Tag Archives: false ideas

False Ideas Christians Believe About…Church

14 Jun

How many of you watched the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle just about a year ago?  Do you remember the preacher?  It was an American, Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church.  I remember listening to that sermon thinking to myself, “Wow, that guy just brought an astounding message.”  But in the days that followed, people accused him of “watering down the message.” 

With this post, I conclude this series with the topic of church and ministry, and the first one is “we should never water down the message.”

What is watering down?  When you water down something, it is usually a drink like coffee or juice, and you are diluting it, not allowing it to have full strength. 

Sometimes people say a similar phrase: “We should never sugar-coat the message.” Sugar-coating is when you take something that maybe doesn’t taste so good and you add sugar to it.  Like Mary Poppins sang, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” 

So how do these figures of speech relate to the Bible? We preachers and teachers can water down or sugar coat passages in the Bible.  

Was Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding an instance of watering down the message?  Think about the audience he was preaching to.  First of all, the audience in attendance at the wedding itself was filled with royals, celebrities, politicians and nobles from across the globe.  Then there was the world-wide broadcast audience that one report said numbered 1.9 billion.  Let me ask you, if you were responsible to give that sermon at that wedding, to that audience, what in the world would you preach?  Curry’s sermon was 13 minutes, and riveting.  His topic, very appropriately for a wedding was…can you guess?  Love.

He said phrases like: “Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way — when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive! … When love is the way, poverty will become history.”

He quoted 1st John talking about God as the source of love.  He mentioned Jesus’ teaching that the greatest commands are to love God and love others.

He read an old black spiritual: “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” One of the stanzas actually says: “If you cannot preach like Peter and you cannot pray like Paul, you just tell the love of Jesus how he died to save us all.” Curry explained, “Oh that’s the balm in Gilead. This way of love is the way of life.  Jesus died to save us all. He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He wasn’t getting anything out of it. He gave up his life, he sacrificed his life for the good of the others, for the good of the other, for the well-being of the world. For us, that’s what love is.” 

He said all that at the royal wedding!  I was cheering, weeping, thinking to myself, “I bet there are a whole lot of people who just heard about Jesus in a way they hadn’t ever heard before.  I bet there are a whole lot of people in that massive audience who could be thinking, “That’s different from the Christianity I hear about, I want to give this Jesus guy another look.”

Well, Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding stole the show, if that is possible at a royal wedding, and the commentators later that day and in the days to follow were talking about it nonstop, amazed.  When is the last time a sermon about Jesus made the news and was the talk of the talk shows? 

Yet at the same time, some Christians accused Curry of watering down the Gospel.  When I heard that, I had to do a double-take.  There’s no way.  Watering it down?  I thought, if I have a chance to preach a royal wedding to almost two billion people, I hope I would preach the exact sermon Curry did. 

So how could someone say that Curry watered down the Gospel? 

One word: repent.  He didn’t use the word “repent.”  And he didn’t.  I verified it.  I downloaded the sermon transcript, and I even used Control-F to check the document, so I didn’t miss the word “repent”.  No mention of repentance. 

We Christians definitely believe that repentance is fundamental to the content of the message of the Good News of Jesus.  Jesus himself said it many times. In Mark 1:15, what might be the earliest record of Jesus’ first teaching, we read, “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”  Paul also included the idea of repentance in his preaching of the good news.  Read Paul’s sermon to the people in Athens in Acts 17, and in verse 30 Paul preached that “God declares that all people everywhere should repent.”  So was Curry watering down the Gospel by not including repentance?

In our day and age there is a trend of preaching that focuses on affirmation, and those kinds of preachers can be accused of watering down the message.  People love encouraging messages.  We live in a difficult and anxiety-ridden world, and people want hope and a reminder that God is faithful and that in him we can find strength for living.  I get that.  There are loads of place where the Bible does teach that.  But the Bible also teaches a whole lot more. 

What is not right is when a preacher teaches a section of the Bible that is confrontational or has some accountability, and by what they say in their sermon you’d never know it.  Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that the Word of God is so good, so creative, so important, that as a preacher I need to do my best to get out of the way and let it speak.  I don’t think I can get out of the way 100%.  We all bring ourselves to the text, meaning that we cannot fully divorce ourselves from our personalities, viewpoints, life experiences and cultural assumptions when we are interpreting the text.

