Asking the Wrong Question, and Missing the Point

Been reading a lot of philosophy lately – of both the secular and theological kind. So a new question struck me recently, maybe not a new question for you, but it has raised a series of related questions in my mind. I always seem to be better at asking questions than providing answers. Anyway, if you have any profound insights, please feel free to comment.

My observation which led to a question is this: I wonder if the reason the church is losing members, and is having the related issue of paralysis of evangelism, is because we are asking the wrong question. What I mean is, if we confront people with the wrong existential question, no matter how correctly they answer any other question, in the long run it really will not matter. This takes some unpacking, but stay with me for a little while and let me at least try.

Unless I am just flat out crazy, it seems to me that the Bible is totally unconcerned with proving that God exists. It simply takes for granted that God exists, that He is a personal God, that He is vitally interested in the creation He created, redeemed, and will at some point in time, completely renew. In fact, I will venture that until the time of the Enlightenment, it was assumed by virtually every culture that there was a god. Whether that god could be considered the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob might be debated, but with the exception of some far-Eastern religions, the existence of a god was never even questioned. So, if I am correct, all the ink that is spilled and the breath that is expelled trying to “prove” God exists is utterly a waste of time. For one, it cannot be done (otherwise, faith would be replaced by some laboratory test or other) and two, even if you could “prove” God exists, all you have done is expend a tremendous amount of energy to arrive where the Bible begins, “In the beginning God. . .”

A far more vital question relates to the historical existence and truthfulness of the claims of Jesus: that Jesus is the Son of God and that he lived, was crucified, was resurrected, and will return. Here again, however, at least for those of us living in the 21st century, these questions must be answered by faith. We cannot interview those who stood by the tomb of Lazarus, those who tasted the water turned into wine, those who stuck their heads in the empty tomb. “Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?” is therefore a legitimate and probing question. Sadly, however, “belief” in Jesus as the Son of God has been so watered down in our culture that quite literally any belief can qualify as belief in Jesus as God’s messiah. You can be a white supremacist, devoted follower of cultists such as Joseph Smith, or card-carrying member of the LGBTQ cohort and still proclaim to be a believer in Jesus as the Christ. Logically, and not just theologically, that is just impossible, but the use of logic went out the window decades ago.

So, it seems to me, that the question that is the ultimate question is this: “Will there be a supreme and final judgment that will separate the righteous from the evil, the right from the wrong, the blessed from the cursed.” I offer as evidence the fact that when both John the Baptist and Jesus started their ministries, their primary message was, “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” They did not say, “believe in God,” or “yo, dudes, Jesus is da man.” They said “repent.” As in, judgment is coming, you better get right with God.

My second piece of evidence is what might arguably be called Paul’s first letter to any of his fledgling congregations, 1 Thessalonians. He wrote in 1:10, “. . . and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” While Paul is at great pains to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ to come (1 Cor. 15!), the existential question Paul seeks to answer is this – what does it matter? If there is no judgment to come, then what does it matter if Jesus is God’s messiah or not? Jesus could just as easily be God’s messiah (the Christ) if there is no judgment forthcoming. Clearly, the coming judgment was a primary, if not the primary, question.

Stated somewhat differently, if there is no coming judgment, it really does not matter what we believe! We can believe in God, or a god, or no god. We can be a racist or promote racial equality. We can follow Joseph Smith or Jim Jones or David Koresh or Joel Osteen – or nobody. We can be straight or gay or male or female or change what we think we are with the change in weather. It simply does not matter – we will all just vaporize at the moment of death, or all go to heaven, or something in between. God then simply becomes another deism, Jesus as the Christ becomes another prophet or guru, and our life on earth is utterly, totally, and completely meaningless.

On the other hand, if there is a coming judgment, then biblical truth really does matter. Then it really does matter what we believe God to be. It really does matter if we submit to the Lordship of Jesus. It really does matter whether we reject religious imposters. And it really does matter how we express our love for all races, how we express our solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized, and yes, even how we express our sexual natures. It really does matter if we accept the biblical teaching regarding morality and ethics, and yes, it really does matter that we obey both the weightier matters of God’s law as well as the lighter matters – so long as we correctly differentiate those distinctions (Matthew 23:23-24, Romans 14).

