The Strange Words of Jesus

Some meditative thoughts following my daily Bible reading for today –

If you attempt to keep up with modern trends in American Christianity (as I feebly do), you are aware that today there is a great deal of talk about being spiritual, but not necessarily religious. (This distinction screams for a post on definitions of words, but that will have to wait for another day). What I want to point out is that the very use of the term “spiritual” as is used in today’s vernacular is so utterly opposite of what Jesus demanded. You see, today we can be “spiritual” and not give up anything – in fact, being spiritual means that we get to have, and get, and get, and get, and get. Being spiritual means we are healthy, wealthy, and wise, and any sign of infirmity of mind, body, or bank account means that we are just not spiritual enough. There is just far too much “J” in this concept, and that “J” stands for Joel Osteen and not Jesus.

Just look at how the word is understood: churches that grow are spiritual, churches that stay the same (or, heaven forbid, shrink) are worldly. Athletes that win the Super Bowl are spiritual, athletes that are perennial cellar dwellers are worldly. Preachers that “grow” churches are spiritual, preachers that labor in small, nondescript congregations are worldly. Yikes! – Jeremiah was the poster child of worldly failure!

Now, understand – I am not promoting apathy. Some churches that shrink do so because they are worldly. Not every athlete on a losing team is spiritual. And some preachers are failures because they have sold their soul to the world, and congregations can sniff that out.

But I am only too aware of congregations who grow by leaps and bounds because of the star status of their preacher, not because of spiritual health. I am only too aware that some athletic teams win because their system is built on cheating and rigging the game, not on the depth of their spiritual acumen. Some preachers climb the ecclesial ladder by kissing feet – not by washing them.

Three times in Luke 14:25-33 Jesus specifically said that certain people could not be his disciples. Read the passage – certain people could not be his disciples! People who love fame and popularity, people who refuse to walk in the shadow of their own death, people who cannot renounce their own importance – these people cannot become, or remain, disciples of Jesus.

There are all kinds of markers for what Americans consider to be a life of spirituality. Strangely, I see very few of them consistent with what Jesus considered to be markers of spirituality.

It just seems like every day I want to climb the ecclesial ladder. Every day I want someone to recognize my brilliance, my importance. Every day I want to have someone say – “wow, look at him – he must be spiritual because of what he has.” And, virtually without fail, I open my Bible and I read where God says, “Argh, you have it all wrong again! You climb higher by descending lower. Listen to my Son.”

I want to be spiritual in my quest to be a disciple, but I hope that no one thinks that I am spiritual. Because, I think that if someone thinks that I’m spiritual, I have probably become an enemy of the one who is my master.

The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (3) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Stated plainly, I do not believe that God teaches we are to forgive people unconditionally. I do not believe God does so, and I do not believe we can justify doing so from the Bible. I wrote in my last post that I believe there is a very selfish reason why we hold so firmly to the idea of “unconditional forgiveness.” We just do not want to be confronted by our own failure, and so in order to excuse our own weakness we simply choose to “forgive” everyone else and defend our actions with a very pious sounding argument.

There is yet another reason why we are so firmly attached to the idea of unconditional forgiveness. We simply do not understand the depth of the consequences of human sin. If we really took the time to reflect on our sinfulness and rebellion, I just do not think that we would be so cavalier in our dismissal of the biblical teachings regarding forgiveness.

Ponder for a moment the God’s reaction to sin in the book of Genesis. Consider Isaiah 64:6, and if need be, research the meaning of “filthy rags” or “polluted garment.” Ask yourself what Paul was trying to communicate in Romans 1. Think about why he warned the Thessalonian Christians about the coming “day of wrath.”

Read Jeremiah 6:14-15, 8:10-12, and Ezekiel 13:1-16. Could it be that when we blithely and sanctimoniously “forgive” we are actually repeating the actions of those whom the prophets so soundly condemn? Are we not coming dangerously close to fulfilling the words of Isaiah 5:20-24?

