Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Are You Feeling Thankful or Entitled?

I heard a story about a rich man who sent his son on a trip to the country in order to educate him on how poor people live. Upon the son’s return, his father asked him about the trip. The son offered, “It was great Dad.” The father then inquired, “Did you see how poor people live? What did you learn?” The son responded, “Well, I learned that we have one dog, and they have four. We have a pool that reaches to the middle of our garden and they have a creek that has no end. We have lanterns in our garden and they can see all the stars at night. Our patio reaches to the front of our yard and they have the whole horizon. We have a small piece of land to live on and they have fields that go beyond our sight. We have to buy our food and they grow their own freely.” The boy’s father was speechless. Then his son added, “Thanks Dad for showing me how poor we are!” Among other things, this story illustrates how the difference between being thankful and not, is simply perspective.

Being thankful is a diminishing mindset in our present culture. In its place, we are fostering a culture that conditions us to feel entitled. An entitled mindset is the exact opposite of a thankful mindset. What made America great was God and our thankfulness for His providence. Likewise, what will tear this country apart is the opposite sentiment. When we take our eyes off of God and all that He freely provides, we target others that we perceive as more fortunate than ourselves and demand that they give us what they earned. This might be expected of those who have lost sight of God. But, this mindset is misaligned for those who claim the mind of Christ. Jesus does not foster an entitlement mindset because He paid the ultimate price to give the world the only thing it most desperately needed … Himself (Philippians 2). His grace is sufficient for us. And, what the world needs from Christians is for us to proclaim His gospel as our only need until He returns. The gospel promises the free and eternal gift of reconciliation with God and all His many gifts that come with that, including immortality, God’s constant presence and a royal eternity. When someone truly grasps that, they surrender any thread of entitlement in the here and now. And, they certainly don’t align themselves with those who peddle it. To whatever extent someone feels entitled, it is to that extent that they are ungrateful.

This entitlement conditioning ultimately fosters laziness and a covetous greed. This is clearly displayed in Jesus’ parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25. Jesus also implores the appropriate mindset in the parable of The Dutiful Servant in Luke 17. And, Paul was quite direct when he said in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” In addition to that guidance there are also many verses imploring God’s children to rejoice in all things and to be constantly content and grateful. My favorite is 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” By the way, “all” in that verse means all in every translation and every language.

Therefore, I will reserve this post to declare my thankfulness for certain things for which we should all be thankful:

·        I am thankful for the gift of life.
·        I am thankful for the immeasurable gifts that God has poured into my life, none of which I deserved.
·        I am thankful that when I ultimately lose my life, God will raise it anew.
·        I am thankful for spiritual life; that I am not just flesh and blood.
·        I am thankful that God has already raised me to spiritual new life out of my spiritual death.
·        I am thankful for God not giving up on my pitiful fallen condition.
·        I am thankful that God came in flesh and blood in order to share in my pain and pay for my wrongs.
·        I am thankful that God suffered with me and for me.
·        I am thankful that God offers me total and eternal forgiveness in exchange for nothing.
·        I am thankful that God adopts me as His own son.
·        I am thankful that God makes me a co-heir to His own Kingdom.
·        I am thankful that God provides my every need at every moment of every day.
·        I am thankful that God is present with me even when I ignore Him.
·        I am thankful that God calls me righteous, even when others see that my flesh is not.
·        I am thankful for Jesus!

I realize that some Christians today align with fostering the entitlement mindset out of genuine belief that life is not fair. There is a kernel of truth in that. That kernel is that life truly is not fair. But the fact that life is not fair is not an invitation to demand from our fellow man by force of law. Rather, life not being fair is an invitation to thank God. Christians, I implore you to thank God that life is not fair. If life were fair, we would get what we deserve. And, I for one, deserve Hell right now. And, so do you. But, God is not fair as He radically gives us every good gift that we don’t deserve. “For God so loved the world that He gave.” We have been given Jesus. We need nothing more! Thank you, Lord!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Coming Soon! An Atheist Church Near You!


I once heard a story about an old lady and her atheist neighbor. Every morning, the lady, a Christian, would come out on the steps of her front porch, raise her arms to the sky and shout, "Praise the Lord!" Over time, her atheist neighbor became irritated by this ritual. So every morning he would step out onto his front porch and yell after her, "There is no God!" Time passed with the two of them carrying on this way every day. Then one morning in the middle of winter, the old lady stepped onto her front porch and shouted, "Praise the Lord! Lord, I have no food and I am hungry. Please provide for me, oh Lord!" The next morning she stepped onto her porch and there were two huge bags of groceries sitting there. "Praise the Lord!" she cried out. "He has provided groceries for me!" The atheist jumped out of the hedges and shouted, "There is no Lord. I bought those groceries!" The old lady threw her arms into the air and shouted, "Praise the Lord! He has provided me with groceries and He made an atheist pay for them!" While the central comedy of this story is in the punch line, isn’t ironic how the atheist started imitating the Christian in multiple ways? This may sound ironic, but today it is has become a vivid reality.

