Find truth in a world of fake news – Titus 1:1-4, Part 3

12 Jun

Truth does not seem to be in good standing in our culture.  Facebook recently reported that they deleted over 3 billion fake accounts.  This means there are a lot of people who want to influence others around the world with untruth.  Fake news!  Our previous sermon series was all about false ideas that Christians believe, and throughout that series we found many untruths.  As we continue looking at Titus 1:1-4, Paul is going to talk about truth. It seems truth (or the lack thereof) was a major issue on the Island of Crete, where Titus was serving.

After describing himself as a servant/slave of God and apostle of Jesus, Paul says he holds these roles, “For the faith of the elect.”  Who are God’s elect?  This is the idea of God choosing people to be part of his family.  There are two main beliefs about God choosing people: corporate election and individual election. In my denomination we do not believe that God chooses individual people to be a part of his family and that he condemns others.  Instead we believe that God does choose all corporately in Christ, and yet we individuals need to choose him back.  God chose the entire nation of Israel, in the Old Covenant, the Old Testament, to be his special chosen nation, and yet that didn’t guarantee that each individual Israelite was saved; they still had to choose him.  Many didn’t.  In the same way, in the New Covenant, the New Testament, we believe that God chose all in Christ, but that doesn’t guarantee that each person will be saved, they still have to choose God.

That is why Paul uses the word “faith” in Titus 1:1  He wants more and more people to place their faith in God.  Therefore he mentions the next phrase about why he is a servant and apostle.  He wants all people to have “the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.”

What is the truth that Paul wants people to know?

Paul knows he needs to talk with Titus and the other Christians in Crete about truth.  Why?  Look at verses 10 through 12.  We’re going to dig into that much more fully in the coming weeks, but I want you to at least see it here.  In verse 10 he talks about some Cretans as “mere talkers, deceivers,” in verse 11 he refers to their “dishonest gain,” and in verse 12 he quotes one of their own poets, Epimenedes, who said, “Cretan are always liars.”  Just as it is in our day, in Titus’ day, in Crete in particular, it seems that lying and deception were rampant.  You can see why Paul really wants them to know the truth.

So what is the truth that leads to godliness?  In verse 2 Paul says, “God does not lie.”  Truth, Paul says, is found in God and as we keep looking at the passage, we’ll see how Paul describes it.

Looking at the phrase, “truth that leads godliness,” what Paul is talking about is straightforward.  The word he uses for “truth” is defined as “what actually happened.”  And the word he uses for “godliness” is defined as “appropriate beliefs and devout practice of obligations relating to supernatural persons and powers—‘religion, piety.” (Louw & Nida)

So Paul sees himself as a servant of God, an apostle of Jesus, with the mission of helping all people come to know the truth that will lead to right beliefs, right practice and thus, right relationship with God.  I appreciate that so much.  It goes back to the two main purposes of this letter: sound doctrine, and good works.  Paul wants everyone everywhere to know the truth (sound doctrine), which is the truth about Jesus, so they will live rightly (do good works).

False Ideas Christians Believe About…God’s Will

12 Jun

Do you know God’s will for your life? How do you find out? A lot people wonder. In this post we are fact-checking Christian ideas about God’s will.  There are a lot of thoughts out there about God’s will.  And unfortunately there is much confusion too.  Here are the ideas that we are going to be looking at:

  • God doesn’t choose the equipped, he equips the chosen.
  • You’re never safer than when you are in God’s will.
  • When God closes a door, he opens a window.
  • All in God’s timing.

Have you heard any of these?  Have you found yourself thinking them or maybe saying them?  Let’s take a deeper look at them.  We’re starting with:

As I read that one a couple times while preparing for this sermon, even though it was a phrase that I have heard many times before, I thought to myself, “That is a confusing phrase.”   I love these kinds of phrases, where you move words around in a sentence and it gives you a different meaning.  They’re super creative and fun, and often times they can be very helpful.

Like John F. Kennedy’s famous line: “Ask not what your country can do for you…” how does it finish? I bet you know.

“…Ask what you can do for your country.”

I did not know this, but there is a term for this kind of literary device.

Antimetabole!  It is from the Greek meaning “turning about” and it is defined as “repeating a phrase in reverse order.” 

But sometimes antimetabole is just plain old confusing or illogical.  So let’s fact check this phrase we Christians so often say: “God doesn’t choose the equipped, he equips the chosen.”  It is a fun phrase to say, but we have to break it down into pieces and see how its ideas and assumptions compare or contrast with biblical teaching.

This phrase has a couple features that we need to look at:

  1. The idea of God choosing people.  Does God choose some people and not others?  And choose them for what?  To be saved and go to heaven?  Or to just serve him?  Does God choose some people for certain roles, like becoming a pastor or missionary, but not other roles?  There are lots of questions about the idea of God’s choosing.
  2. The idea of people being equipped.  Are certain people equipped, but not others?  Does God look around the earth, surveying people and concluding, “Aha!  You are equipped to be a pastor, so I choose you.”  Does he do that?  Or does he randomly choose some people, and say, “I choose you, and now I am going to equip you to be a missionary.”  And what about the other roles and responsibilities in his Kingdom beyond just being pastors and missionaries? 

There are so many questions!  Let’s see if we can answer some.

First of all, does God choose people? 

In the Old Testament we saw in our Deuteronomy series that God chose the nation of Israel to be his people.  He chose a whole family that became a nation.  So he did choose, but each Israelite had to respond by also choosing him back, a choice they showed they made by keeping the terms of the covenant that they had with God.  In other words, they had to obey him, and to be faithful to him.  Sadly, many did not choose to do this throughout their history, and they broke their covenant with God. In fact, the whole nation many hundreds of years later was so rebellious that God allowed them to be invaded and exiled. God choose them corporately, but his choosing did not guarantee that they would be saved no matter what.  They had to choose him back.  Additionally, when he chose them, he gave them a mission to be a blessing to the whole world, as he told them that he wanted them to reach the world.  There is a sense in which God chose not only Israel, but through Israel’s mission, God also chose the whole world.  Yet Israel didn’t do so well with this mission.

God through Jesus, then, entered into a new covenant, choosing corporately again, that anyone who would respond in faith as Jesus’ disciples would be part of his new family, as we saw in the previous post.  We saw that God desires all to be saved.  Again, God chose not individual people, but he choose corporately all who are in Christ.  That means each individual, just like the individual Israelite in the Old Testament, has to choose God back to be part of this new covenant, this new corporate choosing. 

My conclusion is that we should not see God as choosing some people to be saved, for whatever random reason, and not choosing others.  God wants all to be saved.  Not all will be saved, of course, because some will not choose God back. 

What I have been talking about so far is God’s choice for us to be a part of his family. 

There is also another way of looking at God’s choosing, and this, I think, is what the phrase we are fact-checking, is talking about.  Does God choose people for special roles or tasks in his Kingdom mission?

