Aquinas and Being Human

Thomas Aquinas intrigues me. He is a bright light of both intellect and christian profession during Europe’s otherwise Dark Ages. He was a Priest and Philosopher during the 13th Century. Although much of his writing towers well above my diminutive grasp, his presentation often drives me to my trusted measuring instrument to see if it be so.

This is where I come to a curious conundrum. Aquinas develops his moral philosophy around a mixture of traditional christian thought and Aristotle’s atheistic pronouncements. To the point in question, he defines man’s supreme, “species-defining characteristic”–that to which each person is hard-wired–as reason. As a later philosopher coined, “I think, therefore I am.” Aside from the circular reasoning needed to elevate reason as the pinnacle of human definition, I would suggest that there is a different focus upon which Scripture places our greatest end.

For Aquinas, since something achieves goodness to the degree to which it exercises its species-defining powers, it develops that reason’s proper use will result in human goodness (a goodness defined as that which we were created to achieve, rather than a reference to personal righteousness). He does a masterful job in building his case and sustains the christian theology that such achievement can only ever be realized through beatific union with God.

However, reason, as integral as it is to expressing our humanity and as celebrated and accepted as it is among godless think-tanks, is not what the Holy Bible references. If there is such a defining expression of humanity, a characteristic that more than anything else establishes what it means to fulfill our species-unique humanity, it will likely be found in the refuse pile of all that is desired by highly educated, influential, philosophers of lofty minds.

Many will quickly suggest that love, or faith, or some similar fruit of the Spirit should take the place of reason. But, this is a philosophical discussion about the centrality of an expressive characteristic that when exercised in its designed maturity will culminate in what the Creator intended for each human in their pursuit and eventual acquisition of fulfillment-of-purpose. In this case, love is essential for a person to reach this end, as are all the other fruits of the Spirit, but there is one quality that the Bible repeatedly elevates that I would suggest most closely resembles that species-defining quality.

Adam was confronted with this characteristic in the Garden of Eden. The “greatest man” ever born to women, John the Baptist, is defined by this expression. Jesus, the prime example of what God expects of humans, speaks of himself with this exclusive trait. And, as it ought to apply to the rest of us, this is the singular quality that separates those who will be considered great in the culmination of God’s Kingdom.

That characteristic identified within Scripture that, perhaps more than any other, could be singled out and used as a basis for developing our understanding of moral philosophy and ethics, that species-defining characteristic is submission.

Humans were made in the image of God, capable of reasoning, but designed to reflect. Such reflection is not as an equal, for we do not replace God. Nor is such reflection dependent upon our individuality, though such personal uniqueness remains involved. We were created to reflect God to the rest of Creation by willingly submitting our ideas, pursuits, wants, thoughts, and life to his Lordship.

Adam was created with independent free-will, but designed to fulfill his purpose through submission to the primary will of God. He could reason and choose, but he was instructed to submit. He used his reasoning powers to accomplish his God-given job of naming the animals, and he also had another life drawn out of him, but it was in this context that he was tested. History convulses at his choice to submit to his wife’s will rather than God’s.

It was John the Baptist, the one Jesus elevates as greatest, who openly expressed his submission by saying, He must become greater and I less. He did the will of God by submitting his own preferences and comfort (all the way to his death) to that of God.

Jesus tells us that he did nothing and said nothing (thus restrained every aspect of his own independent reasoning) other than what God the Father specifically directed him to do and say. He set aside his immense prerogatives, as we are to imitate, and set the pattern for us to use our reasoning strictly in submission to the will of God. Since the Fall, the will of the flesh has always been in conflict with God’s will, and it is only by denying our reasoned will so far as to ensure submissive obedience to the Spirit’s will that we thereby are granted the ultimate “telos”-end identity of child of God.

Those who want to fulfill human greatness, to attain unto that elevated summit of species-defining satisfaction, to discover the intended magnificence of endless happiness…they must become servant of all. Doesn’t that just boil your blood? Well, not if you’re Christian. That perhaps is one of the reasons Jesus thanks God that he refused to reveal truth to those highly educated. Those who are already high, who have already scraped their way to the top, are extremely unlikely to let go, to willingly lower and submit themselves, to be like a little child.

Reason allows philosophers and those who already enjoy greatness in their own heads to continue to promote what they enjoy. That is the danger to everyone in any type of authority, success, achievement, power, or world-limited enjoyment. Submission requires sacrifice and surrender all the way to the point of loss and death. That is unreasonable to most. Those who lose their life for the sake of submission to Christ are the ONLY ones who will ever find lasting fulfillment and eternal life.

The call for Christians is to “submit to one another” out of submissive reverence for Christ. This emphasizes servant leadership under Christ, not mindless servitude to the preferences of others. Adam made that latter mistake. We are expected to take on the burdens of others, care for their genuine needs (not wants), and give up of ourselves beyond all reason, in full faith that God raises the dead and gives life to those who surrender it humbly to his will.

We teach our children to win and succeed, but do we teach them to submit to God and express respectful submission toward all authority? We encourage women to rise above past social dysfunctions, but do we uphold God’s instructions regarding the differences with men and how it impacts their expression of submission in marriages and in the church? We applaud charismatic men who lead, but do we give greater honor to those who do so with restraint and denial of self-indulgence for the sake of elevating those they serve?

True submission looks like weakness, but without giving up. It defies self gratification and undermines the popular, but godless saying, “but God wants me to be happy.” Submission is part of what is meant by choosing “the offense of the cross”. It means surrendering to what Jesus accomplished for us without trying to reason our way into goodness through our own virtues. By nature, we find surrender to be what losers do.

