Wired for Doctrine – why irreligious people get dogmatic about so many things

blog - wired for doctrine

Doing some research, I’m in the process of reading a book right now called Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass. In the book, Bass cites very interesting information about how Americans self-identify their relationship with the divine. For instance, in 1999, Gallup polled Americans asking whether they understood themselves to be spiritual or religious. At that time, people answered as follows:

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However, only a decade later (2009), Newsweek, through Princeton Survey Research, asked the same question. But this time, Americans identified like this:

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So here’s what’s interesting. When looking at religious changes in the twenty-first century, sociologists and journalists tend to talk about the growth of “spiritual but not religious” and the “new atheist” segments of society. But, the data doesn’t actually support that. The research suggests the needle has not moved in either respect. The interesting shift is from people who once called themselves “religious” to now referring to themselves as “spiritual and religious.”

Okay, what does this mean?

Clearly, people are trying to get away from the associations of religion. Butler Bass suggested that when she does her surveying, she asks people to give descriptions of religion. Words like “cold,” “outdated,” “rigid,” “narrow,” “controlling,” “embarrassment,” and “mean” are commonly used.

This distinction between spirituality and religion didn’t really exist in eras gone by, but it most certainly does in the minds of Americans today. Spirituality is understood as a transcendent, experiential, meditative, inner life search for God. Religion is understood as organized, defined, authoritative boundaries and institutions and dogma.

So what is this offensive dogma stuff that we’re all running away from?

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Dogma is essentially absolute claims to certainty in the realms of belief and morality. That’s what we’re ashamed of….at least with organized religion. Consequently, we live in a world where if you say you’re spiritually searching, people will reply, “Oh. That’s nice!” But if you claim that you’ve found any spiritual truth, you’re considered something of an arrogant jerk….at least with organized religion.

Well, let’s step back and take a look at that. Anytime someone says that religions shouldn’t be so dogmatic, they’re doing the very thing they just said you shouldn’t do. To say, “don’t have such rigid beliefs” IS a rigid belief. So there’s the initial issue of a little ironic hypocrisy.

But here’s the most interesting thing. Americans have participated in a mass exodus from the dogma of religion, but have we actually left dogma behind? I’m unconvinced. I think we’ve merely become dogmatic about non-religious issues.

Here’s a little exercise. Try throwing an aluminum Diet Coke can in a regular waste receptacle in a public setting, particularly if there are any ecoriffic supermoms present. Yeah, I don’t have the guts either. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all against recycling. And I’ve read the reports that Diet Coke can shrink your brain. I’m actually okay with that, as I have a hard time finding size 7 3/4 hats anyways. It isn’t that people aren’t allowed to have opinions or preferences or make claims about what they feel is or is not wise. It’s that Americans are approaching these issues nowadays with all the moralistic vigor that previous generations approached…..you guessed it…religion.

Many Americans are passionate and adamant about parenting styles, diet preferences, gun regulations, and educational approaches. The religious fervor of PETA activists is obvious to most. College and professional sports? Skip Bayless and Stephen A Smith get religious about them every day on ESPN. Again, I’m not suggesting opinions are bad, or that even some of these issues probably deserve strong stances. What I’m suggesting is that for people who supposedly don’t like religion, many of us are awfully dogmatic and moralistic about some issues, including some non-inherently moral issues. I believe this is also why we currently have some of the most polarizing bipartisan politics that we’ve ever had as a nation. We’re not latching onto divine truth the way we once did, so instead we’re taking many neutral things and getting religious about them.

The attempt to flee religion hasn’t made us less religious. It’s made us more moralistic about nonreligious issues.

Why? It’s because humans are wired for absolute, divine truth…doctrine…dogma.

The Apostle Paul suggests at the beginning of the Book of Romans. He says,

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,(vs. 18)… Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. (vss. 22-23)…They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (vs. 25) (Romans 1)

Hmmm. Paul says that when people turn away from the truth of God, even as they consider themselves less religious, they don’t really turn away from religion, they just get religious about created things rather than the Creator God. Is that what we’re looking at in post-Christian America?

Nonetheless, there’s probably a valuable point here, a humbling point for us who belong to religious organizations. We can learn from the early twenty-first century American religious exodus. Some people don’t like religion because they don’t want God to be their God. Not much we can do about that. However, others don’t like religion because even self-professing religious people sometimes get religious about nonreligious stuff. Worship style, church politics, national politics, the way people look, the way people talk, the way people dress. The “shoulds” and “oughtas” we espouse on nonreligious issues are rightly perceived by the those leaving religion as cold, controlling, unloving and unnecessary dogma. Interestingly, when Christians get religious about nonreligious issues, it’s not because they’re too closely linked to an authoritative gospel, it’s actually because they don’t understand that gospel well enough.

As Christians, each day we want to grow more dogmatic about the fact that Jesus is “the way and THE TRUTH and the life.” (John 14:6) Additionally, we’ll also want to grow increasingly less dogmatic about things not directly connected to the truth about our Savior. In fact, we want to regularly repent of the religious “truths” we believe that aren’t actually biblical.

I don’t think religion rebounds until Christians start getting dogmatic only about Jesus – about what he’s clearly done for us and what he’s clearly revealed to us.

5 Signs You’re An Immature Christian

blog - immature christian Yeah, that title maybe sounds a little harsh. But, for this post at least, I’m less concerned with what someone might think is “harsh” and more concerned with what is true. After all, the Apostle Peter said, “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Pet. 2:1-3) He literally encouraged people to “grow up.”  Sometimes the biggest seasons of growth in my Christian faith have come after an acute revelation of something in my life that was simply incompatible with the truth I’d learned from the gospel.

