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)

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THE GOSPEL and Not Negotiating With Terrorists

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The gospel is a truth without compromise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Not Negotiate With Terrorists?

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Applications

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

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

1) Parenting

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

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

You don’t negotiate with terrorists.

2) Significant Others

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

You don’t negotiate with terrorists.

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

You don’t negotiate with terrorists.

3) Church

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

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

You don’t negotiate with terrorists.

A Christian Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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