The Line of Responsible Parenting

blog - Adrian PetersonThe reactions to the story of NFL star running back and 2012 MVP Adrian Peterson being indicted for ‘reckless or negligent injury to a child’  have been a bit divisive, to say the least.

It’s a fascinating experiment as a pastor living in Minnesota, i.e. Vikings country, to ask your 7th/8th grade confirmation class their thoughts on the issue. For starters, it’s a perfect demonstration of someone sincerely buying their own rationale when it’s personally convenient. Adolescent boys lawyer up pretty quick when the NFL is trying to take their best player off the field.

But everyone has an opinion on this case. Everyone. Football fan or not, in this particular case, everyone seems to be registering a pretty passionate plea. Even our state governor has publicly given his stance. What was revealing to me as a pastor, was that it wasn’t until over 20 minutes into our confirmation classroom discussion, and not until after heavy prompting and hinting on my part, that any student said, “What matters most is what God says about parenting our children…” 

The fact that it took that long and that I had to tip my hand that much to get to that point…I don’t think it’s simply because I’ve been a poor theology instructor for these kids. Maybe. Rather, I think it’s because kids (humans in general, for that matter) will tend to give you responses they think you want to hear until you touch a nerve, and then they respond instinctively. This specific case happens to be a topic that everyone seems to have core beliefs about. At that point, people feel justified in letting knees jerk.

blog - Adrian Peterson 2The tipping point for my confirmation students, the moment that finally led one of them to suggesting that we see what God says about the topic, was when I pointed out on the whiteboard that all of their responses thus far had begun with the words, “I think…”; “I feel…”; “I believe…”. After those prefaces had generally come thoughts like, “I think parents should be allowed to discipline their own kids in their own homes however they want” (again, this seemed to be the preference of the diehard Vikings fans. No, they didn’t perceive their logic to be self-serving.). Another popular response was, “I feel like a parent should never hit their child, no matter what the circumstances.” When I calmly asked, “Why?”, one of the young women responded with a passionate explanation that ended, “It’s just wrong.” When I further pressed her on an explanation of WHY we should all submit ourselves to her declaration that such an act is wrong, she finished with, “Because.” There were other more “moderate” responses that went something along the lines of, “Well, it’s okay to spank your child, but you shouldn’t use an object to do it like Adrian Peterson did.” Again, when pressed, there was no conceivable WHY to the reasoning.

While this is admittedly a conversation with 14-year-olds, most of the conversations I’ve heard from full-grown adults haven’t sounded much different. For that matter, the “experts” sound very similar. I could name a dozen prominent talk radio figures who have weighed in, proposing little reasoning for their stance beyond “I think” or “I feel.” The innate pride of a sinful heart simply doesn’t understand that what “I think” or “I feel” about a given situation does not make it so, no matter how many tears I shed when offering my sentiments nor even how many logical points I string together. You CANNOT make a moral argument without an appeal to God.

Someone might contend, “Sure you can! Let’s just all do what’s best for mankind without hurting someone.” First off, why? For argument’s sake, what is the logical reason why we should be working toward the benefit of mankind? Second, even if we all agree to work to not hurt one another, who are you to say what does or does not ultimately hurt someone? What makes you the authority? What makes anyone the authority? “Alright. Well, let’s just go with the majority consensus.” Okay, are you really comfortable with the majority consensus about Jewish people in mid-twentieth century Germany? Are you comfortable with the majority consensus about black people in the South in mid-nineteenth century America? Let me reiterate: logically, you CANNOT make a moral argument without an appeal to God.

So, what does God’s Word say about physicality in the discipline of children?

Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. (Prov. 13:24)

This passage is by no means the only advice the Bible gives on parenting, but it appears the most relevant to the given case. So let’s dissect it a bit.

blog - Adrian Peterson 3What’s obvious at first glance is the acknowledgment of a parent using a “rod,” what’s generally been referred to in the Peterson case as a “switch.” The assertion of the first half of this passage of wisdom literature is exactly the opposite of what many Americans would categorize as loving parenting. The writer says that if you DON’T use a rod, when necessary, to discipline your child, you HATE your child.

