. That is true freedom.

give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” 1 Thessalonians 5:18

Does God really mean that in every circumstance that we are to be thankful? How can we possibly be thankful when things go horribly wrong? It’s easy to understand that we are to give thanks for all the blessings that come our way. Today is an entire holiday in the USA set aside for doing just that. People will gather with family and friends all over the country, have a big meal, and give thanks to whatever or whoever they think is the force behind their good fortune. But what do you do when it is hard to see the blessing in the midst of the tragedy?

I have noticed two approaches to the verse. One is hardly worth mentioning but the other is commonly thought to be the answer to the dilemma of being thankful in hard times. The first is to put on some almost other-worldly expression of thanks that totally ignores the reality of the situation. It is the person who is smiling in the midst of tragedy saying, “well praise God and give thanks in all things”. They come off as being on some sort of “spiritual ignore reality drug”. As to the second approach, often in the midst of tragedy there is some ray of hope that allows us to be thankful, like when you totally destroy your car in an accident but no one is seriously hurt. Certainly we can be thankful for that. But it still qualifies as an easily recognizable blessing that has come your way.

There is a great deal that is right and good in the second approach. In fact there is something that is very provocative about a faith that allows you to see the blessing in the midst of tragedy. It means that your focus is more on what God is doing for you than it is on what has gone wrong. It has a similar feel to Paul’s words to the Philippians when he said that he had learned to be content in all situations. He learned that because he kept his eyes on the sovereign Lord whom he served and not on his own expectations or desires or comfort.

But what do you do if the tragedy outweighs the blessing. It’s easy to give thanks when the car is wrecked but you are not. You and your passengers are worth far more than the car. What if two people died and you lived, then what? How do you give thanks then? How does a parent give thanks when a child dies? How does a young man give thanks when after just over a year of marriage his wife dies, having battled cancer the entire eighteen months? How does a city give thanks when airplanes crash into buildings and leave more than 2,000 dead? How do you give thanks when you are sitting on a bench in an African hospital praying with a 12 year old boy who is homeless, has AIDS, and is so malnourished that you can count his vertebrae through the thick jacket on his back as you place a hand on him while you pray. Does God really expect us to give thanks in situations like that? The short answer is yes.

Such situations may be the ultimate test of our ability to trust God no matter what. They bring us to the same place as Job when after the most unbelievable series of tragedies said, “Even though the Lord slay me, still I will trust Him”. There can come a point in our lives when we can’t find that bit of blessing in the hardship, when the pain far outweighs the good we can see. It is at that point that we must trust a sovereign God.

Whenever we gather for a time of corporate worship at Northland Church we remind people that we gather in order to worship God for who He is and for what He has done. We worship God for His character just as much as for the amazing things He does. Giving thanks in hard situations must follow that same wisdom. Even if we find it hard or impossible to thank God for some specific thing in our lives we can still give thanks for who He is. Paul did not say to thank God “for” every circumstance, but “in” every circumstance. The distinction is crucial. It means that even when you can’t find anything about the circumstance to be thankful for, you can and must still thank God that He is sovereign. You can still thank God for His love and mercy, even in a time when it feels so distant. You can still trust him as Job did. That trust will be evident in thanking God for who He is even when what He is doing makes no sense, is painful, and leaves you bewildered.

Today is a good day to begin to give thanks, not just for the good things in your life, but to give thanks to God for who He is. Ultimately that should be what we are most thankful for, that God is the kind of God we can trust no matter what our circumstances and not matter how limited our understanding of what He is doing in those circumstances.

I wonder if atheists have really thought through the implications of what they believe. By that I don’t mean the implications for what happens when you die. That is usually the first place Christians want to focus the discussion. Rather, I wonder if they have really thought about the implications of what happens when you live.

I heard a sermon this weekend by Steve Brown in which he pointed out that a group of atheists have spent $40,000 to put advertisements on buses and billboards in Washington D.C. trying to convince people to NOT believe in God. It is a campaign designed to lead up to Christmas telling people that there is no God to be good for. You should just be “good for goodness sake”. Well that might sound great coming from Bruce Springsteen on his version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but it makes for lousy philosophy. Do they really want to promote that we be good, simply for the sake of goodness, as if goodness is some universally agreed to principle that is for the betterment of us all? If so, then they are completely violating their own position of atheism.

