Ministering to Millennials (Part II – Who Are They and What’s Driving Them Away?)

(image credit to philosophybistro.com)

(image credit to philosophybistro.com)

Last week we said that the research suggests Americans are less frequently labeling themselves “Christian” and those who are have lost a great deal of Christian orthodoxy in beliefs and practice, i.e. basic Apostles’ Creed truths and regular public worship. The Millennial generation, by far, is the one that is disengaging from Christian churches most, and in historic numbers.

So who are these difficult-to-please “Millennials?”

Technically, someone of the “Millennial” generation was born between 1980 and 2000. However, as mentioned previously, when it comes to worship habits and other areas involving engagement in Christian faith, there is generally a large behavioral difference starting during the college years. So, while as of today, a 15-year-old is technically a Millennial, the faith engagement of a 15-year-old is comparatively quite good in our country. For our purposes here, when “Millennial” is used, it’s primarily then referencing an independent adult somewhere in the ages of early twenties to late thirties. Many generational researchers consider that the better categorization for Millennials.[1]

These Millennials are currently getting a pretty bad rap in the media. In his YAHOO! FINANCE column, Rick Newman notes that CNBC’s research has discovered a general impression of Millennials in the workplace as “narcissistic, godless, precious, lazy.” But Newman makes the case that Millennials are simply products of their Boomer parents. At least in our country, Boomers, rapidly increasing the nation’s debt and emptying the coffers of Social Security and Medicare, will never be remembered as careful stewards of the institutions they inherited. Furthermore, the tremendous institutional skepticism that Boomers birthed, Millennials have now nurtured. Newman says, “Why is anybody surprised Millennials are turning out to be cynical, untrusting and mercenary? In the world they see, those traits are necessary to survive.”[2]

Cable television entrepreneur Bob Buford discussed the uniqueness of Millennials in a fascinating interview he conducted with researcher David Kinnaman. Noting the shift in the self-assessment of various generations, he said that, in his surveying, when the Elder generation was asked to describe themselves, the most commonly used words/phrases were: “World War II and Depression, smarter, honest, work ethic, and values and morals.” Boomers described their generation using terms like “work ethic, respectful, values and morals, and smarter.” Busters (or Gen X) used terms like “technology use, work ethic, conservative or traditional, smarter, and respectful.” And then he noted Millennials. The phrases they most commonly used? “Technology use, music and pop culture, liberal or tolerant, smarter, and clothes.” He concluded, “Where has ‘respectful’ gone? Where is ‘work ethic’? To me, this shows that the next generation is not just sort of different; they are discontinuously different.”[3]

Scott Hess is the VP of Insights at TRU, one of the most respected and influential generational marketing consultants in the world. Hess has been quoted by major periodicals as a foremost authority on American youth. In his San Francisco TED Talk in 2011, his presentation “Millennials: Who They Are & Why We Hate Them” chronicled the major differences between Millennials and the generation before them, the Busters or Gen-Xers.[4] Citing some clear and drastic generational differences, Hess says that where Busters were lean-back slackers, Millennials are lean-forward engagers. Busters were cliquish and judgmental. Millennials are inclusive and tolerant. Busters were anti-corporate. Millennials believe in commerce guided by conscience. Busters perceived parents as authority figures. Millennials perceive them as friends and helpers. Busters consumed mass media. Millennials prefer personal media.[5]

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the nature of Millennials is by deconstructing their favorite brand for five years running – Apple. Apple is a premium commodity in its genre, yet still accessible to almost all. There is no such thing as “high end” Apple. Everyone gets the same one, everyone starts in the same spot, but then you can go crazy with templated personalization. The technology is both fun and massively practical. Constant innovations and updates are applauded, not seen as frustrating change. Finally, the Apple brand also feels a bit like a movement. They have added philosophy to form and function, the perception that they are advancing humanity. More than any brand, Apple embodies the spirit of Millennials.

What’s Driving Millennials Away?

We’ve already established that Millennials are leaving churches and that Millennials are “discontinuously different” in their outlook on life from previous generations. But what is driving them away? To simply say “this is a wicked and godless generation” and “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine.” (2 Tim. 4:3) might apply here, or it might simply be dismissive, failing to acknowledge that we have yet to do the humbling, difficult, personal-preference-sacrificing work the Apostle Paul alludes to when he says, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel.” (1 Cor. 9:22-23) In other words, while acknowledging that they, like us, are sinful and naturally resistant to the truth of God (Rom. 8:7), perhaps ministering to Millennials is primarily a matter of acknowledging that they think differently, not inherently better or worse, but different, from many of us.

For starters, Millennials had a massively different upbringing than previous generations. Kids today are eight times more likely to have come into the world without married parents than were Boomers.[6] Understandably, without the influence of a healthy, functioning parental unit, they are then slower to grow up. And because the two figures (i.e. parents) that humans are created to trust most intrinsically cannot fully be counted on, not as a unit/institution anyways, these young adults are tremendously skeptical. Because their God-given authorities have often proven themselves untrustworthy, Millennials have had to navigate a different route to find authentic authorities. Authority tends to come only after personal investment and communal accountability, i.e. genuine connection, has been established. In other words, don’t expect Millennials to willfully submit to long-standing systems or structures of expertise. Traditional structures have largely failed them from birth. They feel very little sense of obligation and therefore care far less about pre-existing “rules” than their predecessors. Diana Butler Bass states the shift in the perception of authority like this:

“In the post-World War II period, Western societies underwent what philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘an expressivist revolution,’ whereby obligatory group identity – whether of nation, family, or church – was replaced with a new sense of individual authenticity and the ‘right of choices’ based in personal fulfillment. External authorities gave way to internal ones, as we moved away from conformity to social structures toward the authentic self in society. Whether the switch is good or bad is beside the point. This revolution has happened.”[7]

Without question, personal choice now trumps social obligation. Consumer mentality wins over organizational loyalty. This has significantly shaped the landscape of American church. What is a congregation to do if they try to enact church discipline? Only 59 percent of Americans currently believe in hell and far fewer think there is any chance that they, their loved ones, or the neighbors they don’t even know, would ever go there.[8] This young American “under church discipline” will simply find a new church that will be more accepting of their behavior, beliefs, or desires. Much like the average coffee chain that literally has nearly 100,000 possible options for drinks, the Millennial who doesn’t like some things that his/her church teaches will simply determine that this church “isn’t for me.” Unfortunately, the desperation for growth and survival has led many churches to accommodate. As we’ll see later, this is ironically one of the things that Millennials claim they dislike about churches – they are too shallow and unable to change lives.

Currently, Millennials don’t see much difference between Christianity and other religions, or more specifically, between the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Book of Mormon. Nearly 60 percent of them believe these works offer the same basic spiritual truths as compared to only 33 percent of adults over sixty-four.[9] As disheartening for Christianity is the fact that so few Millennials (less than 1 in 5) consider any sort of spirituality to be important in their lives.[10] In some ways, this is the scariest possible news. If more young adults were actually antagonistic about Christianity, then they’d at least have it on their radar, investigating its claims and considering the cause of their animosity. But they’re default is distrust. They’re agnostic about everything. They have so much difficulty untangling who in their lives they can really rely on that something like supernatural religious claims almost seems too undecipherable.