So, I jotted down a bunch of thoughts and narrowed the list to the five that I think are the biggest signs that someone is in need of upshifting gears in their Christian maturity.

By the way, if you think I’m under the delusion that I haven’t struggled with these myself or have somehow reached the pinnacle of Christian maturity, rest assured, I’ve struggled with each of these at various points. But I can confidently say that such struggles were the product of me not believing certain aspects of the promises & will of God, i.e. immaturity.

1) You think the Bible and Church are boring

The Bible is many things. Boring is not one of them. If that’s your assessment of the best-selling, most printed, most quoted, most mimicked, most died-for modern or ancient book in history, step back and perhaps allow for the fact that you’ve maybe missed something.

Similarly, “church” or “worship” is many things. Inherently boring is not one. Anytime humans are blatantly, voluntarily, publicly bowing down to something in acknowledgment that it is more important to them than they are, this is pretty fascinating. Granted, the music of worship can be drab or sluggish or difficult to understand. Granted, the minister could be a not particularly skilled communicator, we all have different gifts – by the way, while communication is a variable, Spirit-given gift, if ANY minister gives the insinuation that the message of Scripture is something less than enormously life-changing, this would be one of the bigger mistakes he can make in his ministry. Granted, it’s possible that the people whom you worship with could be stuffy, self-righteous, non risk-taking, boring people. But PLEASE don’t make the mistake of assuming this all means that the Bible or Church are necessarily boring themselves. That’s like seeing a divorce and saying something is wrong with God’s design for marriage. The problem is NOT the design, but in the failed execution on behalf of imperfect humans.

There was a time when I thought the Bible was sort of boring. Attending a private Christian school, I deduced that Bible Study was the least interesting, least life applicable class that I took. I drew that profound conclusion when I was 12 years old.

Two decades later, Bible Study is not only what I do for a living, it’s also the most interesting, relevant, eminent thing going on in my life. I grew up spiritually. It wasn’t just a “getting older” thing. Technically, how it happened was a combination of humbling life experience and increased biblical familiarity.

Imagine an archaeological dig where you carefully shovel and dust for hours with little satisfaction. Eventually you uncover a minuscule bone. It’s enough to keep you pressing on. In time, you discover that this little bone is connected to a fully intact tyrannosaurus rex. The first couple hours you felt like an idiot standing in the blazing sun in cargo pants with a tiny brush. Now you’ve encountered the most exciting discovery of your life. It took….time, patience. There’s no shortcut with studying the Word of God. Stick with it, I promise you’ll find something better than a dead dinosaur.

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Rom. 11:33)

2) You don’t understand the depravity of mankind

One of the biggest lies that Americans believe is that humans are basically good. Again, maybe that sounds depressing to you, but a positive reality is more important to me than a pleasant, misinformed dream.

Now, don’t mistake what I’m saying. Humanity was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27; 9:6; Jam. 3:9), imprinted with the ethical will of God (Rom. 2:14-15). Consequently, every one of us has the blueprint for a moral life printed on our hearts. This explains how we see so much good in the world coming from those who don’t know the very God who created them.

Nonetheless, humans are capable of homicide, genocide, suicide, rape, torture, theft, slander, selfishness, arrogance, condescension, lies, disrespect, annoyance, selfies and hashtags…i.e. criminal behavior of varying degrees. Furthermore, according to the Bible, we were ALL responsible for the single greatest travesty in history – the murder of the one fully innocent human, Jesus Christ.

Consequently, one of the most difficult things for me to hear as a pastor is when a fellow Christian says, “____________ would never do ________________.” Nonsense. Do you think Hitler’s mom thought he’d be pushing millions into a furnace?

If I’ve learned anything from working at my desk while my wife was watching seven seasons of House M.D. on Netflix in the background, it’s that you can only treat a sickness successfully once you’ve properly diagnosed it. The biblical diagnosis is that “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” (Gen. 8:21)

3) You misuse/abuse the grace of Christ

Martin Luther once said that we’re saved by faith alone, but not by faith that remains alone. It’s a great summary of what living, active, healthy faith looks like. In other words, he’s suggesting that our salvation only comes through the merits of Christ. And we receive the blessing of Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross through faith. But, if we sincerely have faith that trusts in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, the best indicator of that is what the Bible calls “fruit of faith.” (Gal. 5:22-23) These are the natural responses to understanding God’s goodness to us.

If fruit of faith is nonexistent in our lives, while we may have a knowledge of who Jesus is and what he did for us, we have legitimate cause to question whether or not we possess saving faith in him. Lots of characters in the Bible understood the objective truth of who Jesus was, but nonetheless lacked faith in him as their Lord and Savior.

One of the evidences that you have knowledge of Jesus, but lack faith in Jesus (at least to some extent), is that you’re using the forgiveness Jesus won for the world on the cross as a “get out of hell free” card to excuse your sin.

For instance, I’ve known a number of weak-faithed Christians who will acknowledge that their sexual relationship with their boyfriend/girlfriend clearly violates God’s design for sex – i.e. that it is exclusively designed for marriage. And yet they justify their behavior by saying, “Well, thank goodness Jesus died for all of my sins.” I’m sorry, that’s not the response of healthy faith. Repentance is a turning away from sin and embracing the mercy of Christ’s forgiveness. If you don’t have desire to turn from the sin, that’s called impenitence. Impenitence is a fruit of unbelief, not belief. The writer to the Hebrews put it like this: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Heb. 10:26-27)

4) You think you’re right with God on the basis of your “better” lifestyle

There was a time in my life when I was very bitter with God because I felt the level of blessings he’d been giving me weren’t compatible with the amount of faithfulness I was showing him. Yes, that’s twisted, I know.

