GROWING UP IN GOD’S UNIVERSITY

The interview was disturbing. The young woman I was counseling was in deep-dish trouble. Her relationships were dysfunctional, she was up to her armpits in debt, and most of her decisions were based on a daily reading of her horoscope.

But the most troubling thing is that she had grown up attending church. She was supposed to know how to manage life. But she didn’t. Her spiritual journey included a lot of lessons to help her feel good, but very few to help her live as a true follower of Christ. I should not have been surprised.

In 2005, University of North Carolina sociologist Christian Smith and colleague Melinda Lundquist Denton published The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, revealing that most teens adhered to a pseudo-religion Smith dubbed MTD, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Its tenets:

  • There is a God who created everything and watches over us.
  • That God wants people to be good as defined by most world religions.
  • The goal of life is happiness and feeling good about oneself.
  • We only need God when we have a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

In other words, the moral part is superseded by the therapeutic. Purity of heart, Christlike sacrifice for others, repentance, forgiveness and the pursuit of righteousness and the rule of God in life[1] aren’t in the picture. Feeling good trumps everything.

Smith’s follow-up research published in 2011 showed nothing had improved. Though 40 percent of young believers said their moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or other religious feeling, it is unlikely that those beliefs were biblically consistent. And 61 percent “had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism.”[2]

Those teens are grown up now and most of America follows MTD.

That isn’t the way Church is supposed to be. The Church should be God’s university on planet earth, a learning center for Biblical life lessons, a place where each member is constantly growing up into maturity in Christ.[3]

Healthy Churches equip believers to discern between wisdom and the world’s empty values.

Consider some examples: What do you think about climate change?  How about a nuclear-armed Iran? What about health care? College debt? How about the Virginia Tax Code? And what about education? Helping the poor? Sex-ed in schools?

Simple answers elude us. How should a serious Christian respond? Can the Bible help?

The Bible doesn’t always teach us what to think. But it can teach us how to think. That’s what it means to develop a Biblical Worldview. Christians truly educated in God’s university know how to ‘think Biblically’ on issues from Abortion to Zoning laws. In that sense, a healthy church produces better parents, better students, better leaders, better workers and better citizens because it produces better thinkers.

CAUSE & EFFECT IN THE SPIRITUAL WORLD

How we live affects our ability to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit on the one hand and avoid entanglement with evil on the other.

One of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read was M. Scott Peck’s Glimpses of the Devil. Peck was a clinical psychiatrist and author of several bestsellers in the 1970’s and 80’s including, The Road Less Traveled and People of the Lie. Glimpses is the full account of the exorcisms of two of his patients.

With degrees from Harvard and Case Western Reserve, Peck did not see the Devil behind every mental disorder. In fact, until the day he met Jersey, a patient profiled in the book, he did not believe in the Devil. His experiences with her and another patient convinced him not only of the reality of personal spiritual evil, but also of cause and effect in the spiritual world.

“There are two states of being,” Peck wrote, “submission to God and goodness or the refusal to submit to anything beyond one’s own will—which refusal automatically enslaves one to the forces of evil. We must ultimately belong either to God or the devil.”[1]

Science is always catching up with scripture, and Peck the twentieth century scientist, had caught up with things the Apostle Paul taught in the first century about the spiritual world.

Some things we do provide an avenue for evil influence in our lives. Practicing falsehood, indulging anger, and habitual stealing, “give the devil a foothold,” Paul wrote.[2] But who, or what, is the Devil?

The Devil is a hateful, violent, twisted being that despises God and loathes people. He is attracted to sinful behavior like flies to garbage, laying his larvae of spite, lust, and greed to hatch into maggots of bitterness, violence, sexual predation, and avarice. Thus, his evil influence in life spreads like the stench of a landfill on a hot summer day.

As the Devil’s influence swells in a life that makes room for it, so the Spirit’s effect wanes. The knowledge of God’s presence, the strength to withstand temptation, the wisdom, discernment, healing, prophecy, and other manifestations along with love, joy, peace, patience and self-control fade when we ignore Him and indulge evil.

The Spirit of God is gentle, pure, and quiet. He does not go where he is not welcomed.[3] We can choke his influence by our hard hearts.[4]  He grieves over sin in the life of a believer the way a parent is saddened by a wayward child.[5] But when he is welcomed he brings sweet fruit.

Welcome the Spirit of God into your life. Make room for him daily through meditation on Scripture, worship with the Psalms or other spiritual songs, and prayer. Abide in Christ, trusting in his completed work for you on the cross and obeying his commands, and his Spirit’s influence and power in your life will grow.

[1] From the Preface.