Consequently, Millennials rely heavily upon what feels right. What seems fair is more powerful to them than what someone tells them is objectively right. Since so many truth claims are scientifically untestable, and since Millennials grew up hating the relational dissolution they experienced with their parents, they are constantly pushing for unity. Boomers were often skeptical of others but caustic in their attitudes. Millenials want to get along. They are forgiving and relational and have great difficulty understanding why other generations don’t feel the same way. They love family. They long for togetherness. They hate constant negative speech about other political parties, have no time for comments that suggest racial bias, and will opt out of any Christian church that is obsessed with pointing out the flaws in other Christian churches.

Perhaps surprisingly, in light of all that that’s been said, Millennials still largely believe in God. While Millennials tend to be the most unbelieving in the United States, still only 1.6 percent of the overall American population claims to be atheist. When you add together the percentages of Americans who are certain of God’s existence with those who say they have some doubts, you get to approximately 92 percent of the population.[11] That number is fairly historically consistent with previous generations.

So why are so many Millennials leaving churches? David Kinnaman says:

“When someone uses this idiom (“You lost me”), they are suggesting that something hasn’t translated, that the message has not been received. ‘Wait, I don’t understand. You lost me.’ This is what many (Millennials) are saying to the church…it’s not that they’re not listening; it’s that they can’t understand what we’re saying…The transmission of faith from one generation to the next relies on the messy and sometimes flawed process of young people finding meaning for themselves in the traditions of their parents….But what happens when the process of relationships and sources of wisdom change? What happens to the transference of faith when the world we know slips out from under our collective feet? We have to find new processes – a new mind – that make sense of faith in our new reality.”[12]

Are Millennials a lost cause? Of course not. Let’s not forget, the Holy Spirit’s basic work is to take those who are dead and make them alive (Eph. 2:1-5). It’s no less miraculous that God awakened believers in previous generations where universal morality, recognized authority structures, and belief in biblical inerrancy weren’t in question. God can and will accomplish what he desires with this generation as well. However, he has tasked us with the unique, beautiful, messy responsibility of mission work to this “discontinuously different” generation.

The things that obviously don’t change? First, we continue to recognize that our true power to make impact for God’s Kingdom is the dynamite of the gospel (Rom. 1:16). Second, we come before God’s throne in prayer, asking for wisdom, opportunity, and blessing (1 Tim. 2:1-4). Third, we approach mission work to Millennials with the humility that comes from having applied the gospel to our own hearts, understanding that the only reason we count ourselves as God’s children is because, by sheer grace expressed through our Savior Jesus, while we were dead in sin, God rescued us (Rom. 5:8). We can unabashedly and accurately admit to Millennials (and mankind) that we are all fundamentally more alike than we are different – we are all sinners gifted with salvation by the grace of Christ Jesus.

With that in mind, we can work to overcome the most common negative perceptions that Millennials undeniably have about churches and the Christians who attend them.

….

What are those negative perceptions? I’ll have 8 of the most important ones for you next week. Thanks for reading! 

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(image credit to aldianews.com)

[1] Jason Dorsey. “The Top 10 Millennials & Gen Y Questions Answered” http://jasondorsey.com/millennials/the-top-gen-y-questions-answered/

[2] Rick Newman. “If Millennials Are Jerks, Blame the Baby-Boomers” http://finance.yahoo.com/news/if-millennials-are-jerks–blame-the-baby-boomers-200028612.html

[3] Kinnaman, pgs. 37-38

[4] Scott Hess, TEDxSF – “Millennials: Who They Are & Why We Hate Them,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-enHH-r_FM

[5] Another way of painting the generational difference is to look at late night television. Millennials largely now prefer Jimmy Fallon in contrast to Busters/Boomers, who prefer David Letterman (or Jimmy Kimmel). Many Busters/Boomers consider Fallon a little flaky and Letterman witty. Millennials see Fallon as funny and Letterman as kind of a jerk. Letterman is combative and exclusive. Fallon is self-effacing and inclusive. Who is “better” is largely an issue of generational perception. Consider John Walters’ “Fallon Is the King on YouTube but Not on the Night’s Talk Shows”, http://www.newsweek.com/fallon-king-youtube-not-nights-talk-shows-305629

[6] Kinnaman, pgs. 46-47

[7] Bass, pg. 141

[8] Ibid., pg. 42

[9] Ibid, pg. 51

[10] Rainer, pg. 22

[11] Bass, pg. 49

[12] Kinnaman, pg. 39

Ministering to Millennials (Part I – Do We Have a Problem?)

(image credit to huffingtonpost.com)

(image credit to huffingtonpost.com)

Do we have a problem?

Across our country, the general impression appears to be that Christianity is on the decline. Is membership waning? Is the median age of worshippers increasing? These are different questions, but related. Even if membership numbers remain static, a church (or church body) could be aging in such a way that spells disaster for the next generation. Do we have a problem?

It’s fairly common knowledge that mainline Protestant churches have been bleeding slow deaths for the past forty years.[1] But independent scholar, Diana Butler Bass, who has written extensively on culture and religion, also suggests:

“Churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, and the conservative Presbyterian Church in America are reporting losses that resemble declines their mainline counterparts suffered in the 1970s. New megachurches spring up and are successful for a time – until they are forced to close down and sell their buildings. Even the Catholic Church has barely maintained its share of the population, mostly because immigrant Catholics offset the massive loss of U.S. born members.”[2]

Furthermore, numerous studies seem to suggest that Americans drastically overreport their church attendance when polled. Researcher Philip Brenner from the University of Michigan says that Americans generally overreport church attendance by 10 to 18 points. On the basis of actual behavior, Brenner found church attendance for the past decade to be around 24 percent of the general populace (weekly) and falling, considerably lower than the 1970s.[3] Likewise, sociologists Kirk Hadaway and P.L. Marler, authors of Did You Really Go To Church?, after carefully tracking denominational church attendance statistics for years, have suggested that from 1961 to 1996, actual church attendance fell by half, despite the fact that self-reported attendance has remained the same.[4]

Whatever statistics one takes, the trends are the same. Church attendance is becoming less common, especially amongst young adults.[5] The current numbers indicate that two out of every five adults in the United States attends church at least monthly. Keep in mind, however, how this contrasts with the self-identifying of adults, i.e. two out of five is probably over reporting. Still, nearly eight out of ten adults in the country consider themselves “Christian.”[6] In other words, twice as many people call themselves “Christian” as attend church on any given month. For half of Americans then, involvement in regular church activity has ceased to be part of the definition of Christianity.