Let me give you just one example. I remember a day in my teen years where I gave an offering in church that was significantly more than I normally gave. Realistically, the offering was more the process of poor planning than anything. Nonetheless, I felt pretty good about it. Doing okay so far. Later that day I’d go on to play my best game of basketball that year. I drew a line from point A to point B, and the following week, when it was once again a chance for me to give an offering in worship, I gave the same “higher” amount that I’d given the previous week. Well, guess what? I actually played quite poorly in my basketball game that evening. I was so disenchanted. Here I had once again gone above and beyond to show God I was thinking about him, even dropping A. Jackson’s in the plate, and yet God had forgotten me. Furthermore, not only was I behaving so well and not being rewarded, but there were others I played with who, in my own perception, were significantly less godly in their lifestyle, and they were doing better than I was.

I was ticked. And it was because I had no concept of grace.

Many Christians, when pressed on issues of the afterlife, will say something along the lines that they’re confident they’re going to heaven “because I’m Christian, or at least I’m trying to be.” But either we’re saved by grace, or we’re not. Saying you’re “trying to be a Christian” is categorically moving your salvation into the arena of personal performance and merit, i.e. not grace.

If you believe you’re saved by grace, you never logically have the right to look down on anyone else as inferior or assume that you deserve better than what God is giving you. If you’re leveraging your “good lifestyle” to earn favor from God, not simply to thank God, then you are pursuing God not for him, but for his blessings. That’s like a woman marrying a dude for his millions of dollars, not for who he is. In other words, that’s not love.

“If by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” (Rom. 11:6)

5) You’re afraid that Jesus can’t forgive you for your sins

Perhaps the most dangerous immaturity for a Christian, the one that is closest to pushing us outside the kingdom of God, is the failure to trust that Jesus’ atonement on the cross was powerful enough to cover even the biggest and ugliest of your sins.

We might call this the Judas Sin. Now there is a difference between being convinced that the grace of Jesus cannot pay for your sin (as Judas felt) and the fear that God might not still love you when you’ve committed a terrible mistake, or perhaps made the same mistake more than once. We all struggle with this to some degree. But underestimating Jesus is the biggest mistake any human can make.

Underestimating the depth of Jesus’ loving forgiveness is probably the most immature thing a Christian can do. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the most powerful force behind our sinfulness is our failure to comprehend the depth of God’s love for us. For instance, as you analyze the first sin – that of Adam and Eve – you notice that while their action was disobediently eating the fruit, the motive, the attitude, the thought that led to the action was their failure to believe that the command God had given to them actually sprang forth out of his love for them. They underestimated God’s love.

If we dare suggest that Jesus did not completely pay for our sins on the cross, it’s a naïve, immature, blatant underestimation of Jesus as God. His cross proves he loves us enough to remove our sins. His resurrection proves his power to remove our sins.

“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1)

 

Think these 5 points are fair? Others? Would love to hear your comments below.

THE GOSPEL and Pseudo-Saviors

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“All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless.” (Isaiah 44:9)

Intellectually I understand that there is only one Savior, only one God. I publicly profess that in Creed form on a weekly basis. But functionally, operationally in my day-to-day life, I’ve often lived as though something other than Jesus could (and was necessary to) answer all my biggest problems. It’s always felt like there was simply one major thing off in my life that, if I could somehow tweak it, alter it, manage it, control it, have it, or get rid of it, everything undesirable about my life would go away and I’d finally be happy.

Bear in mind, this false, pseudo-savior has changed repeatedly throughout my life. In my younger years it waffled between physical health, academics, athletics, social approval, or something as profound as having a pretty girl like me. Unfortunately, as a pastor, pseudo-saviors haven’t disappeared. They’ve simply mutated into forms that Satan know will expose the current weaknesses of my faith. So…sometimes the pseudo-savior has approached in the form of congregational approval, new members, blog traffic (by the way, just a reminder to like us or share on Facebook :) ). Sometimes even a call to a new position in ministry feels like it would save me. My point is, all these years and all this heartache later, there still always seems to be something that Satan polishes up and dangles in front of me. And he disparages me unceasingly, taunting, “You talentless loser! If only you could be/have ___________, then you might be worth the spot you occupy on earth.” And I fall for it.

So I’ve learned countless times that whatever that damned Liar dangles is illusory. Man, I hate him. He often seems to know me better than I know myself. Still, when in my right mind, I realize that whatever he presents as THE answer to my inadequacies is either A) not as powerful and healing as I thought it to be, or B) it’s unobtainable through mere willpower, or else I would have had it long ago. Typically, it’s both.

I know I’m not alone. I’ve come to find that many people have similar pseudo-saviors as me, something along the lines of an inordinate craving for power, influence, and success.

Take for instance the story of 36-year-old Swedish journalist and Oscar-winning film director named Malik Bendjelloul. Bendjelloul recently committed suicide a year after his 2013 Academy Award win for best documentary – Searching for Sugar Man. Immediately people started to ask…

“How could such a talented artist choose to take his life at the height of his creative powers, when anything seemed possible and probably was? And how did a positive, happy person fall into the depths of despair with almost no one being the wiser?”

Apparently, in the final weeks of his life, Bendjelloul was lamenting to his friends his horrifying fear that he had inexplicably “lost his creativity.” The overwhelming pressure of living up to his previous success crippled him to the point that he deemed life not worth living. For my money, “potential” is the scariest word in the English language.

