Uniting Methodists: A Catholic Spirit?

Earlier this week a group called “Uniting Methodists” convened in Atlanta. The stated purpose? To “be a unifying and clarifying voice in a divided conversation and a polarized culture.” The movement is purported to be a centrist one to allow space for traditionalist, moderate, and progressive United Methodists to continue together under the proverbial bigger tent. But I don’t think there is really anything new here.

For a movement that’s supposed to unify both traditionalists and progressives, they still seem intent on alienating, marginalizing, and negatively labeling those of us who hold to traditional views regarding sex and marriage. For instance, they continue to compare the debate over sexual ethics with past debates over slavery, race, and women in ministry. How is it unifying to continue to compare traditionalists with proponents of slavery, racists, and misogynists?

The Uniting Methodists movement shows few, if any, signs of actually respecting those with opposing views on Christian sexual morality and marriage. One prominent advocate for the supposed centrist position in my own conference talks about the LGBTQ movement as if it is just a forgone conclusion that the church just needs to accept in light of the cultural and political changes that have taken place in the United States. He also continued the comparisons to race, slavery, and women in ministry, and said the only reason conservatives won’t go along is because of fear and ignorance.  I’ve heard these kind of arguments for years from the upper echelons of leadership, most of whom claim to be centrist. Either the progressive~centrists really don’t understand why traditionalists believe what they believe, or they just don’t want to lend any credibility to traditionalist views and, thus, seek to caricature them.

Bishop Ken Carter, who is supposed to be a moderator of The Way Forward Commission charged with presenting possible solutions to the Council of Bishops, also took on the role of a progressive advocate while claiming to be centrist. In a video he released he made pretty much the same arguments that Uniting Methodists are making. He implied that unity is the only absolute non-negotiable. He even argued that’s because it is Biblical as he rattled off a few proof-texts. He then went on to talk about the LGBTQ movement as a forgone conclusion and implied that the only way the church can be in ministry with all people is to accept the beliefs and practices advocated by the LGBTQ movement (find summary here). He also continued the fallacious race comparison in an interview with Bishop Woodie White, posted on the Facebook page for the “UMC Commission on a Way Forward.”

Bishop Carter’s role as a moderator has certainly not been a neutral one. He doesn’t even indicate that conservatives have any objections to the race comparison, much less plausible ones.

Why is “unity” a non-negotiable because the Bible says so, but Biblical sexual holiness isn’t? Have centrists considered the possibility that not only do we have contradictory visions for holiness, but also of unity. Unity is not something that we can create through waving a legislative wand, it is a gift of the Spirit. Conservatives do not believUnitye real unity can be achieved apart from a unified vision of what it means to be a part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. As David Watson argued recently, it seems “we lack not only a common vision for the church, but a common vision of the church. Put differently, it’s not just that we disagree over what the church should do. Rather, we disagree over what it means to be a church.” (see my thoughts here for why unity must not be separated from the other marks of the church).

I see a lot of contempt, not much respect, for the views of traditionalists like me coming from the centrist~progressives. If you really want to be a unifying voice that makes space for conservatives and progressives under the same tent, you might want to stop comparing conservatives to defenders of slavery and racists. Neither is it unifying to accuse conservatives of killing people with their views. This kind of labeling and accusation makes it really hard to believe that it’s remotely possible for conservatives and centrist~progressives to peacefully co-exist under the same tent.

As far as being a clarifying voice, I don’t really see that either. It still looks like the same old smoke and mirrors game. The centrist~progressives claim to represent 80% to 90% of United Methodists, who supposedly don’t think views regarding sexuality should divide the church. I’d like to see the research methodology that revealed those numbers. I doubt they were derived from a random, representative sample of United Methodists, clergy and laity from around the globe. Polls of United Methodists who can easily access email and social media would hardly be representative of the global church. If 80% really do believe we should remove the restrictions regarding sexuality from the Book of Discipline, then the petition that my own conference put forward in 2015 to have General Conference remove those restrictions should have passed easily. But, in fact, it failed. But majorities in terms of numbers of people is not the best way to gauge faithfulness to the one who calls us to follow the narrow path to begin with (Matthew 7:13-14).

Moreover, it’s not clarifying to continue to put forward the idea that issues regarding sexual morality are indifferent matters like whether or not one eats certain foods or observes particular Sabbath days as Paul writes about in Romans 14 (see article making this fallacious comparison on the Uniting Methodists website here). I suppose it’s better than comparing views regarding sexual morality and whether a clergy person wears robes and stoles or not as one retired Bishop did a few years back or comparing it to people in the same family who support different sports teams as did another prominent pastor. It’s still, nonetheless, a confusion of categories that the apostle Paul himself would not recognize. Just look at what comes right before Romans 14.

“Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”                       Romans 13:13-14 ESV (compare Galatians 5:16-24 and the dire warning there)

How can you on the one hand compare conservative views to the support of slavery and racism, and also say that views regarding sexual ethics are indifferent matters? That’s not clarifying; that’s confusing to say the least. At my own Annual Conference in 2014, during a panel discussion where James Howell advocated for the indifferent position, a progressive layperson, the wife of a pastor, said she could not understand how the status of homosexuality could be treated as an indifferent matter. To her it would be like treating racism or slavery as an indifferent matter. There is nothing new about this position; neither is there anything really clarifying about it. And to suggest that our view of the nature of God is all that we need for unity belies the call of that same God for us to be holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16).

It’s also not clarifying to continue to suggest that homosexuality is the only issue that divides us. To be sure that has drawn the most attention because of the specific restrictions found in the Book of Discipline. But conservatives are not just concerned about sexuality. Just take the case of Karen Oliveto, for example. She is married to another woman and has performed dozens of same-sex weddings in defiance of church law. In 2016 she was elected bishop out of the Western Jurisdiction, even though she is not technically qualified to even be a pastor. Conservatives are rightly concerned about the fact that she flouts our official standards for sexual morality. However, we are also concerned that she feels free to set herself up as a corrector of not only the apostles and prophets, but Jesus himself. She argues that the Bible has benefits and flaws. She says the Bible’s language about election and separating the sheep from the goats is wrong because it is exclusionary. This she says in spite of the fact that Jesus himself talked about the elect and that he himself would separate the sheep from the goats at the final judgment (see Matthew 25:31-46).

Seeing Jesus as sometimes needing to be corrected is apparently no big deal at all to Oliveto.  A few weeks ago she drew criticism for suggesting that the Syrophoenician woman who asked Jesus to deliver her daughter from demon possession, actually corrected Jesus and helped him to change his mind to let go of prejudice and bigotry. Instead of seeing a divine test of faith from the sinless God-man, as John Wesley did, Oliveto sees Jesus here as an example of  someone repenting of bigotry. But at least she didn’t criticize him for casting the demon out of the woman’s daughter as she did with the apostle Paul who casts a spirit of divination out of a young girl as recorded in Acts 16:16-24. Here Oliveto echoed the same criticism leveled against the apostle in a sermon delivered by the progressive former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori. Schori, in addition to criticizing Paul for depriving the young girl of what she called a valuable spiritual gift, said:

“Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!”  (See report here)

For her part Schori stood by her criticism of Paul and the Bible in general as sometimes needing to be corrected by postmodern readers like herself (See NY Times report here). Oliveto also stood by her assessment of Jesus as needing correction initially, although her controversial Facebook post was eventually removed. John Lomperis, however, did save a copy of her post in his own report (here).