[2] Ephesians 4:27

[3] John 20:22

[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:19

[5] Ephesians 4:30

THE REASON FOR GOD’S WRATH

Wrath’s purpose in our lives, as well as the way it operates, is not what we imagine.

Someone once asked, “Do you believe people can change?”

“Yes,” I said, “I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also experienced it.”

“What makes them change?” He asked.

“The power of God working from within, but there is only one way to get that.”

“What is it?”

“Humility. Usually precipitated by pain.”

“Huh?” My friend didn’t like where this was going, but I could tell he was still interested so I pressed on.

“Most of us won’t do what the Bible calls repentance—giving up our role as Lord and Master of our lives, as well as giving up our sins, and giving ourselves over to God—until our way of doing things has caused enough pain and frustration to make us consider that God might have a better plan.”

What I didn’t tell him was that the pain that we experience is a manifestation of the mercy of God through the exercise of his wrath. It is one of his greatest, though severest, blessings.

Temporal wrath, the kind we experience during our earthly lives, as well as the way it operates, is not what we imagine.

When we think of God’s wrath we often think of cataclysmic natural phenomena: the great flood of Genesis or the Ten Plagues of Egypt. Some have even said that hurricanes and the like are evidence of God’s wrath. But a passage in Ezekiel, along with others in the New Testament, offers a different take.

Ezekiel 20:25-26 is a record of God’s wrath against Israel for her sins. It reads: “I also gave them over to statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by; I let them become defiled through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror, so they would know that I am the LORD.”

Israel had become hard of hearing. God had sent plenty of warnings by previous prophets; notables like Elijah and Elisha and Jeremiah. But Israel had refused to listen. So God “gave them over.” In other words, he let them experience the full consequences of their choices. Instead of his civilization-building, order-preserving, life-giving Ten Commandments they ended up with a system of frustrating laws under which no one could flourish. Worse, instead of the purity and peace of temple worship they ended up sacrificing their firstborn, murdering their children to appease the new gods they had chosen over Jehovah. This was God’s merciful wrath in action: That they might be so filled with horror at their own behavior they would recognize their folly and return to him.

God’s merciful wrath is also visible in the New Testament. Jesus, responding to his disciples concern over some false teachers, said “let them alone, they are blind leaders of the blind, they will both fall into a ditch.” Paul, in Romans chapter one, repeats the phrase, “gave them over” when explaining God’s wrath. God “left them alone” so to speak. Each time the result is the same: people experiencing the painful and destructive consequences of their choices.

God’s temporal wrath works to induce revulsion in us, disgust at our own behavior, and such horror at the consequences of our choices that we are willing to consider another way to live.

Every one of us deserves God’s wrath, the eternal as well as the temporal consequences of rebellion against him. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “Are we any better? Not at all! … There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away. They have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”[1]

Thankfully, eternal wrath—the eternal consequences of our rebellion against his goodness—is not the end God has for us, at least not for those who hear the message in painful consequences of ungodly choices. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[2] Christ absorbed the wrath of God for us so that the only version of it we would experience is the kind that helps us change, not the eternal version.

God’s wrath in our lives is a blessing in disguise. It is designed to help us see the awfulness of sin so that we will turn to the savior.

[1] Romans 3:9-12.

[2] Romans 5:6-8.

AVOIDING WANNABE PHARISEES: Four Ways to Protect Your Freedom

“Exclusiveness and exclusion always result from making a false idol of purity. Pharisaism, in fact, is the result of a perverted passion for theological purity just as ethnic cleansing is for racial purity.”

Os Guinness

Our separation from God makes us want to belong to something exclusive, something important, something that will give us a sense of belonging and significance. Examples abound. Until his 2017 retirement, NASCAR fans were either part of Junior Nation, or they weren’t. Duke basketball fans are willing to endure the scorn of all NCAA fandom to identify with Coach K’s success. Harley Davidson is so popular that, not only do they earn hundreds of millions on non-motorcycle merchandise, people tattoo the company logo on their bodies.

Our desire to belong is matched only by our penchant to exclude. Every clique—from the silly to the deadly serious—has those who are in and those who are out. Airlines have first class, business class, and the unwashed masses class. Colleges have fraternities, sororities, and nobodies. The media-elite have the Trumpsters, the Nazis had the Jews and the Shia Muslims have the Sunni. Clearly, we love to exclude one another as much as we long to belong.

Sadly, the church is not immune. No matter how often Scripture tells us to accept, love, and serve one another, we find reasons to belittle, berate, and exclude each other. And it isn’t a new phenomenon. Moses had confrontations with Korah and his band[1], Jesus had the Pharisees, and Paul the “spiritually superior” Corinthians as well as various Judaizers—legalists who wanted Gentile believers to obey Jewish customs—to deal with.

