PREPARING YOUR SPIRIT TO GROW

Every summer we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden fresh fruits and vegetables! I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But I didn’t know beans (or tomatoes)! I thought I knew what sweet was before I moved here. But then I tasted a Turbeville cantaloupe.

One of those gardens used to be across the street from our house. But none of the fruit from that garden would’ve been possible without the gift of another man who lived down the street, Mr. Rice. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with that most important thing every garden needs — the plow.

The plow is hard. The plow is sharp. It rips through the weeds. It punctures the hard surface. It breaks up the clotted dirt. It prepares the ground for everything that comes later. The plow makes possible the beginning of powerful things in the life of the soil.

There is a parallel for the plow in the spiritual life: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up the clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the Word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in “putting off the old life” and “putting on the new.” Nothing happens without it.

The Bible talks a lot about repentance. One of the best examples of how to do it is found in Nehemiah, Chapter One.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins … we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the hardest part of the ground! In order to have any power at all, repentance has to puncture the hardened surface of self. We have to be able to come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t just my school environment, it wasn’t just where I work, it wasn’t even my family environment; I did something wrong and I’m responsible for it.”

The concept of personal repentance, like an unused plow in an abandoned field, has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture.

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed to sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside I look fine. On the inside my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart-hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed to sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands … you gave to Moses.” James repeated this idea in the New Testament. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” James 4:17.

Finally, Nehemiah confessed group sins. He used the plural pronoun “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves as responsible for what our culture is doing around us. But when we fail to speak, or write, or vote for just policies, are we not giving the nod to the unjust ones? When we align ourselves with political movements that perpetrate evil, are we not participating in cultural sin?

Yes, we are.

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility. It gets everything out on the table between us and God. That is essential if we really want a response from God when we pray.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away; grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with the neighbor with the tractor and plow about that. He told me something sad, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are fewer than five.”

When I look at our culture today and see the poison it is producing, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, if we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.

 

EMBRACING YOUR JESUS CRISIS

There is an old story about a gathering of people listening to recitations of the 23rd Psalm. One man everyone wanted to hear was a well-known actor with a deep melodious voice. He wasn’t a particularly spiritual man, but he appreciated the Psalm and was happy to comply. He stood and delivered it beautifully and everyone was duly impressed. Then a very old gentleman, one with no great skill at public speaking, but a man whom everyone respected, was also urged to recite. He slowly rose to his feet and in a quiet voice quoted the Psalm from memory. As he spoke a hush fell over the room, a silence and peace no one wanted to disturb even after he sat down. Finally, the actor spoke the truth everyone knew: “I know the Psalm. He knows the Shepherd.”

Many people are like the actor in the story. They say things like: “I’ve read the Bible. The teachings of Jesus are brilliant. I like the idea of going to heaven when I die. As far as religion is concerned, I check the “Christian” box on official forms. But this whole idea of a relationship with God is beyond me. I know other people experience it. I believe they are genuine. But I don’t seem to be able to have it myself and I don’t know why.”

A story from Luke 5:1-11, the story of the calling of the first disciples, offers a clue. Jesus was seated in Simon’s boat, teaching. He finished, turned to Simon (later called Peter) and said, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Now Simon was an experienced fisherman, a concrete, rational businessman. He was also tired. He and his partners had fished all night without a catch. He had every reason to politely decline. What Jesus was asking wasn’t rational. Peter could have cited a dozen reasons why it wouldn’t work.

But Jesus wasn’t thinking about fish. He was working on Peter’s faith, precipitating a crisis in Peter’s life by purposefully, intentionally, and meaningfully pushing him to choose between Peter’s will, intelligence, experience and knowledge, and Jesus’s command. The question was not: would they catch any fish? The question was: would Peter obey?