No matter what current numbers are discovered regarding Christian participation in the country, the data is consistently always worse for young adults than it is for adults in general. For instance, only 35 percent of adults in their twenties and thirties currently attend church…ever. Only one out of five of these young adults ever engages in Bible Study.[7] And even among those who do participate, orthodoxy – faithfulness to even basic Apostles’ Creed truths – is sparse. Some recent research has even indicated that only about three percent of those born between 1960 and 2000 fully believe basic biblical concepts, e.g. God as an all-knowing Creator, the Bible as fully authoritative in unchanging moral truth, salvation coming as a gift through the perfect God-man, Jesus.[8]

Somewhat paradoxically, but not surprisingly then, our country has a generation of “Christians” who have little to no conviction about Christianity. They are not necessarily antagonistic against religion, but they simply see faith as unimportant and irrelevant. They just don’t care about faith much. In fact, amongst self-described Christian young adults, only 18 percent say their faith is important to them.[9]

The next natural sociological domino to fall would be Americans who even self-identify as Christian. Since 1960, the number of Americans claiming “emphatic” belief in God has gone from 97 percent to 71 percent, a 26-point drop. Young adults today feel significantly less obligation to religion than their grandparents. Consequently, somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of adults under thirty today claim none.[10] A fifth of all adults and a third of young adults are now commonly referred to by researchers as “nones” (i.e. not religiously affiliated).[11]

All of this has led some of the more influential Christian voices in America, like noted Southern Baptist, Al Mohler, to conclude:

“A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us. The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered….Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society.”[12]

Today, our country appears to possess a largely nominal, cultural Christianity, a haunting remnant of what was. The evidence, from declining numbers to altered beliefs to self-attested disinterest, all undeniably points to Christianity’s fading presence in the country. If we as a nation are indeed “post-Christian”…then yes, clearly, we have a problem. Denial only prevents us from addressing the issue.

….

Does this all sound too bleak? Don’t worry, it’s not all bad news. And prayer is more productive than worry anyways. The gospel is good news that trumps any possible bad news. I’ve got some thoughts. Keep checking back weekly for more on reaching Millennials. 

(image credit to alanrudnick.com)

(image credit to alanrudnick.com)

 

[1] ARIS, “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population,” Trinity College, http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/NONES_08.pdf

[2] Diana Butler Bass. Christianity After Religion, pgs. 19-20

[3] Philip S. Brenner, “Exceptional Behavior or Exceptional Identity? Overreporting of Church Attendance in the U.S.,” Public Opinion Quarterly 75, no. 1 (spring 2011).

[4] Bass, pg. 54

[5] Interestingly, this is a uniquely American issue. Global affiliation with churches and worship attendance are actually on the rise, most significantly in Africa, China, and South Korea. James Emory White, Rise of the Nones, pg. 18.

[6] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me, pg. 50

[7] Thom Rainer, Millennials, pg. 47

[8] Gabe Lyons, unchristian, pg. 75

[9] Rainer, pg. 111

[10] Bass, pg. 46

[11] David Brooks, “Building Better Secularists,” Feb. 3, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/opinion/david-brooks-building-better-secularists.html?_r=0

[12] John Meacham, “The End of Christian America,” April 3, 2009, www.newsweek.com/2009/04/03/the-end-of-christian-america.html.

The Most Humble Guy (or Girl) in the Room

blog - humility 3

What creates greatness? Well, it depends who you ask.

In his research for The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation, Thom Rainer cites research that suggests approximately 60 percent of the Millennial generation “strongly agree” that they will do something great in their lives. Another 36 percent “agreed somewhat.” Tallied up, that creates a whopping 96 percent of Millennials who believe they are on some pathway to greatness.

Here’s the catch. Previous generations tended to define greatness in terms of fame, wealth, and personal power. Millennials, however, if they find these things, seem to want to use their achieved status as a means to bring about greater good rather than seeing a lofty social position as an end in and of itself. In other words, they want to serve humanity.

This is one piece of information that gives me a great deal of hope for America’s soon-to-be most influential generation – their definition of greatness is closer to Jesus’. Jesus’ definition of greatness always involves humble service.

The proof? Let’s take a look at a couple of Jesus’ disciples, who are requesting that Jesus grant them greatness.

In Matthew 20:20-28 (and Mark 10:35-45), the brothers James and John come to Jesus with their mom asking for a favor. (And yes, as grown men, it IS a little weak to bring your mom along with you when having a potentially awkward conversation :) )

So what is the request? James, John, and mom want the boys to sit at Jesus’ right side and his left when he ushers in his coming Kingdom. These disciples, at this point in time, clearly don’t understand the gospel. As they lobby to sit at Jesus’ right and left, they “don’t know what they are asking.” (Matt. 20:22). Their ignorance stems from not understanding that when Jesus is at the pinnacle of his Kingdom-bringing, on his cross, he indeed has someone at his right and his left – criminals being executed with him. NOT what James and John had in mind.

Jesus then gathers his disciples together, recognizing that he needs to teach them a lesson on greatness. And his words in this account give us…

3 Ways the Cross Brings Humility and Greatness

1)    Humility of Intellect

In the verses that lead up to this section of Scripture, Jesus has just told his disciples for the third time, three chapters in a row, in explicit detail, that he’s going to be mocked, flogged, tortured, and crucified, and then rise. Third time. And the very next thing that happens is James, John, and their mom come to Jesus and ask a favor. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” (Mark 10:35) Think of the nerve. The audacity. Imagine one of your closest friends coming to you and tells you that he has terminal cancer, and you respond by saying, “Can I borrow 50 bucks?”

It almost makes you angry that Jesus puts up with this. He doesn’t blow up. He listens. He entertains their request. And what do they want? Greater status for themselves. “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” (Mark 10:37) It really doesn’t get a whole lot more insensitive than that.

This is now the third time where Jesus has talked about his suffering and death, and the disciples are still saying things that indicate they don’t get it. And from the outside, in retrospect, we look at them and we think, “What idiots! What’s wrong with these people?!” 

But think this through carefully. As you find yourself disgusted with the disciples, really throughout the Gospels, does it stand to reason that the Holy Spirit records these accounts this way in order to move your hearts into self-righteous judgment against the disciples? Is he trying to condition a condescending attitude in you? Of course not. So why does he record such things?

As you see the disciples’ blindness three times in a row in as many chapters, the Spirit is compelling you to think – “Hmmmmmm. I wonder what I might not be getting right now? If Jesus’ own disciples who sat at his feet learning for three straight years can miss his teaching this obviously, this embarrassingly, this insensitively, what do I perhaps THINK I understand that I’m probably actually missing?”

If Christians today collectively gained an awareness of our own natural spiritual blindness rather than the “go to” complaint – merely pointing out the flaws of the world – that would be a MAJOR step forward in restoring the reputation of churches.

As a pastor, the person that scares me the most is the person that assumes they’ve figured the cross out. In reality, the profound mystery of the cross allows for no smugness, no arrogance, no intellectual pride that makes you feel spiritually superior to others. No judgment.

So, we see the disciples’ foolishness and we don’t say, “How can they be so…?”, we say, “What am I missing…?”

2)    Humility of Influence

In verses 25-26, Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. (vss. 25-26) What’s he talking about?

Jesus’ point here is that the way most people try to assert influence over society is… they try to gain power and control – they “lord it over.” Whenever you see that word “Gentiles”, by the way – it’s actually just a word that means “the nations” i.e. the rest of the world. Jesus is suggesting then that this is how the non-believing world operates. The world assumes that if I have the money, the right connections, the right degrees, then I can get my way. But Jesus says to his disciples, “Not so with you.” In other words, that is NOT how I want you to influence the world.