But I hope that while I have preached through my unique filter, I have not gotten in the way of the Word of God. My goal is to avoid sugar-coating or watering down. Instead, in every sermon I preach, I want to let the Word of God speak.

Likewise, take a look at the following passages and see if you can discern the theme:

Romans 16:17-18: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.  For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.”

1 Thessalonians 2:3-6: “For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.”

2 Timothy 4:2-4: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

Paul is clearly saying, “Don’t water it down. Say what it says.”  If it is an encouraging passage, I want you to hear the encouragement.  If it is a confrontational passage, I want you to be confronted.  If it is a passage about the Gospel, I want you to know the Gospel of Jesus.  If it is poetry, I should be talking about how to interpret poetry.  If it is theology, we should be talking about the ideas the author conveys.  And on and on it goes.  Let the Word speak.

To that end, I invite and welcome you to be like the Bereans.  In Acts 17:10, Paul was on one of his missionary journeys, preaching and trying to start new churches in the Roman Empire, and here is what we read:

“As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.”

We need to know the real thing, we need to study the Word, like the Bereans.  Do not check your brain at the door, do not just wholesale buy into what I am saying.  Fact check me!  And if you find I was wrong, please talk with me about it.  I welcome those conversations.  There have been times when I got it wrong.  There will likely be more.  So I need to hear from you.  I need to be teachable too.

I say all this to emphasize the idea that we should not water down the message, which is exactly what the idea of fact-checking is all about.  Could it be said, then, that this phrase “we shouldn’t water down the message” is a good one?  I think it is a good one.  But as with all these phrases we have been fact-checking in this series, there might be an exception to the rule, or another way to look it. 

Let me ask you this: What are times when it might be right or helpful to water down the message?  I would say in the sense I’ve already described, “never,” but I would like to suggest at least two occasions when it might seem like we’re watering down the message, but we’re actually not. 

First, there are times when we update the method, staying faithful to the message. 

Sometimes we have used one particular method to convey one particular message for so long, that we tend to equate the message with the method.  For example, when Faith Church was considering stopping Vacation Bible School a few years ago, there was concern about this.  We had done VBS for so long that it seemed wrong to stop VBS.  Why?  Well, VBS was a method of sharing the message.  But it needed to be considered: are there other ways to share the message?  Do we have to use VBS?  Of course there are other ways.  And thus we have Good News Club at Smoketown Elementary, which is actually more than double the amount of days that we have VBS. 14 per year, versus 6 during VBS.  And then we have Summer Lunch Club, which is 27 days in the summer, which is 5x more than VBS.  By canceling VBS and adding Summer Lunch, we changed the method, but we kept the message, and in fact, increased the amount of time we were interacting with the community.  I would submit to you that we made the right choice. 

The second occasion when it might seem like we’re watering down the message, but we’re actually not, is when we consider the audience.  The royal wedding is a great illustration of this.  Jesus certainly interacted differently with different audiences, and he didn’t preach repentance in every occasion.  So what was Bishop Curry’s occasion?  A wedding!  Thus he talked about love, as is very appropriate at a wedding.

But does the fact that he didn’t mention repentance mean he watered down the Gospel?  I can’t answer that question for you.  It’s an opinion.  I remain in agreement with what I said before, that given the same chance, I would hope I would preach the same sermon, and that means not mentioning repentance.  In so doing, I don’t think I would be watering down the message one bit.  Again, the audience matters, how we talk to a close friend, a stranger, a family member at Christmas dinner means we should check our audience before we talk about the Jesus who loves them.

My conclusion is that there are definitely preachers who water down the message, and we should be like the Bereans and search the word to see if preachers are staying true to the teaching of Jesus and his followers. But do so with humility and grace.  We Christians can be so harsh, so accusatory.  Let us instead be known for our gentleness, our kindness, our love. There is definitely a need to preach repentance, but when we do, let’s do so with love.