In the Bible, we can read about times when he definitely did this.  The most amazing example, I think, is that of the Apostle Paul in Acts 9.  Paul was a Pharisee who was bent on eliminating the brand new fledgling Christian church.  He thought the early church and its apostles were a cult.  God supernaturally broke into Paul’s life and said “Stop it, Paul!  I, Jesus, am the real deal, and I want you to start serving me now.”  How many of us have thought in our lives, “Lord, I want you to speak audibly and unmistakably to me like you did to Paul!”???  Well, it changed Paul’s life, as you can imagine it would.  Paul went from persecuting Christians to being the most ardent Christian missionary. 

For the rest of Christian history, up until the present day, we have a Christian idea that God still supernaturally chooses some people to be his ministers.  I believe God does still do this choosing.  We have a term for it.  “Calling.”  Are you called, we say?  Many people have felt that God has called them into ministry. 

In many churches, this calling is a requirement for ministry.  Some people talk about their work as a calling, and many believe that God has called them to do it.  My point is that God absolutely can call us supernaturally, and I believe he does.  But as we will see, that is not the only way Christians can make decisions about how to live their lives.  Imagine if everything we did, every choice we made, we first had to wait until God told us what to do! 

On one hand it sounds very spiritual.  “God I am depending on you, guide me, and tell me your will, and I will only do what you want me to do.”  On the other hand, it would lock down our lives.  What outfit should we wear?  What should we have for breakfast?  Maybe these are all important details! 

Well, that is ridiculous, and so some people respond by saying, “Well God allows us freedom to make decisions about the mundane aspects of life, and he only has a special individual will for us in the big areas.”  What, then are the big areas?  Usually people respond that the big decisions are, “Who to marry, what career to have, whether or not a person should be in ministry, and maybe where to live and anytime they are considering a big purchase.

Here’s the question, though…does the Bible affirm any of this decision-making and will of God logic?  No.  My conclusion about God choosing is that while he can and does break into our world and guide us, that supernatural act is the exceedingly rare exception to the rule, and thus we can make decisions, even big ones, without having to wait for God to direct us.  Because he, in his word, has given us teaching and principles saying that we can make wise decisions on our own, we can have confidence in decision-making based on biblical principles of wisdom. 

So, let’s take all of that and apply it to the phrase we’re fact-checking.  In so doing, it seems to me that we can affirm the first side of the phrase: God doesn’t choose only certain people who would qualify as “equipped” as if there are special people who God will use.

Consider the analogy of new car purchase.  When you buy a car, you learn about all the features that come standard, and the features that are extra.  We Christians can wrongly believe the idea that there are standard people and that there are non-standard people, like there are standard cars and cars that come loaded.  We can believe there are regular Christians and then there are super-spiritual Christians who are called.  Is that how God has created us?

Not at all.  Yet, we sometimes think that don’t we? 

Here’s the truth, though: God can and does use all of us, even in our weakness. God has created us with unique personality and aptitude, and can use anyone.  We all have a role to play.  No matter who you are, you have a role to play!  I want you to hear that very clearly.  You are gifted by God and he wants to use you.

So with that in mind, we can now examine the second half of the phrase.

Does God equip the chosen?  Again, that makes it seem like God chooses some and not others.  I would reiterate that every Christian is chosen, and there is not some special group of super-spiritual Christians who have a special calling from God.  Pastors are not special.  Missionaries are not special.  We are all important, we are all chosen, and we all have gifts and abilities.

We read about the vitality of every part of a church family in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”

The writer of this passage, the apostle Paul, goes on to use the illustration of a body.  He says in verse 18: “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” Further in verses 20-22 Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” So he concludes in verses 25-27, “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

Just as all parts of a body are important and needed and must work together, all the people in a church are gifted and have a role to play.  Therefore we can say that the second half of the phrase is true, but only in the sense that all are called by God, and all are equipped by God to serve him and the mission of his Kingdom! 

Hear that, Christian. You are all called by God to serve his Kingdom using the unique gifts and abilities and bodies and minds that he has given you.  Whether you are young or old, male or female, you are vitally important.  God gives his Spirit to all Christians.

And that brings us to our next phrase.

We’ve seen that we are all gifted by God, but clearly Israel was not always following God’s will. Just because you are a Christian who is chosen corporately in Christ and who is gifted to serve him, that doesn’t mean that you will always choose God.  That means we need to talk about following God’s will.  And this phrase comes up: “You’re never safer than when you are in God’s will.”

It gives the idea that there is some particular will of God, and if you just choose to do that special will of God, your life will be great!  We need to fact check that idea.

What does this mean when it says “safe”?  Bodily safety?  Physical safety?  Emotional?  Financial? 

In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, from The Chronicles of Narnia, CS Lewis writes about Aslan, which is the lion who is a figure for God in the story. Lewis says that Aslan or God is not safe, but he is good.

There are plenty of times when people in the biblical stories were totally in line with God’s will, but they were far from safe. There are plenty of times when you, too, are following God and you are not safe.  In some places around the world, being faithful to God means that you will be persecuted. 

In Matthew 10:28 Jesus taught: “don’t worry about the body, be concerned about the soul.” There is no guarantee that following Jesus means you will have a guarantee of physical safety.

But look at the phrase more closely.  It talks about God’s will. What does this mean by God’s will? We’ve been discussing it throughout this post, but now I want to consider it more closely.

There is a long-held point of view that in the many areas of life for which we have questions, that God has a very specific will that he wants to us to discover.  This is the bull’s eye view.  That if you want an awesome safe life, you can discover and follow God’s will.

It seems like Paul in Romans 12:1-2 talks about this:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

But Paul is not talking about a bull’s eye approach.  He is talking about being obedient to God.  He talks about it in the sense of offering our bodies as sacrifices to God.  This is not a comfortable, easy life, but a death to self, just as Jesus said his disciples would do: “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” That means you give everything in your life to him, and when you do that, Paul says, in Romans 12:1-2, you will not be conforming to the pattern of the world, and you will be transformed through the renewal of your mind, and you’ll be able to see clearly what it means to obey God.  We should not understand Paul as talking here about specific bull’s eye decisions God has for each person, whether the big decisions I mentioned above, or the multitude of small decisions we face every day.  

Instead, Paul is talking about living a life of commitment to the way of God’s Kingdom, the way of Jesus, to live like he did, which was first and foremost sacrificial, a giving away of one’s own life, like Jesus did. 

So in life we will find that there are plenty of excellent options that we can choose.  Who to marry?  There is not one soul mate.  What career to follow?  God might not call you to a specific job.  He might not give you specific instructions about where to live.  Instead, God wants us to use our wisdom when we make choices.  Base your decisions on biblical teaching, base them on wise godly input, and definitely pray.  Ask God for wisdom, as James teaches us in James 1.  But don’t expect God to guide you supernaturally.  He might.  He can!  But he never promises to do so every time.  In fact, it would be the rare exception.  That means you don’t have to wait in agony over which choice to make.  If you’re choosing between a number of excellent options, you can choose, and know that God supports you.

But sometimes our choices end up falling through.  And that leads us to our next phrase.