See, Christians unfortunately tend to mirror the world’s thought process. We think if we can just get the right people in the right positions, if we can just get a political majority, if we can leverage legislation, if we can control enough wealth, maybe even sprinkle in a Christian celebrity here and there, then we can control others, control the future, control the world. But, see, at that point you’re using the exact same approach the world uses to gain control. And Jesus said, “Not so with you.” Jesus told his disciples to love and serve one another (John 13:34-35) AND others in the world (Luke 6:27). Then you’ll get influence. Then other people will ask your opinion. Then you’ll present a light that the rest of the world is attracted to. Any other form of influence, other than that which is voluntarily given, never actually changes anyone’s hearts. In fact, it turns people off. So, for instance, when Europe forces Christianity in the Middle Ages, there’s almost no actual Christianity there a half a millennia later. Probably not coincidental.

Jesus says to influence through giving up power, not taking it, not lording it.

Jesus is the ultimate example of that, by the way. The one true Lord doesn’t “lord” power over others. It’s quite ironic. The Lord doesn’t lord power.

So what did Jesus do to change society? Did he pull out his swords and guns? Did he rally voters? I mean, think it through, what did Jesus do for his enemies? He gladly died for their sins. He gladly died for our sins. He prayed for the very people who were crucifying him. Unbelievable!

Not coincidentally, then, who is the most influential person in world history? And it’s not even close.

If you’re a Christian who believes the gospel, at the heart of your worldview is a man who died for his enemies. If that’s the case, to the degree you embrace that reality, then you understand that the only way you’ll ever get social influence that actually benefits God’s Kingdom is through service – giving up power. NOT by control, force, or manipulation.

3)    Humility The Brings Joy

It’s always fascinating to me when modern research catches up to what the Bible has been teaching for several thousand years. The same is true on the pursuit of happiness.

So, for instance, I recently watched a Netflix documentary called “Happy” in which the filmmakers travel the world to figure out who is able to achieve this elusive happiness. And in the end, they conclude that the greatest link to happiness, across country and culture, is compassion - love and concern for other humans. Brain research apparently has shown that when you express compassionate thoughts, parts of the prefrontal cortex of your brain completely light up in excitement. By the time they figure this out in the documentary, the filmmakers spend the final 20 minutes speculating how we’re ever going to encourage people to develop compassion.

Similarly, I was sent an article recently with an excerpt from The Atlantic in which one of our doctors here at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Amit Sood, was interviewed. He said that the key to happiness is to be intentional with your cognitive energy, i.e. control your thoughts. The article goes on to say, “A good place to start doing that, according to Dr. Sood, is with his five core principles: gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning and forgiveness.” Sound familiar? I’m not suggesting these aren’t valuable principles, but merely that Dr. Sood isn’t the first to discover their power. So far as I can tell, Dr. Sood is unwittingly borrowing from Jesus.

So what Dr. Sood is saying, what that documentary is saying, what most other modern research on the topic of joy, happiness, and contentment are all saying is “Want to find a life of greatness? Want to find joy? Want to find happiness? Then stop serving yourself and serve one another.”

Of course, there’s a caveat here. If you’re doing good things, e.g. demonstrating compassion, simply in order to feel good, guess what? You’re still being selfish and you forfeit the blessing. Compassion for selfish reasons, generosity for selfish reasons, serving others so that you’ll feel good about yourself and God will bless you, is NOT really compassion or generosity or serving. It’s still selfish.

So how do we remedy this? How do we remedy the problem. What can possibly cure the human heart?

There is one thing on planet earth that can do it – you have to look at the cross of Jesus. Jesus Christ, if he is my selfless substitutionary sacrifice, if he has paid for all of my sins, if he has proven to me and my vulnerable, insecure, doubting little heart that I am worth everything to him, to God, then I have everything I could ever want. I have everything – the acceptance, the love, the hope, the security, the victory – all that I crave, in Jesus.

Once you see that, at that point, you don’t do good things in order to feel better about yourself, because you already feel great about yourself. You know you are already infinitely loved and accepted by the Lord of the Cosmos. Rather, you do “good things”, humble acts of service, because your heart overflows with gratitude. You’re simply compelled to resemble the one who did so much for you. It delights you to delight the one who did so much for you.

blog - humility 2C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Christ’s sufficiency for you is what liberates you to stop thinking about you. If you believe Jesus has got you, you can let go of you.

And if not concerned with yourself, now your hands are free to assist someone else, your ears are free to listen to someone else, your mind is free to think of someone else.

Jesus alone is what fuels a humble desire to serve others. The one who was truly selfless substituted himself as a sacrifice on our cross so that we who have been selfish might still sit in his glory.

The most humble guy (or girl) in the room is the one who has fallen in love with the beauty of Jesus’ gospel.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. (Philippians 2:8-9)

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A Time To Change

(image credit - fightthenewdrug.org)

(image credit – fightthenewdrug.org)

In Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, James Emery White details how the western world became thoroughly secularized. White points to the following characters and events as leading to key shifts in thinking at the time …

  • Copernicus – “The Cosmological Attack” stated that the universe is heliocentric as opposed to Earth-centered.
  • Darwin – “The Biological Attack” stated that the origin of mankind came about by natural selection.
  • Freud – “The Psychological Attack” stated that God is merely a projection of human desire.

White said the combination of such thoughts was something of a “perfect storm” for an attack on Christian faith.

If it’s true that a combination of events and ideas can derail us from considering God and the authority of his Word, it would stand to reason that another combination of events can swing the pendulum back the other direction. In fact, if you study the history of spiritual Great Awakenings in our country, you notice some common threads. First, there is some sort of collective social despair due to recognition of moral indecency. This is followed by a higher standard for self and social institutions. Certain articulate leaders begin to encourage a repentance of the old and present a vision for something better, leveraging technology and inspiring communities in the process. This leads to a new appreciation of grace and subsequent joy follows.

I’m not sure the following events qualify as Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, but arguably the three largest news items of the past month share something in common – they point out the fallacy of humanist (i.e. man is the top of chain, not God) thinking.

Brian Williams

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(image credit – thewrap.com)

The NBC Nightly News anchor acknowledges that he lied about a helicopter journey in Iraq. Then he made an apology that was perceived by many as weak. Military personnel were offended. The American public was offended. Stories kept popping up about other items Williams had drastically exaggerated or blatantly lied about. Damage control took over. Several weeks later, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams has become NBC Nightly News. The celebrity anchor is gone.

So what? Everyone has been guilty of lying at some point. Why should Williams be held to a higher standard? Well, Brian Williams, the man, should not be unfairly ridiculed. However, Brian Williams the news anchor probably should, because he’s supposed to be hosting THE NEWS. By definition, the news is supposed to be factual reporting, not fiction. When you present fiction as news on a national level, this is called propaganda. It’s the dissemination of false information to the country, and, left unchecked, it’s the behavior that ran rampant in the early twentieth century which culminated in two World Wars.

Certainly, Communist countries were subjected to this as the government sought to control the way people thought. But the temptation is there in the capitalist West as well. “Media” here is ultimately a business, a commodity to be sold. If you’re not producing something that people want to buy, you won’t stay in business. Combine that capitalistic mindset with the idea that media, almost by necessity tends to lean towards sensationalism. For instance, you would never report that everything was status quo within Christian churches, you only report when there is a “newsworthy” scandal. Consequently, people are conditioned to only see the bad in the world, but think that it is an accurate snapshot of reality.