So, at this point, the defenders of Adrian Peterson rejoice and those who don’t like the passage conclude that the Bible is “old-fashioned,” “regressive,” and “unreliable.” Well…hold them horses….

Reading on in the passage, upon further explanation, we see that a parent who loves his child is “careful to discipline them.” How does this relate to the Peterson case? Several medical examiners evaluated Peterson’s son and found the wounds on the child to be extensive, open lacerations which the doctors deemed “child abuse.”  So careful is obviously the operative word in “careful to discipline.” Was Adrian Peterson careful?

Technically the word “careful” is not in the original Hebrew text, but the idea is there. The word musar (translit.) means to chastise in order to reform behavior, for the benefit of the one receiving discipline. So the motive of the discipline is loving correction. But to what degree can physical discipline be enforced before it crosses a line from chastisement to abuse? Where does loving discipline end and out-of-control anger begin? I think we’d need to see into someone’s heart before we can say unequivocally. Since we can’t do that, in our country, we use a jury of peers. It’s not a perfect system, but perhaps the best we can do in a sinful world.

So, my point today is not whether to spank or not to spank. My point is not to suggest what the NFL should do with Adrian Peterson. My point is to encourage Christians to temper their gut reactions (and innate thoughts about parenting styles), and first carefully consider the Scriptural directives. A Christian should be able to recognize, “Well, how I was raised…” or what I think or what I feel does not make something gospel truth. In fact, a Christian who understands that he is victim to a sinful nature should actually assume that his natural instincts on moral issues are probably a click or two off from perfect.

Is it crazy to suggest I can’t even always trust my native instincts on what is right or wrong? Put differently, why should I subject my natural instincts to the authority of the Bible?

Simply this: Jesus endured the ultimate switch of discipline – the cross – upon which he received the beating we deserved for our sins. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa. 53:5) Without hesitation I can say that Jesus is a better, more loving, more self-sacrificial, gentler man than me or anyone I’ve met. Furthermore, as one raised from the grave, Jesus clearly has insights on human nature that surpass my understanding. Finally, Jesus repeatedly states throughout the Gospels that he upholds the Old Testament Scriptures (Luke 24:27; Matt. 5:17; Matt. 23:35). This includes our Proverbs passage. Adding this all together, I would assume Jesus’ perception of loving parenting is better than my perception, which is marred by a sinful nature. In short, I trust his Word ahead of my gut.

You cannot make a moral argument without an appeal to God. So, CHRISTIAN, the world needs your guidance. It doesn’t need your natural, gut reaction. A pagan world can produce that on its own. Instead, what the world needs is a humble, counterintuitive, nuanced, informed and thoughtful response born out of the Word that brings life (John 6:63). Graciously lead the way.

Did Jesus Really Never Say Anything About Homosexuality?

Since I get a steady diet of this question, I thought it was probably long overdue to offer a post which I can regularly direct people to moving forward. Additionally, what’s better about this video than just an email from me summarizing the Jesus/homosexuality issue is that Piers Morgan (the show’s host) makes his case with all of the matter-of-fact bravado that someone has probably tried to intimidate you with before. But…Morgan runs into someone who understands the Bible considerably better than he does.

Morgan’s argument in the clip – “Jesus clearly didn’t think homosexuality was a big issue since he never talked about it.” – you’ve likely heard this argument before. Could it be true? Well, an argument from silence really isn’t much of an argument. As Dr. Michael Brown points out, “Jesus did not address wife-beating or heroin-shooting but we don’t use that argument from silence.” Only someone with a clear agenda would do the rational gymnastics it’d take to try to surmise that the Bible (or Jesus) was okay with such things.

An even better argument, however, is that Jesus, on several occasions, outright states that he is upholding the Jewish sexual ethic that was stated throughout the Old Testament. Dr. Brown points out three instances:

1) Matthew 5:17 – Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus is saying that the universal sexual morals taught in the Old Testament are still firmly in place.