In short, the impending judgment is what will ultimately give our present life meaning. As far as the kingdom of God has been revealed, our life has meaning here and now. The ultimate revelation of what our life on this earth means will be made clear when we see the new heaven and the new earth.

This is not to suggest that we begin with the question of the judgment. Every person and every situation is different. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to evangelism and sharing the gospel of Christ. Some people need to see the reality of God. Some need to be confronted with the lordship of Jesus. Some need to even understand the authority of Scripture. But if we never get around to pressing the issue of the judgment, if we never get around to “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” we will never be successful in leading people into that kingdom.

I could be soaking wet, mostly wet, or maybe just a little damp. But the question has caused me to re-orient my own preaching and teaching. I hope it helps you focus as well.

A Church Shameful to Christ

A turning to the world that merely seeks an arbitrary accommodation that will make the Church respected and popular in the world of science is shameful to the Church and to Christ. (Thomas Merton)

Somehow I get the impression that if humankind has not committed mass suicide within the next 100 years, that the last half of the 20th century and the first half of the 21st century will be remembered as one of the most debauched and contemptible eras of the Christian Church. That, I admit, takes some doing given the reality of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the abject silence during the Nazi pogroms. At least following the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Nazis, the Church admitted her failures, and more critically, (at least hopefully) made the necessary confession and repentance to never again traffic in those barbaric atrocities.

I question whether the contemporary Church has the self-awareness to even begin to recognize her complicity in the post-modern world’s headlong rush into oblivion.

On the one side are the libertarians who rejoice in the toothless message of contemporary Christianity – the only problem with society today is the false guilt imposed by a repressive and domineering religious institution.

On the other side are the reactionists who blindly cling to the myth of a golden decade of Church perfection – the decade which, by the way, is responsible for sowing the seeds of dysfunction that we see so ripe for harvest today.

I have a friend who brilliantly assessed the source of today’s ineffective Church: the elders of the ’50s, 60’s and 70’s laid down the mantles of shepherds and dressed themselves in the suits of the corporate boardroom. They “ran” the church like a secular business.

Guess what? The Church is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Secularity.com.

It breaks my heart to hear of stories of congregations that have so completely sold their soul to the secular model of success that they do not even stop to question whether a particular practice or innovation might be or might not be compatible with Scripture. In fact, you might say that Scripture is meaningless to them outside of the emotional high they get from convincing themselves that because they see a text or two on a PowerPoint presentation, that they are a biblical church. They cannot confront a godless society because they have driven God from their own buildings. They are as useful in confronting evil as the German Christians were in confronting Hitler. Which is to say, not useful at all.

But my heart is equally broken by the obtuse refusal by others to even consider that their legalistic approach to conservatism has been a blight on the Bride of Christ for decades, if not centuries. I have been a personal witness to the vitriol expressed to a family who changed membership from one congregation to another. The crime committed by the congregation of choice? The presence of a “fellowship hall” that happened to provide a place for communal meals. Churches have divided over the color of the new carpet to be laid, and the purchase of a hymnal produced by the wrong publishing house. Read from the “wrong” translation in some congregations and you can be disfellowshipped.

You see, both thoughtless Liberals and rabid Fundamentalists have transformed the Church into something that it was never intended to be, and indeed, cannot be. They have both, in radically different ways, attempted to “make the Church respected and popular.” But they have fallen into opposite, yet equal, sides of secularity. Both view the interpretations and conclusions of man as their only solid foundation. The Liberals want to make the Church popular with the dominant, secular viewpoint of the world. The Fundamentalists want to make the Church popular with a minority, yet no less secular, viewpoint of the “righteous remnant.” Where these opposite, and seemingly irreconcilable, viewpoints collide is in the realm of human pride – the ego of a group of people who consider themselves smarter (and in many respects, holier!) than God.

I consider myself to be a staunch opponent of the moral and doctrinal laxity of those on the left. But I am no more of a fan of the hubris and Phariseeism on the right.

Jesus confronted the libertarian Sadducees with an ultimatum: If you love me you will keep my commandments. Discipleship under Christ requires that we accept, and promote, the non-negotiable truths of biblical doctrine, including moral behavior. We do not get to choose what is, or is not, acceptable to God. We follow him or we reject him, there is no middle ground.

On the other hand, Jesus confronted the ultra conservative Pharisees with an equal ultimatum: Go discover what this text means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ Mindless subservience to legal codes does not draw a person closer to God – quite the opposite. Legalism kills, Phariseeism leads to despair.