It sounds like the Swedish filmmaker had the same pseudo-savior that I do. And like him, falling for this idol makes me miserable time and again. Anytime your idols are exposed, it’s both humbling and clarifying. A pseudo-savior of success tends to cause me to constantly feel burdened, creates in me a fear of humiliation, leads me to be tempted to see other humans as objects to be used to advance personal agenda, and often brings about a great deal of anger when things don’t go my way. How’s that for self-awareness?

Now that might not be you, but I want you to be unflinchingly honest with yourself about yourself too. Like Bendjelloul and me, you also have something that Satan tempts you to think is the Savior that’s not really the Savior.

Perhaps you have a pseudo-savior of love, romance, or approval. This causes you to struggle with feelings of dependency. You fear rejection. You occasionally smother others. And the thought of upsetting people brings great consternation because you derive too much of your self-worth and happiness from them.

Perhaps you have a pseudo-savior of comfort. This causes you to struggle with low productivity. You fear the many demands of life. Your aversion to discomfort causes you to weigh down others who need to pick up your slack. And eliminating as many “challenges” of life as possible has actually made your life disproportionately boring.

Perhaps you have a pseudo-savior of standards and control. It causes you to struggle with loneliness, because people who fail to meet your standards are irritating to you. You fear uncertainty and are paralyzed by the variables of life. You self-righteously condemn others who don’t meet your manmade standards. And a lack of “control” causes you persistent worry.

Did I not get you yet? (for further help diagnosing this, I would highly recommend Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God and Counterfeit Gods.)

Pseudo-saviors don’t just function on a personal level, either. It seems undeniable to me at this point that these false messiahs function on a macro level as well, local deities that subjugate cultures, peer groups, or even church bodies. Let’s take church bodies, for example. Even churches seem to have certain things that they elevate to near divine status that aren’t divine. From my perspective, Roman Catholicism has a tendency to do this with church leadership. Eastern Orthodoxy does this with rite and ceremony. Liberal churches do this with personal freedoms. I get the impression that Baptists and non-denominationals tend to do this with the earthly state of heaven-bound souls, i.e. they think that either in our natural or regenerate state we’re closer to divine than, in actuality, we are. I obviously have more experience with my own church body, conservative Lutheranism. To pretend that we don’t struggle with our own pseudo-saviors would be prideful and blind. What are they? Probably depends who you ask. I personally get a little uncomfortable whenever hearing effusive praise showered upon a specific worship style, schooling system, or church body itself. These very well may be blessings. But they’re not saviors. And believing that anything other than Jesus, even a good thing, can rescue someone from the flames of hell, is at best inaccurate, at worst, soul-threatening.

The bottom line is that all of us have SOMETHING, a pseudo-savior, a good thing that we’ve turned into a god-thing, which creates debilitating complications in our feeble hearts. The only way to shovel those problems out of the heart is repentance. I grew up repenting of my immoralities – the lying, the stealing, the attitude problems, and the dirty thoughts. I never really repented for the pseudo-saviors that demanded these sacrifices, however. Now I do. Interestingly…as I’ve matured in faith, I don’t repent less, but more. I finally understand why the first of Luther’s 95 Theses was “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ…willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” Brilliant.

The thing that can damage you in the most profound way is actually the thing that you falsely believe can save you. Your worst enemy is the one who’s tricked you into thinking he’s your best friend. Anything not named Jesus cannot save you. And believing it can will kill you.

Jesus is different. Part of the great evidence that he is your only true Savior is that he was killed for you. Everything that you’ve been longing for – success, approval, comfort, control, or otherwise – can only be ultimately found in relation to him. And if you do happen to fail him…and we all do at some point. He won’t punish you. He forgives you instead.

“I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.” (Isaiah 44:22)

THE GOSPEL and Not Negotiating With Terrorists

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The gospel is a truth without compromise.

While often (rightly) applauded as “flexibility”, compromise can also be the product of simple cowardice.

I have no political statement to make today. But I do want to use one of the bigger news stories at the moment to illustrate a basic point about compromise.

Today, President Barack Obama said that he “absolutely makes no apologies” for seeking the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in a prisoner swap with the Taliban. He went on to say, “We don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try to get (imprisoned soldiers) back.”

Since entering office, Obama has been talking about shutting down Guantanamo. So it probably shouldn’t surprise too many that, without Congressional consent, five Taliban detainees held there were released as part of an exchange to bring back Bergdahl. The checkered military past of Bergdahl along with the unilateral decision-making of Obama in this case have caused Republicans and Democrats alike to object to the swap.

Frida Ghitis wrote an interesting piece detailing the ethical questions behind all of this at cnn.com called “Five Moral Issues in Bergdahl Swap.”  She says, “America holds two principles high on its moral agenda. First, the U.S. does not leave any of its soldiers behind in the battlefield. Second, the U.S. does not negotiate with terrorists. But what happens when the two principles collide? Which matters more?” That’s it. That’s really the heart of the issue that will probably cause this case to be debated in ethics classes for years to come.

And while I love to discuss things like the basis for moral implications, that’s not what we’re doing today. What we’re doing today is acknowledging the wisdom of the long-held national stance that “you DO NOT negotiate with terrorists.” We want to get to the bottom of why caving to terrorists is so unhealthy. And we want to draw out some applications for Christians.

Why Not Negotiate With Terrorists?

This part should be simple, but we routinely make these sorts of compromises in our day-to-day lives.