2) Matthew 15:19 – Jesus says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person.” Jesus is saying that “adultery and sexual immorality,” two terms which together fully encompass all sex that is outside of God-designed sex – i.e. between a husband and a wife – defiles people.

3) Matthew 19:4-6 – Jesus says, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Jesus is saying that marriage was designed by God to be for one man and one woman for life. 

These passages are ONLY what Jesus himself directly says. This doesn’t include all of the specifics of the Old Testament or all of the further direction from New Testament writers concerning homosexuality.

What’s the real issue here?

I think this is another example of the trickle down effect of waning biblical literacy. People have just as strong of opinions about the Bible as they ever did, yet know their Bibles less.

Biblical illiteracy is more than the issue of people today falling for the question, “How many animals did Moses bring on the Ark?” (ANSWER: MOSES didn’t bring any animals on the Ark.) In other words, biblical illiteracy is not just a mechanical memorization of the names, places, and timeframe of the Bible. Yes, much of this has been lost. More importantly, however, the truths and themes these accounts teach are slipping from society’s consciousness…and conscience. Put differently, not knowing Jesus’ stance on homosexuality is the direct result of us becoming less familiar with our Bibles, which perfectly corresponds with our society’s increasingly lax stance on sexual immorality.

Consequently, if you hold a position different from the historically consistent biblical position, i.e. if you take the position that Jesus (and the Bible) are accepting of a homosexual lifestyle, by all means, you are free to do so. BUT, please do the name of Christ a favor. If you’re labeling yourself a Christian, please also be clear to say, “Just so you know, I’m taking a position entirely different from what the Bible teaches.” By the way, in doing so, in reinterpreting or dismissing Scripture for the sake of personal opinion, convenience, or contemporary societal assumption, just be warned that this act itself is entirely different from how “being a Christian” has historically been defined. In other words, part of the very definition of Christianity is recognizing Jesus both as your SAVIOR from sins AND your LORD, which means that you are willing to subject your personal opinions and conveniences to the truth of your master.

The case I’m trying to make here is that the clarity of Jesus’ teaching about homosexuality is not the issue. Open homosexuality taking place in our society, while not God-pleasing, really isn’t a threat to Christianity either. “Christians” not knowing what their Bible teaches and thus distorting the teaching of an inspired Word – that’s a massive threat to Christian faith right now.

Two errors to avoid

As in most cases, there are two roads Christians will hope to avoid in the conversation about the place of homosexuality in our society.

1) The self-indulgent position – Homosexuality is an important, sensitive cultural issue today. If Christians have any love whatsoever for the people around them, they will want to know how the Bible addresses an issue that today affects every single person’s life directly. A Christian will not, therefore, be unprepared when someone hits them with, “Well, Jesus never said anything against homosexuality.” If you care about that person, you will be ready to offer something about Jesus’ position on the biblical sexual ethic. If you don’t have something to say about it, you will almost invariably go along with the anti-biblical spirit of the day, the gospel conceived in the 60s sexual revolution – that love should have no borders.

2) The self-righteous position – A major part of the angst from the homosexual community when it comes to marriage legislation, etc., is that heterosexuals haven’t exactly demonstrated the beauty of God’s design for marriage and sexuality in the past half century. That’s actually a very valid argument. While our own personal failures or weaknesses don’t technically disprove a point we’re trying to make, they do tend to discredit the impact of our voice.

Consider this: nearly 80% of our country claims Christianity. Nonetheless, 50% of our country’s marriages end in divorce. Furthermore, the best research suggests that Christians are every bit as active in pre-marital sex as the non-believing world (Mark D. Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit, Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, pg. 205). According to another recent study, four out of five unmarried evangelicals ages eighteen to twenty-nine have had sex (Tyler Charles, “True Love Isn’t Waiting,” Neue 6 [April/May 2011], 32-36.). So why should anyone care what the average Christian has to say about biblical sexuality? They shouldn’t. We’ve lost credibility.