Is this true? Maybe?  What is this phrase talking about?  It is a situation in life where we are going down a road that we think is the right way.  Could be a major life decision like who to marry, what career path to follow, where to go to college, or a major purchase like a house or car.  Could be ways to serve in the church or community. But the pathway closes.  We realize that the direction that we are going becomes an impossibility.  And we are shocked and confused.  At that moment, this phrase suggests, God opens a new option for us to follow. We say, “Oh, I see why he closed the door, because he wanted me to go in this other direction.”

God sometimes does this. We already talked about how God broke into the Apostle Paul’s life and changed his direction radically.  But what about the many times this doesn’t happen?  What about the times when we have five choices and all seem equally good?  How do we choose? 

Wait for God to direct supernaturally?  No.

As we have seen already, God’s supernatural direction is best seen as the exception.  Not the rule. There may be times, perhaps even most times, when a door will close, and there will seem to be no other options, where it seems that God has not opened another option.  Or there may be five options and it seems impossible to choose between them.

Let me reiterate. In those moments, God wants us to make a choice based on biblical principles and wisdom.  Here are some principles:

  1. Ask for wisdom from the Spirit – James 1
  2. Discern between sin and not sin
  3. Seek first the Kingdom – Matthew 6:33
  4. Evaluate how God made you uniquely you and how you could best fit in serving him.
  5. Ask the people around you who know you best and love you to give you advice. 
  6. Then choose!  And know that God supports the decision because you have used his principles for making a wise decision.

Finally, the last phrase that we are fact-checking relates to why we so often have to wait in life. Or when we are trying to resolve difficulties.  Or find direction.  And what do we hear from people?

It seems like it can be a good phrase to encourage patience.  We live in a society of urgency and getting what we want now…or yesterday. 

This phrase can also have a really good aspect of learning contentment.   In Philippians 4, Paul remarks, “I have learned the secret of being content,” and that is quite important for us to learn too.  Patience is hard.  It is a very human tendency to think about the future, and to want the next thing, rather than be content with where we are.  

But I have some concerns with this phrase, “All in God’s timing.”  How will we know when it is God’s timing?  This one is very much related to the previous phrase. 

We can totally misinterpret God’s timing.   Or maybe assume that God has timing, but he actually doesn’t.  The phrase “all in God’s timing” makes it seems like we are puppets on a string, and God is just not ready to pull a string and make us move.  He is just letting us hang there.  But is that how life works? Is it how God works?  Where God is actually making all the choices for us?  And our free will is actually a mirage? 

No.  We believe that the Bible teaches we have true freedom. 

The result of true freedom is that we can make a choice, and it can turn out quite different from what we thought.  We can feel awful about that.  It can be hard to be patient and content when life isn’t turning out how we thought it would.  But we need patience. We also need grace, God is gracious and we need to be gracious to one another in the difficulty of waiting.

Let us be a people of patience and grace as week seek to grow contentment.

Of Slaves and Apostles – Titus 1:1-4, Part 2

11 Jun

Have you ever called yourself a slave to your boss? A slave to your job? Maybe you have slaved over a project in school. Or perhaps you worked slavishly doing yard work. We use the word “slave” in many ways, even though that word has a horrid connotation because it describes the very awful and very real world of many people today, and throughout history. Slavery is terrible. Would it surprise you to learn that in his letter to Titus, Paul calls himself a slave of God? Is Paul off his rocker? Does God have slaves? What is going on here?

In Part 1 of this series of posts on Titus 1:1-4, I said that we are reading other people’s mail. Today we begin to do just that. In verse 1 Paul starts off in two ways that were very common in ancient letter writing, but might seem strange to our modern eyes. First, he begins the letter by identifying himself, “Paul”.  We always start our letters by addressing who we are writing to. 

Second, Paul writes in a fairly formal fashion.  We’re not used to that.  Our letters are so often very informal: “Hey man, how are you doing?” or just a simple, “What’s up?”  But how does Paul start? “Paul, a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness…”  Here is Paul writing to a close friend.  And he starts like that?  To our modern sensibilities, this seems odd.  I want to say, “Geesh, Paul, just talk normal to the guy.”

But that is our culture talking, and I think there is another point that could help explain further why Paul is so formal here.   Look at the end of the letter, chapter 3 verses 12 to the end.  There Paul is more personal in his comments to Titus.  Also in verse 15, the very last phrase, he says, “Grace be with you all.”  Paul doesn’t say “Grace be with you, Titus.”  He says, “Grace be with you all.”  That is a clue, I suspect, that Paul intends the content of the letter to be read to all.  Yes, he is teaching Titus.  But he is also teaching all the house churches in the various towns on the island of Crete.  And thus it makes sense that he would be more formal back in 1:1-4. Let’s continue reading verses 1:1-4.

First of all, he establishes his authority and credentials.  Look at verse 1.

“Servant,” in the Greek language that Paul originally wrote in, is also translated as “slave”.  Slavery in the ancient near east is not the same as slavery that we Americans are familiar with from our history.  In Paul’s day, slaves might actually have opportunity for advancement and position. If you were a servant of the king, for example, you were in a positive position.  Some slaves could purchase their freedom. Slavery was also rarely based on race. But slavery could also be brutal in the Greco-Roman Empire. Please don’t read me as saying that it was okay. It was still one human owning another human, and often mistreating them. That means Paul’s frequent use of this word to describe his relationship with God is curious.  Paul is not saying that slavery is good.  He is saying that he belongs to God.  God owns him.  And that is not a bad thing.  That’s why most English translations use the word “servant” for this Greek word. I tend to think that “servant” takes an unnecessary edge off the concept that Paul is trying to convey. “Slave” is the better word, as harsh as that might sound, because of the connotation that Paul has given up his freedom and submitted it to the will of God.

Second, Paul says he is an apostle of Jesus Christ.  The word, “apostle” can be defined as a special messenger.  There were the 12 disciples of Jesus who became the 12 Apostles, and Paul was added to their number by God’s choice in Acts 9.  The apostolic gift and task is one of seeing where new works for the Kingdom can be started.  Sometimes that is missionary work, church planting, or starting other new ministry.  It is very entrepreneurial and very important.  Paul lived this apostolic life traveling many times across the Roman Empire, starting new churches for God everywhere he went, including the Island of Crete where Paul is now sending this letter to his friend Titus.

So Paul’s primary descriptors of himself are servant and apostle.  In nearly all of his letters, he starts like that.  In other words, he saw his life as defined by God’s mission.  Paul could have talked about his lineage or about his income-earning work, which was tent-making, or about his ministry successes, or his education, or his previous life as an important Jewish leader.  He doesn’t do any of that.  Instead he talks about his role in the mission of God’s Kingdom.  He is a servant and apostle. I find that very instructive.  So can we identify at all with Paul?  Or was he too special, too different? 

I think we can identify in many ways with Paul. 

First, that word “servant.”  Put your name in place of Paul.  “(Your Name), servant of God.” How does that sound to you?  How does that feel?

That is what you are!  But we so rarely identify ourselves as a servant or slave of God.  It is important to ask, “What kind of servant am I?  What should I be doing to serve the Lord?”  For Paul, this was his central identity.  That is something that we can emulate too!  Serving God should be our central identity.