Therein lies the irony. Submission is that illusive, undesired, hidden-in-plain-sight, species-defining characteristic that the prideful disdain to their own destruction and the humble discover like little children to be the defining difference between what they willingly gave up and what they gloriously have been given for eternity.

Will you choose to submit your life, your dreams, your preferences, addictions, sins, hopes, jobs, roles, resources and ideas to the sovereignty of Jesus. It will cost you dearly, but it will be very worth it when all is said and done.

Come Lord Jesus, come!

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Sensing the Word

Time and space, among other things, separate the reality of man from the existence of God.

The Almighty Creator is above and outside of all that confines. Only the material world and the spiritual formed realities, like angels, have bodies and exist with a beginning and with a sense of past, present and future.

That makes God impossible to identify or recognize beyond the evidences he allows to represent him. Burning bushes, clouds, and voices all are given to help created beings recognize what cannot be known through created senses.

For mankind, sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell are all senses that allow us to scientifically and ascetically identify, label, and form preferences for other parts of this amazing universe. Those are our God given senses. However, not a single one, nor the thoughts they inform within our cranial palace, are capable on their own of knowing God. We need help.

Perhaps more than any other reference, Scripture presents the revelation of God that targets one primary sense, that of hearing. The Lord declares that he came to reveal the Father and he did so from day one of Creation through the spoken word. God used language as the initial method, not only of forming the world as we know it, but also in giving evidence of himself to materially bound observers: you and me.

The first and most trustworthy display of God is through the Word. It is our sense of hearing that begins our recognition of God and his interest in each of us. That is why we have the Bible. Scripture is the tangible form that sustains our ability, day by day and generation after generation, to hear God. Those who wish to know God must begin by listening to him. This is why Adam heard the voice of God walking. But that is not where it ends.

God fully intends to satisfying every sense we have in coming to know him.

Humanly, the most dominate sense, the one most of us use and trust more than anything else, is our sense of sight. We often hear the claim: I need to see it to believe it. God is fully aware that we are wired this way.  Into the theater of man enters clouds, bushes, visions, manifestations, and supernatural alterations of the natural world. God is making himself known to those with the eyes to see.

This is why Job concluded after the thunderous display from God at the end of his sore trial: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear: but now my eye sees you”. In God’s economy, faith is never a blind act. He always makes his intentions known ahead of time to his prophets. One sense or another will always be convicted with evidence that cannot be dismissed as natural or just the blowing of the wind.

The most dramatic evidence of God, bar none, is the incarnation of Jesus. God became flesh and dwelt, not just visibly (like some ghost), but in tangible reality. No longer just a vision or the manipulation of the created order, this was a living, personal, individual life of God that could be touched.

Notice how the Apostle John sums up his sensory recognition of God: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled, of the Word of life.” And it doesn’t stop there.

What shocked the followers of Jesus and ended up turning many away from God was the announcement that in order to know God, all believers would have to truly eat and drink of the Lord. Not even the sense of taste would be skipped. That is what we commemorate today with the ceremony of communion–we eat the bread as symbolic of Jesus’ broken body that hung on the cross for our sins, and we willingly drink the cup of his blood as acceptance of an entirely new covenantal agreement with God built upon the death of Jesus in our place.

To this the writers of Scripture celebrate when they encourage: “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that you may grow thereby; If so be you have tasted that the Lord is gracious”. It is to Christians that the Bible speaks when it addresses those who: “have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come”.

To be Christian is to ingest God, not just in symbolic communion, but through regular hunger-driven pursuit of knowing him as we follow him, act like him, and obey him.

And so we are left with smell. And, this is where it takes what we have eaten of the Lord and begins to display the evidence of God through the incarnated presence of God in each believer. In the amazing plan of God, his revelation to every sense of man, culminates in how his word smells through the lives of his believers.

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere”. Perhaps that is why he is so intent on spiritual cleanliness. God wants others to smell him when they get near you!

Language, visual observation, kinetic feeling of something material and real, tantalizing taste, and even through the aromatic smoke of fragrance, God is sense-by-sense making himself known to those who remain functionally alive and observant. Those prevented from sensing the Living Word are left with non-sense, for that is all they can recognize.

The five senses are the gateways to three more advanced senses that cannot be tapped into any other way. (I speak here of concepts, not of physical abilities, such that those who are blind, or deaf, or otherwise limited in their use of some human sense, have every ability to still reach the full recognition of what God is revealing about himself, for his Spirit is never dependent upon our limits).

When all our senses are sensitive and rightly connecting with the Word, the sense of knowing comes full circle. It began with hearing, and it was real; but it was limited and somewhat immature. As each part of us registers and grasps God, we grow and are drawn nearer to him. By design, he fully intends for us to become consumed and delightedly overwhelmed by intimately knowing him. But the brain is not the end, either.

It is by hearing, seeing, holding what is real, tasting within, and projecting his aroma out to the world, that we ultimately develop the amazing sense of being loved by the Word of God. Knowing God, is to know and accept his love for you. When you sense that, there is no greater sense of existence or value. For this life, the sense of love is likely the height of human sensory capability, and it is only available to those who belong to Jesus.

Who can know of what is beyond this life? God does. And, he reveals his intent to his servants before it happens. There is one more sense, one more human ability to recognize God that is only ever spoken of with hopeful anticipation. It is the sense of glory.

