Monday, December 30, 2013

Church Attendance and Other Life and Death Matters, Part 1

We are quickly approaching the New Year, and for many people, that means making New Year’s Resolutions. I am neither a proponent nor an opponent of such resolutions; but if you are one for them, or are considering making one this year, can I make a suggestion for one? Why don’t you commit to being a regular, active member of a local church? If you are a Christian, this is vital. It’s not an extra, an add-on. It’s at the heart of what the Christian life is, and it has increasingly become neglected in our society. Many who call themselves Christians NEVER attend a church, and regular church attendance has been redefined to include people who show up once or twice a month. Over the next several posts, I hope to convince you, if you fall into either of those two categories, that this should not be! And if you are at church every time the doors are opened, I hope to also convince you that mere church attendance is not even enough, that we ought to be striving for real community with our fellow believers.
            Let’s begin with that first step; understanding the importance of regular church attendance. There is simply no Biblical way to defend avoiding a regular gathering with fellow believers, certainly not for any extended period. Take a look at what Hebrews 10 has to say about this.

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:23:25)

Take a look at several things from this passage. I want you to notice the connection between perseverance and church attendance. The passage begins with a call to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” Now, notice what he says. We do so, knowing that God is faithful. I’m Southern Baptist through and through, so I believe in the doctrine of “perseverance of the saints,” or the promise that all those God saves, he will keep. So the writer of Hebrews says we should hold on, recognizing his faithfulness to us. Jesus has died for our sins, and he has created a way for us to have relationship with God. So we are to hold fast.  How do we do that? We get the answer in the next verse, with a positive and a negative command.
The positive command is this - We consider how we can stir one another to love and good works. So the means by which God causes us to persevere in our faith is by having us be around people who will stir us to love more and live better. This is how our faith grows, and it is how we hold fast. And then the negative command follows the positive one – we don’t neglect meeting together. We cannot stir one another to love and good works unless we are regularly meeting with other believers. And we will not persevere in our faith unless we are constantly stirring one another to love and good works. And notice what else this passage says. We shouldn't neglect meeting together, but we should encourage one another all the more as “we see the day drawing nearer.” What’s the point here? Our society says that church attendance is less important than it once was. Hebrews says regular gathering with the saints is more important. Every single day, it gets more important. The closer we get to the return of Jesus, the more important it is that we meet together.
Now, it requires more than simply showing up at church to make this happen, but it will most certainly not require less. God has given us the church, and one of the main reasons he has given it to us is so that we will last, we will persevere, until the end. If we ignore regular church attendance, we have no reason to think that our faith has the kind of legs that will last.
Does this mean that we must be at church every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, every Wednesday night? I’m afraid this passage does not go that far, much to the chagrin of some of my pastor friends, I’m sure. But what it does say is our meetings ought to be regular and not-neglected. So if you are a believer, look back on your last year of church attendance. Was it regular? Was it neglected? Might the New Year be the time to re-commit to regular church attendance? Could you set a goal to be there a certain number of times this year? I think it’s quite clear; this is life and death. It’s not simply an extra. Your faith depends on it.
Now, I know I have made this issue much simpler than it is in reality. There are a myriad of reasons why people who profess to be Christians do not attend church. I hope to address them in a post coming up in the very near future. I also plan to talk about the difference in simply being a member of a church, and committing to it in a way that will truly help you grow in your faith. Finally, I hope to suggest a few reasons when it might be okay to leave a church, with the idea that you immediately begin looking for another one. Be on the lookout for those posts in the near future!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Everything is Not a "Thing"

For many years, David Letterman had a segment on his show called, “Is This Anything?” In that segment, the curtain on the stage would be raised to show a performer of some kind doing an act of some kind. Most of the time, there was real question as to whether this “act” was actually an act, or just some random person doing something equally random. After a few seconds of watching them performer, Dave and Paul would then discuss the question, “Is this anything?” The basic idea was this: “Does this performance rise to the level of something of value?” Now, it was done purely for comedic purposes; the bit itself had very little value, which was, I think part of the point. Take a look here at one of the segments.