Why did Jesus have to die if God can, and indeed does, forgive unconditionally? It seems to me that the most obscene injustice this world has ever seen would have been the cross on Golgotha if God simply looks down on our little peccadilloes and wipes the slate clean with a brush of his divine eraser.

Others have written far more eloquently describing this false forgiveness. I offer just one example:

Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. . . The world finds in this church a cheap cover-up for its sins, for which it shows no remorse and from which it has even less desire to be set free. Cheap grace is, thus, a denial of God’s living word, denial of the incarnation of the word of God. . . Cheap grace means justification of the sin, but not of the sinner. . . Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 43-44.)

I mentioned in my first article that those who believe this myth have not committed some serious theological crime. In one sense maybe that might be true, but in another sense maybe I myself was being too glib, too forgiving. The myth of unconditional forgiveness is itself rather innocuous, but it leads to a denial of the gospel. If we are forgiven unconditionally, then Jesus’s death itself becomes, as I said above, obscene.

Although I am not a psychologist, I also believe there are some serious psychological repercussions when we buy into this myth. When we suggest that we are forgiving unconditionally, we are attempting to perform spiritual gymnastics that only result in the short-circuiting of a process that God had instilled deep within the human soul. We humans are designed for community, for relationship. Our first relationship is with God, and second with other humans. When we expect God to forgive unconditionally we are telling him that our sins do not matter – he just needs to “get on with life” and wipe the slate clean. When we do not expect, or demand, that others acknowledge their sins agains us, we are denying them the opportunity to unburden their soul – to admit their own failure. This is a critical point so often overlooked – we as humans have a very deep need to be able to admit we are wrong, and to be forgiven of that wrong, so that our relationships can be healed. “Unconditional forgiveness” sounds so wonderful, but in reality it actually prevents what it is supposedly designed to do.

So, what do we do in the very real world where many of those who hurt us have no intention of asking for our forgiveness, or who have died and therefore cannot ask for our forgiveness? Can we forgive them?

In a word, no. As I said in a past post – we do have the ability to surrender the will to get even. We do have the ability to pray to God, to surrender our hurt feelings, to not let the sun go down on our anger. I believe in the practice of writing letters to be placed inside caskets letting go of the hurt and anger. I believe in punching pillows or sweating our frustrations out. I also believe very firmly in the ability to pray the imprecatory Psalms – the Psalms that ask God to exact revenge on those of our enemies who refuse our efforts to make peace. But we must remember to allow God to exact that revenge.

This is NOT forgiveness, however, and in no manner, shape, or form should we disguise it as such. Forgiveness is two individuals, or groups, that have be separated by a real disruption of relationship, who come together for the purpose of healing that relationship. The offended party offers peace, the offending party acknowledges guilt and asks for forgiveness. The offended party accepts the apology and extends the forgiveness, and the two parties reaffirm their love and acceptance of each other. This is biblical – from Genesis to Revelation. This is putting the words of Jesus into practice. This is the act of ascending higher by climbing lower. Anything less is just not biblical.

It is a myth.

The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (2) [Uncertain Inferences Series]

I would like to move on and discuss the theological aspects of the idea of unconditional forgiveness, but before I do that I want to examine one other critical question – why is the myth of unconditional forgiveness so entrenched in our beliefs? If there is such little (or, in my opinion, zero) scriptural support for the idea, and so much scriptural evidence against the teaching, why is it so tenaciously defended?

In a sentence: because we ourselves are utterly terrified to consider the prospect that we might stand before God as unforgiven sinners. The logic is that if we can impose upon God the concept that forgiveness must be unconditional, then we ourselves do not have to repent, we do not have to change, we do not have to turn from our idolatrous practices and yet we can stand wholly and totally forgiven. Therefore, we create this unbiblical, yet psychologically appealing, model by which we are to “forgive” others whether they ask for it or not, simply to smooth over our rebellious defiance of God’s pleas for a “broken and contrite heart.” (Psalm 51)

For evidence all I have to do is to point out the difference in worship hymns written before the twentieth century and contemporary worship songs composed in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. While there are many older hymns that highlight God’s love and forgiveness, as you scan the majority of these hymns you see another central component – a confession of man’s sinfulness and complete dependence upon the God of love. “Amazing Grace” is meaningless without an acknowledgement that I am a “wretch” that needs saving. The light of God’s grace can only be seen through the reality of a very dark world of sin.