What some have called a generous orthodoxy has just turned out to be a clever, albeit misleading, name for heterodoxy, and what Wesley would call a “speculative latitudinarianism” (Sermon 39, Catholic Spirit 3:1). One of the leaders of my conference posted a promotion of the Uniting Methodists movement followed a little later by a promotion for an event featuring the ELCA pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber. I noticed that a lot of the centrist~progressives were ecstatic. As I have written before, I read Bolz-Weber’s book, “Pastrix” in which she says she sometimes needs to hang out with God’s aunt, the Wiccan goddess, among other troubling things.

As a matter of fact, about three months ago Bolz-Weber responded to the release of a conservative Christian statement regarding sexual morality called “The Nashville Statement” with a very detailed statement of her own, which she called “The Denver Statement.” Bolz-Weber’s Denver Statement not only denied that homosexual practice is sinful, but also affirmed and denied the following:

“WE AFFIRM that God created us as sexual beings in endless variety.
WE DENY that the only type of sexual expression that can be considered holy is between a cis-gendered, heterosexual, married couple who waited to have sex until they were married. But if you fit in that group, good for you, we have no problem with your lifestyle choices.”
Read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2017/08/the-denver-statement/#oWc7oDYElmsDIoTe.99

As far as I could tell there was nothing but contempt for the Nashville Statement coming from the centrist~progressive types, and an abundance of praise for the Denver Statement.

So is it really clarifying to suggest that our views regarding homosexuality are the only obstacles to unity? Perhaps the most prominent leader among the Uniting Methodists, Adam Hamilton, argues that the Bible is no more inspired than the writings of other Christians like C.S. Lewis. In fact, Hamilton believes there are certain portions of Scripture that were never really worthy of God as revealed in Jesus (see Brent White’s analysis here and here). Whereas Psalm 19:9b says “the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether,” Hamilton says they are true and righteous for the most part. Our differing views on the authority of Scripture alone are a major obstacle to unity, not to mention, to use Bolz-Weber’s words, those who would push for the legitimization of the “endless variety” of sexual expression. As for me, I’ll stick with John Wesley’s assessment that:

“The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess.”  ~ Preface to New Testament Notes

**I would recommend David Watson’s new book, “Scripture and the Life of God” on why this is still important, especially if you’re wrestling with how to make sense of the more difficult parts of Scripture.**

I would suggest that it is the centrist~progressive view of what unity is itself that stands in the way of real unity. We have different views of unity. The centrist~progressive view of unity is inextricably tied to their commitment to theological diversity, the pluralism that got us into this mess to begin with (see Drew McIntyre’s assessment of that here). The traditionalist view of unity is tied to a commitment to the other marks of the church, namely holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Centrist~progressives seem to be committed to a view that makes room for just about any view other than the traditional orthodox view of a unity firmly grounded in the other marks of the church.

And quoting Wesley out of context to support a view of unity grounded in a commitment to a theological diversity that Wesley himself would call a “speculative latitudinarianism”, an “indifference to all opinions”, which is “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven” (Sermon 39: Catholic Spirit, 3:1) simply won’t do. It is neither unifying nor clarifying. For Wesley the main branches of Christianity include not only our views on the nature of God, but also holiness grounded in the holy and perfect moral law of God revealed in Scripture (Sermon 39:1:16).

In short, the centrist~progressive view of unity is not Biblical, not matter how many proof-texts from the Bible or Wesley they line up. I would say it is a unity conceived in the flesh with a commitment to theological diversity, not one born of the Spirit with a commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as he is revealed in Scripture. The proof is in the fruit (see again Galatians 5:16-24).

I’ll conclude with the wider quotation from Wesley on what he did NOT mean by the phrase “the catholic spirit.”

“One inference we may make from what has been said. We may learn from hence, what is a catholic spirit.
There is scarce any expression which has been more grossly misunderstood, and more dangerously misapplied, than this: but it will be easy for any who calmly consider the preceding observations, to correct any such misapprehensions of it, and to prevent any such misapplication.
For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgement concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavour to blend them into one. Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of: who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but are for jumbling all opinions together. Be convinced, that you have quite missed your way; you know not where you are. You think you are got into the very spirit of Christ; when, in truth, you are nearer the spirit of Antichrist. Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.”    Sermon 39: 3:1

 

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The Scariest Thing of All: Damnation and Hell

About three years ago I was standing in a long line with my son waiting to board “The Nighthawk,” a roller-coaster at Carowinds. The wait ended up being a little more than an hour – it was a busy day. A 15 year old young man in line immediately in front of us struck up a conversation.

First he asked me, “does your son live with you or his momma?” He was surprised to learn that he lived with both of us together. As the conversation continued, about 20 minutes in, it suddenly took a chilling turn. The young man began to talk about how he would kill himself if he were to carry out a school shooting. He talked about it as if it was a newly discovered strategy that would bring him victory in a video game. There was quite a bit of glee on his face as he pictured the ghoulish scene in his mind’s eye.

The three college-aged kids in front of him, a couple of young women and a guy, looked like they’d just seen a ghost when they comprehended the words flowing so effortlessly from between this troubled young man’s lips. As I leaned in to respond all eyes within earshot of this disturbing conversation were firmly fixed on me.

I asked the young man if he was serious. Nervously stuttering and stammering, he said he wouldn’t really do anything like that; he was just speaking hypothetically. To me it sounded like he was describing a “cool” horror movie in which he would play the starring role. I wasn’t convinced that he wasn’t really serious.

I talked to him about the incalculable value of human life because we’re all created in the image of God, about how murder is evil and nothing to be glorified, even in fantasy. I asked him if he believed in God. He said he did, and that he had gone to church on occasion. I could tell he knew only enough about grace to be dangerous. When he assured me he was a Christian, I asked if he thought he would still go to heaven if he were to carry out such a horrific plan. He thought he would because he had been saved, he said. He didn’t go to church anywhere regularly but had prayed to become a Christian at some point and had been baptized. Yet, most of the words about most things he said revealed a heart that had not been transformed by the love of God.

I told him about the importance of true faith and being born again. I also warned him about false assurance and the judgment to come and the possibility of hell and eternal damnation (Matthew 7:15-27). I asked him to consider the possibility that if he did such a thing that he would just go into an eternal inferno rather than out in a blaze of glory. I told him he needed to renounce his dark fantasies rather than finding enjoyment in them (1 Corinthians 13:6). I told him that God loved him so much that He sent His Son so that he would not have to perish but so that he could be delivered from evil and set free to live for God and with God forever. His countenance began to change and so did that of the other young people who were very attentively eavesdropping on our conversation. I sensed some remorse, and a more sober attitude. He said he understood. A few minutes later we were being strapped into “The Nighthawk.” I had never met the young man before and I haven’t seen him since. If I never see him again in this life, I hope to see him again in the kingdom of God.