Now I’m not saying that a Christian shouldn’t be clear to explain the Bible’s stance on human sexuality (they should, or else they fall back into the self-indulgent position). I’m saying that a Christian should explain the biblical stance while at the same time never considering himself morally superior to the homosexual. I’m also saying that if we have unrepented sexual sin in our own lives, that should offend us significantly more than any sexual sin we see going on “out there” in the world. “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matt. 7:5)

Or, as researcher David Kinnaman puts it:

“We (Christians) need a willingness to talk about and ‘own’ our struggles with sex, even as we stay on high alert or judgmentalism in our hearts. Hypocrisy might be defined as leniency toward ourselves and strict standards for everyone else.” (You Lost Me, pg. 162)

A Christian wants to boldly stand for truth even as he humbly acknowledges weakness. And if he’s guilty himself, the Christian confesses and corrects himself before he dreams of correcting others.

Conclusion

In the words of Dr. Brown, “I’d encourage you to re-study what Scripture says.” That’s it. Few things are tougher to see than Christians who think they can get away without studying their Bibles. How do we keep falling for this? If Satan could do no other single thing, it’d be to get us to not study our Bibles – the one thing that can give us spiritual life. “The Spirit gives life…The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.” (John 6:63)

Scarier than having a misunderstanding of Jesus’ stance on homosexuality, however, is what this misunderstanding insinuates in the bigger picture. If I don’t know Jesus’ position on human sexuality, what else might I not understand about Jesus’ teaching? Do I really understand the depth of his love for me? Do I really understand the costliness of his forgiveness? Do I really understand that my salvation is entirely by grace?

Scripture isn’t just life-guiding. It’s life-giving. Therefore, I need to regularly re-study what it says.

Ice Bucket Passion – considering the merits of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

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I’m sure you’ve been enjoying your recent subscription to the 24-hour Ice Bucket Challenge Network formerly known as Facebook. It’s quite a phenomenon – one that demonstrates the power of social media, the power of peer influence, the power of ultimatums, a powerful national desire to help others, and a host of other pretty fascinating human behavioral habits.

This isn’t the Harlem Shake. This isn’t planking. It shares some similarities from a viral standpoint. But this is young America’s first real, significant attempt to use the overwhelming accessibility of social media for good.

I’m not quite ready to do the full trispectival analysis on this yet, in part, because I don’t know that it’s fair or accurate to suggest that certain positions line up with religion/irreligion, etc. But we’re going to do something similar here by pointing out how Christians might process the good, the bad, and the important questions surrounding the occasion.

There’s been lots written on both sides of this thus far (points and counterpoints), I’ll try to just link & summarize for what’s already been said, and expound on the viewpoints I haven’t yet seen addressed.

The Good

1) People moving to help others

Look what we’re capable of! For all of the new avenues for slander and the self-indulgent “look at me” proclivities of Facebook, Twitter, and the like, it’s as though we’re finally starting to see in tangible ways the tremendous reasons why God would allow something like social media to exist.

As of August 22nd, the NY Times was reporting that well over $40 million has already been donated to ALS research. While the motives of the philanthropy are debatable (which I’ll get to), there’s no denying this is more “other focused” than most of what we see. That’s a beautiful thing. For the cynics of contemporary culture who are convinced that altruism is non-existent, this at least gives pause.

2) Christians seeking to provide physical aid

Ever since F.D.R.’s New Deal, there has been a shift in American mentality – that physical and emotional aid comes through the government, not the church. Consequently, churches have lost this God-intended tangible expression of love, which I believe is a major reason why people are skeptical that churches can provide genuine spiritual aid as well. God designed for these things to go together. The recent lack of connection between physical and spiritual, I think, has likely contributed to the mass exodus from local congregations in the late twentieth century.