I say all of that to say this: I think it would be good sometimes if we Christians asked that same question: “Is this anything?” This is a question that could resolve a lot of stress in our personal relationships, in our churches, in our families and in our communities. Anytime we see ourselves beginning to get upset or stressed, to simply ask ourselves, “Is this really anything?” Is this the kind of thing that is worth the stress and worry I’m putting into it?
Let me explain to you what I mean: we live in a society that seems to want to make a “thing” out of everything. Far too often we are quick to rush to judgment about a person we care about, or a politician we don’t like, or a cultural issue that we disagree with. So my wife forgets she told me she’d watch television with me tonight, and I quickly assume that it’s because she doesn't care about my feelings. Or a politician you don’t care for says something that could be taken one of two ways, and you automatically choose to take it the way that makes him look the worst, or makes you feel the angriest. Either way, we're both far too quick to assign wrong motives to people, even before we could even begin to have a clue what their motives were.
            The Biblical mandate for avoiding this kind of rush-to-judgment is clear. Jesus said you are to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) And loving your neighbor as yourself simply means giving them the same benefit of the doubt you would like for yourself from others. We don’t like it when people jump to conclusions about us. We should not do it with others. We must understand that this kind of neighbor-loving both believes and hopes and endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:7) So as a Christian, I should prefer to be wrong about someone’s motivation in a way that believes and hopes in them rather than wrong in a way that cynically suspects the very worst of them. There is a time, and I think it’s fairly often, just to let stuff go. Everything does not have to be a “thing.” There is also a "boy who cried wolf" syndrome at work here. When everything is something, nothing is anything.

This kind of living very quickly runs up against our own fleshly desires, our demands for our "rights," our hopes to have things our way. And that's part of the point. As Christians, we don't have the right to be easily offended.
Now, Jesus told us to gentle as doves, but he also told us to be as wise as serpents. (Matthew 10:16) So this is not a call to gullibility for the sake of the kingdom. I’m not telling you that you must let yourself get burned again and again and again by someone. What this is, is a call to diligently hope for and seek the best in our neighbors, whether they be a wife or husband or mother or father or pastor or mayor or governor or president. Don’t automatically assume the worst. This kind of attitude has the ability to change families, to change churches, to change communities, to change countries, to change the world, for the better. Always hope. And be willing to endure being wrong. Go into this recognizing that you will be wronged, and you will be hurt. But love isn’t safe. Love doesn’t come without pain. Ask Jesus about that. And then ask yourself, in comparison, “Is this anything?”

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Offended by What?

My Facebook feed is full of people who are offended by something. Maybe it’s something political. Maybe it’s personal. Maybe it’s religious. But I would guess one of four posts in my feed are about someone who has gotten offended by something. Right now, there are a lot of people who are offended by people are offended by their Christian beliefs. And they’re asking the question: why is everyone offended by us? What is it about our faith that they find so offensive. I hope to answer that question in this post.

I would argue Christianity is offensive on three levels; two of them are not unique to Christianity as it relates to the other major world religions, at least the major monotheistic ones. But the last one is quite unique, and what I believe separates Christianity from the others. It’s also one of the reasons that I believe Christianity seems to get an extra helping of scorn from some people in the world. Not the only reason, but one of the reasons. Finally, it’s the reason we ought to trumpet above everything else. It is the thing that makes Christianity unique, and I think, ultimately satisfying.

The first reason Christianity is offensive is because of the moral demands it makes on the world. Christianity says certain things are wrong and certain things are right, and this does not sit well with people who would prefer to set their own morality, be their own moral compass. Most people like to believe they are pretty good blokes and know right from wrong. But Christianity says there are many things that seem right to a man, but lead to death. Now, this is not different from almost every other religion. Islam, Judaism and Mormonism, among others, all say that certain things are wrong and certain things are right. And cultural winds shouldn’t really change what are timeless moral truths. Even when the cultural mores of the day say there is nothing wrong with something, Christianity says something else. So it was Christians, among others, who said that slavery was wrong, even when other said it was right (man were Christians who claimed to use the Bible to defend their beliefs, but these beliefs could not ultimately hold up). The power of the slave trade could not ultimately hold up against the truths of the Bible. So religions that make moral demands on people will always be unpopular among the larger society, for just that reason.