To those who sense God rightly now, and fill themselves in every conceivable way with sensory overload in Christ, will be granted the right to witness and share in the experience of the risen and glorified Jesus in all his majesty. It is what Scripture calls “the hope of Glory”, and it will only be available to the faithful saints who filled their senses with him in this life.

There will be no experience greater than being fully immersed in the radiating glory of the Word of God.

It is all about sensing the word.

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Unity, Unity, Where There Is No Unity

It sounds so Godly, so ecumenical. Unity – Let’s just get along.

The call for unity, in its seminary form, has become the plague of the modern Christian church.

The Spirit has forewarned that many wolves and false teachers will enter the church and with smooth talk and educated prowess will deceive many with their humanistic ideas. The push for unity between denominations is one of those poisoned dishes at the church potluck.

Let’s be clear here. Unity is very biblical, even commanded, but the popular methods for achieving such agreement have derailed from a scriptural track and are careening down the mountainside with cars full of unsuspecting passengers. It is both good and pleasant for brethren to dwell together in unity–but that like-mindedness must be grasped in godly ways and not through worldly philosophies.

That will be the aim here, to unveil the foundation to the current cry for unity in many parts of the church and to demonstrate why the Spirit of God is building a separate body for Christ through biblical means.

The subject here has been triggered from two recent exposures. One came via a suggested seminary course being made available to chaplains serving in correctional institutions, which intended to instruct on how to share the gospel without proselytizing. The second came from official statements made by the World Council of Churches, whose signatory church affiliations come from nearly every conceivable Christian denomination around the world.

The call for unity is right and good, but the manner in which it is being attained rebels against Scripture and will develop into a false identity that echoes the prophecy that many in the end times will say peace, peace, when there is no godly peace. Unity must be sought on God’s terms, not mans. To show that difference, we must look at the basis for such terms.

Regarding the seminary professor’s promo-sheet, teaching the gospel without proselytizing means we should share our ideas about Jesus, but not push our expectation that they become a believer. To proselytize simply means to convert, or attempt to convert. If you have noticed my scriptural motto for this blog, it speaks of a basis that insists on proselytizing: “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men…for Christ’s love compels us.”

When I go into prisons, or share with business associates, or interact through written media, I have a biblical mandate to persuade others toward faith and follow-through in Christ. I do so, however, with grace and consideration for their backgrounds, needs, abilities, and limitations, knowing that my efforts never cause belief, they only present reasons for it. God alone makes believers faithful.

For this reason, and because of specific commands in Scripture, I never force faith, coerce a response, ridicule confusion, or disrespect authority–including both civil leaders as well as denominational systems. Although I approach others with respect, confronting sin in the rebellious will always be rejected as un-loving. Identifying offense will most often be interpreted as offensive–that is part of bearing the Cross. To profess the Cross is to point to the reason for that Cross: human rebellion. I don’t push, but I always persuade, and for that I am very much a proselytizer.

In the last century, however, groups have begun to attach more of a twist to the word proselytize that has gained a strong foothold in many seminaries (Christian ministerial training colleges). It has become a dirty word. Pretty much anyone who shares Jesus in a manner that makes someone else awkward is often labeled a proselytizer. In particular, it is often associated with the idea of converting from one church to another, rather than from unbelief to faith in Jesus. In other words, it is trying to stop that divisive practice of member-stealing. The intent is that no one should ever share the gospel in a manner that puts pressure on a decision that might cause someone to change their affiliations.

Here is the definition for Proselytism presented by the World Council of Churches (WCC):

“Proselytism” is now used to mean the encouragement of Christians who belong to a church to change their denominational allegiance, through ways and means that “contradict the spirit of Christian love, violate the freedom of the human person and diminish trust in the Christian witness of the church”.

It sounds good, but what do you see about it that is specifically biblical? Have you ever read in the Bible a command about not sharing Jesus in ways that might “contradict the spirit of Christian love”? If we are to rightly interpret this extra-biblical phrase, we must accept these leaders’ ideas on what that means. In order to be scriptural, it must uphold all that Jesus taught. It is godless and satanic to quote a Bible verse while using it in a way that conflicts with others passages. Thus if you “treat them as you would a pagan or tax collector”, which Jesus commanded, then you likely violate the subjective “spirit of Christian love”. Something has to give way because the above definition cannot uphold scriptural commands, as will be shown below.

When the apostle Paul stated that he only shares Jesus with the intent of pleasing God and not pleasing men, even to the point that if his purpose was to please others, then he could no longer be a servant of Christ, how might that alter the god-sounding words in the above definition? The “spirit of Christian love” sounds holy, but its meaning remains entirely dependent upon what others think contradicts that spirit, and thus is entirely subjective to opinions and not truth.

I read through the entire article by the WCC on proselytism and was disappointed that not a single reference could be found about addressing sin. What the Bible calls “the offense of the Cross” has been removed from the modern gospel to provide a basis for unity-without-repentance. Confronting sin and expecting that professing believers repent and change their ways is commanded repeatedly in God’s word. However, protecting membership lists has superseded that brothers-keeper priority and has become the new sin. In fact, the only reference for repentance by the WCC is that proselytizers repent of their proselytizing.

The modern church is calling for a form of unity that maintains the divisions of denominations, avoids pointing out the rebellious traditions (that in Revelation Jesus says he hates within his Church), and gives the world the impression that everyone is getting along, that everyone loves each other. But, God calls for a different way of seeking unity.

He says to leave your gift at the altar and go seek to be reconciled with those with whom you have disagreements. In Mt 18, he prescribes a method of going to your brother that ends in dis-unity, if they refuse to “hear you”. Yes, that is Jesus command — break off such unity or you will find yourself contaminated. Do not maintain your church affiliations, if they are shown to persist in rebellion against the word of God.