A terrorist makes demands by holding something that you want and threatening to damage it or destroy it completely. What you’re willing to pay is ultimately dependent on how much you value the thing they’ve taken, the threat that’s causing you such “terror.”

While the natural impulse might be to give in – because, after all, “I love _________ more than _________”, (e.g. “I love my puppy more than money,”) what this compromise actually does is it positively rewards the terrorist’s terrorism. Psychological Conditioning 101 tells you that when you positively reward a behavior, you spike the prevalence of it occurring again.

On a military level, this is what is so concerning to people about Obama’s decision. Yes, regardless of Bowe’s shady history, it seems nice that the Taliban doesn’t have opportunity to torture him. But you have to believe this sends a message to the rest of the world that if you want something from the wealthiest country on the planet, by all means, don’t murder, but kidnap one, any one, of their soldiers, and the U.S. will gladly give you whatever you ask for.

In a society that idolizes tolerance, it’s important for us to see that compromise can be a weakness as well. Time will tell if this is a lesson we learn.

Christian Applications

You and I can do very little when it comes to U.S. military decisions. And to be quite honest, we’re probably not qualified to make many of those decisions. So it’s really not worth getting too bent out of shape by the Bowe Bergdahl incident.

What we can do is be more aware of our own willingness to compromise in our lives and the negative effects that may cause. Let’s look at some practical examples:

1) Parenting

Little kids are sometimes the best terrorists. They want what they want when they want it. Regardless of how much you’ve sacrificed for them, if they don’t get their way on the most trivial of issues (e.g. bed time, new toy, chore), they have the audacity to say, “I hate you!” or perhaps even more delusional, “You don’t love me!” 

What can you do? Well, first, you still love the child who doesn’t deserve love. That’s called grace. God showed it to you and me in infinite amounts. And to the degree that we see that, we will be able to show grace to others, including obstinate children. Nonetheless, what you don’t do is….

You don’t negotiate with terrorists.

2) Significant Others

You’re young and dating. The Taliban has nothing on teenage hormones when it comes to hijacking human behavior. And Osama Li Bido is causing a young man to pressure a young woman to physically engage in behavior that she’s uncomfortable with. Since one of the strongest desires young women have is to be cherished by a man (Gen. 3:16), she will feel tremendous influence to comply to the young man’s pursuits. What should she do?

You don’t negotiate with terrorists.

A wife prone to emotional imbalance struggles desperately with control issues. She “needs” her husband and her children and her house and her life to be a certain way and isn’t afraid to put others through hell in order for “her way” to be realized. She manipulates through silent treatments, tears, and yes, sex. What shall the husband do? Meathead husband says, “Learn that I’m always wrong and need to say ‘I’m sorry’?” (ANNOYING BUZZER SOUND) Wrong! Granted, you probably have lots of things to apologize for, but in this case…

You don’t negotiate with terrorists.

3) Church

Mr. Charter Member is a pioneer of the congregation and he makes sure everyone knows that. He IS regularly in worship and Bible Study. He IS one of the bigger financial supporters of the congregation. He DOES have more experience with the church than anyone. As a result, he feels he must get his way. He’s the loudest at meetings. He’s quick to point out congregational precedents. And he might even have a good, noble idea, but it’s his own personal agenda.

Congregations can’t pursue every good idea. Pastor Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill, a multi-site megachurch in Seattle, WA has a great lesson called “Your Thing, My Thing, Our Thing” in which he explains how LOTS Of people have good ideas and good causes that they’d like their church to pursue. However, such pursuits are not the vision and mission of the church. Consequently, while the idea might not be an inherently bad idea, it is, in fact, a bad idea for that church, because they shouldn’t be compromising the church’s main mission by allocating resources to pursue the idea. In other words, pastors and church leadership have to be good at saying “No.” And when you do, you find out how offended some people get. You don’t like offending people. You didn’t even think their idea was a terrible idea. What do you do? You have to let them walk.

You don’t negotiate with terrorists.

A Christian Mission

As Christians, we have a mission. In fact, we have a Great Commission. You and I are collectively commissioned to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20)

Furthermore, you and I have another rubric on that mission. We are to personally “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:37-40)

And finally, we have a motive for carrying out that mission: “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) You see, we are unwilling to compromise our main mission in life specifically because Jesus did compromise all of his health, peace, and comfort for us.

Anything that compromises our Christian life mission is, in a sense, a terrorist. The personal idols we all have are terrorists who seek to threaten our mission as parents, spouses, friends, pastors, and children of God. They use terrorist tactics to pull us away from the purpose of our existence – to consume the love of Jesus, live in harmonious relationship with that true God, and reflect this glory out into his creation.

But it’s a question of compromise, isn’t it? What are you willing to give up in order to get the very thing your terrorizing idol promises.

Jesus said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36)

THE GOSPEL, Context, and Expectations of the World

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So it became quite apparent to me after I saw the analytics and responses both at this site and over at Bread for Beggars, that I probably needed to write a follow-up to THE GOSPEL and Tone – the post where I said that Christians are not merely to promote the morality of Christ, but also to do so with the gentleness and humility of Christ. I argued that if you promote traditional family values, but do so with condescension and malice, you’ve stepped over into promoting conservative politics, not Christianity.

Some Christians aren’t going to like this statement. That’s fine. I’m less concerned with whether or not someone likes it and more concerned with whether or not it’s true: Presentation is not everything, but it’s definitely something. Consequently, if you proclaim truth, but do so with a transparently loveless heart, you are going to repel people in a way counterintuitive to the attractiveness of the gospel. Put differently, you think you’re making a mark for the truth when, in reality, you’re driving many further from the truth.