The second way that Christianity is offensive is because of the truth claims that it makes. Christianity claims to be telling the truth about the way the world is. It is not alone in this. Islam, Judaism and Mormonism all do this. And those truths can’t all be correct. They could all be wrong, but they can’t all be right. And those who say that each person can pursue their own particular truth don’t really get what truth is. There are certain truths that can be true for one person but not for another. It is true that I like Snicker’s bar. This is not true for my son. But religious truth claims are not that way. Religious truth claims say that this is the way the world operates. And if every religious truth claim is true, then none of them are true, or they can’t be all true when they conflict with one another. Islam says Jesus was a mere prophet. Christianity says Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. But of these cannot be true.

Again, both of those ways that Christianity is offensive are not unique. Every religion that says it is true and the others are not can be offensive to those who do not believe. Every religion that makes moral demands on a person can be offensive to those who do not want to submit to those moral demands. But I think there is a third way Christianity is offensive that is unique to the faith, and is really the essence of what it is all about. It combines the truth claims of Jesus with the moral demands of Jesus, and explains how he deals with them both. And it is a stumbling block, an offense to many, many people.

The main offense of Christianity is this; it tells people that there is nothing they can do to make themselves right with God, but it tells them they must be right with God. Christianity says that every single person is radically sinful, and has grossly disobeyed the moral demands of God. It makes this is a main, foundation truth claim. And then it says that man’s only hope is to cease his efforts to be good enough for God, and trust that God has already accomplished what needs to be accomplished for them, through the coming of Jesus. Christianity says that God decided to come to the earth as a person, and live a perfect life as a human, but then take a punishment he didn’t deserve in substitution for all the sins of the world. Then it says he rose from the dead, claiming victory over the forces of evil in the world, and breaking the bonds of death that held the universes in its grip. And it says that man’s only chance is to stop trying to earn his way to God, and to accept what Jesus has done for him.

This does not sit well with our natural minds. We believe that if we just try hard enough, if we just act good enough, if we just sacrifice and serve and love, then God will accept us. Christianity says the opposite. It says the only way we can find the ability to be good enough, sacrifice enough, serve or love enough, is to stop trying and accept what Jesus has already done for us. This the paradoxical offensiveness of Christianity. God demands that we obey him perfectly. God says that we can’t obey him perfectly. So God himself grants us perfect obedience through the work of his Son.

This is gloriously good news. It is freeing news. It calls us to cease from our efforts. It begs us to stop trying to be good enough for God. It grants us the grace we so desperately need, but are too proud to ask for. But it’s only given to those who are willing to admit their inabilities. And this is why it is offensive. No one wants to hear that they are not good enough. But God says we can only be good enough through accepting the work of Jesus. This will always be offensive to the world, but to those who accept it, it is life!


Friday, December 20, 2013

And another thing . . . .

I don’t know if you noticed, but the internet blew up yesterday. I am still cleaning black and grey beard trimmings ofF my keyboard, and wiping camouflage from my screen. The controversy over statements made by Phil Robertson, the now-suspended star of “Duck Dynasty,” has fueled internet traffic like few other things I've seen in recent times. I added a very small part to this with my post, “Outrage is Not a Fruit of the Spirit,” which has turned out to be the most popular post in the history of my little blog. But as I've thought about this situation, there are a couple of more things I’d like to add to that.
Let me start by reiterating what I said yesterday. If you are fired up about this issue, you have every right to be. I won’t stop you or even try to stop you. Instead of stop signs, I've tried to put up a couple of yellow lights, cautions to help you think before you speak on this issue. So this is what I’m doing again today. And it goes for not just this particular story, but whatever issue has hackles up of American Christendom tomorrow. Issues like this demand that we look at principals, not particulars. And there are some principals that I think have been missing from this discussion.
One of the things I think I have noticed, not just with Duck Dynasty, but with many, many “Christian” culture war issues over the last several years is this; there is a tendency to treat these issues as if the future of the world is dependent on them. The idea seems to be that if Christians don’t “win” on these issues, then we’re going to lose our country. So let me be clear here; if the United States is your country, there is no doubt you’re going to lose it. This kingdom is passing away, like every other kingdom in the history of the world. It won’t last. We Christians believe that we belong to a kingdom that doesn't have actual borders at this moment, but one day will. We believe that Jesus is going to return to THIS earth, and fix every problem and set up HIS kingdom here, and it will last forever. So if you’re trying to hold on to any kingdom that is currently here on earth, you need to understand that it WILL. NOT. LAST.
Here’s the thing. If you are a Christian, the promise you have is a BILLION years as a perfect person in perfect relationship with other perfect people in this perfect kingdom ruled by a perfect God. And when those billion years are over, you will have another billion years. And another. And another. And another. Forever. You will get happier every day. It will never get old. You will never get tired of it. Every single problem that you currently have in your life, or currently see in our society, will pass away. Everything else that happens in the world must be seen through this lens, because no matter what happens in this world, you have the promise of a perfect world to come.
            Now, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to affect change in our current world; that we shouldn't work for justice and making our society better now. It simply means we do it with the end in mind. We don’t have to worry about tomorrow. We can turn our outrage-o-meters down a few notches and trust. God wins. Everything will be set right. There is no injustice that will not be set straight. There is no problem that will not be fixed. There is no sin that will not be judged. And there is no kingdom that will not be brought down. We can count on this truth. We can live by it. And I'm pretty sure Phil Robertson would agree with me on that.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Outrage is Not a Fruit of the Spirit