Earlier this month, the Associated Press ran an article titled, “Atheist ‘Mega-Churches’ Take Root across US, World.” The article went on to recount how on Sunday mornings around the country and in other parts of the world congregations of atheists are meeting. Their meetings begin with rousing music, followed by an inspirational talk and quiet reflection. Does this sound familiar?

The number of these atheist mega-churches (a term coined by both its supporters and detractors) has grown to around three dozen in the US, Australia, Great Britain and elsewhere. In cities including Los Angeles, San Diego, Nashville, and New York, are assemblies of hundreds of people bound by belief in unbelief. They claim to seek the camaraderie of a congregation without religion or ritual. But, isn’t their assembling every Sunday the very practice of religion and ritual? They even pass around cardboard boxes (instead of plates) in order to take up donations at the end of their … services.

The founder of this movement even confessed about real churches, “If you think about church, there's very little that's bad. It's singing awesome songs, hearing interesting talks, thinking about improving yourself and helping other people - and doing that in a community with wonderful relationships. What part of that is not to like?” To which, we might respond, “We agree. Please join us!”

In their attempt to be different from Christian churches, these atheist churches even have their own unique credo, “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.” While having a credo absolutely does mimic true churches, we are left to respond to their credo, “Why?” Why should we live better? Why should we help often? Why should we wonder more? Is there some moral reason why these things should be done? What is the universal moral authority that dictates that this credo is in fact moral or worthy? What if I enjoy indulging in the exact opposite behavior? If their credo is not morally founded, then why follow it? Is there anything wrong with living worse, helping little or wondering less? If their answer is affirmative, then we are left to ask upon what authority do they so conclude. If there is no God, why bother, especially if I don't enjoy following the credo?

Isaiah 64:6 says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” All of “our” righteous deeds are like a polluted garment because they are either borne from a motive other than God's love or are far out-numbered by our more pervasive self-centered deeds. Any attempt by any person, including atheists and Christians alike, to be better or help others falls far short of the only true source of righteousness, which is the One who is always right (God). For this reason, true Christians claim no righteousness of their own doing, but of the doing of the One who calls them righteous. Atheists in contrast attempt right living while denying a universal source of right and wrong. They thereby measure their deeds as righteous by their own humanly twisted and innately subjective standards. The only way to live better, help often and wonder more is to surrender to the Source of all life, the Supreme Helper and the Creator of all that inspires wonder.

Even fellow atheists are quickly pointing out the obvious irony. For example, the article quotes Michael Luciano, a blogger at policymic.com, “There's something not OK with appropriating all of this religious language, imagery and ritual for atheism.” On this, we might agree. In an earlier post, "Atheism is a Religion" I pointed out the fact that atheism is in fact a religion as it is a system of beliefs (faith) that people follow. This latest church movement by devoted atheists is just the latest piece of compelling evidence that proves this assertion to be true.

But, the real troubling trend is not atheists displaying religious behavior. What is more disturbing is the trend in the opposite direction. Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.” This verse is often used to attack or describe atheists. The truth is that this passage was not penned with exclusively atheists in mind. In fact, notice how the verse does not say, “the fool says in his mind, ‘There is no God.’” Rather, the passage addresses the heart. The Hebrew word for “heart” is “lebab” which means in its truest sense, the inner man or the seat of man’s emotions. This verse is not referring to our mind or our brain. We know this from 1 Samuel 2:35 where God uses the word, “lebab,” for heart and the word, “nephesh,” for mind both in the same verse. The two have different meanings. Even Jesus differentiates between the two in His challenge of us in Matthew 22:37, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Therefore, Psalms 14:1 is not calling a fool someone who has reasoned in his mind that there is no God. It is calling a fool the one whose inner self and emotions deny Him. And, that would include the “christian” who claims to believe in God in his mind and thoughts, but denies God with his lifestyle. The Bible calls that person a fool.

The biggest problem in the church today is not atheists mimicking Christians. The bigger problem is Christians mimicking atheists.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Should God’s Children Fear Him?


“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is a widely-loved children’s novel that was written by L. Frank Baum and published in 1900. The book was musically adapted into the classic movie starring Judy Garland in 1939. For those of you who are familiar with the plot, consider how the symbolism in the story parallels aspects of the Bible’s narrative. The four pilgrims are encouraged to follow a “yellow brick road” (like streets of gold). This golden street resembles a narrow path with distractions (Matthew 7:14). The path finally leads to an Emerald City on a hill (Heaven), complete with a gate keeper (popular Christian myth). All this to see the great and powerful Oz (God). Is this beautifully paralleled imagery or Christian satire? After all, Oz turns out to be a fake and the only real power is wielded by the witches. How does that compare with Christians’ view of God today?

So many Christians do not seem to actually fear God as they should. It is as if they see God as the old man behind the curtain pretending to be the great Wizard. Most reduce the fear of God to merely respect or reverence. But, the Bible defines fear of God as so much more. In fact, the Bible uses the word “fear” over 300 times with reference to our response to God. Those 300-plus mentions span both Testaments and are comprised to a large extent of characterizations of fearing God as a positive and necessary act. Fearing God is a central theme of the Bible. Even Jesus addressed his disciples (not unbelievers) in Matthew 10:28, “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.” Therefore, downplaying fearing God, even for God’s children, to merely reverence is probably rife with Biblical malpractice.