Many, including many in the church, find the idea of hell distasteful, even offensive. A lot of pastors and churches avoid talking about it at all. Even orthodox evangelicals, who may mention it from time to time, often downplay its horror – I have myself. Some so focus on supposedly helping people have their best life or society now that they ignore the dark side of eternity entirely, if they believe there is such a thing at all. I know some will argue that the church attendance will suffer if we talk about such gloomy things, but isn’t the mainline church in pretty big trouble any way? It’s certainly not because mainline pastors have warned about hell too much. In reality it seems the more we ignore the reality of hell in the afterlife, the more likely we are to have the conditions for hell on earth in this life, sometimes in gulags and concentration camps.

I’ll never forget the woman who came to me after I preached a sermon in early 2008 in which I just mentioned the possibility of eternal damnation in passing, a tangent of about 30 seconds or less. She came to me afterwards with tears streaming and dripping onto her blouse and said, “Thank you! We really needed to hear that! We haven’t heard anything about hell from the pulpit in over 30 years.”

Some will argue that idea of God condemning anyone to an eternity in hell is incompatible with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. But they can’t really be referring to Jesus as he is revealed in the New Testament. It’s just not true that Jesus is different from the God of the Old Testament, who often warned about and carried out judgment against the wicked. In many ways the preaching and teaching of Jesus just magnifies the judgment of God.

The first words out of Jesus’ mouth when  he began preaching were not, “I’m okay; you’re okay; we’re all okay” or even “God loves you,” although the genuine love of God was implicit in his words. The first words Jesus uttered when he began to preach were, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven  is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV).

With this proclamation Jesus echoed the message of the book of Daniel, which talks about worldly kingdoms founded on the sinking sand of “the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16) that rise as a high-rise house of cards. A house of CardsAll of these kingdoms of human pride inevitably fall. There is only one kingdom that will last forever, the kingdom of God (see Daniel 2 & 7). The kingdom of God lasts forever because it is founded on self-giving, self-sacrificial love. Jesus began his ministry by summonsing his hearers to come out of the doomed kingdoms of the world and to enter into the kingdom of God (see Revelation 18). Those who don’t heed his summons on God’s terms will be left out in the cold so to speak, in “the outer darkness. In that place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:1-14).

“He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” Luke 13:22-28

In fact, Jesus was alluding to Daniel 12:1-3 when he warned about the final judgment for which we must be prepared when he said at his second coming he would separate the sheep from the goats, and the latter would “go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).

The fact is Jesus warned about eternal damnation more than anyone. And Jesus’ warning did not just apply to those outside his inner circle in general or just to the hardhearted religious leaders who opposed him; they also applied to his closest followers. Indeed, some of his most terrifying warnings were directed toward his own disciples. To them he said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). This was to encourage them not to deny him or be ashamed of him and his words even if their lives were threatened by worldly human authorities (see Matthew 10:16-33; also Mark 8:31-38). This, basically, is the gist of the message given by the resurrected and exalted Jesus to the churches in the book of Revelation. According to Jesus there is a fate worse than physical death when it comes to compromising with evil.

Fear in itself is not a bad thing. It’s when we fear men more than God that it’s a problem. Fear properly directed toward God in faith is the beginning of wisdom (i.e. Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10), which keeps us out of real trouble. It is the lack of the fear of God that deceives one into thinking he can commit sin and perpetrate evil with impunity (i.e. Psalm 36). Fear is the beginning of wisdom; love is its goal.

The message of Jesus is not a threat, but a warning. To me the basic difference is a threat is issued out of a desire to coerce one against one’s will for selfish ends in order to use and manipulate. A warning on the other hand, is to appeal to one’s free will to choose a better path for themselves out of a sense of love for the person and concern for the person’s best interests in the long term.

Too often these teachings of Jesus are approached from how they make us feel. But the best approach is to ask ourselves, not whether we like what Jesus is saying, but whether or not the content of Jesus’ warning is true?

Jesus’ message was that we need to repent, change the orientation of our lives, turn away from sin and return to God, to come out of the worldly kingdoms of darkness and come into the kingdom of God because eventually the kingdom of God will be the only truly safe place left. The question is not whether we like it or not, the question is, is Jesus telling us the truth? IF we trust him then we are going to make our way into the kingdom on his terms. If we don’t we will either reject Jesus altogether, or we may try to reinterpret his warnings so as to soften them, which really just amounts to the same thing in the end I’m afraid.

Hell is just the end result of continuing in sin, which already cuts us off from the abundant life available through relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Sin renders us dead to God (Ephesians 2:1-3). Continuing in that state without repentance and faith in Jesus and his words leads to what Revelation calls the second death (2:11; 21:8).

Of course when it comes to hell there is much that is symbolic. When Jesus used the word that is translated “hell” in most English translation, most of the time it is the Greek, “gehenna.” Gehenna was a burning dump for trash and refuse down in one of the valleys outside the city walls of Jerusalem. In times past it had been the sight of child sacrifice to pagan gods like Molech when Israel fell into apostasy. Jesus used this literal sight as a symbol for the horrors of a real place for those who refuse to enter into the kingdom of God through repentance, faith, and the new birth. The symbolism in no way indicates that hell is not real, but points to a reality that is beyond full human comprehension.

When it comes to eternal damnation and the fate of the damned, there is much mystery. There are indications that even in hell there is some measure of mercy; as Jesus implied that there are varying degrees to the punishment therein (see Luke 10:14).

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” Matthew 23:13,15

Dante’s Inferno,” written in the 14th century, follows this idea of varying degrees of punishment for the wicked allegorically. Nonetheless, compared to the kingdom of God any level of hell is nothing less than a horrific tragedy of eternal proportions.

Finding the thought of eternal, conscious existence in hell unreasonable, many have resorted to the idea that hell, if it exists at all, is only temporary. Some insist that all will eventually be saved and welcomed into the kingdom (universalism); others have insisted the wicked are immediately or eventually put of existence (a state of no consciousness) altogether (annihilationism). At one time, I was in the latter camp. Both cases seem to me to be an exaltation of reason and emotion above the revelation of God’s word. Both are hopeful speculation at best. I think if either is actually the case it will be a surprise, and we should just leave it at that. Who are we to ignore or downplay Jesus’ warnings?!

Rather than holding out the hope of universalism or annihilationism, we should place our hope in “nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness [and] dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name” (from the hymn “My Hope is Built” – Edward Mote 1834).

For some the scariest thing is death. But according to Jesus what should scare us most is hell, cutting ourselves off from the life of God forever. What may actually be scarier than the idea that the way we live now doesn’t really matter in the end, is that it really does matter for eternity. God takes no pleasure in the death and judgment of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23) – he does not desire that anyone should perish (2 Peter 3:9). Anyone who turns from sin and returns to Him, he will never turn away!

But neither does God take pleasure in his prophets refusing to warn the wicked of the judgment to come.

“If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.” Ezekiel 3:18

** For further study see: “Hell: The Logic of Damnation” by Jerry Walls and “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis

 

 

 

 

 

Dealing with the Demonic: Deliverance from Evil

I had just delivered my first sermon at a new appointment. I shared my testimony of how God had reached me at a very dark time in my life. I shared how he had miraculously intervened to eventually deliver me from the grip of the evil one when I finally surrendered my life to Jesus Christ, bowed my knees to him and confessed with my tongue that he is Lord (see Philp 2:9-11 and Isaiah 45:23) (You can find more about my testimony by scrolling down to the first 6 articles on this blog). A woman came to me after the service – tears streaming – to tell me how much my testimony had moved her. She said she had a son in his early 20’s that she was also very concerned about. She said he was into witchcraft and was at times exhibiting very disturbing and frightening behavior. Sometimes he would get a very strange look in his eyes, which sometimes rolled back so all you could see was the white, and at times he seemed to speak other languages.