I will also admit that there are phrases in today’s contemporary worship music that use the word “sin,” but the overwhelming majority of songs heard on Christian radio stations (and increasingly used in worship services) only talk about the love of God, about how Jesus is our “lover” or “brother” and how we as Christians can bask in the glow of God’s presence. In short, there is very little “wretch” in these songs. The message these songs give us is, “We’re forgiven, God loves us, get over all that unhealthy guilt stuff.”

But, I say again, we cannot repent of something that does not exist. If we as Christians are forgiven “unconditionally” and without our even asking for forgiveness, then there is simply no reason to pray for forgiveness (as Jesus and the apostles plainly teach us to do) because we dwell in a perpetual state of being unconditionally forgiven.

I know the concept that God might expect, or even demand, conditions before forgiveness can be extended sounds harsh, repressive, and even un-biblical. But as I stated earlier, I think it is because we as Christians in the industrialized, capitalistic, and democratic societies in the West have lost a critical understanding of the meaning of the word “sin.” It is to that subject that we must turn if we are going to ever regain what it means to be truly “forgiven.”

A Mind-Bending, Spirit-Shaking 60 Days

The last 60+ days of my life have been anything but normal. Even now, as I sit after pondering for many days what I would write, I still find the words elusive. I once thought I knew many things. Now, I wonder if I will ever even understand the questions.

This journey started on August 14. On that afternoon my wife was diagnosed with cancer. As with so many who hear that diagnosis, our world was shattered. Four days later, on the 18th, while trying to restore some semblance of normalcy, and while ice skating with my daughter, I fell and broke (shattered?) my femur (large bone in my thigh). Surgery the next day. Thirteen days in the hospital. A week in re-hab. Meanwhile my wife had to begin her chemo treatments without me.

It’s funny how quickly, and with such violence, a life of plans and goals can be shattered. Literally.

Now we live from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour, our future punctuated with doctor visits, scans and tests, physical therapy, and the looming appointment of yet another surgery and hospital stay.

There is a personally ironic and even pernicious twist to this story. The sermon text that I had selected for August 20 [selected before the 14th, by the way] was 2 Corinthians 12:10, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” It was a sermon I never got to preach. It was a sermon I don’t know if I will ever be able to preach.

I was going to wax poetic about the paradox in Paul’s language. I was going to revel in the assurance of God’s presence in the time of trouble. I was going to speak as only a fool would, not knowing the depth of the mistakes I was making.

Like I said, I thought I knew a lot about many things. I lost my father due to cancer 27 years ago. My mother is a 27 year survivor of cancer. A close family member was murdered. The father of a very close childhood friend committed suicide. I’ve lived a lot of life and have preached a lot of sermons.

But, somehow I’ve changed. I do not enter the pulpit now like I used to. I don’t read the text now like I used to. I cannot quantify the change, nor adequately describe it. But this world is just – different now.

In many ways I’m the same me as I always was – a snarky, ironic if not sarcastic, self-impressed, knuckle-dragging troglodyte. I guess some things are just too deep to root out. But now I see things a little differently, and hopefully much more clearly.

I still want to ascend by climbing lower – I hope I just know a little bit more about what that means now than I did 60 days ago.

A Bent and Broken World

The phrase comes from a sermon I heard years ago by Jim McGuiggan. I have never forgotten that phrase, although the I may not remember the over-all thrust of his message. We live in a bent and broken world.

Never have I been so aware of that as in the past couple of weeks. Jury duty can do that do a person. If you want to find out how bent and broken our world is – just hang out at a courthouse. Modern courthouses are a cauldron where all sorts of filth festers and boils over. I feel like I need to shower again after just sitting for a couple of hours in a jury selection hearing.

