Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Go Ahead, Be a Rebel

Our society loves a rebel. The iconic picture of the “Rebel without a Cause,” James Dean, is a part of American folklore for a reason. There is something about someone who refuses to let society define who he is, who makes his own way, who rebels against the standards that others have set for him. Our society has embraced this “rebel” mentality to its fullest extent. There’s a real sense now in which everyone is a rebel. But when everyone is a rebel, is anyone really a rebel? When everyone is “raging against the machine,” who’s operating the machine? When everyone embraces doing their own thing, then isn't that pretty much the same thing as everyone being the same?

Can I suggest something? One of the most counter-cultural things you can do in a society like this is follow Jesus. It’s a true act of rebellion in a culture that has, on the main, rejected him. In a culture that doesn't believe in objective truth, saying, “Jesus is truth,” is an act of rebellion. In a culture that embraces doubt, faith is an act of rebellion. In a culture that puts individualism above everything, making yourself accountable to a church is rebellion. In a culture that frolics in sexual sin, chastity is an act of rebellion. In a culture that loves divorce, faithfulness to a spouse for life is an act of rebellion. In a culture where anger is the norm, joy is rebellion. In a culture where fear rules, courage is rebellion. In a culture that loves to be mean, kindness is a true counter-cultural act of rebellion.

Now, you may read this and long for a day when being a Christian was not considered an act of rebellion. I’m afraid to tell you that such a day never actually existed. Our savior was crucified as a rebel. His followers were chased and martyred for the same reason. The early church knew that they were “strangers and exiles” in this world, and true believers have always faced difficulty and persecution. You may believe there was some magical time here in the Bible Belt where following Jesus was the norm for most people – ask those on the other side of Birmingham hoses in the Civil Rights Era whether that was the case. Real faith in Jesus leads to a different kind of life; a life that ALWAYS looks like rebellion against the norms of the culture.

We should not be surprised by this. The Bible describes Satan as the “god of this world.” (2 Corinthians 4:4) The norm is embracing what he as ruler wants us to do and how he as ruler wants us to think. But the Bible also tells us that through the incarnation of Jesus, the rebellion against this ruler has begun. Jesus landed in enemy territory, and now he is looking for people who are willing to take part in an insurgent campaign to overthrow the current “god.” Now, we don’t fight with the same weapons the rest of the world uses – our weapons in this rebellion are anything but violent. But they are even more powerful.

So go ahead, be a rebel. Embrace the rebellion. It will not be easy – real rebellions never are. But it will be worth it.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Jesus is Not Your Boyfriend

As my wife and I were driving down the road yesterday, a song I've heard dozens of times over the years came on the radio. It’s a catchy little tune, with a nice hook. It’s frankly very easy to get stuck in your head – and not even in a bad way.

             Oh, I love the way you hold me, by my side you’ll always be
                You take each and every day, make it special in some way
                I love the way you hold me, in your arms I’ll always be
                You take each and every day, make it special in some way.
            As a defender of the music of Taylor Swift, I can unashamedly say I think it’s catchy. But something struck me as I heard this song this particular time – this was on a Christian station! So I asked my wife, who is much smarter than I, why she thought this sappy (but catchy) little love song was playing on a Christian music station, and she told me the song was being sung to God. One of the verses apparently says, “Lord, I love the way you hold me.” Hmm. I admit to being confused. This blog is not to criticize a particular song – again, I think this one is catchy. But it is to question why we think we can sing to Jesus as if he is our boyfriend. Let me make this clear – Jesus is most certainly NOT your boyfriend. He is the God of Heaven and earth, creator of the universe, redeemer of humanity, and he loves you. He really does love you. But when we confuse the kind of love God has for us with some kind of sappy romance, we really misunderstand what his love, and therefore what real love, is all about.

            And this is not to denigrate romance. God created it. Read the Song of Solomon. It’s in the Bible for a reason. Romance is good, when it is done the way God intended. It’s just that romance is not what God intended for the relationship between Jesus and his people. It’s must deeper, much better than that.