And when we live like that, perhaps we will be seen as a healthy church.  And that goes to our next phrase:

We are growing because two families from across the road just joined our church.

There is a lot of talk among Christians about what is a growing church.  We Americans love to talk about organizations growing.  In our culture, to be seen as successful, you have to grow, and growth is almost always defined about more people involved and more money coming in. 

So is church just about numbers?  Or is there more to it?  Can a church be growing numerically, but at the same time be growing less healthy?

Let me say that a large church can be a very healthy church, and a small church can be a very unhealthy church.

But the opposite could also be true.  A church that is increasing in numbers could be getting less healthy.  Just as a church that is decreasing in numbers could be getting more healthy.

So how should we evaluate the health of a church? Let me recommend some ways:

First, look at how a church spends its money.  Our budget.  What should our budget include? 

  • The people who approve the budget should be giving to support the budget.
  • The budget should be very outreach oriented.
  • The church should be paying its bills in a timely fashion.
  • The church should be good to our employees, generous to our community, supporting mercy and justice locally and around the world, as well as supporting church-planting, missionaries. 

At Faith Church over the last three years, we’ve been having a huge financial focus on our building. There is a time for that.  It is a healthy thing to care for the building so it can be used for God’s Kingdom.  We don’t want to let it crumble, and we praise God for how he provided for our capital campaign. 

But let’s not ever get building-focused.  A healthy church is focused outwardly, and we should be able to see that clearly in our budget, by how we spend God’s money. 

Next, a healthy church will follow Jesus’ teaching in John 13:33, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”  How do we evaluate that?  Love is subjective.  But it definitely means reaching out to one another for deep, healthy accountable relationships.

This means will we demonstrate unity, not uniformity.  A healthy church will be varied.  Think different.  Look different.  And even believe different.  But still love one another. 

Faith Church is quite a varied bunch.  Except in one way.  We are so different in our ages, politics, interests, genders, but we are not yet very diverse in our ethnicity.  I would love for us to become more healthy, and that means becoming more diverse.

Next a healthy church cannot be a pastor-centered church, but needs to be a 1 Corinthians 12, “all are part of the body” approach.  If the EC Church would yank me out the church, Faith Church should be fine. The church should not be fully dependent on one person.

That means we need healthy spiritually mature leaders like we read about in places like Acts 6 and Ephesians 4, leaders who are fulfilling their biblical role.  At Faith Church we strive hard to follow God’s Word, as our Leadership Team fills the role the New Testament writers call “elders,” and our Serve Teams fill the role described as “deacons.”

Next, a healthy church is a Praying church.  I love how we pray together on Sunday mornings.  Faith Church family, I would encourage you to make Wednesday evening prayer meeting a priority.  Can I give you a loving push in that area?  I am always amazed at how many people come out on Wednesday evenings when we hold Family Night meals and programs, but not nearly that many come to prayer meeting. 

Also, a healthy church is a church that reaches out, sharing the good news of Jesus in both word and deed.  Jesus and his followers taught us that the message of the good news has content and we should share that content.  Jesus and his followers also taught and demonstrated for us that good news is communicated through deeds as well.  In other words we need to have a balanced approach to sharing the good news in both word and deed.  And we share Jesus both individually and corporately.  We as individuals should be passionately concerned about reaching our family and friends in both word and deed.  We also work together as a church family in projects like Summer Lunch Club and Good News Club, to name a few.  I’m excited that Faith Church is leading the Summer Lunch Club location at Forney Park, as that will get us outside the building! 

Also a healthy church should be concerned about our community, with both a focus on mercy and justice, as we read in Micah 6:8 “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  Do you remember the difference between mercy and justice?  Remember the babies in the water story?  Imagine having a picnic in a park next to a river, and someone starts yelling “There’s a baby floating in the water!”  Like the story of Moses in the Bible.  Someone would jump in and rescue that baby, right?  That’s mercy.  To jump in and help alleviate an immediate need.  But what if they spotted another baby, and another and another, and the babies just kept coming?  We would stop what we are doing and immediately help rescue babies!  We would be merciful.  What if the babies just kept coming, though?  We would set up a baby rescue station, and staff it 24/7, which would take donations, volunteers, and coordination.  We’d have to set up a baby rescue organization.  That’s CVCCS in our community, when it comes to the issue of people struggling with poverty.  CVCCS has become a rather large organization, sharing God’s love and mercy to those in need through its food bank, clothing bank and many programs.  It is wonderful, and we need to support it, and we do, which I am so thankful for.