The contemporary Church has lost her voice. We no longer speak of healing and renewal to a bent and broken world.

I think there is still hope, I think we can still leave the bondage of Egypt – but I have to wonder,

Where is our Moses?

Enemies of the Cross Defeat Themselves

In response to my last post, “Musings on the Gospel of Christ,” I would venture that more than one atheist or agnostic would say, “But what of the countless wars and violence that have been perpetrated in the name of Christ?” I do not shrink from such questions, for despite the intention to defeat my argument, they actually confirm my point.

Every example of war, violence, manipulation, and disgrace that has been attributed to the church of Christ is actually a demonstration or manifestation of the depth of the abyss of the human nature, unredeemed by the gospel of Christ. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the European Wars of Religion, even the current litany of examples of sexual and physical abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist Convention are examples of human behavior in rebellion to and in direct opposition to the pure gospel of Christ, not as a demonstration of that gospel. (As an example of this pure gospel, I point no further than the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7).

Conversely, where the gospel of Christ has been faithfully and humbly presented hospitals have been built, orphanages created, lives saved, marriages renewed, children fed, homes built, clean water delivered, addictions treated, the environment repaired. Children and adults have been educated, medicine has been delivered, infant mortality has decreased while deaths associated with childbirth have dropped. Works of visual and musical arts that have stood the test of centuries have been created, and are still being created. The pain of natural disasters has been assuaged. The list could go on.

  • Compare that that to Marxism – millions killed and countless others impoverished, not because of a misunderstanding of Marxism, but as a direct result of its most egregious doctrines.
  • Compare that to Islam – where its very founder decreed that a person must convert or die. (The only other option, to live in obscurity, being able to neither promote nor practice one’s faith).
  • Compare that to National Socialism – where over 6 million Jews and other “undesirables” were ruthlessly exterminated in the name of law, order, and cultural purity.
  • Compare that to secular humanism – the very diseased fruit that we see “live and in living color” as it unfolds in front of us: a psychosis that is in the process of of annihilating our culture one murderous step at a time. Reference the rise in drug and alcohol addition, the rise in sexual dysfunctions, the rise in pornography, abortion, racial violence, and the growing sense of futility and meaninglessness.

So, trot out the old canard about Christianity, or I prefer to refer to the gospel of Christ, as being the root of all of mankind’s problems. The evidence is stacked against such an accusation, and a fair reading will leave such a charge smoldering in dust and ashes. I fear no such claim. Truth does not fear attack, and lies will be seen as lies.

I do not hesitate to confess that horrific abuses have been perpetrated in the name of Christ – wars, sexual and physical abuse, torture. But, those behaviors are the result of fallen human nature, and are in direct rebellion to the selfless giving of God and Christ. – as preeminently displayed in the crucifixion. The Bible teaches that such actions are reprehensible, not, as in the case of some of the ideologies listed above, a part of the core teachings of those ideologies.

We, as disciples of Christ, must do a better job of apologetics, and a better job of living the gospel of Christ. The problem is our sinful nature, not the purity of the gospel. I repeat what I have said earlier – the only hope for our culture, and perhaps the entire world, is a return to the gospel of Christ.

We must ascend by climbing lower.

Yes, Our Thoughts Matter

I have attempted to write this post several times – each time getting close to posting it, but then finally deciding to send it to the trash. What concerns me is that some people will think I am attacking one specific group of people. I am writing to attack a specific belief, and if that belief is common or commonly espoused by a group of people, I cannot separate the two. I mean no ill will to any group of people, but I have to address what I believe is a serious misapplication of Scripture.

The belief I want to challenge is this: it really doesn’t matter what you think about, or the feelings you hold privately, the only thing that matters is how you might act on those feelings. That is Scripturally false. The truth is that our feelings, our beliefs, and our private thoughts really do matter.

Where I am hearing this the most frequently is in regard to homosexual thoughts and behavior, and mostly from those who wish to promote that a person can be a homosexual, just so long as they do not act out on their homosexual thoughts and feelings. The line I hear repeatedly is this, “a person can have homosexual thoughts, can be ‘inclined’ homosexually, but as long as he/she is celibate, that person is not sinning is his or her thoughts.”