So….when we find out that the news really isn’t the truth, that’s alarming. It’s disconcerting in the same way that discovering you can’t trust everything in your classroom textbooks is. “Facts” aren’t always real facts. The news isn’t just the news, but sometimes just biased lies and propaganda used to sell a product.

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Tim. 4:3)

SOCIETAL TAKEAWAY: We can’t fully trust what the media reports. 

ISIS Beheads 21 Coptic Christians in Libya

For the past six months, Americans haven’t exactly known to what extent ISIS is a threat. With the recent slaughter, it’s now clear that the militant Islamic State is deeply entrenched in Syria, Iraq, Libya and beyond.

(image credit - thegatewaypundit.com)

(image credit – thegatewaypundit.com)

This comes on the heels of President Obama having just taken a great deal of criticism for his comments at the National Prayer Breakfast Address. Obama compared the terrorist acts of the Islamic State to those committed in the history of Christianity – e.g. the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials. Historians didn’t like it. While there are wicked acts in the history of Christianity, and Christians need to own that, it’s simply false to say that they’re on the same scale as acts done in the name of Allah or those done in the name of “no god.” For instance, Henry Kamen’s scholarship on the Spanish Inquisition has proven that significantly more people were killed on 9/11 than in the entire 350 years of the Inquisition! That both were sinful is without doubt. Suggesting that they are on the same scale of social impact, however, is just bad history. To our credit, Americans have picked up on this. Many are not buying the comparison.

Even fewer are buying the comments of State Department Deputy Spokesman Marie Harf, who said that Islamic jihadists can only be dealt with by creating more job opportunities and education programs. Americans, including Hardball host Chris Matthews, on whose program the comments were made, are collectively gasping, “What?!?!”

This is a significant shift. For a long time, the western world has been saying things about religions like, “They’re all basically the same, they just use different terminology” and “If it works for you, great, but don’t push your beliefs on others.” Obama has been the embodiment of that type of ideology. But the evidence in front of Americans is now telling them otherwise. Where is the Christian Al-Qaeda? Where is the Christian ISIS? Who is the Christian Bin Laden? The clear indications are that all religions are NOT fundamentally the same, but actually quite different.

So we’re left with a deeply spiritual conundrum. If we try to stamp out religion entirely, we end up with the mass slaughters brought about by Communism (Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Tojo, Pol Pot, etc.), the failed godless experiment of the twentieth century. Doesn’t work. So, the next option might be to say that all religions are basically the same. We’re now clearly finding out that’s not true either. Rather, we’re collectively becoming convinced that there is something deeply spiritual about mankind, and there is, in fact, such a thing as a right and wrong spirituality.

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12)

SOCIETAL TAKEAWAY: All religions aren’t the same. Some are better for the world than others.

Fifty Shades of Grey

Last but not least.  The film adaptation of E.L. James best-selling book opened this week with record-breaking numbers. That’s not really newsworthy. That was to be expected given the success of the books. What indicates something of a societal shift is the negative backlash that the movie has received – movie critics are generally some of the more liberal voices in society. So the fact that Fifty Shades currently has a 4.1 (out of 10) IMDb score, a 46/100 Metacritic score, and a 26% Rotten Tomatoes score, this is all perhaps a bit unexpected. And this is with several critics suggesting that the film is arguably better than the book. One of the critics who actually gave the movie a positive score said, “The film never pretends to be other than what it really is: soft-core porn for the ladies, diluted with an ‘R’ rating.” (Sara Stewart, New York Post)

(image credit - wikipedia.org)

(image credit – wikipedia.org)

I haven’t read the books or seen the movie, so I’m going to be careful about sweeping generalizations. But many secular groups and prominent writers have lamented the distorted view of sex and romance that the movie presents. Make no mistake, that too is a MAJOR societal shift.

For many years, sex was considered a rather undefined act between two consenting adults. While something may not be my personal preference, I wasn’t free to tell anyone else what is/is not appropriate. The basic societal stance was, as Jerry Seinfeld and his friends, fearful of sounding closed-minded, famously quipped, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

But now, lots of people are saying there is something wrong with Fifty Shades of Grey. Secular mental health professionals are saying this glamorizes and promotes abuse. Large media groups are acknowledging this is dangerous. Even the stars of the film struggled to verbalize positives that can be taken from the movie.

So here’s the point. In the wake of this movie, people are now saying that sex, even consensual sex between adults, can, in fact, be wrong. The American public hasn’t said that much since the 1960s.

Sara Stewart’s “porn for the ladies” comment is a scary one. That sounds like anything but sexual liberation. I’m not even going to get into how much secular research has suggested that porn has crippled young men. It’s more of an imprisonment that tortures addicted victims. And the Apostle Paul tells us that it’s a sad day when “even women” have distorted God’s design for sex.

“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.” (Rom. 1:26)

SOCIETAL TAKEAWAY: Consenting adults does not equate to healthy sexual behavior. 

So what we’re seeing right now is a bit of a “perfect storm” that could potentially open a world to spiritual reformation – renewed clarity about the bias of information distributors, renewed understanding in the uniqueness of Christianity against other religions, and renewed ethics about the design and purpose of human sexuality.

Remember what I mentioned earlier are the points historians have traced in the Great Awakenings?

1) Recognition of moral indecency.

2) Higher standards for “truth” in social institutions.

3) Leaders encouraging a turn from false, harmful ways to a vision of something better.

4) The grace of God.

All I’m asking now is that you say a prayer that God might reveal his grace and goodness to mankind – a better way.

Please pray with me. Yes, please pray, don’t just read along :)

Heavenly Father, so much has happened recently that leads us to lose confidence in humanity and therefore lose confidence in ourselves. While such things are discouraging, we also realize that you often use such lows to prepare human hearts for the message of greater truth. Make us bold, humble messengers of this truth. Open the hearts and minds of the world around us to see the good news of your Son Jesus – an honest, self-sacrificial, pure alternative to our fallen race, who loved us enough to take the punishment for our sins so that we could receive his eternal glory. This is a better truth for the world that can shape a better reality. Help us live it out.

Show us grace. And help us show grace. Amen.

The Conflicting Theology of NFL Quarterbacks

blog - quarterbacks 1 Does God care about ___________ or not? And who’s to say? Regardless of whether or not previous thought was given to the topic, whether or not religious disciplines have been previously practiced, whether or not one has had connection to a faith community or not, or even whether or not one has actually researched the documents that claim to be God-given, EVERYONE has an opinion about God and the way God operates. In some respects, this is perfectly justified and natural. According to the Bible, humanity was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27; Gen. 9:6), so it’s biblically accurate to say that every human has some innate semblance of God’s will and desire. This is the reason why every human recognizes to some extent that murder is wrong and stealing is wrong and cheating on your spouse is wrong (Rom. 2:14-15). God’s will is written inside us, it’s part of us, and therefore we all, in a limited way, understand God’s will. This becomes problematic, however, when we think we know more of God’s will than we actually know. This was brought to light recently after the Seattle Seahawks dramatic playoff win over the Green Bay Packers.

Russell Wilson’s Take

After the game, respected Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King quoted Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson as saying,

“That’s God setting it up, to make it so dramatic, so rewarding, so special. I’ve been through a lot in life, and had some ups and downs. It’s what’s led me to this day.”