But there is another very important question here: Why are there babies in the water?  How are they getting there?  And so we start going upstream to find the source of the problem, and we work to stop it.  That’s justice.  Justice is harder work, I think, than mercy.  Justice is more difficult to see, more difficult to address. But a healthy church does both mercy and justice.  So think about those in our community in need.  We need to be asking the question, “Why are they hungry?”  Or for those struggling with homelessness, why?  Or for those struggling with finances, why?  What is the root?  Those struggling with drugs and alcohol, why?  What is causing this?  Now we’re entering the territory of justice and it is much harder to address these difficulties. But we need to do that work too. 

Next we also have a global concern for mercy and justice.  We should be learning about and supporting our missionaries, our sister churches in places like India, Nepal, Japan, Mexico and Liberia.  We should be learning about injustice around the world and participating in bringing God’s justice to a broken world, just as our missionaries and sister churches proclaim good news in Jesus and start new churches and fight injustice around them.

Finally, a healthy church is a Disciple-making church.  There is often confusion about discipleship and outreach, where people equate the two. We need to be disciples who make disciples. 

As we conclude this series, we’ve talked about so many phrases or ideas that we shouldn’t say.  So what should we say?  The magazine Sojourners, which we have in the church lobby, has an article called “10 Things Christians Should Say,” and I think it is quite important that finish this series on that positive note!

  • I’m sorry.
  • How can I help?
  • I don’t know.
  • I could be wrong.
  • What do you think?
  • I love you.
  • Tell me more.
  • That just stinks.
  • Let’s give it a try.
  • Or say nothing at all.

Do you need to start saying any of these phrases? 

False Ideas Christians Believe About…Money

13 Jun

Today, as continue our series on False Ideas that Christians believe, we are fact-checking statements about money and generosity.

  1. You can’t outgive God.
  2. Give and you will receive.
  3. It’s my money; I worked hard for it.
  4. Money is the root of all evil.

Let’s start with…

On the surface, this one is true.  God is infinitely generous. 

The primary example of God’s generosity, perhaps, is Jesus.  I love how the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans 8:31-32. There he reminds us that God even gave his son!  And if he gave his son, how will he not also graciously give us all things?  Think about it.  If he already gave us his son, anything else in life that he could possibly give us would be far less valuable.  Infinitely less valuable.  So in that sense, you can’t outgive God because he already gave us Jesus. 

Imagine with me that was a giving contest, in which it was us versus God, to see who would give the most.  He could just make more money appear, and he could give more away, even more than all the wealthiest people in the history of the world combined.  It’s a no-contest. But that’s a made-up situation.

How does God give?  Primarily, God gives through his people! 

Let me explain.  The phrase “You can’t outgive God” could potentially be used as an excuse for not giving to the church because we could think in our minds, “I don’t need to worry about giving much to the church, because God will provide.”  But that excuse is incorrect because God’s primary method of providing for the church is through the generosity of his people.

Over the last two and a half years since Faith Church started our Capital Campaign, we have seen this in action.  God has provided amazingly, through his people.  We like to think of God’s provision as miraculous, like the contest I envisioned above, that God will make money drop out of the sky, or out of thin air.  He can do that. But know this: it is no less miraculous and astounding to say that God works through is people.  It has been incredible to see this through the Capital Campaign.  First of all, many individuals in our church family gave generously.  That was God providing through them.  Then we also received some surprise gifts from Christians who are friends of Faith Church.  First was a $40,000 matching gift, and then two gifts from another church, one for $20,000 and then one for $65,000.  Just because those unexpected gifts are large amounts, that doesn’t mean they were more miraculous or better than what we all together from Faith Church gave.  It all was part of how God provided through his people.  You can’t outgive God.

Why, then, are we fact-checking this statement, if it is clear that God is so giving?