In the letter to Corinth, the apostle calls for unity, but listen carefully to what he says. The disunity he is correcting was the result of their attempt to maintain their denominational differences: I’m of Paul, I’m of Apollos, I’m of Peter, etc. That is the very thing the WCC and their half-billion members are trying to sustain. The author then proceeds to correct the errors and confront their sin with a call for coming back to the truth. That is where true unity is found–in Christ, not in maintaining our church affiliations.

If anyone understood the spirit of Christian love, surely the apostle John would. Hear what the apostle says about proselytizing and seminary-promoted-unity:

“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.”

Peter denounces those false ministers who “promise them freedom” while they insist on disobeying Scripture. “They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you”. These kind of church leaders fit in at church potlucks and celebrate unity because no one confronts sin and instead choose a form of affiliation that has been developed by ignoring the differences. Their idea is: You’re ok, I’m ok, so don’t suggest that I ought to change, either myself or my fellowship.

The Lord himself confronted the different religious groups that claimed to represent the same  witness of God, as being “children of the Devil”. Many times he denounced the error of others with very harsh words. Even when he confronted his own disciples with the teaching about eating his flesh, he intentionally drove away the vast majority of his own members. The Lord has never built his family or his church upon the basis of ignoring differences or in tolerating sin–it has only ever been through submission to that one and only way to God found in Christ, and that according to how he defines it, not through platitudes of human engineering, like presented by the WCC leaders.

Shocking as it may be to well-meaning church leaders, Jesus was a proselytizer, both in its traditional sense of persuading others to come to faith in God, but also in the current shift in definition. This is what he had to say regarding maintaining membership with religious groups that claim to worship God but significantly deny his scriptural word: “Leave them. They are blind guides.”

Regarding the kind of unity that Jesus is developing, here is the command of God:

“In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us…if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.”

If you attend seminary, you will be indoctrinated into this humanistic and godless effort at developing a scripturally defiant form of unity.

If you attend a denomination or non-denomination church, you will likely be taught that yours is the best, and that unity is found in your keeping your affiliation rather than in submitting to the word of Christ in all your relationships.

If you go on mission trips, or live as a missionary, you probably have bought off on the idea of “one common witness”, and of “indigenous belief”, and of “first on the ground” rights. There are many twisted cords that form the rope that holds this desceptive form of unity together.  Learning to work together with those of different traditions is an enormous challenge, but ignoring sin and biblical rebellion for the sake of respecting others is contrary to biblical Christianity. We give respect “where due”, not as a right that should be allowed to persist against the truth.

If you consider yourself mainstream or orthodox in your faith, then you likely have already been exposed to the virus of just-get-along and don’t-make-waves and identify-what-we-have-in-common-while-ignoring-differences forms of unity. This is what is meant by being ecumenical: promote unity by ignoring scriptural differences.

However, if you are humble, and willing to accept the burden of your cross, you will turn aside from the popular method and seek the biblical call to speak truth rather than speak selectively nice words. You will strive to confront sin with grace and persistence rather than condone or ignore it for the sake of getting along. You will understand that such an approach will cost you friends, family and comfort, but will demonstrate your unity with the Holy Spirit rather than with organized religion.

When I preach, I strive to bring others to Jesus as instructed within holy Scripture. Although I attend a church that is within a denomination (and strongly encourage others to stay connected to and submissive under the greater church), I never attempt to draw others to my tradition, only to the word of God. If a person already professes faith, and even attends a different church, I make no distinction between their background or mine, only that we both attempt to submit to the truth found in Jesus and defined in Scripture.

If they are caught in sin, I will point it out, with all the grace and love that flows within. If they move toward God’s word, we remain in fellowship, if not, we begin to separate. If they adhere to denominational traditions that conflict with God’s word, then I carefully point them out; if they make effort to respond, then we walk together, otherwise we move apart. If they come to recognize that their church teaches falsely in some important area, then I encourage them to reconsider their affiliation, because we will be judged not only per our own choices, but also according to our associations; if they appear to take God’s expectations on this kind of separation seriously, then we shoulder each others burdens and fellowship in the Spirit, but if they ignore it and prefer to stay as they are and with whom they are comfortable, then I must stand aside.

“We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.”

The above quote was stated in the context of churches that were mixing errors into the message of Christ and actually deceiving believers with “no gospel at all”. False brothers have infiltrated the church and want to convince you that they have the same common witness. However, the word of God requires that faithful believers seek to gently restore those who are caught in sin, rather than accept their traditions. Unity must come through obedience to God’s word, or not at all.

There is only one unity that I desire, that of being in Jesus my Lord, with those who humbly seek the same, on his terms and not mans.

Hear the Lord: “Do not think that I came to bring peace, but a sword”; he has come to separate natural forms of unity and instead create an entirely new oneness that cannot be discovered through human we-are-all-good philosophies.

Are you willing to proselytize to him in spite of the ridicule of many church leaders? Is your affiliation in Christ alone, or in your church organization?

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The Work of Christ In Me – The greatest response to the gospel

There is one work that stands above all others, a gift from God that is offered to every believer. It is the greatest responding act to the gospel, bar none. Nothing else is spoken of as often, in terms of being foundational. It is the most important deed expressible by any human.

Both our faith and our salvation will be evaluated by our deeds. From Jesus’ words on separating the sheep from the goats, to the final pages in Revelation, it is what we do that will demonstrate our standing in Christ.