            The outrage machine is currently turned up to 100 over Duck Dynasty. In case you've been under a rock for the last 24 hours, here’s a recap: Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the Robertson clan, stars of the A&E reality show “Duck Dynasty,” has been suspended from the show for remarks he made about the sinfulness of homosexuality in an interview with the magazine GQ. Some of what he had to say was a simple restatement of historic Christian beliefs. Some of it was, to be honest, pretty crude. But the purpose of this post is not to re-hash what he said. Others can, and will so much more eloquently. The purpose of this post is to talk about the Christian reaction to this “scandal.”
            Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: if you are upset about this issue, that is absolutely your right. I’m not telling you not to boycott A&E or not talk about it on Facebook or not tweet about it until your fingers hurt. My concern is people who scream about “Christian values” on the internet, but whose lives don’t reflect those Christian values anywhere else. Social media activism is not the same thing as sanctification. But very often, we believe if we are angry about the right things, then that proves we really do love Jesus. That’s not how it works.
            If you are screaming about A&E’s attack on the faith today, you’re a hypocrite if you’re not in church on Sunday. If you’re eating at Chick-Fil-A because of their stand on Christian morals, but you cheat on your wife and beat your kids, then it doesn't count for much. If you tweeted about Hobby Lobby yesterday, but are fudging on your time sheet at work today, then you really don’t get it. If you spend half your time reading about the latest Christian controversy on the internet, and the other half looking at porn, then something is not right.
            Growing in grace has nothing to do with posting, “Like if you love Jesus, keep going if you love Satan,” on your wall. I’m afraid we have far too many “Facebook” Christians, who live one life on their social network, and a completely different one in the real world. Maybe they can’t tell the difference between the two.
            The bottom line is this; let your reaction to culture be informed by your faith, but please don’t let it be the whole of your Christian faith. Growing in grace is not mainly found in what we’re angry about. It’s mainly found in how we love, how we serve and how we share the Gospel with the world. Outrage is not a fruit of the Spirit. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Trinity and Metaphors