Historian Rodney Stark describes how social concern by Christians for physical well-being led to interest in the Christian faith in the early years of Christianity…

“alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another.” (Stark, The Rise of Christianity, pg. 86)

As several plagues struck the Roman Empire in the early centuries after Christ, Christians contemplated what Christ himself would do in such situations. While the pagans fled the town where plagues existed, leaving sick friends, relatives, and strangers to die, Christians reasoned that Christ himself sacrificed time, energy, resources, even his life to help the sick. Furthermore, they used belief in the gospel truth of eternal life through a Risen Savior as a resource for courage. They knew that when they died they were heaven-bound, which gave them a greater willingness to sacrifice for others than their pagan counterparts, who believed this life was it. Church fathers like Cyprian of Carthage, Dionysius, and Eusebius were all consistent on this. Furthermore, this life-jeopardizing mercy wasn’t some marketing ploy to attract new followers. They did this because they believed they were honoring Jesus in the process (Matt. 25:35-40). The early father Tertullian claimed:

“It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!'” (Apology 39, 1989 ed.)

In short, Christians who aren’t seeking to provide any sort of physical relief to the ailing have lost something that is printed in the DNA of the Christian Church. So, in its own way, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, as carried out by Christians, is at least demonstrating a public acknowledgment that we really do care about the physical welfare of humans. While every other religion proposes a fleeing from this present body, in the doctrine of resurrection, Jesus taught (and gave his life for) a redemption of that very body, not just the soul. Followers of Jesus care about the health of bodies as well as the souls within them.

Chris Fernandez, David DeJesus, ALS Ice Bucket ChallengeThe Bad

So how much does pouring a bucket of ice water (or wasting valuable water, if you’re a cynic) do to help the cause of ALS research anyways? What is the net gain of “raising awareness”?

Now, the critics of the critics, i.e. the people who are saying, “Why can’t you just let people do this fun thing and raise awareness in the process? Why can’t you just let this be?” while kind and gentle in spirit, aren’t recognizing some important details that do deserve careful consideration.

There are a number of arguments against the challenge. Some, like the charitable funding cannibalism argument, I personally find to be less compelling arguments. So, I’ll keep it to the two that concern me the most.

1) Coercion Motivation

I know MANY people whom I believe would take the Ice Bucket Challenge simply because they’re terrified of how it’d make them look OR how they’d feel about themselves if they didn’t.

From a Christian perspective, an action typically isn’t just a good or bad action, it’s dependent, to some extent at least, upon motives. The classic example of this is Cain and Abel, an account that proves God is not merely seeking obedience to laws, but rather a certain type of obedience – obedience that is motivated by a recognition of God’s grace.

Pride, guilt, and fear are all incredibly powerful motivators that don’t lead to God-pleasing action. Granted, if they lead people to moral behavior, to some extent, I’m still happy they exist as motivators. Jonathan Edwards, in The Nature of True Virtue, talks about a “common virtue” that exists in humanity. He’s talking about the natural moral code and conscience that God implants into all mankind alike. Ultimately, he’s suggesting that if a potential killer doesn’t pull a trigger because of thankfulness for Christ’s goodness or because of fear of going to jail, either way, regardless of motivation, we’re happy he doesn’t pull the trigger. Nonetheless, from a Christian standpoint, motivation means everything when it comes to whether or not an act is God-pleasingIf a philanthropic act is done to make yourself look good, it’s totally counterintuitive to Peter’s guidance on good deeds – “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Pet. 2:12, also Matt. 5:16) In this case, the non-believers are acknowledging the “good” being done by believers, but notice whom they’re glorifying as a result – not the believer, but GOD. To safeguard against the pride that comes with doing good deeds to glorify self, Jesus encourages generosity and philanthropy to be done in private (Matt. 6:3-4), not on social media.

2) Funding Embryonic Stem Cell Research

There has been a ton written on why this type of research does not jive with biblical ethics as well as the evidence that ALS participates in this type of research. Look here. Or here. Or here. Or, straight from the horse’s mouth, here. Without retreading everything, I’ll briefly jot down some of the clearest Bible passages that would suggest life begins at conception. Consequently, ending such life would clearly be unethical from a Biblical standpoint.

“Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.” (Is. 49:1)

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:5)

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13)

 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life.” (Ex. 21:22-23)

Bottom line, it makes zero sense to hurt life in the process of seeking to help life. Such a proposition suggests that one life is more valuable than another life, the same premise which fuels racism or genocide. Embryonic stem cell research, however, is arguably worse from the standpoint that an unborn child is entirely incapable of fighting back.blog - ALS 3

So here’s what scares me: how many lives are going to be saved by these ALS donations? And for how long? In contrast, how many lives will directly be taken specifically because of these $40 million plus in donations. Yes, I recognize that there is an option to specify that your donation does not go to embryonic stem cell research. I’m not convinced that this promotion is being carried out to the same level that the challenges are though. Furthermore, even if you can designate that your money is not going toward embryonic stem cell research, for Christians, the question remains about the ethics of knowingly funding an organization that is promoting embryonic stem cell research. And this isn’t exactly like shopping at Walmart or Target and finding out that some of their proceeds are going towards causes you wouldn’t personally support. Of course we cannot control how business owners spend their dollars. This is a little different – a direct funding of the unethical act itself, a proportionate line from your dollars to embryonic stem cell research.

I’m curious how the ALS fund gatherers would react if every single Christian, when they went to make their donation, would say, “I won’t give you $100 as long as you fund this kind of research. However, I’ll give you $200 if you stop funding embryonic stem cell research.”

The Important Questions Raised

I want to be careful not to be too dogmatic about much of this. To be perfectly honest, I’m personally not exactly sure how I feel about it. What I’m trying to do here is simply acknowledge that the ethics of this challenge are not cut and dry, despite what a passionate advocate for or against may say, no matter how loudly they may say it.

So here are the two things I can’t help but think about after reading several dozen articles…

1) End justifies means ethics. Is it okay to support an organization that is doing some good, while it is knowingly, willingly, and publicly also approving and sponsoring something that is not only biblically unethical, but logically counterintuitive – hurting life for the purpose of helping life.

2) Awareness disparity. Someone will call me insensitive here. That’s the risk I run. Why are so many Christians so passionate about raising awareness to help find a cure for a disease that, while tragic, cuts life on earth, and its quality, by several decades, but so slow to raise awareness about a KNOWN CURE for a disease (of sin) that threatens us eternally? Let’s say just 2/3 of the world (although I presume it’s significantly more), 5 billion or so people, are headed for a destruction much more debilitating than even ALS. Why don’t we witness more public, comfort-sacrificing, generosity-demonstrating gestures for the gospel? Maybe many are doing them. Maybe it’s in my head. I just don’t recall seeing many mainstream attempts by Christians.

In Luke 5, Jesus shows love and compassion for a paralyzed man. Perhaps this nameless man had ALS or a similar disease. Jesus doesn’t ignore the man’s tragic condition. He cares for the physical as well as the spiritual. Mercifully, Jesus cures the man so that he is once again able to walk. Interestingly, however, Jesus announces forgiveness for the man’s sins first. In the process, he appears to be pointing out a vital issue of prioritization – that in a dying world, a living faith trumps a healthy body. “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (Luke 5:23-24) Jesus desires for this physically impaired man to have access to a resurrected body even more than a temporarily restored body. Again, for followers of Jesus, it’d only make sense that such predominance in priorities (spiritual ahead of physical) would also be reflected.

Again, I’m NOT saying I disagree with the challenge. I’m NOT saying Christians taking the challenge aren’t also emphatically sharing their faith. I’m merely suggesting that something about all of this seems VERY right, and yet something else seems a bit off.

Finally, I’d encourage Christians to not fall into the cliché visceral responses that much of the world does about such issues. Rather, consider these things carefully before you form your opinion. The world often declares something the best or the worst based merely on gut. And when two different people’s big guts collide, you have an ugly societal sumo match. Christians are to be more thoughtful. We don’t embrace or dismiss “because.” We weigh things carefully on a Scriptural scale and draw conclusions. So, participate or don’t participate, but do so thoughtfully, to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31)

Thoughts About Suicide

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There’s been no shortage of online attention the past couple of days given to Robin Williams’ suicide. Understandably. It’s hard to make a case for anyone contributing more to American entertainment in the past forty years. Very few have provided more laughs. So now we cry. The nation mourns.