To this day and to our shame the evangelical world has various versions of wannabe Pharisees: people who insist on imposing their convictions about non-essentials on those who are walking in the freedom purchased for them by the Cross of Christ. Few things are more damaging to a Church, diverting its energies away from its mission or derailing its spirit in worship than such division.

Why do Christians find so many things over which to break fellowship? And how do we nurture unity in the face of it? How do we deal with wannabe Pharisees and avoid becoming one ourselves? I offer four principles.

First, keep a clear conscience before God. Wannabe Pharisees want to impose their conscience on your life, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the Spirit within or the clear instructions of Scripture. Make sure you aren’t engaging in something that opposes Christ. As Paul warned the Corinthians not to “participate with demons,”[2] ask yourself, “Am I uncritically adopting and aligning myself with a worldview and values that are opposed to Christ?” If not, you are free.

Second, ask, “is it beneficial to me and everyone else?” Wannabe Pharisees find fault with all kinds of things that aren’t explicitly “Christian.” Insisting that everything we buy, eat, listen to, or read must be labeled “Christian” or it isn’t spiritual enough is not only transparently shallow it’s also completely subjective. It puts the freedom Christ died to give us into the hands of unqualified spiritual umpires.

Third, disengage with wannabe Pharisees as soon as possible. Jesus called them “blind leaders of the blind” who will end up in the ditch and told his men to “leave them alone.”[3] Paul told Titus to avoid foolish controversies and “have nothing to do” with divisive people after a second warning. Wannabe Pharisees don’t know when to quit, mistaking our kindness for consent to continue badgering us with their priorities. Withdraw from the conversation and let there be no mistake.

Finally, ask, “does exercising my freedom open doors to evangelism or close them?”[4] Jesus said the Pharisees “bind up heavy burdens and put them on men’s shoulders,” but refuse to lift a finger to help. He warned them that they, “… shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces,” by their hypocrisy. Wannabe Pharisees are more concerned with controlling others than helping them know peace with God and freedom in Christ. Never let someone rob you of the joy of sharing the life of Jesus with someone else.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” [5]

[1] Numbers 16

[2] 1 Cor. 10:20-11:1

[3] Matt. 15:18.

[4] 1 Cor. 9:19-23

[5] Ga 5:1

REMOVING HISTORICAL GLOSS: Metaxas’ Enlightening Luther Biography

Johann Tetzel was being robbed. The Dominican friar and Grand Commissioner for indulgences in Germany was on his way from one very profitable preaching crusade to another when a German nobleman, one who had made a great point of asking whether all future sins could be forgiven if only the right indulgence was bought, cashed in on his prior purchase and relieved the preacher of his purse.

At least, that’s how the story goes.

Yesterday, October 31, 2017, was the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which, according to the 2000 edition of LOOK magazine was the second, behind the invention of the printing press which enabled it, greatest event in the last one thousand years. The story of Tetzel and the robber baron, which is probably mythical, is one of many that Eric Metaxas covers in his excellent work, MARTIN LUTHER: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.

Although I am only halfway through the book, listening to the audible version, I am totally sold on Metaxas’s ability to make a complicated story not only accessible and informative, but entertaining.

Mailed Not Nailed

For example, everyone knows that a theologian and monk named Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation by posting 95 theses opposing the sale of indulgences on the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. (An indulgence supposedly draws on the merit of the good works of Christ and the saints to deliver a sinner from punishment on earth or in purgatory). But most do not know that Luther may or may not have personally nailed the document to the doors, the bulletin board of its day. It could have been a clerk that swung the hammer. What sets October 31st apart, according to Metaxas, is that is the day Luther mailed his theses to his presiding bishop, Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg, with a proposal to call a conference of theologians on the abusive sale of indulgences.

Gutenberg’s Internet

Metaxas also illuminates the fact that, in those early days of the printing press, Luther had no intention of igniting a revolution and no idea of the part he would play in it. He was simply a pastor / theologian and faithful Catholic trying to do his job and protect his parish from oppression and heresy. The 95 theses, written in Latin, would have been indecipherable to most Germans who passed the church doors. They were meant for a limited audience of theological scholars who would have had thoughtful discussions and sent their conclusions and recommendations off to higher authority for approval.

But the printing press was to the sixteenth century what the internet is today. Information transfer went from snail’s pace to light speed almost overnight. Further, with no copyright law in place, Luther could not prevent publishers from pushing his ideas far beyond the boundaries of Wittenberg and Mainz. He was soon embroiled in a battle that he had not planned and could not have anticipated. (He also never made a dime from his writings). Ultimately, Luther saw this series of unfortunate events as providential and embraced his calling as a reformer. But Metaxas removes the gloss of history and helps us see that Luther, like many of us, was a man of his times driven as much by circumstance as by conviction to take up the work which God had prepared in advance for him to do.