Here is what I mean by that. If there is no God who is responsible for the created order we see around us, then the only real alternative we have to explain all that exists is a purely materialistic, Darwinian naturalism. That is a position that says there is no spiritual realm and survival is based on the strong survive and the weak die. It is truly survival of the fittest. If it is indeed survival of the fittest then I have absolutely no motivation what-so-ever to do anything good for anyone other than my own family. After all it is my gene pool that I want to see survive. If you and yours get in the way of me and mine, then I need to do whatever it takes to get you out of the picture. You are nothing but competition for resources. Maybe I can find some personal benefit in extending some care to you and yours if you live near me and it will improve my life. But surely I have no reason to even begin to be worried about the starving people of Darfur, or the people dying in the D.R. Congo civil war, or AIDS orphans in Swaziland.

The Russian literary genius and Christian, Dostoevsky said “if there is no God, everything is permissable”. In other words, if the is no God, no supreme moral authority, then we may do whatever we want, whenever we want. Naturalism, Darwinianism, should in fact then rule the day and we should behave only in a way that further secures our own survival and comfort and that our our clan or tribe. Now some will say that all humanity is one large tribe or family and so we need to care for one another througout the world. Sorry, but that is like the situation that develops when someone wins the lottery. All of a sudden a host of never before heard from cousins come out of the woodwork wanting a share. No, if you are not in my immediate sphere of family, those I am directly responsible for, then if I follow atheism to its reasonable conclusion, I don’t care what happens to you. Not only that, but if I can get over on you and improve my life at your expense, then so be it.

But in reality, there is a God and he is a God who is moral and just, as well as merciful and forgiving, then it changes everything. Then, and only then do I have a true motivation to live for others. Then I am called to indeed “Love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength and love my neighbor as myself”. Atheists want to experience the benefits of a world that believes in such a God but not the responsibility of submitting to and following such a God. You can’t have it both ways.

Sadly many Christians are functional atheists. By that I mean that we too want the benefits of such a God. We want to have the peace and joy and comfort that comes from His existence. But we reserve the right to live our lives as we want to, as if He really did not exist. Or we at least act like He does not matter when we make decisions on how to live. How many really think through the implications of what they do with their money each day as it relates to God? I suspect most of us only think about God when the money runs short or we are making a major life changing purchase. How many of us really think about God when we are planning our leisure time, or hobbies, or what we will eat, or when we must deal with the hurt feelings we have towards someone else? You see, if there is no God then indeed, do whatever you want, whenever you want. But if in fact there is a God and He is the God of the Bible, then all that we do, at every moment of our lives, must be done and lived out of love for Him and for our neighbor. In doing so, we will indeed be followers of Jesus who did not concern Himself with his own survival and comfort, but instead sacrificed all on a cross so that we could survive. Then He calls us to take up our cross and follow Him, sacrificing ourselves daily out of love for Him and others.

Not a simple task.

Maybe that is why atheists dont want Him to be real.

“But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” John 4:23

When I listen to much that passes for Gospel preaching these days I get the very clear impression that the Gospel is all about me, my happiness, my comfort, my freedom, and my being delivered from the effects of sin that would send me to Hell. Certainly there is an aspect of the Gospel that is about our being delivered from the punishment due us because of sin. But that is a far cry from the common message that makes being a Christian all about my happiness. I wonder if the American ideal that we are to be free to pursue, “life, liberty, and happiness” has not crept into our understanding of the Gospel. Preachers call people to accept Jesus into their hearts so that they can be forgiven and be assured a place in heaven and so they can experience all the wonderful happiness that life can offer.

The problem is, this is so incredibly short sighted. At best it leaves people thinking that since they have punched their ticket to Heaven and are saved from Hell, then it is just a matter of waiting for that day. At worst it progresses into a theology that says God wants you healthy, wealthy, and full of happiness and if you are not then something is wrong with you. What this completely misses are two major points; it is not about accepting Jesus into your heart. It is about giving Him complete control of your life. And it is not only about what you are saved from. It is about being saved to a life that follows Christ and lives for Him, no matter what.