This all leads into the topic of the day, a topic that many reading my previous post on tone, seem to be struggling with a bit. Namely, how do we reconcile Jesus’ demonstrations of righteous indignation with a gentle and loving tone? Invariably, people want to say, “But Jesus showed anger over sin when he tossed over the tables at the Temple!” (Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-18; John 2:13-17). These individuals conclude, “Jesus got angry about sin. He openly expressed his anger. I’m also justifiably angry about sin, therefore I too should openly express anger to the world.” What are they missing? Answer: CONTEXT.

Let me run a couple of passages by you, passages where Jesus is getting angry, name-calling, and showing zero tolerance for sin. Tell me what they have in common….

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” (Matt. 23:17)

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Matt. 3:7)

So, the common denominator? Who’s he speaking with? The RELIGIOUS people. The church people. Now, let me flip back to my post from a couple of weeks ago. Is this the same group of people who Matt Walsh is calling out? No, he’s lambasting the secular media, gay rights activists, and most things liberal. Now, we need to ask the question, what, if any, guidance does the Bible give to us on judgment regarding those who are clearly outside the Church? Well, let’s take the Apostle Paul for instance…

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” (1 Cor. 5:12-13)

In the exact same section that the Apostle Paul is talking about intolerance for the unrepentant sins of a brother within the Church, he comments on how correcting the behavior of those outside of the Church is really not the main business of Christians. Now, the New Testament certainly makes general statements about not conforming to the wickedness of the world – (2 Cor. 4:4; 1 John 2:15-16; Col. 2:8; Rom. 12:2). But even there, the warning is being given to believers. The point is this: we have a right and responsibility to hold accountable those within the Christian Church. On the other hand, we cannot anticipate godly decision-making from those who clearly, by their own admission, do not have the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:14). That would be a naïve underestimation of the necessity of the Spirit for producing any true godliness.

Is God concerned about the wickedness of the world? Of course. Can you legislate, bully, or rationalize Christ into the heart of an unbeliever? No. So you have to recognize that God is not merely seeking obedience, he’s seeking a certain type of obedience (the secret to the Cain/Able distinction in Gen. 4). He’s seeking gospel-driven obedience. He’s seeking a faith-based response to the gift of salvation. He’s seeking hearts enamored with the One they were created for and redeemed by.

So what are Christians who believe in biblical values, who want the world to see the “rightness” of those values, to do? Jesus addresses this quite clearly in the Sermon on the Mount – we (i.e. The Church) are supposed to function as an alternate reality to the world, a reality characterized by grace, a more beautiful reality than what the world typically sees. Jesus refers to this as “salt of the earth” and “light to the world” and “city on a hill” (Matt. 5:13-16). In other words, let God’s directive unfold in your life and then speak for itself.

Here’s a quick illustration: If Christians demonstrate marriages that reflect the Ephesians 5 template, where husband/wife possess a relationship that mirrors the beauty of the relationship between Christ/Church, don’t you trust that such a demonstration will make a more powerful testimony to the world about biblical values than holding a sign at town hall meeting, a 25 cent bumper sticker, or a self-righteous online rant about the plight of American morality? The problem, however, is that 1) actually mirroring the Eph. 5 marriage design is much harder than the other options, and 2) we, by nature, don’t really trust that Jesus is right – that a simple gospel light will be more beneficial and impactful to the world than a snarky, condescending diatribe.

I’m curious what Christianity, and the world, might look like if we Christians worked harder at holding Christians (esp. ourselves) accountable, and worried less about holding a Spirit-less world accountable.

THE GOSPEL and Recovering From Sadness

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We all get sad. We all go through rough times. We all experience tragedy. It’s simply one of the realities of living East of Eden.

And just as we all encounter sadness, we all have our own coping mechanisms, many healthier than others. But one of the criticisms often lobbied against Christians, somewhat understandably, is that we have a simplistic approach to recovery. The criticism is probably, at least sometimes, fair. Are there some Christians who think that God will heal them irrespective of any other treatment, merely through prayer? Yes. On the other end of the spectrum, are there some Christians who will use any medical means available to them without consulting God or ultimately relying on him? Yes.

My point is this: are there some Christians who have a relatively simplistic (and inconsistent) approach to health and wellness? Yes. Does that mean that the Bible has a simplistic approach to health and wellness? Not at all. If the default position of the human heart is unbelief, then we should assume that the approach of some Christians to healthcare is perhaps a bit off and shouldn’t be received as gospel truth or “the Christian way.”

There certainly are many times in the Gospels when Jesus directly heals the sick. He even extends that power in some respects by sending his Spirit into the early Church. But the question of what God “could possibly do” is unproductive when it comes to lifestyle approach. It’s much more helpful to ask, how does God typically operate? What’s his basic modus operandi in helping sick people recover?

Let me give you one biblical example that I think demonstrates the multifaceted approach of God to guiding humans down the road to recovery.

Case Study: Elijah (1 Kings 19)

Elijah, the great prophet of God, had just defeated the prophets of Baal and the wicked king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, in dramatic fashion on the top of Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:16-42). You’d think this should be a time of jubilant celebration. Instead, Elijah goes and sits down with his head between his knees. Why? It’s very interesting. For a believer in a sinful world, a spiritual victory is only a temporary victory. The world doesn’t tend to smile too approvingly at the believer’s success. Not for long. Elijah understands this. He understands he’s going to have to get up and fight the fight again tomorrow. Sure enough, within hours, Queen Jezebel has sent him this message: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of (the killed prophets of Baal).” (1 Kings  19:2)

Elijah feels like a man who has been lonesomely, unceasingly, taking on the world. So he naturally responds in the way just about any human who has received death threats would. “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life…He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life.'” (1 Kings 19:3-4) In the same way that every human only has so much physical energy, we all only have so much emotional energy. That is to say, if you went outside and started running at a full sprint, eventually something would have to give. Either you’d dehydrate, your muscles would cramp, and you’d collapse. Or, more likely, you’d simply get exhausted and be in such pain that you had to stop. Either way, your energy is out, your tank is empty.