My first response was to encourage her to continue to pray for him. I also assured her that I would pray with her. We began our prayer together for her son right then and there. I tried to reassure her by telling her that my mother, as well as many others, had prayed for me for a decade until I finally surrendered my life to God through faith in Jesus. I hoped it wouldn’t take so long for her son.

A little over a month later I had the opportunity to meet the young man at the funeral of a relative. I introduced myself shortly after I gave the benediction for the committal service in the cemetery. My first encounter with Ronnie (not his real name) was a bit intense. After I introduced myself, he tilted his head back slightly and responded with the typical pleasantries, but in a strange tone of voice reminiscent of a hiss.

Later at lunch with the family I sat with Ronnie and some other family members and just tried to talk to get to know him a little bit. Things were much more mellow at this point. He told me about where he worked and some of his interests. I told him a little about myself and invited him to come to church sometime. I also asked if he’d like to get together sometime to talk. He said he would and gave me his phone number.

One day I called to see if he’d like to go to lunch. He said he would. Over some Chinese food I shared my testimony with him and why I am a follower of Jesus. Ronnie said he thought Jesus was pretty cool, but not a lot of his followers. He also objected to the idea that Jesus could be the only way of salvation. He thought of Jesus as only one of many ways to ultimate reality and happiness. I understood where he was coming from, but tried to explain that Jesus himself precluded that possibility by claiming to be the only way to the Father (John 14:6) and that the general context of the Bible, which claims to reveal the one and only true God who alone deserves to be worshipped as God, makes the interpretation of Jesus statement pretty straightforward. As the argument of C.S. Lewis implies, (Mere Christianity, p. 45), based on his own claims Jesus must be viewed as a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. Ronnie wasn’t really buying it though.

After this, nevertheless, he did come to church some. I remember one sermon – although I can’t really remember the topic – where he seemed to respond quite enthusiastically. Again we planned a time to get together to talk. One day he came by the church and we talked in the fellowship hall for a few hours. Ronnie brought a small velvet bag with gems that he used for power, as he explained to me. In response I asked him about praying to the One who made all things, including those gems. He acknowledged the possibility, but went on to talk to me about “the law of attraction,” a technique he also used to try to bring positive things and power into his life.

I explained how I had also believed in just such a technique in the past, although I called it “the law of believing” in a nominally Christian context. The idea is that through thinking and speaking positively you can attract the good things into your life, positive vibes from the universe in new age circles or the blessings of God in churches that practice these principles. But I also explained that through surrendering my life to Jesus as he is revealed in the Bible, I learned that life is not about me getting everything I want, but giving everything I have for the one who died for me. I shared how Jesus actually taught not to concern ourselves with our own desires but to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:19-34), and how blessings from God follow obedience to God’s will (i.e. Psalm 1). Ronnie was intrigued, but far from convinced.

Over the course of a few months we talked a few more times privately, sometimes at great length. Ronnie continued with his occult practices and kept singing their praises to me. Yet he also grew more and more comfortable with me and enjoyed talking with me. One day he opened up to me about how he had witnessed something incredibly horrifying and traumatizing when he was a little boy. He also shared other struggles in his life. On more than one occasion he asked me what I knew about demons. He said, he had a friend who had a troubling and increasingly disturbing “dark presence” he couldn’t get rid of. Ronnie talked about looking into spells that might make the “dark presence” go away, but also wondered what I thought.

I knew enough to know that we can give the demonic too much attention and credit bordering on a spiritually unhealthy obsession, or we can deny the existence of the demonic altogether. As C.S. Lewis said in the beginning of “The Screwtape Letters,” demons “themselves are equally pleased with both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” But I also believed that only the power of God Almighty can ultimately and conclusively deliver anyone from spiritual captivity under the power of the evil one. I suspected right off the bat that Ronnie wasn’t really just asking for a friend. I talked about the need to surrender to God. As James 4:7 says “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (ESV).

Ronnie, however, wasn’t yet willing to surrender his life completely to the one true God. But neither was he ready to stop talking to me and coming to church on occasion. I invited him to join us for a class designed to introduce people to the Christian faith and explore the possibility of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ called “Alpha.” He gladly accepted the invitation and never missed a session over the course of 14 weeks.

After one of those sessions when we were talking about prayer Ronnie told me about a friend of his, Jack Door (not his real name), who really needed some help. He said I didn’t know his friend, but I had met Jack’s mother when she came by the church for help with food and for prayer. Ronnie, said Jack needed to get his car repaired so he could get his job back and get out of a bad situation at home. I told him I would pray for Jack and, in fact, prayed right then and there.

Immediately after that, I took my mother home. On the way back to my house I saw a young man walking on the other side of the road headed in the same direction. As I passed by him, I suddenly felt like I needed to turn around. I did, and I pulled up next to the pedestrian. As I rolled the window down, he bent over so he could see into the passenger side car window, and I said, before I even realized what I was going to say, “Is your name Jack?” “Yeah …” responded the young man. “Jack Door?” I asked. “Yeah …” he responded somewhat perplexed. I said, “I know this is going to sound crazy, but I was just talking to a friend of yours, Ronnie, and I prayed for you earlier today and God just told me to turn around and pick you up.” He said, “yeah, that sound’s pretty crazy man!”

Crazy but true! I offered Jack a ride and he accepted. He was headed to his grandparents house about 20 miles away after having a big fight with his dad at home. I told him a little  more about what Ronnie had shared with me and Jack filled in the details. I talked to him about Jesus and invited him to come to church. I got his cell number as I dropped him off.

A couple of days later I felt led to give Jack some money, even though things were financially quite tight in my own household. My wife and I prayed about it, and decided on an amount. It was just enough for Jack to get his car fixed so he could get his job back and get his own place. Jack came to church one Sunday after that, but with his work schedule wasn’t able to make it much after that.

Ronnie was pretty amazed by it all when he heard about it, but still wasn’t willing to give God all the glory. He was still clinging to the idea that Jesus was just one way among many possible ways to human happiness  and spiritual enlightenment and power.

During the Alpha session on the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit, Ronnie actually prayed along with others to receive the Holy Spirit. Afterwards, though, I could tell that nothing much had really changed for him. I suspected that he had only prayed to add another power source to the mix of what he was still determined to cling to. He was just trying Jesus by addition rather than submission it seemed.

Nonetheless, it was quite remarkable that Ronnie, a guy who was practicing witchcraft, was there for every single Alpha class session, while long time church members couldn’t say the same. Nonetheless, he never really surrendered his life to God through Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life.