This comment was made in response to King’s question about Wilson’s four prior interceptions on the day, and going from the worst game of his life to the biggest throw of his life in the span of eight minutes. blog - quarterbacks 2Wilson has had a rough week, so I don’t want to pile on. But he is a fairly outspoken Christian. I definitely applaud his willingness to use his unique platform to share the grace of God. But in the same way that all his other behavior, as a celebrity, is put under a microscope, his theological convictions are subject to examination too. Is that fair? Well, he’s disproportionately influential due to his status. In other words, realistically, Wilson’s statements about God sink into a 12-year-old boy’s heart probably deeper than the weekly statements that boy hears from his pastor. So….humbly, I want to ensure that this boy’s father and mother, the only influences bigger than these sports heroes, are able to correct the boy’s misconceptions. Consequently, I’m not trying to be nit-picky and hypercritical, but I do think it’s a learning opportunity. As NBC Pro Football Talk analyst Mike Florio noted, Wilson’s statement is, at best, well-intentioned, but a bit dismissive of the believers on Green Bay’s team. At worst, it’s horrifically narcissistic, assuming that every event that happens in life merely happens for my personal glory. I have no idea where in that spectrum Wilson’s comment fits, but at the very least, albeit in the heat of the emotional moment, it wasn’t the tightest statement on God’s involvement in our lives.

Aaron Rodgers’ Take

In response to this, Green Bay quarterback, Aaron Rodgers (a self-professed ‘more private’ Christian) said on his weekly radio show,

“I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.”

So, I’ll resist the urge to comment on the validity of theological comments from a guy who openly and unapologetically acknowledges his extramarital sex life, or at least is okay with his girlfriend doing so.  (Although I guess I just did.) Let’s just take Rodgers’ words at face value and see if they’re consistent with the biblical stance. Does God truly not care about what takes place in a football game? Is professional football even just a “game?” The NFL is a multi-billion dollar corporation that generates higher television ratings than anything else on TV year after year. At certain times of the year, it’s arguably the most influential thing going, on the most influential mediums available. blog - quarterbacks 3Since God cares deeply about the affairs of human hearts, what influences human hearts would obviously be of interest. Furthermore, the vast majority of these football games take place on Sundays, the day previously famous in our country for public worship. And now these churches are largely vacated by the God-designed spiritual leaders (i.e. men) who are more interested in publicly gathering together with lots of other guys, in the presence of food, loud music, and female cheerleaders, to praise the efforts of other humans. In other words, if an alien spaceship came down from Mars and observed an NFL game, I’m assuming the captain/leader/guru (whatever ranking system said Martians have) would observe the football game and declare, “Hmmm. Their pagan worship rituals are highly entertaining!” CLEARLY, this activity is tremendously important to many, many people. By the way, I say this as someone who rarely, if ever, misses a Packer game and is convinced that Rodgers will one day be known as the greatest quarterback of all time. That doesn’t change the fact that I believe Rodgers, again, perhaps in the despair of defeat, is greatly misguided about God’s concerns, or lack thereof, regarding professional football. Additionally, even if the NFL wasn’t ludicrously popular, something’s insignificance does not leave it out of the watchful eye of an omniscient God either. Asked by reporters about Rodgers’ retort, Russell Wilson replied by saying,

“I think God cares about football. I think God cares about everything he created.”

While God’s commentary on professional sports is limited in Scripture, biblically, Wilson’s right. God consistently gives the impression that he cares about ALL of his Creation. For instance, making the case that we have no cause to worry, Jesus tells us to “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (Matt. 6:26) The lesser to greater argument here suggests that, while God proportionately cares more deeply for humans than birds, he still does, in fact, care about the birds, to such a degree that he goes out of his way to “feed them.” ALL Creation belongs to God and God therefore knows personally, observes carefully, and directs lovingly ALL OF IT. God cares even more deeply and intimately for humanity, the crown of his Creation. Jesus explains this when he says that “Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matt. 10:30; Luke 12:7) The point, in context, is not God’s vast knowledge (even though it is unsearchably expansive – Rom. 11:33). The point is God’s extraordinary concern for humans. Consequently, would God be interested in what interests humans? If God desires our hearts, would he be the slightest bit affected by what raptures human hearts? Of course.

Forming Your “Take”

blog - quarterbacks 4Discovering truth about God, guided by Scripture, is a bit like bouncing a ball in a room where the four walls are closing in. The ball bounces wildly in one direction until it hits the obstacle that cuts it off. The ball then returns back in a similar direction to where it first came from, but doesn’t go back as far as when it first started. The trajectory is slightly modified and it caroms in another direction. As each of these walls get nearer to one another, you come closer and closer to the ball coming to a fixed position, i.e. the point of truth. As an illustration of this, ask the question “Why do humans suffer?” in a Bible Study. Someone will give their opinion, perhaps even based on one account from the Bible. But they will likely grossly overstate the case on one side of the argument. Someone else will respond with another opinion referencing yet another account. The pendulum swings, the ball bounces back and forth. And so it continues. With each new statement and each new biblical reference, the debate is navigating closer to home. Similarly, with every NFL quarterback you ask about God’s opinion of football, you’re probably getting some aspects of truth, but not a comprehensive truth. The moral, then, for the day? Perhaps don’t get your theology from YAHOO! Sports, post-game interviews, or guys whom Olivia Munn currently and unrepentantly brags about sleeping with (Shoot. Did it again.). All of this might sound obvious, but these things and comments from these people tend to be surprisingly and disproportionately influential in our lives (not to mention young minds). They do matter because we do care about them. So God does too. If I really wanted to figure out how God feels about something, I probably wouldn’t start with someone saying, “I think God….” I’d probably go to a more credible source. Jesus says,

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Luke 10:22)

and

“even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:38)

To validate such claims – authoritative claims to know God’s will –  this man rises from his grave after he voluntarily sacrifices his life for our sins on his cross. This suggests to us that he’s smart enough to know the will of God, powerful enough to carry out the will of God, and loves us enough to share the truth of this God with us. So who’s THE authority? Whatever Russell Wilson says about God, Aaron Rodgers says about God, or, for that matter, Pastor Hein says about God, it’s only authoritative insofar as it latches on to truth about God that Jesus has already said. We all have opinions about God’s will. They’re not all right. But there’s only one measuring stick against which we can hold those opinions and sort out what’s what. That’d be the opinion of God’s Son.

40 Years of Roe v. Wade. Bad Attempts to Correct Bad Behavior?

image credit to repentchurch.com

image credit to repentchurch.com

We recently passed the 40th anniversary of the Jan. 22, 1973 Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade. Research holds that 55,772,015 known cases of abortion have taken place since then. Put differently, in this time, our country alone has aborted what would amount to the 24th largest country on the planet today. Imagine if the entire nation of Italy was eradicated. That’s equivalent to what we’ve done.

Last week I commented on how a western worldview shift into naturalism has affected our collective national ability (or unique inability) to process suffering. This week I’m suggesting that it has drastically altered our perceptions of life.