            I had an interesting conversation about, of all things, The Trinity, with my children, who are 8 and 4, last night. Now this is a subject that the most learned among us should tread carefully with, so it’s especially interesting when children are involved. Nuance is important when discussing the Trinity. Nuance is not something that most children get. My 4-year old, Lydia, brought the conversation to a halt with, “So Jesus and God are just smushed together!” We all started laughing and well, that was that. Not sure we got any closer to understanding the Trinity, but it was worth a try.
            For thousands of years, theologians and teachers have been trying to explain how the Trinity works. How can one God be three persons at the same time? This seemingly contradictory statement is the clear teaching of scripture. Again and again, God proclaims himself to be one. Again and again, we see the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit all claiming to be or being portrayed as God. And we see them all together at one time, as they appear so clearly at Jesus’ baptism.
            So before we go any further, let’s make sure we understand the facts about the Trinity, and then I want to tell you why all metaphors fall short, often heretically short, of the true teaching of the Bible. The Bible teaches that there is only one God. The Bible teaches that this one God is found in 3 persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches that these three persons have always existed together. The Bible also teaches that all three of these persons are fully God. But the Bible teaches there is one God. Head hurting yet? If it’s not, go back and read those last few sentences. It is no simple matter, and all attempts to make it a simple matter miss something.
            But that fact has not stopped people from trying to make it easier to understand. Over the years, we’ve seen multiple metaphors used to try to explain this difficult mystery. Let’s look a couple of them, and think about why they cannot be.
1 – One of the most popular metaphors for the Trinity is that it is like H20. H20 can be water, ice, or steam. So God can be the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. But this metaphor falls woefully short of the truth of scripture, and falls into the danger of a heresy called modalism. Modalism says that God manifests himself in different ways at different times. The doctrine of the Trinity says God is always the Father, always the Son, and always the Holy Spirit. Water, ice and steam don’t add up.
2 – I’ve heard people use the idea of a man who is a father, a son, and a husband. So its one man who has three roles. But the Bible doesn’t say that God is one person with three roles. It says he is one God with three persons. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three jobs of God. They are three persons who God is. This metaphor takes away the distinctness of each person.
3 – I’ve also seen the idea of an egg used. That egg is shell, yoke and white. They’re all needed to make one God. But each member of the godhead is fully God. A yoke is part of the egg, but not the egg. Jesus is fully God, not part of God.
            Here is the bottom line when it comes to the Trinity and metaphors. Metaphors don’t work, because there is nothing else like the Trinity. This is what you would expect from time to time from God. There are certain things about God that we can see reflections of in the world, and there are certain things that we cannot, because, well, he’s God. His thoughts are not our thoughts. So until then, we’re going to all just have to kind of grope in the dark as we struggle to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. There is no real way to simplify it, and if you think you have found a way to simplify it, there’s probably a good chance that you have missed something very important about it. Let the metaphors go, and embrace the mystery.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Just Do Something!

Decisions, decisions. Daily, we are confronted with them. There is not a single person whose life is not full of decisions, and sometimes they can feel make or break. We worry that the wrong decision might set off a domino effect which causes our entire life to cascade down into a pit of despair. Where will I work? Whom will I marry? Where will I go to school? Where will I live? Paper or plastic? Take-out or delivery? We are confronted with so many decisions, on a daily basis, that it is very easy to feel paralyzed by fear. How do we know that we’re making the right decisions? How can we be certain that today’s decision will not lead to tomorrow’s disaster?

So this is what I tell people all the time: “Follow Jesus, and do what you want to do.” It sounds simple, I know, almost too simple. But I think this is what the Bible teaches us about our decision making, and this is the way the Holy Spirit normally works in guiding us in our daily lives. Notice, I said it’s the way the Spirit normally works, not the way He always works. But I think for the most part, in the mundane decisions of life, we needn’t wait on a still, small voice, or a burning bush from Heaven to make those decisions. We simply follow Jesus, we pray, we serve others, we battle sin in our lives, and we follow our God-given desires. Because this is what happens when we follow Jesus; he changes the desires of our heart to become the desires that he wants us to have. His desires become our desires.

Don’t believe me? Listen to what the Psalmist says: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4) That sounds an awful lot like, “Follow Jesus and do what you want to do,” to me. Here’s the way I believe it works itself out in normal, every day life. We follow Jesus, trust Jesus, serve Jesus, and in the course of doing that, we come to a fork in the road. We can take either of the two forks. Neither is inherently sinful. Whatever decision we make will be morally neutral. I can glorify Jesus whether I work at the bread factory or the bank. So what do I do? I ask myself, “What do I want to do?” And then I do that, and I count on God, in his sovereignty, to work out the details. I think sometimes we have this mistaken idea that God is sitting up in Heaven, fearing that if we make the wrong decision, if we decide to go to Mississippi State instead of Southern Miss, then our entire life and his entire plans for us are going to be ruined. That’s not the way it works. God already knows what you’re going to do, and he already has his plans mapped out accordingly. You’re not going to surprise him. So trust him, do something, and then continue to trust him.