Eventually Ronnie moved and we lost contact. A couple of years went by before I heard from him again. Then out of the blue one night he sent me a text message, which just simply said, “Hello Cliff how are you?” I replied that I was well and asked him how he was doing. He said, “I’m okay. I’m not where I want to be, but I’m thankful that I’m not where I used to be.” I said, “Where are you now? Physically and spiritually?” His reply … “Physically, I’m still in ______ county. Spiritually, I’m trying to walk with Jesus as best as I can.” My reply, “Praise God!” I assure you there were more exclamations marks in my soul than there were in my messenger app.Deliverance mark-5

A few days later we got together for lunch again. He told me he was the one who was plagued by that “dark presence” and after he surrendered his life to Jesus Christ as the way he was finally delivered. There was an obvious and truly very positive change in him. He was humble to the word of God. He had become a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). I just talked to him earlier today and he’s still walking with the Lord. Interestingly, however, there were many things that he didn’t remember clearly from all of the time we had spent together years before. One of those things was the incident that God orchestrated with his friend Jack, (again not his real name), although Ronnie was quite amazed by it at the time.

At any rate, there are several degrees of demonic possession or oppression, some more direct, personal, and intense than others. Generally speaking possession can be thought of more in terms of an internal struggle and oppression as more of a struggle with an external presence. Traumatic experiences of evil and its effects, occult practices, and heavy alcohol and drug use, among other things, can make one more susceptible to direct possession or oppression. While the more direct personal cases are rare, Richard Gallagher, a psychiatrist, reported in the Washington Post mid 2016 that the number of identified cases of demonic possession in the U.S. has been on the rise over the last decade or so. Unsurprisingly, this is concurrent with an increase in drug and alcohol abuse and participation  in occult practices  among other things. (For another psychiatrist’s account of evil and demonic possession see Dr. M. Scott Peck’s books, People of the Lie and Glimpses of the Devil). 

But bondage to the forces of evil is not just an individual issue. Whole cultures can find themselves in the grip of evil to varying degrees. Just scanning the list of the seven deadly sins would tell you that American culture, including much of the American church, is very unhealthy spiritually.

Jesus used the analogy of an individual plagued by demonic possession to warn about the fate of the Jewish people as a whole at the time.

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” Matthew 12:43-45 ESV

In fact, 1 John 5:19 tells us “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” As Ephesians 2:1-3 indicates all of us, everyone born into this world dead in sins, before we are delivered through faith in Christ, live under the influence of the prince of darkness, “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (v. 2). In a sense every non-believer is in need of deliverance from the powers of darkness, to be delivered from “the domain of darkness and transferred [into] the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).

That deliverance may come through a combination of various practices: preaching, teaching, witnessing, personal study and prayer, or through more intentional rituals of exorcism in some of those rare cases. But in every case ultimately the only way is through surrender to God through faith in Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.

In some of the accounts of revival meetings during the “Great Awakenings” there were reports of people convulsing, screeching, screaming, and, even, howling. I suspect there were many people delivered from direct forms of demonic possession, not that all cases would be that stark and dramatic. The Gospel believed brings deliverance in more ways than one, but ultimately there is only one way out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.

Followers of Jesus are called to continue this ministry of deliverance by proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith in him. It’s needed now more than ever. Jesus said, those who believe in him would do the works he did and greater (John 14:12). And “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” and “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). God has called us and equipped us to do the same, knowing that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Victory over the devil comes through surrender to God through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. To God be the glory!

Saved? For What?

About two years ago I received a call from a man named Mitch. I had baptized him a few years before.  He called to let me know his cancer had come back and he didn’t have much time left. He wanted to express his thankfulness to God that I had shared the gospel with him and led him to place his faith in Christ. He was thankful to be able to face the end of his life on earth with the hope of heaven in his heart. Not long after that call, Mitch went on to be with the Lord.

Years before, however, Mitch had barely survived a terrible car wreck. He was in a coma for a few weeks. Gradually he regained strength and health, albeit not without lingering pain and other complications. Before he drove his truck off an embankment, he really didn’t care if he lived or died. He had been in a battle with cancer, which, along with life’s many other hardships, had left him deeply depressed and feeling hopeless.

When he came out of the hospital, after his wreck, his cancer was also in remission. He had come to church a few times before with his mother, but this time was different. He asked if he could meet with me to discuss baptism and committing his life to Christ. On a cold day in January of 2011, I had the privilege of baptizing Mitch by full immersion. He was buried with Christ in baptism “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, [he] too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

Mitch often wondered aloud with me about why God had allowed him to survive his accident. He was looking for a specific reason. Mitch wanted to know why God had saved him, and that in more ways than one, both physically and spiritually. My answer to Mitch was always the same. “Mitch, I don’t really know the particulars of God’s specific plan for your life, but I do know that you were saved for  the same reason everyone else is saved: to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.

For the past few years I have taught an introductory discipleship study called “The Walk.” I designed the study around several basic questions. Three of the questions are: Why do we need to be saved?; What are we saved from?; and What are we saved for?

Although the Bible uses this kind of language frequently, it is not all that popular a topic in many circles, including in the church. The thought that people need to be saved can be offensive because it implies there is something wrong with us and that we are in grave danger. But we may not feel like there is anything wrong with us. Indeed, we may feel like we are perfectly fine just the way we are. But the Bible clearly indicates that something is wrong and we all do need to be rescued from something. N322.01W50

In short, we are saved from sin and its consequences. We are saved from corrupted desires and the consequences of acting on those desires. Sin is not only the bad things we do, but also the power that corrupts our good God-given desires. Just take the seven deadly sins for example: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.

Each of these is a corruption of a good desire. God designed us to have certain desires as creatures created in God’s image. The desire for sex is good, but sin corrupts it and distorts it. The desire for food and drink is also not bad, but when corrupted by sin it can become detrimental to us and others. The desire to work and make a living is not bad, but greed can make us slaves to work and money. The desire to rest and relax is good, but sloth is not. The desire for justice is wonderful, but wrath drives us away from justice to hatred and personal vengeance. The desire to be loved and respected is not bad, but envy and pride distort those desires in narcissistic ways.

Through Jesus Christ God saves us not only from the consequences of sin, the penalty, but also from its corrupting influence, the power. The grace of God in Christ also begins to heal our corrupted desires and rescues us from an eternity separated from God. That’s why we need to be saved and what we need to be saved from? But we’re not only saved from something, we are also saved for something.

As the verse from Romans 6 referenced above indicates we are saved for a purpose, namely to “walk in newness of life” (v.4). The word “walk” here is used in Ephesians 2 as well.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV (emphasis mine)

Here Paul tells is what we are saved by, through, and for. Each of these aspects of salvation must be held together in the proper order and priority. We must not put a period where there should be a comma; and we must not mix up the order here given.

We are saved by grace, what God has done for us in Christ, it is a gift. But the gift of what God has done for us must be received by faith. One aspect of the gift of grace is that by it we are remade by God in Christ. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” In Christ we are remade by God. In other words, as Jesus put it to Nicodemus, we are born again (John 3). Along with forgiveness, this transformation is also the gift of God. And the purpose for which God has remade us as a new creation is for good works . These good works in no way contribute to our salvation, but they are the fruit of our salvation that “God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” But what exactly are these good works?

The key to understanding this is the word “walk“. The Hebrew equivalent of this word in the Old Testament is halak. It is used repeatedly to refer to a life lived in obedience and faithfulness to God’s commandments. I just read this morning in Isaiah where Hezekiah, one of the kings of Judah during the ministry of Isaiah, used this word in exactly this way.