Peter did obey and the rest, as they say, is history. They caught so many fish that the boats began to sink. But again, it wasn’t about the fish. It was about what happened inside of Peter. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” he said. In other words, Peter now knew Jesus on a whole new level, knew Jesus as God’s Son, and his shepherd, because when his “Jesus crisis” came, he obeyed. He chose submission over experience, Jesus’s will over Peter’s. Life was never the same for Peter after that day.

The ability to experience a living relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ, and by the presence of the Holy Spirit within, does not depend on a blind leap of faith–far from it. It depends on how we respond to our “Jesus crisis” when he calls us to obey against all experience. And call, he will. Perhaps he already has in your life. Perhaps you’ve had many crises with Jesus and, like the rich young ruler in another story, “went away very sad …” without obeying, never knowing the incredible peace and power that comes from obedience. My prayer for you is that the next time he brings you to that moment of crisis you will, like Peter, obey. I promise you, your life will never be the same.

 

GOD’S LOVE AND HELL

A book by a well known evangelical casts doubt on some things Jesus said about hell and judgment. The basic question is: If God is love, why does he send people to hell?

But there is a twofold problem with the question. It assumes that we understand human nature and God’s love as they are presented in the Bible.

We do not.

We have childish, unbiblical notions of human nature. We believe that we are better than we are–that sin somehow does not corrupt us. We also have confused ideas about responsibility. We tend to blame God for our choices. We misunderstand his nature, imagining his love as grandfatherly sentiment, his holiness irrelevant, and therefore, his wrath is considered impossible.

When we do think of God’s wrath, we equate it with human rage. But Tim Keller has a good definition of God’s wrath: “It is not an out-of-control temper. Wrath is the settled opposition and hatred of that which is destroying what we love.” Imagine your reaction to cancer in a dear friend. That’s wrath. God hates the things that destroy us, including the things that come from inside us.

We are capable of much evil, much selfishness, much that is perverse and opposed to that which God holds dear. We destroy the bodies he gave us with toxins, neglect, and inadequate care. We destroy the souls he gave us with greed, gossip, lying, self-righteousness, self-pity, and lust. And we destroy others with cutting words, economic oppression, relentless criticism, and betrayal.

We also assume that Jesus was too kind to mention hell. But he said more about hell than anyone else in the New Testament. He warned us, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28 NIV).

He also taught that hell is self-chosen saying, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:18-19 NIV).

C. S. Lewis said it like this: Unless someone wants God and God alone he would be utterly miserable in heaven. It would be a crime to send him there for heaven is all about God.

Finally, the good news that Jesus came to proclaim is that God wishes to save us from hell. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). That’s God’s love at work, absorbing the wrath that we deserve, and making it possible for us to know him now and join him in eternity.

How do we do that? By receiving him into our lives as Lord, as Jesus also explained, “He who receives me receives the one who sent me.” (John 13:20 ESV). And, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 13:25 NIV).

So the question is not, “Why does God send people to hell?” But rather, “What do I really want? Do I want Jesus Christ and God the Father who sent him? Or do I want my own life, my own way?”

Either way, the choice is ours.

ELUSIVE CHRISTMAS JOY

Joy, for many of us, is elusive at Christmas. Instead of mounting happiness as October fades and November cools, our moods fall like spent leaves, wind drifts of brown on grass no longer green.

Reasons for sadness pile up as the year runs out.

“Holiday sales” burnout plays a part. Holy awe, and the joy it builds, is dulled by crass commerce that begins before Halloween ends. Only in America, where glitz is king, can the latest Mercedes induce more wonder than the Word made flesh.

But that’s not all the sales and marketing do. They remind many of us of things we’d rather forget, visual cues of tragedies past. Loved ones lost as the holidays arrived, graveside services in the snow. Or simply beautiful seasons of life that have come and gone, and will never come again, as children grow and jobs carry us away.

Then there is the actual gathering of family members, long dispersed and often better off that way. Seasonal expectations of heightened happiness against the backdrop of broken promises and dreams create a special kind of emotional dissonance. It’s hard to sing NOEL when your heart is full of Lamentations.