Just to put my cards on the table, consider passages such as Matthew 5:27-30; 12:33-37; and 15:10-20. Those who argue that our thoughts, our feelings, are inconsequential so long as we do not act out on them are not arguing against me, they are arguing against Jesus.

Would we make the same kind of argument in favor of one who is a closet racist, who hates people of a different race in the depth of his heart, but who never verbalizes that hatred?

Would we make the same kind of argument in favor of one who has visions of sexually abusing children (a pedophile)? Would we welcome such a one with no misgivings so long as they promised never to satisfy their dreams?

Would we make the same kind of excuse for the wife who has wild and explicit visions of having sex with a co-worker who is also married with a family to support? Would we just smile and nod and tell her that as long as she kept her adultery “in her head” that there was nothing wrong with her fantasies?

You see, I just cannot justify the logic that is so common in our churches today – that a man can have sexual fantasies about other men or a woman can fantasize about other women and it is perfectly acceptable, just so long as it stays in their heads and never moves below the belt. No, it is not. If Jesus said it was a sin to fantasize about another man’s wife even if there was no physical sex, then it cannot be acceptable, normal, or permissible for a man to fantasize about having sex with another man, or a woman with a woman.

I write this fully aware of my own demons. For anyone to stand and say they are guiltless in the matter is to invite the harshest condemnation – either for willful ignorance or blatant falsehood. I have known no one who did not, at some point, wrestle with impure thoughts, whether they are sexual in nature, or racist, or related to anger and hatred. I do not want anyone to think I am coming from a position of pure innocence.

The fact is that we have swallowed the dualism of Plato so fully that we have ¬†created a false reality. We believe that our heart and our bodies are so separated that whatever one does has no impact on the other. We can think or believe anything we wish, and so long as we do not physically act on that thought, all is well. Or, conversely, we can behave with the most sinful of actions, but as long as “we really didn’t mean it” and “that is not the way I really am” all is equally okay.

No, and No.

We are not dualistic creatures, half mind and half body. We are not minds imprisoned in bodies, and we are not physical bodies with a “mind” that floats somewhere separate and apart. We are unities, we are complete selves, we are whole creations. Our hearts do affect our bodies, and as Paul makes so clear in regard to men using prostitutes, what we do with our bodies does affect our hearts.

Let us be done with this heresy that just because we do not act on sinful thoughts, fantasies, and dreams that we are somehow worthy of God’s kingdom. If it is sinful for a heterosexual to have dreams or fantasies about bedding his neighbor’s wife (or daughter), then it cannot be acceptable for a man to have fantasies about having sex with a man, or a woman with a woman.

Let us rid ourselves of this Platonic dualism. We are whole creatures, created in the image of our God and savior. Let us learn to act – and think – like the truly awesome creatures that we are!

Ascending Lower and Confronting Blatant Sin

Being a minister, an “amateur” theologian, and a sometimes keen observer of current events, I have come to an incontrovertible conclusion:

Our culture is not getting better, in fact, it is deteriorating by the day.

It was not all that long ago that a group of evangelicals were touting themselves as the “moral majority.” Just by reading the headlines, the “moral” is anything but, and the “majority”? – Pssshaw.

Throughout the life of this blog I have tried to emphasize that Christians win by losing, that we are stronger in our weakness, that the way up is by climbing lower. It is counter-intuitive, but it is the way of the cross. That is what Paul meant when he said the cross was foolishness and a stumbling block. It is just upside-down and inside-out.

But  am vexed with a problem Рhow then do we confront blatant sin? How are those who empty themselves as Christ emptied himself (Philippians 2) supposed to act when the world hurls so much garbage at our feet? I can think of a couple of ways that ascending lower does not mean.

First, it does not mean that we become so attached to the sinner that we fail to name the sin. I am becoming increasingly put-off by the so-called peacemakers who are so afraid of offending certain people that they refuse to call sin, sin. Particularly in regard to LGBTQ issues, the progressive Left has become so powerful that to even suggest that homosexuals or transgendered individuals might be sinners is to commit an unforgivable sin.

It is even worse outside the church.