But what about the “apostle” part?  Can we put our name in there?  We are not all apostles are we?  Are there apostles now?  Every now and then, depending on where you travel, you might see a church sign that has the name of the pastor as, “Apostle so and so.”  Some people clearly still use that title.  Are they wrong?  Let’s talk about that.

In my theological tradition, we believe that there were the original 12 Apostles, the 12 that were specifically chosen by Jesus.  One betrayed him, Judas, and then in Acts 1, we read that the remaining 11 replaced Judas with Matthias because he, too, was with Jesus.

But Paul wasn’t a part of that group.  So how did he become an apostle?  Paul used to be a persecutor of Christians, and you can read the story of God’s miraculous intervention in his life in Acts 9, when Jesus called Paul to be a special 13th Apostle of sorts.  Paul, like the other 12, is included in the group of Apostles because he was personally called by Jesus.

While we believe there are no longer specially called apostles on the level of the 12 or 13, we do believe there is an apostolic gift which Paul went on to teach about in his letter to the church at Ephesus in chapter 4 of Ephesians when he says that God called some to be “apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and shepherds and teachers.”  Using the first letter of each of these gifts, APEST, some of given that name to the five-fold gifting of Christians. And these gifts are given by God to all true followers of Jesus.

What gift do you have? What is your role?  Just like Paul we are all servants, but we also have a gifting from God.  Paul’s gifting was to be an apostle.  What is yours?  There are many gifts assessments that you can take to get a starting point. Those assessments are not the word of God for you, but they can help you think about how God might have gifted you. I recommend the APEST test found here. After you take it, I encourage you to discuss it with those people who know you best. Maybe people in your church small group, or your close family and friends. Then start serving in a ministry in your church that could help you practice your gift. See the test as a discussion starter, or a launch pad. Maybe the test was accurate, but maybe in time you’ll see that it needs to be adjusted.

In conclusion what we have seen in the first half of verse 1 is Paul establishing his identity as a servant and an apostle of God, but why? Check back in tomorrow as we continue the study.

False Ideas Christians Believe About…Salvation

11 Jun

What happens when we die? Is there a way to know? In this post we are fact-checking phrases about salvation and the afterlife:

  1. We’re all God’s children.
  2. We need people to pray the Sinners’ Prayer.
  3. Jesus wants to live in your heart.
  4. I’m so sorry for your loss. Heaven must have needed another angel.

First, let’s consider the phrase: We’re all God’s children.

When I am writing these posts I have typed the phrase into a Google Image search just to see what results I get.  Sometimes I get a background picture that is useful.  I also often get surprising results.  When I typed the phrase, “We are all God’s Children” into the search bar, I discovered that a lot of people have been quoted as saying it. Dolly Parton.  Supreme Court Justice Brett Cavanaugh.  Politician JC Watts.  I wonder what they mean?

When we say, “We are all God’s children,” who is “we”?  All Christians?  Or all people everywhere? And what do we mean by “children”?  Are we simply talking about the theological principle that God is the creator, and in that sense he is the father of all?

It could be that the person making this statement is not talking at all about salvation and eternal family, but simply about the biblical teaching that all humans are created in the image of God. That is found Genesis 1:26, when God says, “Let us make man in our image and in our likeness.” 

In that sense all humans everywhere are created by God, made in his image, and therefore have equal value.  So there is a real way, and this is not just symbolic, in which we Christians can say that all humans are God’s children.  In God’s eyes we are all equally precious and valuable.  Even ISIS fighters, even child rapists, even your jerk neighbor, arrogant coworker, difficult family member or bully classmate.  Even the person across the your church sanctuary that you have a hard time with.  All are equals in God’s view.

But there is a Christian understanding of the family of God that is unique to Christian theology.  Jesus and his followers taught that there is a family of God that not everyone is a part of. 

In the Old Testament the Israelites were called the Children of God, which we saw in the Deuteronomy series.  Deuteronomy 14:1, for example, says that Israel were “the children of the Lord their God.”  But that was not a label that applied to all people at that time.  Israel had a special relationship with God.  They were in a covenant relationship.

In the New Testament we read that God has entered into a new covenant with the church, and thus God created a new family identity that people can be a part of.  But again, not all humans are automatically a part of this new family.

In John 1:1-14, John uses symbolic language to describe Jesus.  First he calls Jesus “The Word” and then he calls Jesus “The Light.”  Notice what John says in verse 7.  He says that John, and here he is talking about another John, John the Baptist, came to testify concerning this light, so that through the Light “all men might believe.”  That is key.  John is beginning to describe the new family. Clearly God wants all humanity to be a part of it. 

As the discussion continues, John says that the Light gives light to every man.  There again, it is for all humanity.  Every man.  And then in verses 10-11, John tells us that Jesus came into the world, to his own. Who were his own?  They are his original people, the people of Israel, the people with whom God had a covenant, just as we saw in Deuteronomy.  But there is a problem: those people, his family, the Jews, did not receive him, John tells us.  Thus God decided to create a new family, and a new way to become part of the family. 

Look at verses 12-13. John says that though the Jews did not receive Jesus, it is still possible to receive him and believe in him, and become part of his family.  We can become children of God.  Clearly John says that this new family is not about human genetics, or natural childbirth. The Old Covenant was like that.  You were a part of the Old Covenant as a Jew because you were genetically Jewish.  In the New Covenant, anyone can be part of God’s family, anyone can become a child of God, by receiving and believing in Jesus. 

One biblical metaphor for this is adoption.  We can be adopted into God’s family.  I’ve been at three adoption ceremonies over the last few years, and they are amazing.  There is incredible joy when a child becomes part of a family!  I sat in the courtroom three times just weeping with gratefulness.  That is what God has done for us! 

So let me reiterate.  God loves all.  Consider John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Also consider what Paul taught in 1 Timothy 2:4, that God wants all to be saved.  That 1 Timothy passage is so interesting because of its larger context.  In verse 1 he urges Christians to pray for and give thanksgiving for all people, even for kings and all those in authority.  Who was the king in authority when Paul wrote this?  The emperor Nero, who savagely persecuted Christians.  If you ever think that you can’t stand leaders in our country or other countries, imagine living in a country where the leader butchers Christians.  Pray for him?  Yup, Paul, says, because God desires that all would be saved!  Even those we hate.

But will all be saved?  We hold to the traditional teaching (as found in the EC Articles of Faith) of eternal destiny, that not all will be saved.  But God has loved us enough to make a way to be adopted into his family.  He has made a choice available.  The way to be saved came at the great cost of Jesus’ becoming one of us, giving his life for us.  So God shows us that he desperately wants us to be a part of his family. 

I recently heard a story about a man who grew up Muslim in Europe.  He said that he had a dream where Jesus came to him and called him to follow Jesus.  The man decided to follow Jesus.  You need to know the ramifications of that.  This man’s choice to follow Jesus meant that while he was becoming part of God’s family, he faced being shunned and threatened by his own earthly family.  But he received Jesus, believed in him, and followed Jesus.  He went on to start something like a hundred Christian churches, so that more people could be part of God’s family. 