Now, this doesn’t preclude us from praying, and seeking counsel from people who are wiser than us and have walked our same path. We must do these. I would argue these are all normal parts of following Jesus. So we ought to be doing these in the daily course of things. But it does preclude us from sitting, paralyzed, waiting for a sign from God before we move forward, when he has already placed these desires in our  hearts for particular things through the Holy Spirit.

Now, with all that having been said, many of us have probably experienced something like this before: we want to do one thing, but we feel very strongly that God is calling us to do another thing. Neither choice is inherently sinful, but one seems to be the righter thing, even though it's not necessarily what we want to do. So we believe God is leading us to do something we don't really want to do. What do we do in situations like this?

And here, I think is the answer. One of two things is probably in play here, and you need to figure out which one it is:

1 - The reason your desires and God's desires aren't lining up is because you are not following Jesus the way you should be following Jesus. Examine your relationship: are you serving Jesus? Is there some unconfessed sin in your life? Is your flesh creeping up on this particular decision? Maybe you know deep down that to follow Jesus in this particular situation is the right thing to do, and the thing that will make you most happy. But you don't want to give up some lesser thing to do it. Whatever it is, you need to confess it and get on with what God is calling you to do, and understand that it is what will ultimately make you most happy.

2 - But perhaps the reason your desires and God's desires aren't lining up is because they aren't really God's desires in the first place. I have seen this often. We think God may be "calling" us to do something, but what's really happening is that we're getting pressure from outside force: maybe it's a friend or a family member or church member. This is not what you want; it’s what they want. And maybe, quite possibly, they've pulled the God card on you, saying this is what God wants you to do. I've seen this time and time again in a variety of ways: maybe it’s about a way of dress, or maybe it's about getting married or having children, or having more children, or buying something or not buying something. Whatever the case, the pressure you're feeling may not be from God; it may be from some outside source that is trying to fit their notions of what God wants on to you. So in this case, you need to ask yourself: is what I'm feeling truly Biblical, truly Spirit led, or coming from some other source?

God has revealed himself to us through his Word. It is full of insight, both practical and theological; about those things we should do and should not do. And if you will follow his will, as he has revealed himself in scripture, he will place the right desires in your heart on the things that he hasn’t revealed specifically. And here’s the thing you can count on; even though whatever you choose, it might not work out exactly the way you planned, you can know that God wants your happiness, even more than you want it. The things he is seeking for you will make you infinitely happier than anything you could come up with on your own. So follow him, and let him change your desires, and then do something, just do something. Count on him to take care of the rest. If you will embrace this, it will be some of the most freeing news you have ever experienced.

For more on this subject, check out this book - "Just Do Something!" by Kevin DeYoung.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dealing with Doubt

I am, by my nature, a doubter. Especially when it comes to God. I often find people are surprised when they hear that about me for the first time. As a teacher, writer and occasional preacher, I generally speak with lots of confidence and passion about God. But my confidence and my passion are fruits of many years of great struggles with doubt, almost to the place of despair, about who God is, about whether Jesus is real, and about whether Christianity is actually what it claims to be. Am I a Christian because this is something that is really true, or am I simply one because of the culture I grew up in and the people I now find myself around? Though it is far less often than it once was, those doubts will sometimes creep back up.

And I know that I am not alone. I'm convinced there are multitudes of people sitting in church pews every Sunday, serving in churches faithfully, giving of their time and their money, maybe even teaching the faith to others, who struggle with doubt from time to time. Far too often, our churches are not a safe place to have that struggle. And I do not think that is a good thing.

Let's be clear here first. There are two kinds of doubters. One is a sincere doubter who is truly searching for the truth. He is the kind of person who like the father of the child with an unclean spirit, proclaims to Jesus, "I believe! Help me with my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24) This kind of doubter wants the truth, he wants to believe, he simply needs some help. He is truly seeking. And Jesus has promised that all who seek will find.  The other kind of doubter is someone who does so because he is moving further away from certainty. Doubting is something he does, not because he wants the truth, but because he want the truth obscured. Deep down, he knows what is true. He simply doesn't want it be true, so he lives in his doubt, never desiring Spirit-filled confidence in the truth of God. He is the kind of man James calls "double minded, unstable in all his ways." (James 1:8)

There are times when I've been both of these. But for the sincere doubters, trying to come to term with the truths of the faith, the church ought to be a safe place to both express those doubts and try to work through them. I have a soft spot in my heart for sincere doubters, because I was once one of them. And overcoming this kind of doubt is no easy thing. It will require work.  But it will be worth it. No ounce of blood lost in sincere seeking will not be returned 10 times. The Spirit is often active in our tears and questions. So today, I want to give you one simple thing that I discovered, that did more to overcome my doubts than anything else. It is the one thing, again and again, I've come back to when I began to doubt. It's the one thing I can't figure out how to "explain away." And it has sustained me through every period of doubt I've ever had.