It was to people like that that the angel announced “good news of great joy.” People just like you and me. “For all people,” this news was come, “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Ponder those words.

Men have peace with God. More to the point, God has declared peace to men. The relationship broken in the Garden of God, the fellowship lost when our first parents were banished from the place of blessing (read “Joy”) has been restored–restored not by man returning to the Garden, by earning or breaking his way in, but by God leaving the Garden and coming into the world. Truly, those who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

And the good news is “for all people.” Not for some, but for all. Not for the elite, but for all. Not for the powerful, but for all. Not for the popular, the famous, or the merely well-liked, but for all. Not for the religiously pure or the morally righteous, but for all. Not for one race, or kind, or nation, but for all. Not for someone else, no, the good news is for me, and for you, and for all.

A great assumption lies behind the angels’ news: That our estrangement from God is worse by far than all of the stress, all of the loss, all of the tragedies, and burnout combined. Indeed it is, because that estrangement is the root of all other alienation. And the reconciliation made possible by the babe of Bethlehem, the first step of God again into the world, was the beginning of true hope, the well-spring of lasting joy.

This Christmas, don’t look for joy from a brightly wrapped package under a tree, in family, or parties, or songs. These are just the trimmings. Look for joy in the face of Jesus. He has come to reconcile all who will believe, and he will come again to restore all things.

THE DEACON & THE HOOKER

It’s a simple story told in Luke’s characteristically lucid style.[1] Jesus is dining with a Pharisee named Simon. Picture him as the successful, well-dressed chairman of the deacons and you’ll be in the ballpark. A woman steps haltingly into the room. Her name is not given but it is not needed. Everyone knows her, the local hooker. She is not composed, not there to impress or seduce. She is weeping with gratitude, on her knees over the feet of the reclining rabbi from Nazareth, pouring out years of pent-up guilt, little rivers of happiness and shame, down upon his ankles and between his toes. She bends further and wipes the watery dirt away with her hair. Then she withdraws an alabaster jar of expensive perfume and empties it on his feet, rubbing it in with her hands as the sweet aroma fills the room.

Simon is aghast. The Pharisees were known for their righteousness, their religious purity and high moral character. They were the successful middle class evangelicals of their day. They didn’t hang out with sinful people nor approve of those who did.  Scenes like this were too much for such men. “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is…” he grouses within.

Jesus knows exactly what she is, a broken woman experiencing forgiveness and freedom from guilt and shame for the first time in her life. But Jesus also knows something else: what Simon is, a successful man in need of humility, a man every bit as lost in his self-righteousness as the hooker had been in immorality. The only difference between the two is that the woman knows her sin and knows she needs a savior. Simon’s success blinds him to both.

Jesus tells Simon a story of two forgiven debtors, one who owed eighteen months wages and one who owed about two months. “Now which of them will love the forgiving moneylender more?” He asks.

Simon can’t help but answer, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

Then Jesus says the most important thing in the whole story, the thing that reveals who he really is. “Correct!” He looked at the woman. “See this woman? I came to your house yet you have not offered me the least of common courtesies. But she has not ceased, since the moment I walked in, to show me the greatest love and devotion. Therefore I tell you, her sins which are many have been forgiven, for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

In other words, “Simon, in the grand scheme of things I’m the lender, I’m the one that everyone is indebted to. I’m God. Your achievements in life and religion matter not at all. Your relationship to me is all.”

And as if to put an exclamation point on it he turns to the woman with something only God has the authority to say, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

It isn’t what we’ve done or not done in life that determines our salvation. It isn’t how religious we’ve been or how irreligious, our successes or failures. The only thing that matters is our ability to acknowledge our sin, to own the guilt and the shame, to the one who “holds the note” on it and trust him to forgive the one and remove the other. Then every room we enter will be filled with the aroma of our love for him.

[1] (Luke 7:36-50)

FLABBY-BRAINED BELIEVERS?