Because sometimes there is another side to the story.

I recently came across a true story written by a man who described a situation in his life that happened ten years before he wrote the story.  Ten years before, he was a student in seminary.  Finances were really tight.  Going to school full-time meant that he didn’t have the benefit of a regular income.  He and his wife also had children, so she wasn’t bringing in a ton of money either.  In other words, their expenses were greater than their income.  At one point they were facing $5000 in overdue bills and they were at their wits end, with no means to pay.  Amazingly a $5000 check from one person came in the mail!  Fantastic, right?

Well…here’s how the author continues the story.  

“Take a detour with me for a moment. I have heard many Evangelical sermons on giving. I have listened to testimony after testimony from those who had prioritized the Lord in the tightest financial circumstances. I had read the passage about the “widow’s mite.” You know, the one where the lady was commended by Christ for giving her last two dollars to the Lord. I knew all the clichés: “I just keep shoveling out, but God has a bigger shovel!” Or, my favorite, “You can’t out-give God.” And, yes, how about our Evangelical go-to passage in Malachi 3:10: “‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘to see if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.’” Test the Lord and see if he does not bless you.

“Now, back to my story. I tested the Lord that day. I gave to him of my first fruits. I gave to him before the late electric bill, the car payment, and the bread box. I prioritized Him above my children, wife, financial integrity and all else. I had just enough to catch up on my bills so long as I put his claim on hold. But I gave to him part of what I needed. Why? Because he is faithful. Why? Because you can’t out-give God. Why? Because he called on me to test him.

“However . . . Two weeks later, threats of collection, electricity cut-off, and growling stomachs of my family made me wonder: Did he just fail the test? Did I just out-give God?”

How about that? Here is a man studying in seminary so that his family can enter ministry.  They believe “you can’t outgive God”, and so it is the right thing to do to give money to the Lord, and watch God provide.  The give to the Lord, perhaps through an offering at their church, and thus they no longer had the money to pay their bills. Then their electric got cut off.  The bill collectors start calling.  And the man can’t provide enough food for his family.  What do you think? Did he outgive God?

I appreciated the author’s conclusion:

He says, “I do believe what I heard a pastor say the other day: “There is no greater indication of your spiritual life then your giving habits.” He went on to say, “It is impossible to be a good Christian if you are not giving.” The old saying, “If you want to know where someone’s priorities lie, thumb through their checkbook,” is true. However, I do not believe that we are to give with some idea that the bank account of heaven is obligated to wire transfer directly to our earthly bank accounts when we give sacrificially. God may or he may not.

So we Christians should be known for our generous giving to the Kingdom of God.  In many places in the New Testament we read about how disciples of Jesus should be living simply so that we can give generously.  But when we give, know that God is not obligated to shovel even more financial blessings right back into your life.

Another way to look at this is to ask the question, are there any instances in which people give more than what God has asked?  If he asks for 10%, are their people who give 20%?  Sure are!  This relates to the confusion about tithing.  In the Old Covenant that God had with the people of Israel, he did  command them to tithe.  A tithe is a giving of 10%.  But in that Old Covenant, there were actually three tithes for the nation of Israel: two annual tithes, and one every three years, amounting to 23% annually.  But again, that was God’s agreement with Israel.  We are not under that agreement, and we have no covenant binding us to give a certain percentage of our income.  Instead we are taught to live simply, so that we can give consistently and generously.  Each person needs to decide before the Lord what that will look like for their family.  For some people that will be well below 10%.  For others it could be way above 10%.

I’ve written about this before, and I think it is so helpful I will repeat it: our evangelical forefather John Wesley had a phrase that we would do well to follow: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”  Here’s what he meant. 

Earn all you can.  Work hard.  Be diligent in your employment.  Use the gifts and abilities God has given you to earn an income.   And for some of you, you will find that you are really good at making money. 

Next Wesley said, save all you can.  He was not talking about starting a savings account or an investment portfolio necessarily.  Those might be good things, though.   What Wesley was talking about was living simply.  Don’t spend money on yourself beyond your needs.  Reign in your wants and your desires.  Don’t believe the American consumer system.  Don’t spend your money.  Why? 