The question that haunted me, even during my darkest days, even when this whole Christianity thing seemed the least plausible, was simply this: "Why would the apostles die for a lie?" Here is what I mean. After Jesus' death on the cross, we find the disciples holed up in a room, hidden from the public, fearing for their own lives. They'd all abandoned Jesus. Peter had denied he even knew him. The only thing that even kept them together at this point was their common fear that the authorities might come for them next. At some point, they all probably figured they'd have to get back to fishing, or tax collecting, or whatever it was that they'd been doing before. But something happened that changed that completely. Within just a few weeks, they had come out of hiding and they were boldly proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah! And they all went to their graves standing by this truth. Every one of them died a martyr's death, according to tradition. But before they died, they set the world on fire with their preaching and their witness, laying a foundation that still stands today, some 2,000 years later.

And what exactly was it that they were proclaiming? It wasn't that Jesus had come bringing some new morality, or a new religious order. They staked their lives on one simple, undeniable fact. Jesus was killed, but he rose from the grave. As Peter told the crowd at Pentecost, "This Jesus . . . you killed . . . God raised him up." (Acts 2:23:24) The reason they were so certain was simply this; they had seen Jesus die on the Cross, and then three days later, they had seen him walking among them, alive and more well than any of them. They had seen him, they had touched him, they had talked to him. And they went to their graves believing, knowing that this Jesus is alive!

And since that was true, then it changed everything. If Jesus is risen, then everything must be different. If Jesus has defeated death, then he is who he says he is. He is God in the flesh.  And if he is who he says he is, then any demands he makes of us are just and right, and we must heed them.

The testimony of the early church seemed to hinge on this one important fact; that he is indeed risen. Paul said that if Christ is not raised, then his teaching and our faith is in vain, that we are to be "most pitied." (1 Corinthians 15)  If the resurrection is false, then nothing else about Christianity matters. We should just go on about our lives. We all have better things to do on Sundays. We can find morality other places. We can find friends and community other places. What we cannot find other places is a God who has put on flesh and become like us, and then defeated sin and death for us.

Once I embraced that Jesus is indeed alive, then everything else just kind of fell into place. It didn't mean all my questions were answered; it simply meant that I knew there must be an answer, if I kept seeking. I hope and pray that if you are like me, and you struggle with these kinds of doubts, that you will begin by answering this question: did Jesus rise from the grave? Is he alive? Answering that question correctly will go a long way toward building a faith that will stand the test of time.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Reflections on Eleven Years of Marriage

Later this week, my wife and I will celebrate our 11th wedding anniversary. Being married to her has been one of the great joys of my life. We are happier and more committed to one another today than we have ever been. Being her husband is probably the supreme pleasure God has given me here on this earth. If the rest of our marriage is as happy as we are at this moment, then I will live a happy rest of my life indeed.

But I would be lying if I said every day was filled with joy and pleasure. Marriage is often equal parts joy and pain, ecstasy and misery. And sometimes, the pain outweighs the pleasure. When two people come together as husband and wife, conflict is bound to come, and we have had our share of it. I’m not saying we’ve had more than the average couple; I am simply saying that every marriage comes with its share of pain and heartache and sadness included. After more than a decade together, we have eyes wide open to see this.

I often tell people who are considering marriage that if they knew just how hard it would be, they would never even consider it, but if they go ahead and do it, and commit themselves completely to it, they will never regret it. I also tell them to imagine their future spouse doing the most hurtful possible thing to them. Whatever it is, it is likely that they will either do it, or do something equally as hurtful, before the marriage is over. We are sinful, broken people, and all our relationships will reflect that sinfulness and brokenness. The question is this; are you willing to forgive and forebear despite it? If the answer is yes, then you may very well be ready for marriage.