Some preachers even go as far as to preach as if Christians should never fear God at all. They reduce God to some form of spiritual grandpa incessantly dispensing candy to His disobedient children. But where can such a caricature be found in the Bible? In truth, “the Lord disciplines the one He loves.” After all, He is our Father and we are His children in need of discipline. In fact, discipline is where we get the word disciple. Therefore God disciplines His disciples (His children). Hebrews 12:5-11 says it best:

 “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and chastises every son whom he receives.’
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

That said, Biblical discipline is not the same as Biblical punishment. One big difference between the two is that there is love in Biblical discipline, but there is no love in Biblical punishment. Punishment threatens fallen man whereas discipline only threatens our ego. Punishment is pure and undiluted condemnation and wrath. But, both discipline and punishment are worthy of fear albeit at different levels. Punishment is worthy of fear because it is eternally wrathful and void of love. Discipline is also worthy of fear because it is painfully correcting. My father disciplined me while I was growing up when I willfully disobeyed him. He did not “spare the rod.” And, every time I anticipated his discipline, I was very fearful. But, my father disciplined me because he loved me. And, from then even until now, I not only see his discipline as loving, but I am very thankful for it.

There are far too many verses on fearing God to address them all in this post. But, we will review a few of them just to affirm some vital few conclusions. Before we dig deeper, keep in mind that the Hebrew word for “fear” is yare, which in Biblical use includes fear, terror and awe. This word is not only used for one of these three definitions, but for all of them. In contrast, the Greek word used for fear is phobeo, which is where we get the modern day English word, phobia. But, the modern word does not revise the ancient word. We are not called to have a Godphobia. But, the ancient word means fear that is much greater than mere reverence. We are to fear Him as we should fear a Heavenly Father who unsparingly disciplines. With that backdrop, let’s examine further the Biblical application of God’s children fearing Him.

Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” And Psalms 111:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” “Practice” does not imply a one-time event, but an ongoing lifestyle. And Proverbs 19:23 refers to the fear of the Lord as “life.” These verses should apply somewhat equally to the believer as they do the unbeliever. In fact, Psalms 33:8 says, “Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!” The “earth” and “all the inhabitants” includes Christians. While hell only awaits the unbeliever, these verses point out that we are all to fear God for reasons that we all have in common.

Probably the best analogy I have heard to illustrate this common fear is that of a hurricane. I grew up enduring many hurricanes which led me to understand and fear them intimately. At the center of a hurricane is the eye. When you are in the eye of a hurricane, there is typically peace and blue skies above. It goes without saying that it is much better to be in the peaceful eye of the hurricane than in its bands of destructive winds and waves. As we Christians journey this life, our fear of God should be like that of fearing a hurricane. As long as we stay in the center of God, we need not fear His force. But as we leave God’s protective center, we have plenty to fear.

On that note, the verse that gets Christians most confused is 1 John 4:18 which says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” But this verse is not meant to discredit all other verses in the Bible about fearing God. For example, this verse does not mean that Jesus was wrong to implore His disciples to fear God. Rather, this verse is best understood by way of the disciplining father analogy. I feared my father’s discipline. But, his love, borne through discipline, brought me to a place of practiced obedience, which allowed me to avoid discipline. His love led me to a place where the need for discipline was replaced with maturity. Where discipline is no longer imminent, then the fear of imminent discipline is gone. I matured to obedience out of fear without living in fear. And, His love completed my wisdom. But, unlike our relationship with our earthly fathers, our spiritual maturation in relating to our Heavenly Father will likely span our entire lifetimes.

In closing, let’s complete our understanding of fearing God by returning to debunking the Wizard of Oz analogy. As we do, consider the words of William Eisenhower, adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, when he said:

“Unfortunately, many of us presume that the world is the ultimate threat and that God's function is to offset it. How different this is from the biblical position that God is far scarier than the world ... When we assume that the world is the ultimate threat, we give it unwarranted power, for in truth, the world's threats are temporary. When we expect God to balance the stress of the world, we reduce him to the world's equal ... As I walk with the Lord, I discover that God poses an ominous threat to my ego, but not to me. He rescues me from my delusions, so he may reveal the truth that sets me free. He casts me down, only to lift me up again … Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but love from the Lord is its completion.”

Sometimes it seems that having no fear of God is the root sin of the evangelical church in America today. It is the core reason for ineffective witness. It is certainly too strong to say that there is no fear of God. But it does seem that there is often too little fear of God. Do we truly know the revealed God of Scripture, or do we believe in a God who is like the Wizard of Oz standing behind a curtain with a biteless bark? 

Will we ultimately fear God? The answer is yes. In eternity every knee will bow. As Christians and God’s children, it is our challenge to daily bow the knee on this side of eternity.