So that you can do the third thing Wesley taught: Give all you can

There are times to celebrate and spend on yourself and your family.  But we American Christians need to allow God’s Word and Jesus’ pattern of life and his teaching to guide us, not our the spending habits of our culture around us.  Is it possible that we American Christians have been co-opted by our society?  Who would be willing to take a hard look at it?  Rather that make money in order to spend it on ourselves, we should make money to give to the Kingdom of God.  How do we give to the Kingdom of God?  Give to those groups in line with growing the Kingdom of God, give to your local church, give to a family in need. Remember what I mentioned above, about how God uses individuals to care for those in need.  Remember the story of the Good Samaritan, who gave his time and financially to the stranger/the enemy along the side of the road.

And that brings us to our next phrase:

This is a picture of the World’s Largest Shovel.  The Garden-Ville shovel, which is made from all recycled materials diverted from the landfill including scrap metal and telephone poles, has some amazing dimensions.  Total Length – 40 Feet 8 Inches, Spade Width – 7 Feet 4 Inches, Weight – 5,000 pounds!

There is a companion phrase to “You can’t outgive God,” which we just fact-checked, and the phrase “Give and you will be blessed,” and that is the idea that “God’s shovel is bigger.”  Even bigger than the one in the picture.  But that phrase “God’s shovel is bigger” is using figurative language.  Some famous Christians like JG LeTourneau used this phrase to describe a situation where he gave 90% of his income and lived on 10%.  And the more he gave, the more God blessed him, and so LeTourneau was able to give more and more.

Does God work like that?  Does he promise that?  There are a couple passages of Scripture we can turn to that seem to say this.

Luke 6:38 – Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

2 Cor 9:6 – Sow generously and you will reap generously. 

But what does these phrases mean?  Are they guarantees that if we give, we will get?  Do we just need to shovel out money and generosity back to God, and since his shovel is bigger, he will give us even more blessing? 

Remember the seminary student who miraculously received $5000 to pay his bills, but gave some back to his church and then had his electricity shut off?  Here is what he concludes:

“Won’t we experience “blessing” when we give, even if it is not financial? I suppose. But it really depends on how you look at it. When we give sacrificially to the Lord without expectations, we are acting out the blessing that we already have been given: a perspective that is in alignment with reality. The widow gave because she knew that this was not her home. She gave all she had because she was already sold out to God. She knew that the treasures of this earth are nothing to be compared to the glory that is to follow. If you believe this—if you truly believe this—you are already blessed. The belief itself is the blessing. Maybe God’s shovel becomes bigger than yours and maybe it does not. Our blessing is our ability to trust God. Our giving is an expression of that trust.  We should expect to suffer in this life. Sometimes that suffering will come in the form of financial suffering. Sometimes it will be other things. But to think and preach that there is some guaranteed way to avoid the cross of financial suffering is not a message that we carry.”

So we disciples of Jesus are people who should be known for a kind of generosity that is so different from the culture around us.  The reason why we live that way is because we have a different view of money. 

If you have bills, one of the most faithful things you can as a Christian is to pay those bills.  If you have loans, pay them off.  That is faithful spiritual discipleship work.  What was so hard for this seminary student, and what is difficult for many of us is when our income is not enough to pay the bills and give money to God.  What do you do? Pay the bills or give money to God? I can’t tell you how to make that choice.  The seminary student is right.  Just because you give, God is not obligated to pay you back more.    

One way that Christians deal with this quandary is the next phrase:

We do work hard and earn money.  But the Bible teaches the principle of stewardship, meaning that we are God’s stewards.  It is his money and he owns it.  Every cent of the salary we earn, every cent of the hourly job, every cent of the money we receive from the government, it’s all God’s money.

Yes, you work hard, and as we already heard John Wesley say, we should work hard to make money.  But we are still stewards of God’s money.  God gave us the ability to work, whether that is brain power or physical ability.  Gave provided all of our ability, and he provided our jobs.  How many of you got jobs because you knew someone….or knew someone who knew someone…how many have connections or have given connections? Not one of us got where we are at solely by ourselves. We have all been helped along the way in some way.  It is not our money.  We live in community and we are stewards of God’s earth and the money he gives us abilities to make.