I’ve only brushed the surface of Metaxas’s latest, but I hope you will read it. It will give any Christian a greater comprehension of the treasures of grace we possess, the place in history we occupy, and perhaps help us see our calling as well as Luther saw his.

BECAUSE HE IS GOOD

“Dad, I need some lunch money for school this week,” said my youngest daughter one evening when she was still in high school. Without a thought I opened my wallet plucked out ten dollars and handed it to her.

Then I asked, “Did you get the chores done we agreed on?” I had given her a list before leaving on a trip to Canada and had only just returned.

She said, “Well, I got most of them done but I didn’t clean out mom’s car yet like I promised.”

It didn’t matter. I gave her the ten bucks anyway. You can tell where this is going right?

Think back to the last time you felt like you failed God in some way. You failed to give an offering at the worship service, or you missed the service altogether. You skipped your devotions but somehow had plenty of time for your favorite TV show. You got exhausted and cranky and hurled invective at someone else who failed. You’re nodding your head aren’t you? We’ve all “been there done that.”

Jesus told a parable on prayer for people like you and me. It’s about a man who receives a late night visitor but has nothing to offer his guest. So he goes next door and asks his friend for bread. It’s recorded in Luke 11:5-13. The most well-known verses are 9-10: Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks the door will be opened.

But the lesser known verse, the one with the message we often miss, is verse 8: I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. (Emphasis mine).

Jesus concludes: Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Here’s the bottom line on answered prayer: You don’t have to be perfect to receive the power of the Holy Spirit necessary to live the Christian life. You just need the boldness to believe that God is a better parent than you are. God does not answer our prayers for his power because we’ve been regular in our devotions; or because we are faithful tithers; or because we’ve faithfully taught, or sung, or served in some other way for so many years. He answers them because he is good.

So be bold, ASK, even when you feel like you don’t deserve God’s power. He gives it because he is good.

LISTEN TO YOUR SQUEAKERS: Preventive Maintenance for the Spiritual Life

“Dad,” my daughter sounded worried over the phone, “I hate to tell you this, because I know you just checked, but my brake pedal just went to the floor when I was on the expressway.”

This kind of thing did not used to be a problem. As a formerly ASE certified service technician I had always been able to repair the family cars, usually cheaper and faster than a local shop. But now my girl’s life was in danger because I had missed a critical diagnosis on her last visit. Not only that, but she was five hours away in a big city. What would have been a $300 job at home became a $750 repair bill. It stung my ego, because I had missed the warning signs, but I was happy to pay it to make sure she was safe.

That mistake reminded me of a spiritual lesson from King Solomon that might save us all a lot of heartache, if we are able to hear it.

Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:23 NKJ).

For as long as I can remember General Motors products with disc brakes have been equipped with what I call “squeakers.” Squeakers are small flat wear indicators made of flimsy spring steel that are attached to one end of each inner disc brake pad in a set. When the pad wears down to within a few hundredths of an inch of the backing plate the squeaker contacts the rotating disc, emitting a high pitched squeal that will get the attention of any driver who isn’t making an audio assault on the neighbors with his stereo. When you hear the squeak you know it’s time to replace the brake pads. If you don’t you’ll soon have the stopping power of a greased bowling ball and a simple $150 repair can rapidly become a $750 repair or worse, a car wreck.

King Solomon’s admonition, along with many other verses in Scripture,[1] is a reminder to pay attention to the state of our hearts, to listen to our spiritual squeakers. They’re warning us of little problems that can become big ones in a hurry. But they aren’t quite as noticeable as the ones GM uses so I’ve listed a few below.

You know your heart is squeaking:

  • When gossip is easy and prayer is hard.
  • When you’re spouse is annoying but your colleague is alluring.
  • When wrath makes more sense than reconciliation.
  • When vengeance seems more logical than forbearance.
  • When fear and foreboding replace faith and courage.
  • When lust looks lovely and purity looks pathetic.
  • When devotions are dull but distractions are dynamic.

We could go on but I’m sure you get the picture.

Listen to your spiritual squeakers. Put the brakes on runaway desires and ask God, “What’s missing? Where do I need a little soul maintenance? What has dulled my relationship with Jesus Christ and made me insensitive to his warnings?” He’ll help you replace the worn out parts and keep your spirit strong for the long haul.

[1] 1 Timothy 4:16a; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Peter 5:8;