The bathroom scales hounded me back to my Nordic Trak last week with the words: “You are a middle-aged blob who eats too much and exercises too little!”

OK, it didn’t actually say that because it can’t talk. And no, I’m not going to tell you what it read either (I am vain that way). Let it suffice that I sweated through my first thirty-minutes in about a month on the twentieth-century torture tool and I’m headed back there today.

I wonder, however, if there was a scale for the Christian mind that could talk, what it would be saying to the people of God? I’m afraid it would report that many of us have flabby brains.

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body,” said Joseph Addison, but far too many of us read nothing at all.

If you’re ready to get your mind back in action here’s a list of recommended reading that will equip you to think Christianly about life.

Suffering

SUFFERING AND THE HEART OF GOD: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, by Diane Langberg, PhD. Langberg, who has worked with Rwandan genocide victims, is a globally recognized expert on trauma, particularly that special evil suffered by sexual abuse victims. She is theologically solid, clinically expert, and personally compassionate. I’ve heard her speak and read her previous book, On the Threshold of Hope. I guarantee that if you do not already know a sexual abuse victim, you will and you will want to know how to help. Her books will help.

Marriage

SAVING YOUR MARRIAGE BEFORE IT STARTS: Seven Questions to Ask Before (and After) You Marry, by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott. The Parrotts are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. I’ve been offering per-marital counseling since 1995 and I’ve yet to find a better resource.

RECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES: Healing for Troubled Marriages, by marriage and family therapist Dr. Jim Talley. Talley’s work became my go-to for counseling couples in crisis many years ago and remains so today. It is simple, clear, and concise. Read it five years into your first marriage and you probably won’t have a second. Find him at drtalley.com.

Giving Wisely

TOXIC CHARITY: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and how to reverse it), by Robert D. Lupton. Bob, the founder of FCS Urban Ministries, moved his young family into inner-city Atlanta in the late seventies and stayed. He “has developed two mixed-income subdivisions, organized a multiracial congregation, started a number of businesses, created housing for hundreds of families,”[1] and is a friend of our family. He is also an excellent writer and teacher of the ideas he promotes. The book is an easy and useful read.

Biblical Worldview Thinking

HOW NOW SHALL WE LIVE, is the late Chuck Colson’s and Nancy Pearcy’s magnum opus on biblical worldview thinking. If you have no exposure to the genre and five hundred pages doesn’t frighten you, begin here. It is compelling and easy to follow.

THE GOOD LIFE, also by Colson with Harold Fickett, is much shorter and more about answers to the questions we all have, like: Why am I here; how can I find significance? But all of Colson’s works are infused with the worldview rubric and this one will challenge you to choose carefully.

Culture War

CULTURE MAKING: Recovering Our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch. Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, makes an excellent case that it is not enough to condemn culture, nor to stand aloof and critique it or naively copy it, still less to unconsciously consume it. If Christians want to return to the cultural influence that helped build Western Civilization, we have to create better culture. CULTURE MAKING is the best book yet on how to do that.

ONWARD: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, by Russell Moore. Moore is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a man who, like Albert Mohler, is an energetic, entertaining, and articulate defender of the faith. ONWARD is a quick, compelling read that roots our cultural engagement squarely in the Gospel and never strays from it.

Perhaps you are thinking, “I don’t have time to read serious books.” If so remember World Magazine and World Radio, both of which will keep you up-to-date with the latest biblical worldview thinking in a highly portable format. Go to getworldnow.com for a free three month trial. The daily worldview update, Breakpoint, with John Stonestreet and Eric Metaxas is also excellent.

Brains, like bodies, get flabby without exercise. What would our imaginary mental scales say about yours? Time to get to work!

[1] From the book cover.

THE BIBLE, THE KORAN, AND CULTURE

“Did Rick Warren say that Christians and Muslims worship the same god?”

My friend’s question over breakfast last week caught me off guard. “I doubt it,” I said, “but it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that someone had misinterpreted something Rick said.”