Sure, hard work, living simply and wise spending and investing will almost always result in financial blessing.  But, not always. And when it does, it doesn’t mean it is your money.  It is all God’s, and we are simply his stewards.  We should use his money, therefore, like he wants it to be used.

Where this gets confusing is in evaluating how we should use his money, especially when most everyone in the culture, even Christians, use their money as if it is their money!  As if they worked hard so they can spend hard. Yeah, they give a bit here and there, but they spend quite a bit on themselves.

What will it look like when people see themselves as stewards of God’s money?  Turn to Acts 2:42-47. We need to see how the earliest Christians handled their money, and we will see that they saw themselves as stewards of God’s money.  Go ahead and read that before continuing this post.

Did you see how the people generously shared their resources with one another?

Where did they get this idea?  From Jesus!  He taught it to them.  For example, he told the Rich Young Ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor.  Jesus taught many parables about money, clearly showing the people that they were God’s stewards, and they should use God’s resources like God wants it to be used. 

A few months or maybe years later, after what you just read in Acts 2:42-47, but when the church was still really, really new, we read more about this selfless generosity.  Turn to Acts 4:32-5:11, and read that story.  Clearly what Ananias and Sapphira did went against the teaching of God.  It seems that they sold a property and then gave money to the church saying that it was the full amount of the sale of the property.  But they actually held some of the money back.  Their sin was selfishness and lying about it.  Have we done this?  Have we selfishly held back the Lord’s money so we can use it on ourselves?  When we already have enough?

This relates to the final phrase we are fact-checking today:

1 Tim. 6:10 is where this phrase comes from, and it is close, but no cigar.  The phrase is actually, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”  In other words, money is not the issue. The issue is our heart.

And this is where it gets real.  Let me illustrate.

On the podcast I recently created, one person, Kevin Ressler had the idea that we Christians should consider opening up our books to one another.  He was referring to our checkbooks. Submit your financial choices to the church community!  Assault the idea that our finances and expenditures are personal.  They should all be laid bare before God.  So in our new Faith Church pictorial directory we are going to list everyone’s previous year gross income.  Just kidding!  But what about you? Would you be willing to have others hold you accountable on your use of your money?

I think the assumption is that opening the books would be harder, or more confrontational, for those of means.  I would suggest that this assumption is not true.  As much as we would confront the person who dropped $25K on a big vacation, we could also confront the person who can’t pay their bills but buys drinks and snacks at the convenience story every day. After worship at Faith Church we have a sermon discussion class, and the day I preached this sermon, one person noted that for many people, the convenience store is basically their only option. They would love to be able to purchase in bulk, or organics, or other healthy options but their life situation simply doesn’t allow it. We do need to be sensitive to that. That said, I would submit that the larger point remains. We would do well to be people who have healthy, loving, gracious, but truthful and firm accountability for our financial decisions.

Selfish spending and lack of generosity is in all of us. Rich and poor.  And everyone in-between.  Young people, older people.  Teenagers who just got their first job, all the way up to older adults in retirement.  We are all swimming in the waters of American capitalism and consumerism, and we have been sold a bill of goods that we will feel better if we buy, buy, buy and treat ourselves.  It does feel good for a while.  But there is within all of us the empty self and it is insatiable, hungering for more and more stuff and experiences and clothing and vacations and coffee and it cannot be filled.  You cannot buy happiness. We need to tend to our heart.  Out of our heart flows greed. Money is not the issue.  Greed is. 

This is why Jesus taught, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Matthew 6:21.  Therefore, he says, store up treasure in heaven. Because our hearts follow our treasure.  Invest in God’s Kingdom, Jesus says, or seek first his Kingdom, and our hearts will more and more align with God’s heart

In conclusion, God does not promise you to be wealthy.  Some who follow him are wealthy and some who follow him are not.  Wealth is not a way to measure if you are loved by him and being obedient to him.  He does not promise to give us more wealth when we obey him.  He does call us to give generously and to be loving and caring for other brothers and sisters, to our neighbors, and he reminds us that we are simply stewards of what we have.  This is not our home.  So let us not live lavishly here, but instead store up treasure in heaven, as Jesus taught.