And then there are the headlines: babies left alone in broiling hot cars suffer indescribable pain as their little lives are snuffed out. Two parents in England have the care of their terminally ill child forcibly taken from them by the government – with no recourse. State and federal governments and courts are increasingly forcing perverse beliefs and practices on a populace that either does not care or celebrates the perversity. Free speech is becoming guaranteed to only those who reject biblical standards of behavior.

We live in a bent and broken world.

On the one hand, I am simply speechless at the speed at which our culture has devolved. My childhood – lived largely during a period of moral upheaval  – seems like a million years ago, and the problems I was faced with seem almost quaint by today’s standards.

At least we knew which bathroom we were supposed to use.

On the other hand, on the continuum of moral perversity, I do not believe we have reached the point where a governmental leader can summarily order the execution of small babies within a geographical area simply because of his jealous rage. At least, not yet. And, while they are disappearing at an alarming rate, at least there are SOME sexual mores still in existence. At least, for a while.

I have been asked the question, “What is the greatest threat facing the church over the next 10-20 years?” How can I answer, “Simple existence”? Externally we are living in an era of increasing moral decline, and internally the church is being attacked by those who refuse to accept its exclusive claim. There is only one church, and extra ecclesiam nulla salus. “Outside the church there is no salvation.” That church is Christ’s church, and its members do not get the right to change the stipulations for entry nor the requirements for continued membership.

We live in a bent and broken world. Humans always have; until Christ returns we always will. While we are here our hearts are often shattered, and our eyes full of tears. But of this we can be certain:

The one who created this world will purify and restore it, just as our bodies will be purified and restored. What that looks like we have no earthly idea. But the promise that it will happen is sure.

Until that happens we must live at the foot of the cross, for we are just as guilty as others for the death of the Son of God. Repent. Confess. Live in a state of forgiven humility. Understand that only in weakness can we be made strong, and only in losing can we have any hope of victory.

Lord, come quickly!

Arrogance, Humility, and Institutional Memory

We are living in a time in which the disease of arrogance is approaching pandemic proportions. Humility, never in the history of man something that was found in over-abundance, has disappeared from all but the most remote corners of discourse. Humility is now considered to be the chief deadly sin. It used to be that mud was only thrown after all facts were depleted. Now, the storehouse of facts remains untouched, while the mud has all but been expended.

While far from being alone, the Churches of Christ have long been accused of arrogance – “You people think you’re the only ones going to heaven” is a refrain oft repeated – and not without some justification. Some members do hold such a belief. However, even among those who do not hold such exclusionary beliefs, there is a sense that, if the Bible is inerrant, and if I believe the Bible teaches something, then my understanding of what the Bible teaches must therefore also be inerrant.

Like I said – we are not alone in harboring such members, but it seems to me that we do have more than our fair share.

This is so peculiar to me, for one reason. The early leaders in the Restoration Movement did not hold such exclusionary beliefs, and the exact opposite concept is enshrined in one of the founding documents of the Restoration Movement.

In the Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell (father of Alexander), wrote this as his sixth proposition explaining the desire to withdraw from the evils of denominationalism:

6.  That, although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they see the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession. (Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address, Mission Messenger, 1978 printing, p. 46)

The target that Campbell had squarely in his sights was the numerous creeds and Confessions of Faith that were used to divide Christians in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. It is significant to me, however, that the very language he used “deductions…inferences…formally binding” are those that are used with a reckless abandon by his 21st century spiritual heirs.

Today you let some preacher or blogger infer something from Scripture, and it automatically becomes enshrined as a binding truth for the confession of the Church.

There is a key phrase in the middle of that paragraph is is, to me, astounding – incredible even. Thomas wrote, “. . . for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God.” Here we have a statement that could come from the pen of virtually any “postmodern” theologian, and it was written almost 200 years ago!