That is not very Protestant, and especially un-Calvinist, but it is scriptural. There are more biblical words, in both Old and New Testaments, that speak to the divine requirement to live our faith through our works than any other single reference. It is by our choices made evident by how they express themselves in real, physical, meaningful terms, that our eternity will be measured.

But measured, does not mean caused. An important point must be clarified here. Deeds only reveal, they don’t save. This is true of human effort as well as God’s.

It was not specifically the act upon the Cross that saves us, but the mercy of who God is through Jesus (Tit 3:5). This might be confusing to some, but the point is that we are saved because of who God is, rather than because of what he did. God comes first, not his actions. It is his nature that provides the source of life. The actions proceed from him and show his grace in time and space. He is not the product of his actions, rather his actions are the product of him. Salvation was provided on the Cross, but it originated in the nature of God. The same is true of us.

We know the Lord by his deeds, but it is not those works that make God who he is. He remains who he is, regardless as to whether he acts or not. In the same way, it is our deeds that reveal our abiding in Christ, but it is not our efforts in producing those outcomes that save us. Only Jesus saves!

The Cross accomplishes salvation as an act of incredible grace that previously already existed in the foundation of God’s love. From this standpoint, deeds prove what is true, they don’t create truth. As it then applies to our salvation, good works demonstrate Christ in us and show his love for others through us, but they are not the source of salvation, that privilege alone belongs to Jesus.

This also means that Jesus is not the material act of God, but the substance of God first and thereafter the manifestation of God. He is fully God and fully Man, but he is God first and eternally (in both directions). His incarnation demonstrates who he is, it does not establish his identity.

That is how it has been designed regarding human good deeds as well.

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10).

Our good works in Christ already have their identity “beforehand” in Christ. That identity, however, does not mean they exist absent of our effort, only that their goodness and reality are sourced in the nature and will of God, rather than in our good intentions. Deeds that are measured as righteous before God are good because they stem from the One who is Good, and they are thereafter attributed to my credit when I willingly choose to implement them in my own existence.

It is that crediting of righteousness that the Bible describes as what is measured by God as impacting my salvation. Deeds are righteous because of who Christ is in me; in turn, they are real because of who I show myself to be in Christ. It is this dynamic that allows God to say that our actions determine our eternal standing. When I freely choose to do what honors God, I show that he is the source within me that allows and enables me to accomplish his will. My deeds prove his presence, they don’t ever cause it.

With all this clarified, the question now posed is: what is my greatest deed?

What deed most clearly reveals Christ in me? No two people are alike, and the works of God are unlimited, however, there is one expression that speaks of Christ in me more than any other. Whereas faith points toward God, it cannot yet be developed into an act without this deed. Faith must grow into a maturing act, but to start with such faith is a gift of recognition and acceptance that cannot progress without expressing this foundational work.

This act alone is the identity-expression placed on each and every one, that points in both directions. It is our first required step, once we recognize who Jesus is and what he has done for us. It is the work that initially and continuously proves both who Christ is and who we are, at the same time. It is the key ingredient to humility and forever keeps our relationship to Christ in right perspective.

To answer, we must clearly keep in focus the above revelation. Jesus alone is the Righteous One–there is no other. He alone perfectly reflects who God is. Even though humanity has been made to image God, that origination was a work of creation and not something inherently sourced in ourselves. In other words, both our sinful condition and our from-the-dust origination prove we are a result and not a cause.

That means we cannot ever produce something lasting, we can only ever image reality. That reality is that Jesus is the perfect representation and source of Life–a righteousness from heaven–and we are less. In fact, since the fall into sin, each and every one of us is not only less, we are by nature unrighteous, wicked, and evil. Our greatest deed will reveal and display that truth.

The greatest work of man is to demonstrate that Jesus alone is righteous, that we have been made to image that reality, and that we are completely unrighteous.

The challenge is how do we show that? Our ability to display this truth regarding who Jesus is in us, requires that we rightly display who he is and who we are. That is Christ in me, and there is one scriptural prescription for revealing this truth: Repentance.

I “kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Act 26:20).

Notice the Apostle’s description of the gospel of Christ: to prove repentance by their deeds. Biblical repentance is an act that images who we are and who Christ is–it shows that he alone is right and we are in desperate need of that righteousness. It acknowledges our absolute need and complete desire to be filled with who he is in replacement of our own natural orientation.

Repentance is the act, the deed, that more than any other, shows Christ in me. It is that choice to humble myself before a holy God and admit that he alone is good and righteous AND that I am the exact opposite even though I so desire to be filled with him. Recognize the pattern in the words of the prophet:

“The Lord is righteous; For I have rebelled against His command” (Lam 1:18).

All other deeds in Christ are built upon this foundation. Even the greatness of love can only ever develop within one who first accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior. Without repentance in response to God’s calling, and an ongoing spirit of humble repentance while living forward, the gift of love will remain hidden. True love does not originate within our hearts or choices. It is granted only to believers who have rightly demonstrated their recognition of who Jesus is and who they are before a holy God, which is why the famous love chapter (1 Cor 13) presents love as a function of spiritual maturing (v.10-11). In the end times, the love of many will grow cold in those who have lost touch with the soil of repentance. It is repentance that rightly reflects the identity of ourselves and God and provides the submissive basis upon which to thereafter express a righteous form of love to those around us.

To those who think they are loving, or doing amazing ministry, or even empowered by the Spirit for miracles of healing, they are still at risk of hearing the Lord say, “but I never knew you”. The reason is that showing love and Spirit-infused activity does not image Christ without being in right relationship with who he is. That is why repentance, which is designed for us to rightly reflect our grasp of his righteous identity in connection to our sinful identity, is the foundation for growing in love, expressing faith, living in hope, and displaying acts of grace.