Yes, I am suggesting that even, or especially, within the church the progressive mantra of “no offense” has so permeated our language that we cannot label sin as sin. How horrible that Paul could label some of the Corinthian Christians as formerly sexually immoral, homosexuals, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, greedy, drunkards and swindlers. (I Cor. 6:9-11)

You cannot be a former adulterer unless at one time you had been an active adulterer. You cannot have been a former homosexual unless at one time you had been a practicing homosexual. You cannot have been a former drunkard unless at one time you were an active, practicing drunkard.

You see, some people take the idea of “ascending lower” to mean that we cannot pass judgment on anyone, no matter how much in defiance they are living their life before God. That is NOT ascending lower. That is moral cowardice. That is cheap grace, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That is abdicating our commission to preach the gospel, whether people want to hear it or not.

But, second, ascending lower does not mean that we “lower” ourselves to behave in ways that are actually beneath that of our contemporary culture. The apostle Paul became “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22), but never in the negative sense. Jesus emptied himself – but never to fill himself with negativity. Paul followed in the footsteps of his master to empty himself in order to lift others up. We cannot do that by using the very methods our enemies are using against us.

When I say we are to confront blatant sin and yet to do so by “ascending lower” what I mean is that we label sin and confront the sinner for the purpose of having that sinful person redeemed by the blood of Christ. I will use a simple image, but one that I hope is illuminative.

My best teachers were not the ones who praised my work effusively and who told me that I was perfect and had nothing to improve upon. Well, in fact, none of my teachers said anything of the sort, but my best teachers were the ones who noted what was positive about my work, and then with the skill of a surgeon, reduced the rest to mere shreds. They did not excuse misspellings just because of my intent, they did not pass over poor English grammar because I was a quiet kid, they did not forgive obvious transgressions of logic and argumentation just because of my last name. They labeled each infraction with painful detail. And, then they taught me how to keep from making those mistakes again. And again. And again.

We do not serve the kingdom of God by excusing sin, whether it be closet racism or open homosexuality. We do not further the kingdom of God by tsk, tsking, when open confrontation is called for. We do not glorify God by minimizing the rejection of God’s revealed will. We cannot become more Christian by accepting behavior that directly violates the nature of God. We cannot lead people to the cross by telling them that all is quite well with their lives.

Every day I am confronted with the reality that this world in 2019 is not the world in which I reached my adulthood. In the immortal realization, if not the exact words of Dorothy, “We are not in Kansas, anymore.” That world, that life, that way of comprehending reality disappeared a long time ago.

What has not changed is our commission – our outreach to the world. We have to be smarter than we were 30-40 years ago. We have to lighter on our feet and quicker with our response. We have to be more sincere, more honest, and more confessional. We have to be more humble and more self-aware. That is what I mean by ascending lower.

Let us, then, fearlessly proclaim the truth even as we bend over to wash a pair of dirty feet.

Make My Life Easy, Lord

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

And the Lord looked down and said, “Abram, pack your bags and leave this place. You need to know what it means to trust in me, and you can’t do that if you are comfortable working your native soil.”

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

The Lord looked down and said, “You’re going to have to be uncomfortable living in this desert for a while until you learn what it means to trust me. It was nothing for me to get you out of Egypt, but apparently it is going to take a little bit longer for me to get Egypt out of you.”

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

The Lord looked down and said, “You know, it might be in a fiery furnace or it might be in a lion’s den, but you are going to have to learn to trust me again so I can lead you out of this strange place. But you will never know what it means to be forgiven unless you feel the whip of punishment on your back.”

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

And the Lord looked down to Peter and Paul, James and John, and said, “I called you boys for a purpose, and you can’t get that job done unless you hear the jail doors close behind you. The brightest diamonds are forged in the greatest heat. I didn’t call you in the hope that you might become great, I called you because I already put the greatness in you. Now get out there and shine!”

And the people cried out, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy!”

And the Lord said there would be wars and rumors of wars, and earthquakes, and pestilence, and starvation. The rivers will dry up and the deserts will get bigger. Men will kill each other and women will kill their own babies. Philosophers will call evil, “good” and the good they will call evil.

And the Lord asked, “Will you believe me anyway? Will you trust me anyway? Will you seek justice and love righteousness, will you defend the defenseless and speak for the powerless? Will you have the courage to ‘march into hell for a heavenly cause’? If you get tired running against men, what will happen when you have to race horses? Don’t ask that I make your life easy, ask me to give you my strength – and you will never grow weary!”

And I kneel by my bedside and pray, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

I think I have a long way to go in this faith business . . .