But not all will choose to be adopted into God’s family.

Therefore, my conclusion about this phrase it that it needs some explaining: We are all God’s children, as he is creator of all, but all humans are not a part of the family of God that is the church. 

We’ve talked about receiving Jesus and believing in him, and that leads us to our next phrase.

What is “The Sinner’s Prayer”?  Some Christians have said that we need people to pray this prayer so that they can become part of God’s family.

I’ve heard it called the ABC prayer:  A – Admit that you are a sinner.  B – Believe that Jesus died and rose again to pay the penalty of our sin.  And C – Confess your faith in Jesus.  This is also sometimes connected to verses in Scripture, particularly in the letter to the Romans, called The Roman Road.  The letter A is supported by Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  The letter B is supported by Romans 5:8, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”  And the letter C is supported by Romans 10:9-10, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

So it sounds good, but is the Sinner’s Prayer in the Bible?  No. 

Wait. No?  How can you say, No, Joel? You just read all those verses from Romans that show it is in the Bible? 

Let me explain.  The ABC Prayer is not in the Bible, and it was created as a way to give people a method for starting a relationship with Jesus.  It is very easy to understand, and thus some have said that it is good for kids.  That very well may be true.  We should not, however, give kids or anyone, a false idea that all God wants them to do is say a prayer.  The Sinner’s Prayer might actually give them the wrong idea, as if God wants us to say certain words. 

So what does God want?  Is there one specific way that people come to follow and believe in Jesus?  No.  People through the ages have come to Christ in so many ways.  That is okay.  In the Bible we see many different ways that people come to believe in and follow God.  There is no one way.

I recently read the story of James Bryan Smith who, after reading a book by CS Lewis, came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and decided to follow Jesus.  He and his friends started reading the Gospels, and as a result their lives were changing.  Several of their friends also became Christians.

Then Smith met a guy in a college campus ministry who asked Smith if he ever prayed the Sinner’s Prayer.  He said he never heard of it.  The campus minister was aghast, and responded, “Well, then, you are not saved and doomed to hell.”  Smith explained how he had been reading the Gospels, how his life was changing and how he was interacting with Jesus every day. The campus minister said, “Nice story, but if you die tonight, you would go to hell.” 

Smith believed the campus minister, and prayed the prayer, and it seemed to him that this version of the Jesus story was all over the place.  It was a story of “rotten sinners, an angry God, a sacrificial Son, and the constant battle to make it to heaven in the end.”  One day, he says, he came to the realization that he hated being a Christian.  Clearly the Sinner’s Prayer was detrimental to Smith. I would suggest that it has been likewise for many others, misleading them about what it means to be in relationship with Jesus.

So if it is not a Sinner’s Prayer, where can we go in the Bible to guide into understanding what it means to begin a relationship with Jesus?

I would recommend that we look at Jesus, and his approach to the disciples.  Remember how he started his relationship with them?  He said two words: “Follow me.”  That was it.  The concept of “believe in me” was a part of his teaching to the disciples, as we see that especially in the Gospel of John.  The disciples’ true belief in Jesus, however, only came after the resurrection.  Three years of ministry later! 

Think about it.  Through the three years they followed Jesus, during which time they were doing all the work of ministry: healing, exorcism, preaching, but they still didn’t fully believe.  How do we know this?  Because when the end came, at his arrest in the Garden, what do we see?  Judas betrayed him, Peter, the leader who boldly proclaimed belief just a few hours before, ended up denying him three times, and all the rest ran away in fear.  It was after Jesus’ resurrection when their belief was solidified, and they never turned back, even giving their lives sacrificially to follow him.  What that means is that for the disciples, following Jesus came first, believing in him came second.

We so often have it the other way around.  Smith said this: “The central question of the gospel is not how can I be saved, but who is Jesus?  Your relationship to Jesus unleashes redemptive power.  I hear people say, ‘We need to get people to make a commitment to Jesus.’ My response always is, ‘We need to get people to know Jesus.’  If they come to know Jesus, in his beauty, goodness and truth, they will naturally make a commitment to him.”

We don’t need people to pray the Sinner’s Prayer, we need to get them to learn who Jesus truly is.  Smith again summarizes Jesus’ mission in a way that I find so compelling: “The Christian story is not primarily about how God in Jesus came to rescue sinners from some impending disaster.  It is about God’s work of initiating us into a fellowship and making us true conversation partners with the Father and the Son through the Spirit, and hence with each other.” 

In other words, there are many ways to come to Jesus, and one way is not better than the other.  It could be a Sinner’s Prayer moment in Sunday School. But it could also be through dreams.  For some it is a slow life-long process of parents and churches investing in their kids.

Do we need a specific date that we prayed a prayer?  No.  Do we need specific words of prayer?  No. 

We can place too much emphasis on a prayer, date, event.  But maybe you’re wondering, what about the needed emphasis on evidence of a real relationship?  Jesus once taught, “By your fruit you will know them.”  What he meant was that a real relationship with Jesus will be evidenced by what comes out of our lives.  You know it is an apple tree because it has apples growing out of it.  As Paul said in Galatians 5, walk in the Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit will come out of your life.

What does that mean?  Walk in the Spirit? Well, it relates to the next phrase we are fact-checking.

Turn to Ephesians 3:16-17 and you’ll read Paul say, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”

There it is. This phrase is right out of the Bible. But what is this talking about?  Our actual heart?  Our blood pumper? 

No.  The heart is symbol for the center of our will and emotion.

What this means is that Jesus with us.  This idea pops up in many places in Scripture:

John 14:23 – If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

Romans 5:5 – And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

Galatians 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

But what does this mean?  In what way does Jesus live in us?  It is a strange concept to think about Jesus being in our hearts, so this phrase needs some explaining.

Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 6 that our body is the Temple of Spirit.  In the Old Covenant, the presence of God resided in a physical building, the tabernacle, and then eventually the temple in Jerusalem.  But in the New Covenant, God’s Spirit resides in us. 

God no longer resides in a building! 

Think about that.  God, through his Spirit, wants to live with you!  Amazing, isn’t it.  God created us to have fellowship with him and wants to be so close to us.  He loves us, and went to such great lengths to be with us.  “God with us” means that he wants to make his home with us for the purpose of human flourishing.

It is vital for us, then, to learn to walk in step with the Holy Spirit who lives with us.  How often do you think about the Holy Spirit throughout the day?  What could it look like for you to talk with him, listen to him, allowing him to shape you more and more to look like Jesus when Jesus lived on earth?  It means we must give attention to our lives, our choices, our thoughts.  We must give time to practice developing our relationship with God. 

There are habits and practices that we can add to our lives to grow our relationship with God. I would encourage to search this blog for posts like this one that talk about spiritual practices.

Now we have come to the final phrase we’re fact-checking, and it relates to our relationship with God after death. 

This is expressed so often in the context of grief, such as loss of a loved one.  It sounds like a sweet statement.  But at deeper glance, this one has some concerns.