What happens in the physical universe often mirrors what happens in the psychological and spiritual worlds as well. In other words, just like we only have so much physical energy, we also only have so much emotional energy. There’s a great deal of caution here then about what we choose to give our emotional energy to, i.e. if you care too much about lesser matters, you will not have enough energy leftover to give to more important matters. Regardless of what you give your energy too, however, you only have so much. Emotional energy is a finite resource, just like physical energy. Consequently, if, like Elijah, you are pressed on every side too hard and for too long, your body will eventually shut down. In mental health terms this is generally called depression. Prolonged stress and anxiety will eventually land you in depression. The math is not tough. 

But how do you get out of that funk? If it’s possible for the great prophet Elijah to struggle with depression, surely it’s not beyond any of us. Just look at how God helps him recover.

1) Nutrition

“All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drankThe angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food…” (1 Kings 19:5-8)

It hasn’t been until recent years that I actually started taking inventory of what I was putting into my body. It dawned on me in my late 20s that God might not have intended processed foods like Cheetos or anything whipped up by Little Debbie to be the staple of my diet. Yes, I’m a late nutrition bloomer. But it makes sense that for as much attention as I give to how I manage my time and my money, that God would desire for me to wisely manage the very thing that he refers to as his temple (1 Cor. 6:19-20) as well.

2) Exercise

he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb” (1 Kings 19:8)

It’s not a coincidence that treadmills weren’t invented until after cars and planes were invented. Humans naturally gravitate towards the path of least resistance (again, universal physical principle here). Consequently, movement is often avoided if possible. Inactivity can cause physical and emotional health problems. But in ancient days, forty-day trips would involve a decent amount of sweat, which again, is good for BOTH your physical and emotional health.

3) Rest

“He ate and drank and then lay down again.” (1 Kings 19:6)

Lutherans aren’t typically inclined to shout “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!” But I’m gonna do that, as well as dance, clap, and sway my hands here. I cannot tell you how much I love the fact that Elijah TOOK A NAP! The world will rarely applaud you for not working so hard. Your boss will rarely encourage you to not work so hard. Typically, workaholism gets you promotions, not rebuking. But God commands sabbath, i.e. rest. You either voluntarily submit to his directive, or you will eventually be forced, with health complications, to submit to this directive.

4) Biblical Counsel

Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord (vs. 11)…What are you doing here, Elijah? (twice, vss. 9, 13)…Go back the way you came…” (vs. 15) (1 Kings 19:9-17)

The Lord is regularly dialoguing with Elijah in this account – giving instruction; asking pertinent, thought-provoking, introspective questions; and offering advice. So, when faced with recovering from grief, while the Bible doesn’t advise that you only sit in your house and pray and read Scripture, it definitely advises that you should, in fact, be doing that. MULTIFACETED approach.

5) Believing Company

“Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” (vs. 18)

I wasn’t sure exactly what term to use here. Sometimes words like “community” or “friendships” or “meaningful relationships” or “support groups” are used here. Those can all be misunderstood if it’s not clarified that you have to have Christ-like, gospel-driven BELIEVERS actively involved in your life. Like really involved. Why should Weight Watchers and AA have a monopoly on this universal principle – change happens in community. Americans who consume self-help literature like it is candy generally refuse to recognize this truth, the truth of “the Church,” the truth that positive transformation typically involves connection to others. You have to have strong Christian friends to 1) reach your potential as a Christian, 2) to know and understand God, and 3) to be resilient/recover in the face of sadness.

Conclusion

We Christians are oftentimes foolishly simplistic. That’s really not a Christian problem, however, but a human problem.

The Bible doesn’t have that problem though. The insight and tenderness with which God goes about healing humans is beautiful. His treatment recognizes that we humans are creatures with interconnected minds, bodies, and souls. God recognizes that we’re unique individuals that need unique care plans (e.g. take note of the nuanced way in which Jesus treats Martha and Mary after Lazarus’ death – John 11:21-23, 32-34). But God also recognizes the commonness of the human condition. Jesus truly is the Great Physician (Matt. 9:12; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31) – the only one who can make us well.

The one who can raise the dead clearly understands recovery. Therefore, his diagnosis can be trusted, and so can his recovery plan.

THE GOSPEL and Tone

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Image Credit: MATT WALSH BLOG

Alright.  I’ve been reluctant to write about this for some time, because I’m a little afraid of 1) coming off as petty, and 2) giving the insinuation that a fairly good thing is a bad thing. But when I get the impression that there might be a bit of consensus confusion, I feel compelled to raise my hand. So…

Something that is a bit perplexing to Christians, and to non-Christians regarding Christians, is the line between Christianity and traditional values, conservative attitudes, and right-wing politics.

The reason it’s confusing is because both groups, Conservative Christians and Political Conservatives, often seem to be passionately pushing for the same things – morals that are rooted in the Judeo-Christian literature and heritage. This would include issues like stances on human sexuality, abortion, the separation of church and state, etc. I’ve written before on how I don’t believe that any political party captures the gospel perfectly. Nonetheless, in the eyes of the majority, again, especially from outside the Church, Christians and Political Conservatives are intricately linked.