What I haven’t seen yet, and what I think a community of largely bipartisan thoughts is longing for right now, is a “trispectival analysis” of the issue of suicide. I find it helpful to use this particular assessment tool whenever possible – consider what an irreligious assessment, a religious assessment, and a gospel assessment of a given situation would all uniquely look like.

I’ve used this tool before, but as a reminder, here’s a quick summary:

An irreligious person sees morality as relative, believes people are born basically good but sometimes hurt others or themselves when put in bad circumstances, and acknowledges no higher authority than man. Irreligion is perhaps best characterized by self-indulgence.

A religious person sees morality as purely black and white, believes there are good people and bad people, and while he acknowledges God as the ultimate authority, he believes that because of his good behavior he is more deserving of God’s blessing than the “bad” people. Religion is perhaps best characterized by self-righteousness.

A gospel-thinking person understands the black and white of morality but recognizes there is a shaded spectrum of motives, believes we are inherently born broken and powerless to put ourselves back together, and acknowledges Jesus Christ as both Lord and Savior. Gospel-thinkers are perhaps best characterized by humility about self and confidence in Christ.

With that said, how shall we understand suicide?

The Irreligious Viewpoint

The majority media viewpoint regarding Robin Williams is that he was a sensational talent who died too soon and left us with many fond memories. We (i.e. Christians) can agree with that…in part.

For the dozens of articles I’ve now glanced through on the topic, I haven’t seen any more insightful commentary on William’s life, career, and death than the one Newsweek provided. The author here astutely points out that for all the brilliance of Williams’ improv comedy, his most profound roles were in Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam and Good Will Hunting. He observes, “That all three of those characters—Adrian Cronauer, Keating and Sean Maguire—were  men dedicated to enriching the lives of young men whose paths were at a crossroads was probably no coincidence.” I think the Newsweek author is spot on. Williams played what he knew – be it the fifty-two hilarious characters he wove together as the genie in Aladdin, or a middle-aged man reflecting on the internal conflicts of life in those three aforementioned roles.blog - suicide 3

While remembering the brilliance of Williams’ career, however, you’ll notice that the irreligious world cannot ever offer a reasonable diagnosis of what drives such a talented man to take his own life. You hear a lot about mental illness as disease. You hear about addiction. I’m the last person to discount the occasionally debilitating effects of neurochemicals. But if the chemistry of the brain is the only contributing factor to Williams’ suicide, how do we account for the sixty-three previous years? Doesn’t even brain chemistry sound a little superficial to something so tragic? Fascinatingly, as though finally aware that there’s more going on here than mere chemical interaction, in such moments, even the irreligious community resorts to dabbling with the spiritual when it uses such expressions as “fighting his demons.”

The Religious Viewpoint

In our current age, it’s considerably rarer to hear the other end of the spectrum – the religious viewpoint. But it’s certainly still there. And it’s loud. This is the view of religious people that we are simply the product of our choices. We are who we’ve chosen to be. And we also then have responsibility for those choices. We (i.e. Christians) can agree with this also…in part.

Self-determination, as a philosophy of the individual, has not exactly died, but it’s certainly going away in Western thought. Born out of the ideas of Plato, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and others is the idea that “you can be anything you want to be if you simply put your mind to it and work hard.” It was considered a mere matter of choices. This was the predominant thought in our “Land of Opportunity” for middle part of the 20th century. As the century closed, however, the Nature vs. Nurture issue changed the discussion about how we become who we are. You’ll notice, however, that neither of those arguments (i.e. nature or nurture) has anything to do with our personal choices. Genetics and upbringing are now considered to be major causes in our personalities, our morality, and yes, even our choices. Put differently, people are thinking less and less that we do bad things, like commit suicide, simply because we choose to do bad things.