First of all, it can make God the bad guy for taking a life. “Heaven needed?”  It seems to say that the person who passed away is now serving a higher purpose.  But does God take people out of their earthly existence because they are needed in heaven?   There is no biblical teaching to support this idea, and it is dangerous to depict God that way. 

But what about the rest of the phrase?  Do humans turn into angels when we die?  What is the biblical teaching on angels?

Angels are super popular in our culture.  Hebrews 1:14 gives maybe the best description: “they are ministering spirits sent to serve those (us) who inherit salvation.”  Throughout the Bible, angels are messengers.  Psalm 91:11 is where we get the idea of angels protecting humans.  Psalm 34:7 is another similar reference.  But I would strongly caution us to avoid the idea of individual guardian angels, as if we have an angel assigned specifically to us.  The psalms are poetic, and that means they use symbolic or figurative language that should not be interpreted as teaching scientific fact.

In my opinion, this is not a major point of theology, and as a result, it is one that I do not hold with a tight grip.  The angelic realm is just too mysterious in biblical teaching, I think, for us to be certain of much.  So please know I don’t mean to come across as dogmatic.

So back to the phrase we are fact-checking.  It raises another question: what does happen when we die?

Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christians who die will be given new bodies.  But those new spiritual bodies are not the same as angels.  Quite frankly we don’t precisely how a human spiritual body might differ from an angelic body.  What we do know is that angels and humans are different creations. 

Humans who die and are given new spiritual bodies, however, are still humans. 

My conclusion is that the phrase “heaven must have needed another angel” is not true, if the person saying the phrase means that humans transform into angels.  If the person saying the phrase means “angel” in the symbolic sense, though, referring to humans who are in heaven, then that is totally in keeping with biblical teaching.

I think that a better question to consider is: What should we say when people are experiencing grief?

The reality is that in moments of grief, when we don’t know what to say, but we think we have to say something, what comes out can be word vomit.  In those moments we can utter really bad theology.  What we should do is say nothing and just hug them and express our love and concerns. 

I recently heard an interview of the man who has handled settlements for many of our national tragedies.  After 9/11, he was responsible to divvy out money to families that had lost loved ones.  As he met with families, one time he tried to express empathy, and said “I know what you are going through.”  The family looked back at him across the desk, and said, “You have no idea what we’re going through.”  He never said that again.

Our hearts are in the right place when we are counseling people in their time of grief, and we so desperately want to make it better.  But we need to use self-control and not just let words out.  Also when you are the one grieving, and people say ridiculous stuff to you, I know it is hard in that moment of pain, but we can be gracious to them, and remember that they are just trying to help. 

Remember that grief takes time, and is unique to each situation. So when it comes to salvation and the afterlife, we can praise God that he has made a way for us to be in his family.  Let us be a people that warmly, graciously invite people to get to know Jesus.

Reading other people’s mail – Titus 1:1-4, Part 1

10 Jun

Have you ever accidentally received mail for your neighbor?

It happens to all of us from time to time.  The question is, what do you do with it? Usually just walk it over to their house, right?

Do you ever just throw it away?  Please don’t!  It’s illegal!

Most often misdelivered mail happens when you move to a new house, and you get mail for the people who lived there before you.   Here at Faith Church, we get mail for previous pastors or for churches that rented from us.  It is almost always junk mail from organizations not aware of the pastoral change or that the church no longer rents space here.  So I tend to open the mail and read it, or more frequently just throw it away.  You can tell 99% of all junk mail by the outside of the envelope!  But if it is real mail we make sure it gets in the proper hands.  The USPS says all you have to do is write “Return to Sender” or “Not At This Address” on the envelope and place it back in the mail.

But have you ever read someone else’s real mail? 

That’s a bit more personal, isn’t it?  There are ethical concerns and legalities, right?  It’s illegal to open other people’s mail.  But in our technological age, it happens. 

Have you ever been sitting next to someone with their phone or laptop out, and you glance over and their email is open for all to see? I’ve heard stories about how that has happened and friends have learned shocking things about one another, and it has led to hurt.

You might think, “Well, you should have averted your eyes.”  That is easier said than done. Maybe it was one of those situations where it was unavoidable.  Maybe you’ve been there before.  You aren’t looking for it, and boom there it is right in front of you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  You’ve seen it. 

Starting with this post, that is exactly what we’re going to do.  Actually, for the rest of the summer, we’re going to read other people’s mail.  Letters, to be specific.  Ancient letters.  

In the Bible, in the New Testament, there are a bunch of them.  Letters written from one person to another.  We call them books of the Bible, but they are not even close to what we normally think of when we think of books.  They’re letters.  Many are quite short, more like emails in our culture.  Notes, you might even call them.  This summer we are going to study the short letters of the New Testament.  Formally they are in the genre called Epistles.  Often when we use the word, “epistle,” our minds conjure up really long letters.  In fact many New Testament epistles are long letters: Romans, 1st Corinthians, 2nd Corinthians, and Hebrews, to name a few.  In our modern Bibles they are all divided into multiple chapters with intricate argumentation, and they frequently get the lion’s share of attention.  Since I have been pastor, I have taught through Philippians, 1st Corinthians, 1st Timothy and 1st Peter.  Maybe someday we’ll get to the 2nds of those epistles! 

There are also a group of short epistles in the New Testament, and they rarely get mentioned.  This summer we’re going to study all of them.  We’re going to read other people’s mail such as Paul’s letter to Titus.  His note to Philemon.  John’s two short notes called 2nd and 3rd John.  And finally the short note written by Jesus’ brother, Jude.  Some are so short, we’ll cover then in one sermon.  Today we start with Titus, which is the longest of the short letters.

Let’s begin with a quick overview of Titus.  There are many theories about when, where and why Paul wrote this letter, and for our sermon series I am going to take the position that Paul is writing later in life, most likely after the events described in the book of the Acts.  By this time, Paul is deeply established in the early church as a missionary statesman who has traveled on numerous long mission trips throughout the Roman Empire, preaching about good news in Jesus, starting new churches, and raising up other leaders.  He regularly brought people with him, and trained them to be new leaders.  One of those guys was Titus.  Peek down at Titus chapter 1, verse 5 and you’ll see that Paul has dispatched Titus to lead the network of house churches on Crete, where Paul had previously ministered and started the churches.  Crete is an island right smack in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.  You can read in Acts 27 when Paul visited there as a prisoner, and based on what we read in Titus 1:5, he visited there again with Titus.  Titus was a close associate of Paul.  Though Titus is never mentioned in the stories in the book of Acts he is mentioned in numerous other letters, where we learn that Paul trusted Titus to deal with difficult situations. And that is exactly what was happening in Crete.

Paul has two main concerns for Titus.  Good works. Sound Doctrine.

One is prophylactic. The other is evangelistic.

Wait, prophylactic? Isn’t that birth control? While it relates to that, prophylactic has a broader meaning.  A prophylactic is something that prevents disease.  In his letter to Titus, Paul is writing a prophylactic letter.  He wants to prevent disease in the church.  And so he will talk about sound doctrine.