“… ‘Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.’ ….” Isaiah 38:3 ESV

This is a common way to speak about faithfulness to God throughout the Bible (see Psalm 119:1-3). One of the most significant places where the Bible uses this language is found in the new covenant promise in Ezekiel.

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”               Ezekiel 36:25-27 ESV (emphasis mine)

Paul Young, author of “The Shack,” argues that rules just get in the way of real relationship. Well the promise here in Ezekiel, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, indicates that obedience to God’s rules are at the heart of the new heart God wants to give us. God’s law is not the problem, disobeying it or trying to obey it with selfish motives is. God’s rules obeyed from the heart don’t get in the way of relationship, they actually facilitate genuine relationship, with God and our neighbors.

The good works for which we are saved are those things that are in harmony with the spirit and intent of God’s commandments. Truly they are an expression of genuine love, love of God and love of neighbor.

 “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Romans 13:8-10

To put it another way, we are saved by love, the love of God for us in Christ, and we are saved for love, the love of God in us for God and neighbor. In his “Treatise on Good Works,” the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther sought to correct misunderstandings of his teaching on justification by faith. In that treatise he said that genuine Christian  faith is a fulfillment of the first commandment and obedience to the rest of God’s commandments flows from there as a product, a fruit, of salvation, albeit not its cause. In other words, obedience is what we are saved for not by. This, said Luther, is how to understand what the good works are for which we are saved.

Mitch’s question was a good one, too often neglected. In my ministry I have worked hard to answer that question, not only for Mitch, who was spared a tragic death in a car wreck, but for all who have been saved from the deadly wreckage of sin and hell by the grace of God in Christ Jesus through faith. In some cases, in many Protestant circles any talk at all about good works has been met with suspicion at best. But we must not forget or ignore what we have been saved for! And we should not underestimate or underrepresent the grace by which we are saved.  Paul captures the fullness of it well in his letter to Titus.

 “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”  Titus 2:11-14 (emphasis mine)

The Light in the Darkness: Finding Hope in Suffering

Emma and Charles had already lost a few children way too early, something all too common in their day. After the death of their 10 year old daughter, Annie, Charles couldn’t even bring himself to even attend the graveside service. Annie’s untimely death may have been the impetus that moved Charles to publish some ancient philosophical ideas he had honed with the power of the scientific method and the full weight of  the Enlightenment behind him. These were ideas, which included his religious skepticism, that he had held without publishing for over two decades, apparently out of love for his wife, Emma, and out of respect for her devout belief in God, the afterlife, and the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. Annie’s death apparently relieved him of those inhibitions and Charles Darwin went on to publish his revolutionary materialist, naturalist views in “The Origin of Species” in 1859. Suffering and death in the world, not least that which pervaded his own life, certainly influenced Darwin’s beliefs about the randomness of life.

Suffering, and especially death, can lead one to the conclusion that life is ultimately meaningless, without real purpose. Even the ancients going on only what they could observe and experience directly of the world could come to the same conclusion. You really see a hint of this in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, in which you find the well-known refrain, “Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2).

Now I don’t believe the message of Ecclesiastes is that life is really meaningless. Life in this world lived for it’s own sake certainly is, whether it be for personal pleasure or pride or both. As Ecclesiastes indicates, pleasure is fleeting and pride only lasts as long as the memory of future generations. The pain of aging and illness will quickly rob the largest storehouses of pleasure; and most people will not be remembered at all a couple generations after they die (Do you know your great, great grandmother’s name? Add another “great”?) Nevertheless, just from observing the cycles of life, the sun rises and sets and then does it all over again, and again, and again. In our modern time we know that we are literally spinning around in circles as we swirl around the sun once every 365 days only to do it all over again and again … That alone can give you the impression that we might just be going around in circles chasing our tails until we die. And die we will. Generations come and generations go and death eventually takes us all.

And if that is all there is, then what exactly is the point of it all? Is there even a point at all? Is it all one big accident, or as Ecclesiastes indicates are we really headed somewhere after all “if we fear God and keep his commandments…”, namely to the judgment of a personal God (Eccl 12:13-14). Suffering and especially death can drive one to the former rather than the later, sadly.

If there really is an all-powerful God who cares, why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? And the question about suffering is inextricably connected to the question of meaning. Does life with so much suffering ultimately have meaning and purpose? The Bible’s answer is a definite and resounding yes. It also gives us a reason for why there is suffering.

Quite simply the Bible’s explanation is there is suffering because of sin. We live in a fallen world because there was a fall; we live in a broken world because humanity broke God’s commandment. The first three chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1-3, establish this claim: God created humanity to reflect his glory through stewardship of creation under God’s authority. When Adam and Eve, enticed by the tempter, decided to live for their own pleasure and pride instead of for God it brought the disastrous consequences that God had warned them about – spiritual death and suffering, which would eventually result in physical death.

Genesis 3 tells us that human sin lead to a painful curse that affects not only humanity but the creation itself. This is echoed and amplified in Romans 8 when it says:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”   Romans 8:18-25 (ESV)

Interestingly, here Paul says the creation was “subjected to futility.” Futility is the same word that is translated “vanity” in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Greek version of the Old Testament. Yet Paul tells us that although it was subjected to futility, it was not without hope. Life in this world lived for its own sake is certainly futile, but God did not leave us without hope and greater purpose. Restoration is available for ourselves and, as a consequence, for creation itself.

Suffering is the consequence of sin in a general sense. Just as all of humanity, the righteous and the wicked, all enjoy the general blessings of God, which are still very much a part of our fallen world (see Matthew 5:45), all people, good and bad, will suffer to one degree or another under the consequences of the curse and the general judgment of God on the earth and humanity. The convulsions of a fallen world under the curse because of sin affects everyone to one degree or another, good or bad. Death itself is the ever-present reminder of the general judgment of God on the world that affects everyone, righteous or not.

Recently Kirk Cameron became a lighting rod for heated criticism when he suggested God allows powerful storms like the recent hurricanes as a reminder of our need to humble ourselves, to stand in awe of God, and to repent. For this one progressive Christian pastor and author basically called Cameron a jerk and an A-hole for suggesting such a thing.

If he thinks Kirk Cameron is bad, I wonder what he would think of John Wesley, who wrote an entire sermon in response to a deadly and devastating earthquake entitled, “The Cause and Cure for Earthquakes.” Wesley was much more explicit.

“I am to show you that earthquakes are the works of the Lord, and He only bringeth this destruction upon the earth. Now, that God is himself the Author, and sin the moral cause, of earthquakes, (whatever the natural cause may be) cannot be denied by any who believe the Scriptures; for these are they which testify of Him, that it is God” which removeth the mountains, and overturneth them in his anger; which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble.” (Job 9:5, 6) ~ John Wesley – Sermon 129:1

Wesley goes on to tie natural disasters to the curse brought about by “the original transgression,” the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. He also considered natural disasters to be a part of the general judgment of God and a reminder of our need for humility and repentance in the face of such temporal judgments, especially to be prepared for the final judgment still to come. And lest we be tempted to think it was easy for Wesley to preach that in his day, we must realize that he himself fought against theology within the church influenced by Enlightenment rationalism and deism, even mentioning famous skeptics like David Hume and Voltaire by name. Wesley’s message was better received among coal miners than Anglican priests and bishops.