This has raised many social questions. For instance, consider this: how accountable for their actions should we hold a child born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or one raised with Reactive Attachment Disorder? I don’t think anyone would suggest, “Not accountable at all.” But I also think that many people would assume it only natural that we’d have some additional understanding and sympathy for a child who suffers with a condition that he clearly did not choose for himself.

Nonetheless, the religious voice that you hear right now will tell you that Williams took his own life and will have to answer to God. He did this because he’s selfish, godless, and has no concern for the effects of his actions. There’s some truth there, but it’s typically said with such unsympathetic disdain that it disempowers any truth it proposes. If you’re really curious, it tends to sound something like this. When you’re telling someone “how it is” in a moment of tragedy, the smugness doesn’t quite reflect God’s spirit of “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11)

By the way, ALL Christians, myself included, are guilty of both the Irreligious and Religious Viewpoints on occasion. The question is not whether we’re ever guilty of them. The question is, when we are, do we defend them or do we recognize them for what they are and repent of them.

The Gospel Viewpoint

This post is not a comprehensive summary on the Bible’s position on suicide. For such information, I’d go here. This is simply my thoughts on two common positions on the topic of suicide and how I believe the Bible guides us to a better one.

Suicide is NOT a product of faith. I want to be absolutely clear about that. However, the act itself doesn’t necessarily declare the complete absence of faith either.

If you’re thinking, “But I always heard when I was a kid that if you commit suicide you’re guaranteed to go to hell”, my guess is that you also heard that wearing jeans to church was also near the unforgivable sin too. Where are we at on that one today? I’m not suggesting doctrine changes. I’m suggesting the application of it sometimes changes and quite frankly, the application is sometimes just a bit off, an occurrence that is sometimes easier to see several generations out.

blog - suicide 2The Church automatically proclaiming hell for everyone who commits suicide in the middle 20th century is in some ways analogous to the Church finding as a heretic anyone who didn’t believe the earth to be the center of the universe in the early 16th century. It’s a claim that the Bible itself doesn’t make. And then Copernicus came along. And many ministers looked pretty silly as a result.

What we now know about neurosciences, although there’s still a LONG way to go, suggests that someone’s behavior, to some degree, can be affected by their brain chemistry. That some behaviors are also then more erratic, more consequential, more life-threatening than others seems obvious. In other words, it would appear possible for someone who is not thinking straight to take their own life due to poor momentary choices rather than outright unbelief.

Does that take away all culpability? Of course not. Suicide is still sin. Murder, in fact. And humans are guilty for their sins. But it doesn’t track that this particular sin forfeits salvation simply because there is little window for repentance after it is committed. Let’s flesh that thought out. What do you think the odds are that from the time of your last repentance until the moment you die you will have perfectly repented of each of your failures?

Not sure, but I wouldn’t bank my salvation on it.

In other words, your salvation is NOT based on your perfect repentance, but on your perfect Savior. So, if you confess your sins at church on Sunday, slip into a hateful thought about a fellow church member on your drive home, and as you’re distracted by your anger, you get into a car accident and die, THANK GOD your eternal life is not in jeopardy. God’s grace is a state that you live in, not a needle that you balance on. And therefore, if someone who professes Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, in a moment of weak faith, takes his or her own life, it’s tragic, it’s painful, it’s horrible, and it likely won’t ever fully be gotten over by the loved ones left in the wake. What it is not for us, however, is an occasion to declare someone in hell.

I have absolutely no idea about Robin Williams’ eternal life or death. I know he was raised Episcopal. I know that I’ve never heard of him professing faith in Jesus as his Lord and Savior. I know suicide points to either weak or no faith. All that said, I also know that because God fulfilled his promises in sending a Savior to pay for mankind’s transgressions, heaven or hell does not come based upon our actions in life…or death. Jesus is magnanimous enough that he paid for ALL of those sinful actions completely when he suffered upon the cross in our place. Heaven or hell comes when we either receive Jesus as Savior by faith or when we reject him.

God can save murderers. Even self-murderers. In fact, he’s in the basic business of saving murders, as we all are responsible for Jesus’ death. BELIEF in that is what ultimately makes the eternal difference.

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18)

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

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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)