            There are two reasons why I think we have run into some confusion here, and both are misunderstandings of important Biblical pictures. One is the idea of having a personal relationship with God. The Bible is clear – Jesus’ came to the earth, lived a perfect life, died a sacrificial death, was raised from the grave on the third day, and then ascended into Heaven, so he could have relationship with his people. Sin had marred that relationship. Through the Gospel, it has been mended. This is important. You can know God. You can be in relationship with him.  But it’s important that we understand what that relationship is.

            And here is where I think the confusion lies. Many of us have read that we are the “bride of Christ,” and we have misunderstood exactly what that means. You see, the main reason marriage was created in the first place was to reflect the relationship between Jesus and those he died to redeem, his church. Paul calls it the “great mystery” of the Gospel. (Ephesians 5:32) But that does not mean that everything about a marriage between a man and woman will translate into what marriage between Jesus and his church looks like. Paul makes clear in Ephesians 5 exactly what this means. Let’s take a look.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.  Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “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 5:22-32)
            Now, there is a lot in this passage, but some things are clear about the relationship here between Christ and his church, and none of them relate to any kind of romantic relationship. The husband is to take his cues as to how he is to treat his wife from the way Jesus treats the church – he is to love his wife and serve his wife. And he’s to do this because this is what Jesus does. He loves his people. He serves his people. He loves his people like his loves himself. The wife, on the other hand (and I know this is controversial) is to submit to her husband, in a way that reflects what the church does with Jesus. This is why Christian marriage is meant to be a reflection of the Gospel. For the Christian, marriage isn't mainly about romance (though it ought to also be about that); it’s mainly about reflecting the love and the mutual sacrifice between Christ and his church. And it is why Christians ought to guard their marriages so closely – to do something that mars your marriage is to tell untruths about the Gospel, and therefore tell untruths about God himself.

            But when we talk about Jesus as if he is our boyfriend, it does much the same thing. It cheapens the kind of love that Jesus has for his church. When we talk about being the bride of Christ, we mean that the relationship between Jesus and his church is a real love relationship, one marked by service and sacrifice on Jesus’ part, and submission and worship on our part. But it’s not romance, it’s more than that. It’s true love that promises to last for eternity. It’s not the kind of love that takes you to a special dinner with wine and roses once a month – it’s much, much more; the kind of love where Jesus offers his very life so that you have joy forever. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

In Defense of the Osteens (Kinda, Sorta, Not Really)

Does God want you to be happy? Is that his main concern? Does he hope you’ll be good, but mainly hope you’ll be happy? Is your main purpose in life to seek your own personal comfort and peace and happiness? Is that really what life is all about, or is there something more? Maybe life is about seeking none of that, laying yourself aside, forgetting about you and caring about others. Maybe life is about being consumed simply by what God wants, no matter what that means for your personal happiness. Maybe personal happiness is not something that you should care about at all? Is that the way it works?

Victoria Osteen, the wife of famed prosperity preacher Joel Osteen, has been a hot topic of controversy in Christian circles for the last couple of weeks because of something she recently said about what the main purpose of living the Christian life, the main purpose of worshiping God is. She seems to indicate that the main point is seeking happiness. Here’s a look at what she recently said at the couple’s Houston mega-church:


If you don’t want to watch the entire thing, here is the part that I think upset people the most:

“Do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”

“Do good because God wants you to be happy,” she says. She tells the people in the congregation not to worship God for God’s sake, but to worship God for their own sake. She is telling them, in essence, “What makes God happy is for you to be happy.” Here’s the problem with what she said – it has a grain of truth in it, enough so that many people who hear it will believe it. But when you take a grain of truth and make it the whole truth, then what you end up with is untruth. And that is what I believe Osteen did in this situation. Let me explain.