For both Cameron and Wesley, natural disasters and the suffering they bring, or even suffering in general is not without reason and purpose. Neither are they completely inscrutable. If you believe the Bible, the reason is clear, although we may not understand everything on a individual case by case basis. But, again, the question of suffering and meaning are closely connected.

In a pastoral care class I took in seminary, the professor stressed emphatically that we should never try to explain or give reasons for someone’s loss. She strongly suggested not only that we may not know the reasons, but that there really are no meaningful reasons. The best we can do she seemed to suggest is to make meaning for ourselves. I understand we certainly don’t want to jump to conclusions or to give pat answers to complex questions, but I sensed she was leaning too far toward nihilism. I asked, “Are you saying there really are absolutely no reasons at all?” After a pregnant pause, she said she was not saying that, but her hesitation spoke louder than her words.

Some want to avoid questions of meaning and purpose altogether. They suggest that we can’t know if God actually is somehow involved in disasters, pestilence, famine, and war. They suggest that we can’t be sure that there is any reason and purpose behind these things at all. In criticizing Kirk Cameron one progressive Christian said, It’s not God, it’s just science,” implying that it is just the way the world is, without rhyme or reason, period.

The Bible, in comparison to other ancient stories like the Babylonian creation story and in comparison to some modern scientific accounts, indicates that creation is not capricious and neither is suffering. The flood, for example, didn’t happen because the unpredictable gods were just annoyed by the noise of humans, nor was it just an accident of natural forces. The flood happened in response to sin and wickedness upon the earth (Genesis 6).

Of course this does not mean that every time tragedy strikes someone God must be punishing them for specific sins in their life. Ecclesiastes, many of the Psalms, the book of Job, and even the teachings of Jesus and the story of his own life show us that in this fallen world, sometimes the innocent and the righteous will suffer. Sometimes this is at the hands of sinners, Jesus being the prime example. Sometimes it will be because of accidents, natural disasters, and disease, which God allows to afflict the righteous for a season. Job is perhaps the best example of the later. Sometimes the same event may be a specific judgment against the wicked and a general time of testing through trials and tribulations for the righteous, but the general judgment of God due to the fall is the reason for it  at all. Jesus himself used a report of Pilate slaughtering Galileans and a deadly accident, a tower collapse, to remind everyone that they weren’t worse sinners than anyone else, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

This really is a basic Biblical worldview and the framework that makes sense of the redemption from the curse that God wrought in Christ. I think Wesley was right when he said, it “cannot be denied by any who believe the Scriptures.”

The Bible is the revelation of a personal and intelligent God, who created the universe out of nothing, not out of necessity, but out of love. This God is transcendent, being so much greater than and independent of the universe, but simultaneously very much present and involved in all of his creation. He created us out of nothing for something very important, to be his image-bearers. Using our freedom to live by our own desires rather than the will of the One who created us throws everything out of order. But God is merciful and has provided a way for us to be reconciled to him to once again bring harmony and peace back to the world. Our sin subjected the world to futility, but not without hope. The consequences to sin were built in by God himself and those consequences are not without meaning and purpose. They are a reminder that we need to remember how small we really are and how awesome God really is, especially in mercy and grace when we do repent and return to him (just look at the context of 2 Chronicles 7:14 and think of that in light of the prodigal son of Luke 15).

As someone slips from this theistic worldview, into more deistic or pantheistic worldviews, the less likely he or she will take sin and its consequences seriously. Conversely, the less seriously we take sin and its consequences, the more likely we are to hold deistic, pantheistic, or atheistic worldviews. It is no secret that the doctrine of hell, the eternal suffering of unrepentant sinners, which Darwin rightly saw as having been taught most clearly by Jesus himself, was another factor in his ultimate rejection of the Christian faith. He wasn’t the first, and certainly not the last. What perhaps is scarier than the thought that nothing really matters is that everything really does forever. But God in his mercy through His Son Jesus Christ has made a way for the vilest of sinners to be forgiven and set free from hopelessness and despair.

Haratio Spafford owned a thriving law practice in downtown Chicago. He and his wife Anna had one son and four daughters. In 1871, roughly 12 years after the publication of “The Origin of Species,” pneumonia took the life of his young son. That same year much of his business and its assets were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. By the fall of 1873 his business had bounced back. Around Thanksgiving that same year his wife and four daughters boarded a ship for a trip across the Atlantic. Mr. Spafford stayed behind to deal with an unexpected business problem. He planned to catch another ship to meet his family in Europe. On that voyage, the ship carrying his family collided with another and sank. While Anna barely survived clinging to debris, his four daughters drowned and were lost to the sea. While being pulled out of the water, Anna it is said, knowing her girls had been lost, expressed confidence in the midst of deep grief that one day they would understand why.

When Mr. Spafford got word of what happened, he boarded a ship to join his grieving wife. On that voyage across the fathomless waters that had robbed him of his children, H.G. Spafford penned the lyrics to the beautiful hymn, “It is Well with My Soul.”

The creation has indeed been subjected to futility, but not without hope.

 

 

How Much Do You Think of Yourself?

Someone once asked me what I hear in my head in the dark moments of life, in those times when I get down. What I hear is often, “you’re just not good enough, you are inadequate, and you just don’t matter when it comes right down to it.” I know I’m not the first or only person to feel that way.

One of the deadly sins we all have to be concerned about is pride. As the famous proverb goes, “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18 KJV). I’ve experienced the pitfalls of pride, thinking too much of myself, in more ways than one. Nevertheless, an equally present danger is thinking too little of ourselves. We are not gods, but neither are we meaningless scum. Sloth is also a deadly sin, and part of the problem with sloth is that we can think too little of ourselves. We can think we and anything we can do for the good of others doesn’t really matter. Sloth is also associated with laziness, but it could be low self-esteem that actually inhibits truly humble godly activity.

Sometimes we can get frustrated and experience deep emotional pain when we feel like we and our abilities don’t really matter. This may come from ungodly and cruel criticism from others. Someone may ridicule and mock us when we try to contribute our talents to a cause. This happens in a variety of different settings, sadly, churches included.

At other times it may be self-criticism and feelings of inadequacy when we begin to compare ourselves to others. We may see the exceptional talent of others in certain categories that bring them more attention and feel bad that we don’t have those talents and the attention they seem to draw. We may make the mistake of thinking our gifts matter less to God and the overall good of the body of Christ because they seem to matter less to people. The truth is often those who receive the most acclaim among men, will experience the most shame at the judgment throne of God.

Encouragingly, the Bible tells us in terms of differently gifted people in the body of Christ, “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable, we bestow the greater honor ..” (1 Cor. 12:22-23 ESV). Every member is important, and we need to encourage each other and honor each other accordingly.

Yet it’s easy for any of us, even some of the most talented, to think that we don’t really matter. Sometimes it may just be a simple matter of making the mistake of thinking that because we are so small in the whole scheme of the universe we don’t really matter. You don’t have to get too high above the earth to sense just how small we really are. sun and earth

Psalm 8 indicates that David certainly felt insignificant in light of the vastness of God’s creation when he wrote:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” Psalm 8:3-4

Yet in spite of how he felt so insignificant in the whole scheme of things, he went on to express faith in what is revealed about humanity in God’s word in Genesis 1-2.

“Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.” Psalm 8:5-8

The Bible tells us not only that we matter to God, but we also matter to the whole of creation. On the one hand it’s hard to believe, but on the other, when we think about how minor changes in ecosystems can make a big difference, we can begin to appreciate more our place in God’s good creation. There’s this video that shows what happened when they reintroduced wolves back into Yellowstone. It not only changed the wildlife, it also changed the plant-life and even the landscape.

The Bible is telling us that human sin and rebellion against the Creator not only negatively affects human social systems, but also the earth and the rest of creation. Genesis 3 tells us that curse not only adversely affects our relationship with God and other people, but also the earth. In Romans 8 Paul reminds us that the creation itself longs for humanity’s final liberation from sin. Salvation is not just about going to heaven when we die – I believe we do; it’ s ultimately about the renewal and liberation of all of creation from the destructive forces of sin and death at work in and through fallen humanity. When humanity is completely delivered from sin and renewed perfectly again in the image of God in which we were created, “the creation itself will also be set free from its bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:21).

Our place in the whole scheme of things matters, collectively and individually. All of us in some ways have been and are still part of the problem, but by the grace of God through faith in Christ we can also be part of the solution. God’s love encompasses everyone, therefore he does not desire “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). And each one of us, with the gifts, talents, and abilities God has given us, matter to God, to the church, and to the world.

Let’s certainly not think too much of ourselves, but neither let us think too little. May we use our gifts wherever we are to build up the body of Christ in love and watch God transform the world as we ourselves are being transformed.

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”  ~ Rick Warren

 

Psalm 103: The Character of God in the Old Testament

Those who follow me on Facebook may have noticed I have been sharing a lot of excerpts from Psalms lately. As part of my spiritual discipline I read through the Bible regularly – sometimes over the course of a year, sometimes in less than a year. Sometimes it takes me more than a year as I also occasionally read the commentary in different study Bibles. Currently I’m on the slower track and thoroughly enjoying it.

Today as I read through a few Psalms, Psalm 103 was among them. Psalm 103 has been a favorite of mine for well over 20 years. It has been a favorite for my wife basically all her life. She had it memorized at a very early age. Psalm 103

While there are many different types of psalms such as hymns of praise and thanksgiving, prayerful laments, celebrations of salvation history, praise for Torah (God’s instruction and law in written form) and psalms of wisdom that resemble books such as Proverbs and Job, there are a few themes that come up repeatedly throughout as well. Those themes include the importance and blessing of covenant faithfulness, the promise and warning of God’s judgment of the wicked (see Psalm 1 for both themes), the hope of God’s salvation reaching all nations throughout the earth through the witness of Israel, and the loving, faithful, gracious, and merciful character of God, the Creator of all and the rightful Lord of all the earth and its peoples.

We certainly need to be reminded in these sad days of increasing racial tensions that God’s purpose in choosing the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, was to eventually bring all the descendants of Adam, people of all ethnicities and races, back into covenant relationship with the Creator who revealed himself as Yahweh to Israel. Intriguingly, in a world where it’s all to easy to value one’s own ethnic identity over others, the heart of the chosen people’s own Scriptures reveal that God didn’t choose them because of anything inherently special about them over all other peoples. Rather God specifically says he chose them because of his own integrity and gracious character not theirs. Deuteronomy 7 and 9 make it clear that God chose Israel in spite of their stubbornness and rebelliousness because of the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

That promise and the election of Israel as his treasured possession was not just for their benefit, but also for the benefit of the rest of the wayward nations. The promise to Abraham was that in him and in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). This is why prophets such as Isaiah hold out the hope and vision of the day when people from all nations will stream in to worship Yahweh.

Isaiah 2:1-3 (ESV)
“The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”

This is also a recurrent theme and hope held out in the psalms.

Psalm 102:12-22 (ESV)
“But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.
You will arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come. For your servants hold her stones dear and have pity on her dust. Nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory.
For the Lord builds up Zion; he appears in his glory; he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer. Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord: that he looked down from his holy height; from heaven the Lord looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die, that they may declare in Zion the name of the Lord, and in Jerusalem his praise, when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.”

We would do well to remember these things whenever anyone insists that some races are inherently superior to others or that some are inherently more evil than others simply by virtue of their skin color or ethnicity. Racism and racists of any variety have no place in the kingdom of the God. Anyone who can’t stand the thought of being in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial family can’t be a true member of the family of God that Christ has opened up to people of every nation, tribe, and tongue (see Rev. 7). The Bibles reveals God as the Creator of all peoples, who seeks to be reconciled with them. And the love of God for the world and all the peoples of the world flow from God’s very own character.

Psalm 103 is one of the many psalms that refer to the character of God, which makes him worthy of the highest and most exclusive praise among the nations of the world. Psalm 103:8 says, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This is a clear reference to Exodus 34:6-7 where God reveals himself to Moses.

Exodus 34:6-7(ESV)
“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Psalm 103 and the plethora of other psalms that refer to God’s steadfast love and faithfulness all harken back to Exodus 34:6-7. This is the central and most important description of the nature of God in the Old Testament, which may come as a surprise to those outside the church like atheist Richard Dawkins and some inside the church, who think of the God of the Old Testament as a capriciously wrathful deity, a cosmic killjoy and malevolent bully. Listen to Richard Dawkins’ description of the god of the Old Testament.

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” ― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Some Christian theologians unwittingly – perhaps some wittingly – echo these sentiments whenever they set up Jesus as a “corrective” in some sense to the way God is depicted in the Old Testament. But Exodus 34:6-7, which resounds throughout Psalms is the revelation of God in the Old Testament that was embodied most fully in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness has always outweighed his wrath, but has never negated it altogether for the unrepentant wicked. But the gracious, merciful, and generous God of the Old Testament is the one who has always provided for the forgiveness of sins and who refuses to give up on his people and his promises. God love is revealed in his faithfulness to his word, which is why God’s love and faithfulness are mentioned together so frequently. As Dr. David Watson wrote about so beautifully, the nature and character of God is the basis of any genuine “generous orthodoxy.” There is nothing capricious about the God of the Bible, who is most fully revealed in Christ. And there is nothing revealed about Jesus in the New Testament that should give anyone the idea that God’s mercy negates God’s just wrath against the wicked altogether.

It is the character of God revealed in Exodus 34:6-7 that inspires the praise and thanksgiving found in the Psalms. Psalms 103 is a further exposition of the character of God revealed to Moses. This same God is the one who can be trusted to bless his faithful people and to punish the wicked as he has always promised. He is a patient and forgiving God, and will never turn any repentant sinner away. As Psalm 103:17-18 says: “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.”  

The later, by the way, in no way diminishes the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. After all it was Jesus who taught that those who will be welcomed into the kingdom of God at the final judgment will only be those who do the will of God. Those who claim the name of the God while rejecting God’s claim on their lives will be turned away as “workers of lawlessness” (Matt 7:21-27). The good news is God not only provides the forgiveness we need for breaking his commandments by the blood of Christ, he also provides the power we need to live a faithful life by his very own Spirit. God’s grace provides forgiveness and empowerment for holiness. In this the promise of the new covenant is fulfilled. God’s steadfast love endures forever! What an awesome and wonderful God we serve!

Psalm 103 (ESV)
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
obeying the voice of his word!
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will!
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!