Case in point, Oxford professor and genius biologist Richard Dawkins was caught up in a Twitter controversy recently. The incident resulted from Dawkins’ encouragements to a young woman lamenting that she would have a difficult moral decision to make if she found out that she was pregnant with a Down’s Syndrome child. See Dawkins’ response:

blog - dawkins

What I do appreciate about Dawkins is his unapologetic candor and the consistency with which he presents his worldview. See, to Dawkins, a secular biologist, evolution is THE operating principle of the world. It is governed by immutable natural laws and it is credited with the progress that mankind has made over the years. While some might argue this is a trite and cliché oversimplification, it nonetheless holds that evolution operates on the premise of “survival of the fittest.” Since this is the case, it then makes no sense to bring into the world human life which would be permanently dependent on other human life. This life wouldn’t advance the cause of humanity but instead hold back the refining process of evolutionary genetic cleansing. Bluntly, a Down’s Syndrome child is not likely to make our species “fitter.” So, according to Dawkins, for the child’s sake and for the parent’s sake, that child has no place in this world. That’s a consistent naturalist viewpoint.

While I mentioned I appreciated Dawkins’ consistent viewpoint, there are some obvious errors and internal inconsistencies that come to light whenever he speaks, especially about what he perceives to be “moral.” First of all, Dawkins is less qualified to comment on what he supposes to be “immoral” than anyone, because there can be no naturalist argument made for morality. As I’ve stated before, any moral argument can only be made based on some form of an appeal to God. An evolutionist’s appeal to morality doesn’t work because, to an evolutionist, if morality exists, it’s merely a developed survival mechanism. With a naturalistic mindset, there cannot be a right and wrong, only a survive or not survive, only an improve life conditions or not. An evolutionist cannot make the argument that it’s “wrong” to bully at school or “wrong” for a more powerful people to oppress a weaker people. This is merely an advancement of the species. The strong eat the weak. Many evolutionists can and do make the case that “moral developments” are part of the evolutionary process, but that still doesn’t make an issue right or wrong, only wise or unwise. In other words, evolution could only possibly account for moral feelings, not moral obligation. What logical right would any one of us have for imposing right or wrong for another on the basis of our personal feelings.

And to be consistent, in the same way that Dawkins doesn’t have a right to push his feels of morality, I don’t have a right to push my personal feelings of morality on him. If that’s our attempt to overturn abortion, I don’t see that ever standing much of a chance. It hasn’t thus far.

Furthermore, when Dawkins is discussing “morality” he’s really only talking about his personal logic. Since his highest goal is the advancement of the species, he deems it inappropriate (i.e. “immoral”) to do anything that might hinder human advancement. Understand though, in regard to every other law we have in society regarding the definitions and standards of the protection of human life, there is nothing illogical about thinking abortion to be a heinous crime. Quite the opposite.

So, for instance, if scientists discovered in outer space the exact same cluster of cells that exist in a pregnant woman in her first term, what would they conclude? Would they say, “We’ve found a zygote on Mars!” Of course not. They would make no reference to a zygote or a fetus or an embryo or any other number of words that 100 years ago would have readily been challenged in a game of Scrabble. No, at such a discovery they would proudly herald, “We’ve found LIFE on Mars!” Why the difference? I’d suggest that Satan’s main means of spiritual deception has historically been to distort words (Gen. 3:1-5; Matt. 4:1-11).

“Well,” someone says, “but that organic matter inside a woman doesn’t prove that it is FULLY a human.” Again, based on the Bible, I’m convinced that it is (Psalm 139:13, 16; Psalm 51:5; Jer. 1:5; Luke 1:41, 44). But, let’s just say we don’t know. In a case where there is uncertainty about human life, doesn’t it make the most sense to err on the side of caution? For instance, hunting season is a big deal here in the Midwest. Let’s say a hunter goes out on opening day, sees a rustling in the leaves and that’s the best look he can get. He’s 50/50 certain it’s a deer. Should he pull the trigger? If that rustling is, in fact, just a neighbor kid playing in the woods, should he not be prosecuted if he kills the kid? If he says, “Well, I wasn’t trying to kill a CHILD,” or “My friend standing next to me who knows a lot about hunting said he was pretty sure it was a deer,” does that let him off the hook entirely?

My point is that abortion doesn’t even make consistent sense with our own self-imposed social definitions and standards for the protection of human life.

All that said, impassioned speeches and coherent logical arguments against abortion, while undeniably well-intentioned, haven’t seemed to move the needle too much over the past 40 years.

I’m convinced this is not primarily an ignorance issue (which could be solved through education) or a philosophical issue (which could be solved through debate). This is primarily a heart issue. According to St. Augustine and Martin Luther, sin is basically the human heart “incurvatus in se” (“turned in upon itself”). In other words, sin means I care more about my feelings and my logic than God’s feelings and God’s logic.

image credit to conservapedia.com

image credit to conservapedia.com

Generally speaking, the research on why abortions take place seems to bare this out. For all of the discussion about extreme hypotheticals (e.g. abortions in the case of rape or incest), almost no abortions appear to take place for these reasons. They seem to primarily take place because attachment to this little life would be personally inconvenient to me. Put differently, my heart is turned inward upon my wants, feelings, and logic, not upon God or this child. This is a heart problem.

According to the Bible, there is only one tool for remedying sick hearts – the healing power of the gospel of Jesus.

Jesus was the Father’s Son from eternity past. They were inseparable, connected by a cord of intimate love and service. To pay for my selfishness, God suffered the unthinkable – the Father lost his Son and the Son lost his Father. On his cross, Jesus, the ULTIMATE innocent life was cut off. And we heard the cries of a murdered Son, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Seen for what it is, this is as heart-wrenching and stomach turning as any horrific story or imagery you’ll find online when it comes to the destruction of a vulnerable child.

But why? Why would God voluntarily do such a thing for us?

The Bible says it was so all of our mistakes might somehow be washed away. So that all the life we’ve hurt might somehow be put back together. So that all of our sin might somehow become undone. So that death might somehow become life.

Three days later, that same Son was raised and he proceeded to repeatedly tell his friends and family that they were forgiven and that he desired “Peace (to) be with you” (Luke 24:36; John 20:21, 26).

What can change the nation’s heart about abortion? The grace of Jesus. The Ultimate Innocent Life loved us enough to be prematurely taken so that we, the offenders, would be pardoned of murder. When we clearly see that injustice, we’ll start to see this one too.

A positive development, there seems to be a rising sentiment against abortion in America. While the "cause" of this remains unclear, I personally believe we may be on the verge of a profound spiritual change in our nation.

A positive development, there seems to be a rising sentiment against abortion in America. While the “cause” of this remains unclear, I personally believe we may be on the verge of a profound spiritual change in our nation.

A Uniquely American Problem With Suffering

image credit to doingthewillofgod.com

image credit to doingthewillofgod.com

(The following is largely a summary of insights gained from PART ONE of Timothy Keller’s Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering.)

The Problem of Suffering

In philosophy, the attempt to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the suffering experienced in this world falls under a category called Theodicy. It is, admittedly, an intellectual problem.

Every statement of this problem is a version of the ancient Epicurean version:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” — ‘the Epicurean paradox’.

If God is powerful enough to make us happy, if he’s capable, why doesn’t he just do it? Does he not love us? Does he not want what’s best for us? Does he not want us to be happy?