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.

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.

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.

God wants me to be happy, not angry, and never to doubt? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s desires for Christians. Part 4]

28 Mar
Photo by Bruce Mars on Unsplash

In 1 Timothy 3:12 we read that “all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  Woah.  Maybe God doesn’t want us to be happy, and only cares about us becoming godly or holy, even if it takes us being persecuted? How are we to understand this?

Does God want us to be happy?  It sure seems like he would, right?

In this series of posts we’re fact-checking common phrases Christians believe, and in this post there are two phrase: “God isn’t interested in making you happy; he’s interested in making you holy.”  VERSUS “God always wants me to be happy.” Which is it? This takes some explaining.

First of all, God is most interested in our character, in our heart.  And sometimes going through trials is the way to get to our heart.  But as we have seen in previous posts in this series, the trials we go through are not necessarily from God.  The world is broken and fallen, and we will have troubles in this world.  God can redeem those struggles, though, as we strive to follow him in middle of our troubles.  And he promises that he will be with us always.  The result is that we do often grow in godliness during difficult times. 

But can we grow in holiness through joy and plenty and comfort?  Yes.  That’s why a life of spiritual practices and habits is so important.  God calls us to pursue practices like prayer, biblical meditation, silent listening, generosity, and disciple-making all the time, not matter if life is going great or if it is really difficult. 

So the phrase “God isn’t interested in making you happy” is wrong.  God DOES want us to be happy!

Remember the festivals in Deuteronomy?  God embedded happiness and celebration in the life of the nation of Israel.  Ecclesiastes talks about enjoying life.  Philippians says “Rejoice in the Lord always!”  And James 1:2-4, says “Consider it joy when you face trials of many kinds.”

It is very hard to feel joy in the middle of the pain. 

Is there a difference between happiness and joy?  Can we be joyful while being unhappy? 

Happiness is fleeting.  Joy is a choice.  It can be hard to distinguish the two.  Especially for those who struggle with anxiety.  “Consider it joy?”  This means that you can use your mind to control your emotions.   Happiness is an emotion, and emotions do not always tell you the truth.

So we need to remember verses like Psalm 46:1 “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” 

The song “Just Be Held” by Casting Crowns speaks to this when it envisions God saying to us, “if your eyes are on the storm, you’ll wonder if I love you still, but if your eyes on the cross, you’ll know I always have and always will.”   

Isn’t that so similar to the lamenters in Psalms?  In the pain they turned and ran to the Lord rather than running away from him.  And when they ran to him, they brought all their pain and doubt and anger to him.

And that is a great lead-in to the next phrase we’re fact-checking:God is not OK with doubt and anger.

We’ve referred to James 1 already.  Take a look at verse 6.   “When he asks he must believe and not doubt”?  Wait, is doubt wrong?  And later in verse 19, “be slow to anger, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires.”  So doubt and anger are wrong?  Or are they?

Read the psalms, the laments.  In them you’ll find gut-wrenching doubt and anger.  Raw pain. 

That means we can also declare that this is a false idea.  God is absolutely okay with doubt and anger. 

Saying that God is not okay with doubt is potentially dangerous, making it seem like a good Christian should never struggle with doubt. There is a sense in which God doesn’t want us to doubt.  He wants us to trust in him.   We should have faith in him.  But even then, we have to remember the promise of 2 Timothy 2:13, “if we are faithless, he is faithful for he cannot disown himself.”

In Mark 9:17, we read a fascinating story that relates to doubt.  The disciples were trying to cast a demon out of a boy, but to no avail.  The father of the boy brought him to Jesus to help.

Notice the father’s response to Jesus: “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.” We all doubt, and we all get angry.  Remember that there is nothing that can separate us from the Love of God.  But God’s gracious love for us should also not be an excuse to just stay in our doubt or anger.  Instead, God’s grace should motivate us, make us grateful, to trust in him and allow our anger to subside.  If you have an anger problem that keeps popping up, and you can’t control it, I urge you to get professional help.  It’s not okay to be angry and damage people.