Paul also wants the church to reach out, and so he will talk about doing good, which Paul sees as foundational to all outreach. 

What we will see in our series through this letter is how much we need to hear this message today.

Check back in tomorrow as we begin reading someone else’s mail.

False Ideas Christians Believe About…Temptation

10 Jun

Author’s Note: It’s been 2+ months since I wrote for this blog, and I’m excited to get back to it. A very busy season of life has finally eased up, and I want to catch up where we left off in the series on False Ideas Christians Believe. In order to speed the catch-up process, what you will read in the remainder of the series is the full sermon rather than the smaller portions, which was the approach I had been using. I’ll also be posting the current sermon series, which just started this past Sunday.

Remember the classic story of temptation, that of Adam and Eve in the garden when they were tempted by the serpent to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge?  After they give in to temptation, God asks them about it. Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the snake.  Certainly it wasn’t their fault!  This story is so powerful because we see ourselves in it. We struggle with temptation just like they did, as you will see in the phrases we’re fact-checking today.  Here they are:

  • The devil made me do it.
  • That just the way I am. Deal with it.
  • The temptation was too strong. I couldn’t resist.

When I found the picture above, I thought, “Yes, that expression captures the way this phrase is often used!”  Whatever that guy did, he is really trying to defer attention away from himself.  He knows it was all his fault, but he wants to make a joke out of what he did.  He wants us to think that it was no big deal!

Can we defer our sins onto the devil?  We can try.  And actually, I think we often do.  When we say, “The devil made me do it,” how seriously do we mean to talk about the devil?  If we seriously meant those words, then we would be saying that we were possessed by Satan or a demon, and that they took control of our body and made us do something that we actually didn’t want to do.  We would be insinuating that our free will was temporarily overridden by a more powerful sinister force, and there was nothing we could do about it. 

That’s not going to hold water for most situations.  You’d be better off pleading temporary insanity. 

The reality is we know what we did.  We chose to do the wrong thing.  It didn’t have anything to do with Satan or a demon.  We say “the devil made me do it,” though, because we got caught, or we’re about to be punished, and we don’t want to face the consequences.  Sometimes we say “The devil made me do it” like the guy in the photo above, with a smirk and an eye roll hoping to get a laugh from the other person to diffuse the tension a bit, and hopefully lighten the consequences. 

That said, we can seriously blame Satan, but in another way.  We might not say, “The devil made me do it,” but I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people talk about Satan as involved in many circumstances.  Usually it is when a person is going through a rough time, and they say that Satan is at work. 

So how involved is Satan and his demons in our lives?  Is he constantly at work trying to tempt us?  Is he hovering around all the time?  Is he here right now? 

Many people in the Faith Church family have told me that they have been in the church alone at night and thought, “this place is super creepy.”  Me too. I walk through this place in the pitch black all the time.  But are Satan and his minions hanging out in churches waiting for us Christians to stop in after hours for some reason, and he is rubbing his hands together thinking, “Now I have them!”?  That makes for great TV and movies.  But real life?  What does the Bible say?

First, of all, Satan is real and he is powerful. 

In 1 Peter 5:8 Peter describes the devil as our enemy who is like a roaring lion prowling around looking for someone to devour.  This is no joke.  Peter is saying that the devil is serious business and we need to take him seriously.  The devil does want to take Christians down. 

But that doesn’t mean we need to be walking around in fear all the time. 

Peter goes on to say, “Be self-controlled and alert.”  Further, Peter says, “Resist [the devil], standing firm in your faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of suffering. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” 

Also, James 4:7 teaches that we can submit ourselves to God, resist the devil, and he will flee from us.  James goes on to teach that we should come near to God, and God will come near to us.  So while Satan is real and powerful, our response should be to grow closer and closer to God, who is infinitely more powerful than Satan! 

We are not alone in this.  God is with us! 

Consider how Jesus himself resisted temptation.  We read in the Gospels that Satan tempted Jesus, and each time Jesus resisted Satan.  But Jesus chose a very interesting method of resistance.  Jesus could have simply overpowered the Devil, as he is infinitely stronger.  It is a no-contest.  But Jesus chose a method that fit quite well with his humanity.  Each time Satan tempted Jesus with a way Jesus could sin, Jesus resisted Satan by quoting from the Bible!  Jesus countered Satan’s lies with truth from God’s word.  Satan’s lies were incredibly similar to the lie the serpent told Adam and Eve in the Garden: “There is a better a way, God’s way is not the best way, indulge yourself.”  That lie sounds so good.  But Jesus shows us that we can stand firm on the truth of God’s Word.  Jesus serves as an example for all of us.

So we can make a practice of knowing the word of God! Study it, learn it, and become familiar with it.  Employ it, say it, use it to declare truth to a temptation.  As Psalm 119:9-11 says, “I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”  Memorizing is a practice we ask children to do, but what about teens and adults? 

Sometimes we need to be reminded of the basics.  In God’s word we have gift.  Most ancient Christians had very little access to God’s word.  What they were required to do was memorize it.  So I would encourage you to consider your level of interaction with the Bible.  We can fool ourselves into thinking, “I know where it is if I need it…it’s on the shelf…or on my phone app.”  The reality is we so rarely go to it.  The Bible is not God, so we need to remember that we are in relationship with Jesus, not with the Bible.  We can grow our relationship with Jesus by studying the Bible.  That’s not the only way, but it is an important way.  It is especially helpful to do so in groups.  If you are not part of a small group for Bible study, I encourage you to consider it. 

Remember that Jesus himself gives us an example of knowing the Bible, and finding great help in the Bible to resist temptation. But what about when it seems that God’s help is not working?  Have you ever felt that?  Maybe you’ve prayed for victory over temptation, and you have prayed and prayed and prayed, and you just keep struggling. 

And you keep failing.  You keep indulging the temptation.   Frankly, that giving in to temptation may have even hurt you personally, and it may have hurt your relationships.  The pain has been real.  But still you can’t stop.  Still you give in to temptation. 

Maybe you’ve thought the next statement:

We can think like that, can’t we? 

I’ve mostly heard people use this statement two ways.  Both are dangerous.

The first way is almost a proud owning of a tendency in our lives.  For example, a person might say, “I’m just an in-your-face person, and that’s how it’s going to be.  You don’t like it?  Tough.  The truth hurts.  Deal with it.”   This kind of person knows their issue, and doesn’t seem to care that it might leave wreckage in their wake. 

The other way I’ve heard this used is by a person who doesn’t want to be a certain way, but after trying hard to change, has made little or no progress and feels hopeless.

The first person might say, “Well, God made me with free will.  If he didn’t want me to sin, he shouldn’t have given me the option.  That’s just the way I am.”

The second person might say, “Well, God made me with free will. And I don’t like it, but I’m afraid that’s just the way I am.”

In both people, there is a clear indication that it is God who made us this way, and though they don’t say, it is implied that it is God’s fault. 

Or sometimes we think in terms of biology and genetics.  “Well, I am predisposed to it, it’s been in my family for generations, so it’s not my fault. It’s God’s fault.  My dad was an alcoholic, and so was his dad before him, so that’s just the way we are.” 