I was right and you can read more about that at ChristianExaminer.com / did-Rick-Warren-convert-to-islam-no-no-and-no, by Gregory Tomlin. But the question reminded me how often people conflate the two religions.

This came home to me forcefully one day as I was explaining the differences between Christianity and Islam to two friends when one said, “Hey, one religion is as good as another. The Bible and the Koran are essentially the same kind of book.”

The truth is very different. Christianity and Islam are entirely different religions and the Bible and the Koran are completely different books. But imagine that you are sitting with a friend and the topic comes up. Would you be able to offer, in simple language, what distinguishes these two books and the two religions they represent?

No? Let me help you.

The Authorship is Different

The Koran was dictated by an illiterate man over the course of twenty-three years who claimed that he was hearing the voice of an angel.

The Bible was written by dozens of men over more than a thousand years who claimed to be moved by the Spirit of God to write. Some were scholars, some poets, some kings, some shepherds, some were priests, and some were prophets. Yet all had a uniform message: That God would save his people from their sins.

The Bible is thus connected to thousands of years of human history. The Koran is connected to three decades in the 7th Century. Muhammad believed that he was reciting a book that already existed in heaven. It is like an assortment of instructions and advice not specifically tied to any historical event. The Bible, through all of its authors, tells one story of God’s work over time through actual historical events, most of which have been validated by research.

But most importantly for us, the impact of the two books is different.

The Impact is Different

In 2006 England arrested 24 suspects in a plot to blow up ten U.S.-bound passenger jets with liquid explosives. In 2007 German authorities broke up a “massive” bombing plot against American interests in Germany. And of course, no one will forget the Fort Hood murderer, the would-be Times Square bomber, the Boston bombers, Charlie Hebdo, Paris, San Bernadino, or Orlando. All of these actions were perpetrated by Muslims in the name of Islam.

Not everyone who reads the Koran ends up being a terrorist. But that’s not the issue. Why would anyone – why do so many who read it – end up believing that Allah authorizes terrorism and murder?

I’m a conservative, evangelical Bible teacher. That means I believe the Bible is God’s word and that it is my authority for faith and practice. It also means that I’m very careful about interpreting it. I use the historical, grammatical, critical method of interpretation. I’m looking for historical context – who was the author? When did he write? To whom was he writing? What did he actually say (vocabulary, grammar, structure)? What did it mean to the original readers? How does that meaning apply in our cultural context?

Because of what the Bible teaches people from our church and many others participate in: Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, The Good Samaritan, disaster recovery, crisis pregnancy centers, GriefShare, and countless other acts of love and service.

That’s the impact of the Bible, properly interpreted and taught, in our culture. Why does the Koran not have the same affect? I’ll let my friend Samer, a former Sunni radical and now a Christian missionary to the Islamic world, conclude.

“As Christians we must be very emphatic that Christians have and continue to do many shameful things in the name of Christ, but the issue is this: Christians who use violence in the name of God to destroy their enemies have no justification for their actions from Jesus Christ, his life and teachings as found in the New Testament. Whereas, Muslims who are engaged in violence and destruction of anyone who opposes Islam, have ample justification for their actions from the Qur’an (using the Historical /Grammatical /Critical approach to interpretation) and the life and sayings of prophet Muhammad (the Hadith).”

“It is beyond doubt that the prophet of Islam did encourage the killing and intimidation of his enemies, not just in self defense as it is commonly reported by Muslims, but in the promotion of the cause of Allah and the spread of Islam.”

“Needless to say, the actions of the prophet were in direct contradiction to the teachings and actions of Jesus Christ and his disciples. So the point is not that Christians have never resorted to violence and other horrible atrocities. They have indeed committed many horrible acts, but when they have done this, they have betrayed the very person that they claim to follow. But when Muslims commit such acts, they can in fact claim that they are following the example of their prophet and thus fulfilling the will of God and promoting His cause. That, certainly, is a big difference!”