I say that for this reason. Our society, even among Christians, has a warped view of what marriage is really about. We primarily see marriage as a path to happiness. It’s a way to add to our quality of life, like a new car, or a puppy. And if marriage is something that is simply two people coming together for the sake of their mutual pleasures, then if and when the joy ends, so should the marriage. This is, I think, the primary reason why so many marriages end in divorce. People become disillusioned when their partner doesn’t meet their expectations, when their husband or wife doesn’t still make them happy. And they leave. Now, if this is all marriage is, then that is completely understandable. If marriage is mainly a path to self-fulfillment, then it makes perfect sense that we would run when we are no longer fulfilled. But it was meant to be much more than that.

Christians believe that marriage was created by God for a particular purpose, and that purpose was more than self-fulfillment. It’s more than even procreation, or building a society. The Bible speaks of marriage as a “divine mystery,” meant to say something about the very nature of God himself. Look at what Ephesians 5 has to say:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31-32 ESV)

Notice what Paul does right here. He takes us back to Genesis, when God describes what marriage is all about. And he tells us that, from its very beginning, marriage had a higher purpose than anything anyone could see. It was a mystery, now revealed through the coming of Jesus. So in some way, when a man and a woman get married, and become “one flesh,” they are reflecting the relationship that Jesus himself has with the church he has purchased with his blood. Since its creation, the main purpose of marriage has been to be a pointer to what the relationship between God and man, redeemed through the Gospel, looks like. Get this; the marriage between man and woman is the shadow. The marriage between Christ and his church is the real thing. Earthly marriage is a reflection. The marriage of Jesus and his bride is the actual thing being reflected. This is one reason our marriages are all messed up to one degree or another. Shadows are never perfect. Reflections are always flawed.

Now, this understanding of marriage is revolutionary. It’s not what we would expect. But once we realize it, it changes everything about how we must think about it. Because marriage is meant to mainly be a reflection of this relationship between Christ and his bride, then we must be very careful about how we treat it. Christians who treat marriage cavalierly give a warped impression to the world about who Jesus is, and what relationship with him looks like.

Now, this is not meant to beat up people who have been through divorce, whether it was for one of the few reason that the Bible allows or not. It’s mainly meant for those who are currently married, or considering marriage. If you claim to be a Christian, this is what you are getting into. It’s not mainly about “happily ever after,” at least not with this man or woman you have chosen to spend the rest of your earthly life with. It’s mainly about pointing the world to something much greater.

Because when Christians decide to make marriage something that it is not; namely, when we decide to abandon it for reasons other than those very strictly prescribed in the Bible, then we tell lies about the nature of the very God we claim to worship. Why do we not abandon our spouse, even if they don’t make us particularly happy? Because God doesn’t abandon us. Why do we forgive again and again, despite sometimes great hurt? Because that’s what God does. Why do we love someone who seems to be unlovable? Because that’s exactly what we have received from God through Jesus, and what we expect to receive for all eternity.

And here’s the thing; when we primarily see marriage as something created for purposes infinitely greater than our own happiness, we often find that we get happiness thrown in. When we see marriage as a pointer to who God is, and what the Gospel is all about, we begin to find a satisfaction and a peace and a happiness that we never expected. When we forgive our spouse, and choose to love them despite their sins and shortcomings, we often begin to discover that we actually do love them in reality.

Because even 50 years of a terrible marriage will not compare to an eternity of happiness with Jesus himself. This is what God has promised us. We will experience hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of years of inexpressible joy and pleasure in Heaven, as a collective bride of a perfect king, who sacrificed his life for us so that we could have that relationship. And when a billion years are up, there will be another billion, and another billion and another billion, for all of eternity. And we will never get tired of it. And it will never grow old. And the pleasures will be one on top of the other, on top of the other. And we will never be unsatisfied again.

For this reason, I’m looking forward to not just the next 11 or 25 or 50 years with my wife. I’m looking forward to the next thousand years. And the thousand after that. We will no longer be married to one another; we’ll be married to Him. But we’ll do it just like we do it now. Together. And it will be glorious. Forever.