For me, this one is personal, because I struggle with anxiety.  My mom does too.  It very well could be genetic.  The more researchers learn about DNA and the human genome, the more they are finding about how so many issues are genetic and passed down.  It would be very easy to say, “Well, I guess that’s how God made me, and therefore, that’s just the way I am, so deal with it”?

What about you?  It could be an anger problem.  It could be an addiction.  It could be an attraction.  Perhaps our bodies are guiding us and we have less free will than we think?

In James 1:13-15 we read that God doesn’t tempt us, but “each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” 

See what James is saying?  Temptation is so often not an attack on us from the outside, as if we are being assaulted by temptation, and it is just too strong.  James is saying that temptation so often comes from within us.  We have desires in us.  And we allow them to control us, giving them control.  We indulge them, and they grow and grow.  James is very clear that we shouldn’t be blaming others. 

So while there is a sense in which free will could mean that we do have an option to indulge temptation, we have to see that it is an option.  Giving in to sin is not just the way we are.  We can say no to temptation. 

And that leads us to our next phrase:

It sure feels like temptation is this strong powerful force, doesn’t it?  It feels like it is outside us and pulling us in.

Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 10.  He refers to episodes in Israel’s history when they indulged in sinful pagan revelry.  Paul is reflecting on times when Israel worshiped false gods and idols, when they committed sexual immorality, and even when they grumbled.  We don’t often think about grumbling and complaining as much of a temptation, but Paul mentions it in Philippians 2:14 where he adds arguing.  How often do we consider that we are tempted to be complainers, grumblers and arguers?  Here in 1 Corinthians 10, I’m glad Paul brings it up, because usually we only think of being tempted to steal or lie or lust or overeat or something like that.  We can also be tempted to complain, grumble, and argue.  We can be tempted to be jerks. 

What is Paul’s response to this?  He does not want the Christians to be anything like the Israelites.  Instead, in verse 11, he says that the Israelite stories serve as examples to us, as warnings.  In particular, they are warnings to us to be humble and teachable, so that we don’t think things like, “Well, that’s just the way God made me,” as if we are destined to give in, as if we cannot change.  I get it.  If you are a person who has a proclivity to a certain sin, it can seem impossible to overcome. 

Some of you have battled and battled.  Some of you, after reading biblical passages like the ones mentioned above, feel convicted about a certain behavior, and you pray to God for help, you receive his forgiveness to start fresh, and in fifteen minutes, you’ve committed the sin again.  It can feel so frustrating.  So hopeless.  In frustration, and maybe spiritual depression, we can say “That’s just the way I am.” 

To that God says in 1st Corinthians 10:13, through Paul, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.  And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” 

There is hope.  God is stronger than your sin.  There is a way out. 

Notice the imagery that Paul uses.  It is not an image of removal of the temptation.  That’s what I wish he said!  I wish he said, “But when you are tempted, God is faithful, and he will eliminate the temptation and you will never struggle and life will be easy.” 

Nope.  He said, God will provide a way out. I love that! Yes, give me an escape hatch, a way out, far far away from the temptation.  The way Paul is starting this image awesome.  But then Paul surprises us.  He says that the way out is not an escape hatch, but something that will help us stand up under the temptation. 

Wait?  Did Paul just bait and switch on us?  He gets us all excited and happy for the way out.  We who are so frustrated and worn out by temptation, and longing for a way out, are thanking God for the way out, but then Paul says, the way out doesn’t remove the temptation.  It is strength to endure. Strength to say no.  Strength to deal with it.  Strength to resist. 

Hmm…I’m not sure I like that.  I don’t want to have to resist!  Who is with me?  We are so used to life being easy and comfortable in our society, that we don’t want to stand up under anything.  We want to sit on a recliner or sofa or bed and lounge.  And that goes for the way we approach sin.  We don’t want to struggle with temptation. We’d rather it be easy to defeat.

But God says, “No, temptation will always be there, but not more than you can handle, especially because I will help you stand up under it.” 

What does that look like?  What is this help, this empowerment to stand up under it?

It could be the community of believers we call the church family.   We need one another.  We can and should encourage one another to stand strong.  We can and should hold one another accountable.  We can and should confess our sins to one another, and ask for prayer, for advice, for help.

It might need deeper attention though.  If you are battling and addiction and losing, you may need professional help.  Go get that help.  I’ve personally gone to counseling in two different periods in my life.   Six sessions each time.  Both counselors were incredibly needed and helpful.  You might need to see a counselor or a spiritual director too. In conclusion, let us know that there is hope and strength and provision when we face temptation!

God doesn’t expect that much from me? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s desires for Christians. Part 5]

29 Mar
Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

How much does God expect from us, really?

It is very tempting to think, “God does not expect that much from me,”  when you know you are so thoroughly loved by God, so thoroughly forgiven, and in fact rightfully believing that there is nothing you can do to earn your salvation. We can almost theologically justify “God does not expect that much from me,” by saying that we are saved by grace through faith not by works. 

But that would be an improper way to live out the theology of grace.  Let me say clearly that this phrase is right only when it comes to our salvation.  It is true that God expects nothing from us in that sense, because Jesus did all the work salvation required through his birth, life, death and resurrection.  Only he could do that.  We could not. 

But our response, James says in James 2, is to have a faith that works in thankful gratitude for God’s grace.  Paul said the same thing in Titus 2:11 when he said “Grace teaches us to say, ‘No’ to unholiness and pursue a righteous life.” (my paraphrase)

Jesus also taught that God expects everything from us.   He told his disciples, “Die to yourself, and follow me.”  There is only one way to follow Jesus, and it is by giving your life completely to follow him.  Believing is not even close to enough.

Jesus told the rich young man, “Sell all you have, and give it to the poor.” Yet how many of us, upon hearing Jesus teach like this, think to ourselves, “Well…he doesn’t really mean that, does he?”

Sojourners magazine recently ran an article about wealthy Christians in the midst of so many in need.  The author talked about how Christians know there are people struggling with homelessness, for example, and yet we rarely give up our vacations or our hobbies in order to make a difference.

In the Deuteronomy series we talked about how Old Testament Law is not binding on Christians.  Consider how that relates to the practice of generosity. We Christians might say, “Whew…I’m glad I’m not bound to the Old Testament Law, so I don’t have to tithe like ancient Israel did…I don’t have to give to 10%!” 

But if you look at the New Testament teaching on giving, it is way more sacrificial than 10%.  In 2 Corinthians 8-9, Paul teaches the Christians to give generously, sacrificially, consistently and cheerfully.

And it is not just money.  It is about our whole lives.  Jesus lays claim to our entire lives, including our bodies. 

“You are not your own,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “You were bought with a price, so glorify God with your body.”

God’s desires for Christians is that we will give all to him.  All means all.  That might sound scary or too difficult.  But remember that God has your best interest in mind.  His ways are far superior to our ways.  Are we willing to trust him with our lives?  Go all in.

So as we fact-check this one, God doesn’t expect you to do anything to save yourself, but as a follower of Jesus, he expects you to give everything.