Ezra, the priest who brought many Jews back to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon, recognized that even though God had shown them grace, and that his own promise to restore a remnant was being fulfilled, they remained at dire risk of still being completely destroyed if they persisted in their unrepentant ways. His passionate prayer ends with this acknowledgement of repentance that God is righteous and we are not:

O Lord God of Israel, You are righteous, for we have been left an escaped remnant, as it is this day; behold, we are before You in our guilt, for no one can stand before You because of this.” (Ezr 9:15).

This insight is why John the Baptist began his ministry with the words: repent for the Kingdom of God is near. It is why Jesus began his public ministry with the words: repent for the Kingdom is at hand. It is why Peter began his pentecostal ministry with the response: repent and be baptized. It is why Paul summarizes his entire calling (as quoted above): that they should repent and turn to God. It is why the Lord declares that the Holy Spirit will initiate its ministry by convicting the world of guilt, because repentance is the human act that deals with such guilt in reflection of the God-act on the Cross.

Repentance is what the risen Lord repeats more than anything else to the churches listed in Revelation as what he expects to see in them, if they want to keep their standing before his throne.

The Lord is less interested in the building of huge churches, the numbers of confessions in successful para-ministries, the eradication of poverty or human diseases, or what we think about how our actions demonstrate love; he is looking for the simple deed of repentance. That alone rightly images the identity of man and God. It alone displays most clearly Christ in me.

Other deeds have their place, the giving of food to the hungry, the clothing of the jobless, the visiting of shut-ins, but all of those can be done in varying degrees by people who have nothing in common with Christ. Repentance is the initial and ongoing act that reflects Jesus rightly within me, and can only be displayed in genuine belief. It shows how fully I recognize who he is, what he has done for me, and how that fits with both who I am and what I so deeply need.

This is the context many appear to have missed in their study of Romans: “God will give to each person according to what he has done”. Those deeds specifically being assessed by God in us involve repentance, because it is the Lord’s kindness that “leads you toward repentance”. It leads, but it does not enforce. That is why the passage also addresses the works chosen against repentance when it says: “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself”. Those who seek doing good, do so on the basis of repentance. Those who are self-seeking, do so in rejection of their prepared-in-advance work of repentance.

Repentance is my part, prepared by God, to reveal his identity in Christ and me. It never causes my identity. It can never produce my salvation. Repentance is simply the most pure act that images the work of Christ in me.

Repent, for the Lord is near.

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It is God’s Will – or is it?

The baby dies way before its time, and the well-meaning friend comes forward with drawn face and resolutely pronounces, “Well, apparently it was God’s will.”

It seems that many have come to the belief that if something occurs, whether good or bad, it must be the will of God, and so all involved should nod and move on with their lives with the comfort that it could not have occurred if God didn’t want it that way. He knows best. He is Sovereign. The tragedy was his doing for some mysterious reason, and we are expected to accept it as such.

The young father suddenly has a heart attack and leaves a wife and two kids behind. I hear a fellow Christian lament the loss and then conclude that God must have needed him in heaven early. Another person buying some equipment from me, shares the pain of a grandchild that fell out of a window and died, to which “friends” told him it was God’s will. A man struggles to find work to support his family, and a concerned party suggests that the lack of work “is meant by God”.

In one week, I have heard all of these excuses for why the suffering has occurred or continues to weigh so heavy. They all come from friends, and are intended to both encourage and honor God, however they accomplish neither. Such words do not reflect the truth. They are not supported within Scripture. And, not one comes from God.

Life is very hard to explain in the midst of war, suffering, broken relationships, or death, especially so as it impacts the young and seemingly innocent. What kind of a loving God would allow such pain, is the common question. It is well beyond this post to identify all that could be said about the will of God, however, the belief that “it is God’s will” can and will be compared to Scripture, particularly as it relates to our hard times.

Light will be shed first on the likely religious background for such a belief. Then the word of God will be compared to that doctrine. Finally, based on what Scripture declares, a more accurate belief regarding the intersection between God’s will and our circumstances will be highlighted.

Although the history of doctrinal formation may not be as familiar as the latest sport scores, there is an event that should register for most people: the Protestant Reformation. At a time when the established church reeked with abuses, a wave of resistance crashed on the shores of Christianity in a cry for returning to scriptural authority rather than priestly control. The effort was noble and in my puny opinion necessary, however, those who gave voice to the dramatic shift also contributed some of their own frailty of error.

Martin Luther, and many who trace their theological tent pegs to that time period, believed that the identity of sovereignty was one of the key problems. The question of who held supremacy: God through Scripture or the Pope through tradition, set the stage for a less familiar doctrine, that of determinism.

This was nothing new. The idea of fate has roots that slither way back in time, but Protestants who strongly upheld the Sovereignty of God as revealed through Scripture, saw a threat in the idea of human free will. They assumed that in order for God’s will to be sovereign, then man must have no influence on changing or undermining that will. That is the crux of determinism: that God determines all events, all circumstances, all fates of every person, and so there cannot be any life-impacting choice in humans. Your existence, life, circumstances, pain, relationships, choices, interests, ups, downs, ins and outs, are all pre-determined by God.

Of course, over time, distinctions have developed, leading many to identify Luther’s ideas as “hard determinism”, allowing for a softer variety of the same thing, but the essence remains the same: whatever happens in your life, it is God’s will, so deal with it. This is what leads those kind folks to suggest that your marriage failure is what God wanted. It is the reason so many claim that the premature death of loved ones was meant by God. It is the teaching of determinism that influences well-meaning people to try and comfort, in the midst of pain, that God wills it.