The Bible is littered with promises of great reward given to those who follow Jesus. And among those rewards is the reward of happiness. Indeed, God wants you to be happy. Notice what Jesus says in the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount, commonly referred to as “The Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) Notice that word – blessed. In literally means “happy,” or “happy in God.” God wants you to be happy, and he wants you to be happy because he is happy: he is "the blessed God." (1 Timothy 1:11) So Jesus is basically saying, “Here is the path to happiness.” But his ideas of where we find happiness are not where we would generally think to look – Jesus promises happiness in poverty of spirit, and meekness and mourning, in persecution for righteousness’ sake. Honestly, this does not seem like the kind of happiness that I commonly hear the Osteens talk about.

You see, the issue with humanity is not necessarily that we are seeking happiness – it’s that we are seeking it in all the wrong places. Jesus promises happiness that comes in turning away from ourselves, not happiness in prosperity, health, or finding a good parking spot at the mall. (Osteen, Joel. Your Best Life Now) God is offering us true, lasting, permanent, perfect happiness, if only we will seek HIM instead of seeking after ourselves. If we pursue God, we will get happiness thrown in. If we purse happiness, we will get neither God nor happiness. C.S. Lewis put it this way in his classic Mere Christianity:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Our problems are not rooted in the fact that we are seeking happiness; they’re rooted in the fact that we’re seeking it in the wrong places. But just because we see that true worship of God will lead to our happiness, we can’t begin to get the idea that worship is simply pleasure, or simply for ourselves. This is, I believe, the mistake the Osteens make here in particularl, and generally with their brand of theology. Yes, there is great joy in worshiping God. But sacrifice is also required. The apostle Paul says that we must “make our bodies a living sacrifice,” and that is our “spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1) Worship without sacrifice is not worship at all. Worship that is not first centered on God, and what I can offer to God, before it is concerned about what I will get from God, is not true worship. The promise at the end is certainly joy; but the sacrifice must come first.

Let’s go back to Lewis for a moment, because he illustrates this idea beautifully in his gem of a book, The Great Divorce. In this book, a group of people in Hell get a bus ride to Heaven, and they can stay if they like. (Set aside for a moment that this would not happen, that’s not Lewis' point.) The interesting thing is that almost to a person, every one of them decide they’d prefer to go back to Hell. But there is one man, who seems at first like he would do the same, before something fantastic happens. The man has a lizard on his shoulder. A chatty lizard, who seems to be running the show. That lizard represents some deep sin in his life that the man hates, but still doesn't want to let go of. He is confronted by an angel, who offers to kill the lizard for him. The man is afraid:

“Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.”
“It is not so,” says the angel.
“Why, you’re hurting me now.”
“I never said it wouldn't hurt you. I said it wouldn't kill you.”

After a period of intense negotiation, the man finally cries out for the angel to kill the lizard. It is loud and painful, with both lizard and man screaming in agony, and both finally passing out, the man apparently unconscious, the lizard apparently dead. But what happens next is what is amazing. Slowly, the man comes back to life, and even more back to life than he was before. He grows larger and larger until he is almost as large as the angel. And something even more amazing happens to the lizard. He reawakens, and then transforms into a great stallion! The man jumps on his new stead and rides away into Heaven.

What’s the point here? Worship costs something. When you turn to God, it is not necessarily an easy ride. But it is worth it. The rewards that come after the pain are always worth the pain. This is what Gospel happiness feels like; joy that comes after intense sacrifice and pain, but joy that makes the intense sacrifice and pain feel like nothing. This is why the writer of Hebrews said that Jesus went to the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” (Hebrews 12:2) This is what real worship is; it comes with the promise of our own happiness, but it also comes with the command to first offer a sacrifice to God before we can experience that happiness.

This picture of worship, and the joy it leads to, is a far greater and more beautiful picture than simply worshiping God because it makes you feel better. Worship is not therapy. Worship is sacrifice, but it sacrifice that leads to joy. It’s like the person who found a treasure buried in the field, and in his joy, sold everything they had so they could buy that field. (Matthew 13:44). The sacrifices are real, but they are worth it for the thing that we get in return – God himself, forever. This is not the Gospel of self-fulfillment. It’s the Gospel of self-emptying and of God-fulfillment. It's the Gospel that says, "Jesus is better than anything."