If you convert someone to a deduction or an inference of man, all you have done is to create a follower of a denomination. If you convert someone to Jesus Christ, you convert them to the power and veracity of God. Anytime you tell someone (or anytime someone tries to tell you), “you have to believe the Bible plus this book” or “you have to accept the Bible and this confession of faith” or “you have to believe in the Bible and this creed” understand that person is trying to get you to accept the deductions and inferences of men as equal to that of Scripture! I wish I could say that such things do not happen within Churches of Christ, but I am wise enough to know otherwise. Preachers and members of the Churches of Christ may not have a written creed, but far too many of them have just as binding and just as distinct unwritten creeds, and those are probably more dangerous than the written versions. At least you can object to a specific written statement. Trying to pin down the unwritten creeds of some members is virtually impossible.

I will not back down one inch from the truths clearly taught in Scripture. I will not easily back down from my deductions and inferences, because God gave me a brain to use and legitimate tools to help me understand his word. But – and this is critical – I cannot bind my deductions on you as a matter of Christian obedience any further than you can agree to my deductive skill and resulting conclusions.

Humility demands that we approach our deductions, inferences, and conclusions with the greatest of reticence and care. As Campbell said, they may well be rock-solid biblical doctrine. But, just as easily, they can become tainted and be less than pure.

Arrogance will not allow that we be mistaken, in any way, shape, or form, in our “human wisdom.” Arrogance demands that everyone bow their knee to our special insight and judgment. When all the facts are used up, arrogance has no fear to start throwing mud. Arrogance is always self-righteous, but never quiet.

I would so much rather be quietly correct, than loudly wrong.

A Meditation on the Fourth of July: How To Set Yourself Free

A thought about setting oneself free on this day of remembering a day of national freedom . . .

You do not have to dig deep to discover the most significant problem in a majority of congregations today. It goes something like this:

Major premise – “I am always right”
Minor premise – “My interpretation of a passage of Scripture is _____”
Conclusion – “My interpretation of this passage must be right.”

Obviously, the problem with this syllogism is that the major premise is demonstrably false. No person is always right – about just about anything. The minor premise is equally problematic. Since when does anyone’s opinion about the interpretation of a passage have anything to do with its truthfulness? A hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, or a million people can all hold the same opinion about a passage of Scripture and it still be an invalid interpretation. So, if both the major and minor premise are wrong or problematic, then the conclusion cannot be true. The interpretation may be correct, it may be incorrect, or it may be partially incorrect and partially correct.

Just don’t tell some people that they are wrong. Oh, they may say that they might be wrong about something. But just try to pin them down to what they might be wrong about. Pretty soon you discover that what they call a risk of error is well nigh an impossibility.

Entire congregations can be held hostage by one or two belligerent individuals who refuse to consider, even for a moment, that they might be mistaken. Entire lives can be ruined by the fallacious belief that a person is always correct, and therefore anything he or she believes must be correct.

How can a congregation, or a person, declare their independence? With the simple phrase, “I was wrong, and I admit it.”

Confession – what a thought! Just try it. Repeat the following until you come to honestly believe the truth behind them –

  • “It is okay if I am wrong.” With very few exceptions (loaded guns, drinking poison, and thinking a rattlesnake is a stick) errors of belief are rarely fatal.
  • “I am not perfect, and I do not have to be.” Only one life has been perfect, and you are NOT him.
  • “A person can be absolutely convinced, and still be wrong – and still be loved and appreciated.” The eleven apostles come to mind.
  • “I cannot be, and do not have to be, 100% correct on 100% of the questions 100% of the time. I can be wrong and still be forgiven.” Ditto.

There – that was easy, wasn’t it? Feel the weight of perfection fall off of your shoulders? Do you feel the rejuvenation to actually have the freedom to re-think, and to re-study, questions that honest people have disagreed about for centuries?

The need, and especially the demand, to be immaculately perfect about every question of the Bible and the Christian life is a cancer that kills the spirit without remorse.

Declare your independence from this wretched disease. Admit your imperfection. Concede your frailty. Proclaim that you no longer need to be perfect.

Ascend through the humility of accepting your humanity.