From a finite human standpoint, this is a problem. It’s a problem for everyone who believes in God. Culturally, many have adjusted by choosing to not believe in God. While this smacks of an attempt at revenge against a God you now believe doesn’t exist, nonetheless, it appears to be an increasingly popular one for young westerners. What’s interesting though is that it doesn’t actually get rid of the problem of suffering. In fact, eliminating God now actually gives you less resource for dealing with the inevitable suffering of life.

Dr. Paul Brand, a pioneering orthopedic surgeon who specializes in treating cases of leprosy around the world, has said:

“In the United States … I encountered a society that seeks to avoid pain at all costs. Patients lived at a greater comfort level than any I had previously treated, but they seemed far less equipped to handle suffering and far more traumatized by it.” – Dr. Paul Brand, The Gift of Pain, pg. 12.

Is this true? Are we Americans actually LESS equipped to handle the unavoidable pains of life than many of our less educated, less technologically advanced, less progressive counterparts on the planet?

America is the “Land of Opportunity.” America is the country that teaches children “You can be anything you want to be when you grow up so long as you work hard and put your mind to it.” In other words, America is a country that strongly believes that we are the controllers of our own destiny. In the culminating line of the Back to the Future trilogy, protagonist Marty McFly asks his mentor, the Doc, about events that might cause the future to be altered. And the Doc, enlightened by his many travels, now proclaims, “Marty. The future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one!” That’s American thought in a nutshell. We love it. And we all unavoidably operate, to some extent, with that mentality.

Do you see, however, the problem this presents when suffering arises? If the future is what I create, and the present is misery, that means that the suffering I have before me is not simply a product of a flawed world, but it’s the direct result of me making wrong decisions in the past! This DOUBLE suffering. It’s suffering combined with crippling regret.

Dr. Brand may be on to something – we’re ill-equipped.

Historical Positions on Suffering

The vast majority of the world has historically believed in God/god/gods or at least some notion of higher power/force over mankind. As a result, every culture has been able to make some sense of suffering. For instance…

Hinduism (a form moralism) – Suffering is seen as the result of failing to live rightly. Commonly known as karma, the cosmic scales have tipped against you because of your selfish behavior. If you repent of your bad ways, you will bring forth newer, better life.

Ancient Greek Stoics & Buddhists (a form self-transcendism) – Suffering is largely the result of heightened attachment to the that which is material and transitory. Detach your heart from mere sensory perception and you will find greater happiness.

Ancient Northern Europeans & Muslims (a form fatalism) – Suffering is inevitable. Deal with it by surrendering your will to the fate of an omnipotent, inscrutable God.

Ancient Persian Zoroastrianism & more modern Marxism (dualism) – Suffering is caused by an ongoing battle between the forces of good and evil. Sufferers are necessary casualties of a war that is constantly purging evil until good is victorious.

To process all of this suffering, moralistic cultures call sufferers to live differently. Self-transcendent cultures call sufferers to think differently. Fatalistic cultures call sufferers to embrace one’s destiny nobly. And dualistic cultures call sufferers to put one’s hope in the future.

So, how does this differ from modern westerners? Consider the thoughts of biologist Richard Dawkins, whom I’d personally consider one of the top several influencers on American thought today:

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. … In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” – Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, pgs. 132-133

What, according to Dawkins, is the purpose of suffering? That’s right….there is none. If you find yourself suffering, that means nothing much more than random misfortune. There’s no purpose. There’s no meaning. There’s no silver lining and thus no relief. Try drinking from that cup when your cancer is discovered and see if you find any satisfaction. Even more of a challenge, try explaining this to your child when he/she is diagnosed with a terminal illness. “Sorry. You had some bad luck.”

This reality – western thought’s inability to attach meaning to suffering – does not disprove atheism/agnosticism, nor does it prove theism. It does, undeniably, suggest that Christianity (and for that matter, really any form of theism) provides remarkably greater resources for processing suffering than modern western thought.

In other words, while suffering is indeed a problem for the believer, it is, nonetheless, an even greater problem for the non-believer.

Philosopher Charles Taylor has said that as belief in God has faded from the west, so has a sense of cosmic ordering or meaning to life. In what he calls the western world’s “anthropocentric turn”:

“The sense begins to arise that we can sustain the order [of the world] on our own….Western society’s “highest goal is to … prevent suffering.” –Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, pgs. 373-375

That’s the hollow place we find ourselves today. The purpose of life is to prevent suffering. The purpose of life is comfort, feeling good all the time…until we die.

Dawkins says life is meaningless, so be as happy as you can while you’re here, regardless of how that might affect others. He’s a consistent thinker and I applaud him for that. But I challenge you to find me one person, even Dawkins himself on the right occasion, who doesn’t truly sense there has to be more to life than that?

A Uniquely Biblical Approach to Suffering

While you may find Christians on occasion offering “pat answers” about human suffering, you won’t find the Bible doing such a thing. The Bible offers a multifaceted, balanced, remarkably nuanced view of suffering. Some suffering appears to be a direct result of God’s righteous anger over rebellious unbelief (Gen. 19:1-16; Numb. 16:1-20; Acts 5:1-11). Some suffering appears to be corrective chastisement, altering the thoughts, attitudes, hearts, and behavior of God’s people (Jon. 1-2; Gen. 22:1-19; Job 42:1-6). Some suffering appears to come not despite, but directly because of our attachment to Jesus (Matt. 16:24; John 15:18,20; 1 Pet. 4:12-16).

While many Christians are inclined to confidently offer sentiments about suffering, often to alleviate the awkwardness of being in the presence of someone who is suffering, that Christian is often hastily assessing what he/she does not know. Study the wisdom literature of Scripture and you simply will not come to a neat synopsis on the causes of or prescriptions for suffering. Proverbs tends to emphasize the justice of suffering, i.e. that much of our suffering is related to our own wrongdoing. Job and Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, specifically cite how much of suffering is not caused by us.

It’s not black and white. It’s not even gray. It’s largely unknowably mysterious.

Consequently, a Christian must be very careful not to arrogantly proclaim why specific suffering has occurred. Even though making sense of suffering is a natural impulse, the confident WHY of suffering is a line that even inspired writers of Scripture learn not to cross.

So the first uniquely biblical teaching on suffering is the claim that no one, except God himself, understands the “whys” of suffering in totality.

Still, while we cannot know why suffering always occurs, what God does reveal to us is what he’s willing to do about it. He comes and suffers with us, and even more than that, for us. Let me say that again so that we don’t too quickly bypass this incredible claim that no other religion dares to purport. Because of his great love for us, God voluntarily suffered…

With us“Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Heb. 2:18), and

For us“We do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Heb. 2:9)

That’s all you need. See, you and I really don’t need to know why we’re suffering. If we did, would we know how to stop it? For how long? Would we prevent aging entirely?  Death?

Ultimately, while it’s a curiosity, it makes little difference why we’re suffering. It is an inescapable part of the human experience. What we really need to know is that our suffering will one day come to an end AND that while we endure it, we won’t have to do it alone. The gospel proudly proclaims that God loves you enough and is powerful enough to do both.

Current American thought is uniquely ill-equipped to deal with suffering. Fortunately, the gospel is uniquely equipped to remedy that.

image credit to inspireafire.com

image credit to inspireafire.com