I trace my faith and belief back through the Protestant line, but I embrace Scripture, not denominationalism, no matter how much time has passed. Truth is truth, and Luther did not have a perfect corner on that market. I can say that, because Scripture demonstrates it. That doesn’t mean everyone will accept what God says, but I simply cannot promote what violates the Word. Consider how the Spirit teaches on the will of God:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Notice that the Lord’s will was to gather his children in Jerusalem together, but he allowed his desire to be thwarted because “you were not willing”. Jesus allows human free will to alter what he wants.

“But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.”

Scripture is blunt here. People are allowed to reject God’s purpose. Specifically, the Spirit declares that God’s purpose, which is the same thing as saying God’s will, was refused by the religious leaders. Times have not changed much. That truth still echoes today, as many ministers turn aside to myths and reject the faith that they think they still profess. The myth of determinism suggests that no one can resist the will of God, even when Scripture clearly reveals the truth.

“‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord…’If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.'”

The declared will of God is that we use our God-given ability to reason, to which he states that the results are already set in motion by him. We engage with God as we make our individual choices and what happens thereafter is part of his design but not forced upon us. Both the good and the pain are formed by him, but their specific application to our choice is not said to be pushed upon us.

In the case of Moses, God even told him at one point that it was his holy will to destroy Israel and start over through the lineage of Moses. Think about this: God is say that his will is to wipe out Israel. Moses intercedes, pleads, and reasons with God, following which Scripture declares that God changed his stated purpose. What God had determined did not occur. To suggest that God didn’t really intend to accomplish his own word and knew Moses would asked for what God really willed is to call God a liar–not a good idea.

“I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.”

Again and again, the Lord reveals that he is patient so that all will repent and come to a knowledge of God, but neither time nor God force forgiveness. Her unwillingness contributes to her own destruction–that was not God’s will.

What many refuse to accept is that God remains sovereignly in control even while allowing a degree of human free choice. In fact, the reality of circumstances and many of our choices is that God is quite capable of working out his will no matter what direction we choose. If the toast burns, or the light turns red, or the exam is graded as an F, or the money gets stolen, or the knee gets scraped, or the friend betrays, or the family rejects, or the minister sins, or the baby dies, or the pain gets worse…

“time and chance happen to them all.”

That is a hard pill to swallow. There are times when the suffering is the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and although God is fully aware and allowing it to occur, it is not his will that we suffer. When the woman gets raped, it is not God’s will that such abuse occurs to her. When horrible things happen, they are often the result of our own circumstances unfolding through the choices of all involved and not the cause of God.

A point of clarification. To speak of the will of God is to reference both his overall purpose and his specific orchestration in fulfilling that plan. This is where many get off track, because Scripture doesn’t always insist on both happening at the same moment. So, in regards to salvation, in which both always exist, God’s purpose is to bring many into his eternal Kingdom, and he is causing that ultimate end-game to unfold step by step. However, in regards to which individual names get listed, it is his absolute purpose to fill that list, but the specific names are never said in Scripture to be predetermined (aka: caused). In fact, Revelation states that specific names that are already written in the Book-of-Life can actually be removed.

In our personal circumstances, whether or not you experience identity theft, or struggle with some handicap, is not something God is likely causing upon you. The jobless may have brought their own lack of work upon themselves, or they may be the unfortunate recipient of corporate downsizing, but it is unscriptural to say that particular hardship was meant by God. To justify abuse against non-Christians as “God wills it” is most likely the teaching from wolves in the Church, not those led by the Spirit. Your particular brand of struggle may be horrible, unfair, and seemingly undeserved, but in spite of divine allowance, it cannot be automatically credited as caused by the will of God.

We must be careful here. He can and does cause such details. This is not a planet set in motion by some detached higher power. He remains personal and intimately involved in each life created and in our events. However, his will is not to cause you to watch Survivor or the evening news, or to endure some tornado.

In Scripture, Jesus reveals that one young man was disabled in order to reveal the glory of God. However, the reason the disciples asked if he or his parents sinned, was because that is exactly the reasons given by God for many who suffer. Sin causes pain; the sins of others can get passed down to the “innocent”. This happens under the Sovereignty of God but often without his specific will causing it. As Lord over all, he can and at times does intervene, however, he very often leaves circumstances to unfold per our own choices and those around us. He knows full well what is occurring, and it is fair to say that he allows it, but when we say “it is God’s will” it implies both that it is his purpose and that he is causing it.

God is responsible for both the good and the bad that occur. In this sense, it is his will that he remain in charge. Nothing can occur without his allowance. And yet, being in charge does not mean he made something happen, or that he wanted it to occur, or that you had no choice in bringing circumstances upon yourself.

It is the will of God to allow for human will. He doesn’t force fate upon you. He doesn’t even force himself upon you. You have to choose. That is why he uses that little conjunction “if” so many times when he speaks of all the good he desires to bless you with, if you obey him.

“If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.”

“See I have set before you life and death, blessings and cursings, therefore choose life”.

Our fate is set in motion by God, but influenced by our own determination. We cannot cause our salvation, but we can deny it. We can leave the window open and not protect our children. It is God’s will to allow the event to unfold as it does, but it is misleading to imply he caused it. In this case, it was our poor choice that directly contributed as well as the curiosity of that child. It is always within the will of God to oversee the transactions on the street corner, but it is our own will to buy the drugs or sleep with the prostitute. God doesn’t cause sin, nor does he cause the consequences. He set cause-and-effect in motion, but he only intervenes and alters the outcomes at specific times of his choosing.