When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well he made it clear that God was calling people to Him for a purpose. That purpose was to be people who worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. That is an active thing. It is about giving your life to Jesus and seeking to glorify Him everywhere, everyday. In that sense it is fulfilling our original created purpose. We were made to be stewards of creation and to life in a relationship with God that honored Him. The redemption that we experience in Christ is intended to get us back to that relationship. We are to be people who exercise dominion over the earth and our lives so that God is honored.

Often times that honoring comes most, not in the times of our lives that are sweet and easy and pleasurable, but in the times of hardship and struggle. When the Apostle Paul was in prison in Rome, he wrote a letter to the Philippians. In it he commends them because his imprisonment, rather than making them fearful, has actually encouraged them all the more to share Christ with others. He even commends them for their willingness to endure hardship for the sake of Christ. In that suffering they share in the fellowship of Christ. They count it a sign of their faith and a privilege to suffer for Jesus. How different is that from the so called Gospel preached today that says if you suffer it is because you don’t have enough faith.

We have been saved for a purpose, a life lived in honor of Christ. We are to worship Him with our lives everyday. We are to honor Him with our service. We are to rejoice in all things, even, especially in the midst of hardship. We are to count it all joy when we suffer for His name sake and for the advancement of the Kingdom. That is Provocative Christian Living. It is living out the Gospel in a way that causes people to ask, how can you do that? It causes people to long for a faith like that in their own lives. It rings far more true and is far more powerful than the weak, distorted Gospel they have heard and tried and found wanting.

At the table with Jesus

Posted: August 18, 2008 in Theology thoughts

Bruce is Jewish by birth and a follower of Jesus by the grace of God. Sort of what many of my southern friends say about being born in America and south of the Mason/Dixon line. Several years ago Bruce and I where talking about communion, the celebration of the past supper that Jesus had with the disciples. Bruce reminded me that what they shared was not just the passing of a plastic shot glass with some juice in it and a little nibble of some wheat substance. Rather it was a full out meal, lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs, wine and more. It got us talking about what is missing in many celebrations of communion today. What struck me was the thought that most often what is missing is an appreciation of what it means that Jesus is present at that table.

There have been endless debates about what Jesus meant when he said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood”. Between debating if the elements actually change into his body and blood, or if the molecules of bread and flesh are commingled, or if it is somehow just symbolic, we have missed what I think is the main point. Somehow, Jesus makes himself more know to us through this supper than he does at other times. It has always struck me as a fascinating thing that the disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize that it was Jesus they were speaking with, until He broke bread with them. I have coupled that fascination with Jesus saying that where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there in the midst. Does that mean that when you are all alone that Jesus is NOT there? Of course not. He promised to always be with us and through the indwelling Holy Spirit He is. Yet when we gather with other Christ followers there is someway in which the presence of Jesus is more readily known and experienced. It is in community with others that we see more of Jesus. I don’t think that it is coincidental that we call gathering at the Lord’s Table, Communion. We should be having a powerful experience of community with Christ as we gather with the rest of the Body, to celebrate the sacrifice of His body for us.

Somehow we need to recapture the mystery of this relationship. Maybe recapture is the wrong word, For if we captured it, that implies that we understand it. And usually when we understand something we try and control it. Maybe that was the problem to begin with. We have tried to quantify and analyze how Jesus is present in communion. In the process we have missed Him, have not recognized Him. He is there at the table with us. He is there in the other followers who are gathered with us. He is there, somehow in a way that can not be explained, because the bread and wine are there. He is there because He promised to be there. I suspect that an even greater part of the mystery is not so much that He is here during communion, but that somehow, when we celebrate at the Lord’s Table, it takes us to a heavenly realm that is only experienced by faith. In that way it may be much like Lewis’ land of Narnia that is always there, just outside our senses, a place of Jesus presence that we go to by faith.