So, let me  point to the key, noticeable distinction – a humble TONE.

From the standpoint of morality, Jesus appeared to be on the same page with the conservative leaders of his day – the Pharisees. However, according to the Easton’s Bible Dictionary entry on Pharisees:

“There was much that was sound in their creed, yet their system of religion was a form and nothing more…They were noted for their self-righteousness and their pride (Matt. 9:11; Luke 7:39; 18:11, 12). They were frequently rebuked by our Lord (Matt. 12:39; 16:1–4).”[1]

Now the Roman officials may have had some difficulty differentiating between such a group and Jesus’ followers, at least superficially. But the Pharisees are the most common enemies of Jesus in the Gospel records. The two had very different hearts. But, since all of us non-Gods can’t see the heart, the best indication we have of distinguishing between faithful Christian godliness and mere conservative morality is a humble tone.

If you’re still wondering exactly what the difference between gospel-driven faith and conservative moralism looks like, and how tone helps you distinguish, let me give you a case study.

I mentioned I was hesitant to bring this up. Nonetheless, The Matt Walsh Blog is wildly popular at this point. I’ve had quite a few people send me notes about it, asking for my thoughts. It’s a little difficult giving my opinion without coming off as jealous, since he’s younger, more attractive, and somewhere between a hundred and a thousand times more “successful” than me as a blogger :) But it really isn’t just me. You can count on one hand the number of Christian pastors (or Christians in general) in our country that have a bigger internet presence and more passionate following than Matt Walsh.

Walsh’s Huffington Post bio lists him as “a 27-year-old blogger, talk radio host, husband, and father of twins.” Currently, Walsh has over 160k Facebook followers and literally has multiple anti-matt walsh websites dedicated against him. With recent posts like “This Is My Homophobic Rant Against Michael Sam,” “Hi Mom, Thanks For Never Taking Me To Disney World,” and “Christian-hating Liberal Fascists Have Once Again Demonstrated Their ‘Tolerance,'” it’s not too tough to see how Walsh ignites some controversy. Walsh concluded a recent post by saying, 

“The point is, you turn on the TV or crank up the Pandora and you’re going to be watching or listening to a stream of deviants, junkies, rapists, pedophiles, adulterers, and crooks, yet we don’t bat an eye until someone quotes the Bible or endorses traditional marriage. Amidst a sea of perversity and violence, the only thing the fascists seek to punish is the reasonable expression of Christian beliefs. In a country of filth, the only thing you can’t be is pro-life and pro-marriage. Enough of this, already. It’s time to stop playing nice with these people.”

But young Christians gobble this stuff up. In the same way that Eminem became the voice of middle class white teen angst in the early 2000s, Matt Walsh has become something of a voice of young white conservative angst for Christians who now have their own kids. A voice to the voiceless – I get the appeal.

So, let me try to humbly state this. Matt Walsh is a very talented writer, generally entertaining, and the vast majority of his points I would whole-heartedly agree with. He is being earmarked by young conservatives as a guy to watch out for and is already no secret in the online writing community. My guess is that within the next decade, he’ll probably occupy a significantly greater position in the public eye than merely “blogger” and “radio show personality.” But be very clear here, what he’s promoting is conservative values, NOT Christianity.

Many young conservative Americans are recognizing the painful, ironic cultural disparity that’s beginning to be demonstrated against Christians. I think there’s some value in pointing that out. Walsh has tapped into it. But when you do so with the exact same tone as those who are peddling the very ideals you’re against, you’re not promoting godliness, you’re promoting moralism. In other words, who are you really seeking to convert to truth when you’re labeling people as “stupid jerks”? You won’t convert anyone. You’ll simply make those who are already on your side applaud with greater belligerence.

I’m not at all saying Matt Walsh isn’t a Christian. He clearly is. I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t like him. And I’m certainly not saying I myself have never crossed the line in this “tone” issue. For that matter, the Lord’s disciple, Peter, also needed to learn to put the sword away and rather suffer under the sword in order to advance God’s kingdom (John 18:11).

Riling a bunch of Christians up about how sinful the world is isn’t too difficult. Jesus did tell his disciples that people would hate them because of him (Matt. 10:22). Jesus did say that wickedness would increase in the world and faithfulness would wane (Matt. 24:12). While pointing out the hypocrisy of a secular world perhaps has some value, doing so with the same disdainful tone that a secular world uses to deride Christianity isn’t particularly helpful. And to refer to yourself as a “professional sayer of truths” and label your website as “Absolute Truth” is not only not helpful to Christianity, it’s borderline blasphemous.

It’s not hard to make the case that pride is as much or more spiritually dangerous to Christianity than any gross cultural immoralities. I’ve been a chief offender here too. I’m repenting and growing by God’s grace. If I’m still alive and posting 10 years from now, I pray that I’ll be able to look back on my older stuff and say, not so much say that I’ve grown “more accurate, more popular, or more influential” but, that as I’ve gotten to know my Savior better, my words are “more humble.”

I’m not trying to pick on Matt Walsh. He’s just one example. In all honesty, I could probably have chosen any of the more influential conservative commentators. Walsh simply happens to fall into the “next big thing” category. But this is an important lesson. Remember, the goal is not that conservative talk gets more Christian. The goal is that Christians understand the difference, and let the humble tone of their speech indicate that.

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor. 13:1)

 

[1] Easton, M. G. (1893). In Easton’s Bible dictionary. New York: Harper & Brothers.