In this way, we often have multiple choices before us and God may be willing to work with any of them. He simply expects us to demonstrate our will. When we do, there will be consequences–possibly good, possibly not-so-good–but in this scenario they have been caused by us, not God. He simply will coordinate all the pieces from whatever we choose to bring us within his higher will. He does the same with the choices of others that fall upon us. In this way, it is not true (in most cases) to say that he wills for those things to happen, but rather that his will takes those things and causes them to lead us into his will.

It is only when that will of God is defined as both his desire and his intent, then and only then will he cause every detail to occur. There are times in Scripture when the will of God is presented as desiring something for which he is simultaneously allowing human choice to alter the outcome. There are other times when the will of God is shown to intend a particular outcome, for which there can be no other result. Scripture is careful to make a distinction, and so should we.

To identify something as the will of God, a careful Christian will recognize the difference between his Sovereignty in allowing circumstances and his special intervention to cause those circumstances.

Did God kill your baby? Did he cause your accident that left you paralyzed? Did he make that bad person abuse you? If he has not claimed, as supported in Scripture, to have made those things happen to you, then please discard believing such untruths.

It is hard to acknowledge that a super-powerful God might still allow such tragedy; that it might be within his will to allow something that he could have prevented. However, in terms of his will, he reveals that we are each allowed to decide for ourselves to live in tornado-alley, or to travel dark streets, or to wear revealing clothes, or to hang out with questionable friends. In most cases, we reap the consequences of human choice–both our own and what comes from others.

We live our lives in a dynamic environment. As we go along, God invites, but he does not force. He calls, but he does not always cause. Those who respond will discover that God has not lost any of his Sovereignty to the will of man. Instead, they are the ones who will reap the promise that everything will work out for good.

In the end (all details long since past), he will make all things new. By combining the free choices of our daily ups-and-downs, he will fashion our future. He causes life while granting the freedom to live in our own pot of stew. He is Sovereign and we are free.

What ought to be said, in the face of suffering, is that God’s will is that everyone be saved! It is the Lord’s will that what is broken gets healed, if so desired by the one who is broken. He intends to bring many to glory, and it will happen!

It was his will to bring wrath on his Son, because of our freely chosen sins, so that we would be spared that degree of suffering and be invited back to him. It was God’s will that Jesus ride on a donkey, die with holes in his hands and feet, be called God-with-us and be named Jesus; however, the specific occurrences like the Lord riding on Peter’s boat, or eating fish, or having someone touch his garment cannot be identified in the same way as God’s will. Those details all occurred under the supervising will of God, but the first group were caused, because Scripture must be fulfilled, but the latter circumstances were incidental to human activity.

We taste of hard, but temporary pain–in general rather than in detail, that is his will–but it will not last forever for those who keep their faith in him. The details of our struggles most likely result from causes other than from God, but our final rescue out of all of them will only ever come from one Cause.

It is the will of God that you come to know and trust in him. It is his will to save, heal, restore, and grant eternal life. Your circumstances, pain, and suffering fit within his will, but they are not typically determined by God.

It is the will of Satan and the result of Sin to destroy. It is the will of man to do what he wants and be his own god. It is the will of God to give life.

The wise will give credit where due.

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Immersion Therapy

Learning comes in many ways, but when a subject is especially challenging, there is no better method than immersing ourselves in it.

In my early years, I recall trying to learn to water ski. Time and again, I would put all of my effort and energy into keeping those rebellious boards under me, but over and over I would end up sputtering in the lake. It was not until I had the chance to spend multiple days in a row on the water–quite literally immersed in it–that I finally got outside the boat’s bubbly wake.

I am not here speaking of some formalized therapy devised by some psychologist. Instead, I am referring to the concept of pouring ourselves fully into something for which we are deeply interested in mastering. Learning often comes through organized teaching situations, like in a college, or training course, or church. Many gain some degree of proficiency by spending considerable time investing themselves in that discipline. Time has a way of creating a degree of immersion.

However, mastery is typically reserved for those who are willing to go beyond the norm, to steer clear of distractions and amusements for a season, to fill their minds, their time, their thoughts, their evenings, their diet and pretty much all of themselves into their pursuit of that subject. To mature, or to grasp the complex, or to change ingrained habits for something better, most find that immersion is the best therapy.

In a Christian context, I would suggest that is one of the significant reasons for the Church. Living with others chosen not by us but by God, and to treat them more like family than our own biological connection, is to immerse ourselves in an entirely new identity. Doing church, serving with fellow Christians, eating with them, singing with them, sharing struggles and celebrating weddings, are all part of learning how to immerse ourselves in the very real body of Christ.

Sunday churcher’s may learn, but they are not immersed in that Body. Readers of the Bible, who actually spend more time soaking in novels, newspapers, or their favorite magazines, may learn, but they will  never gain the intense level of maturity available only to those who immerse themselves in Scripture. Those who claim Christ and try to be generous to others may rightly give credit where due, but true disciples are said by Jesus to be those who “hold to my teachings”–that means that their hands are already full of grasping the words of Christ and living them, with little if any room left for other pursuits.

If you want to mature as a Christian, you must immerse yourself in the Lord’s words, life, and commands.

It must become your three-meal-a-day-plus-snack diet. Of course, that will cost you to do so. Immersion means to be fully soaked. If you do the polar plunge, it only counts if you go all the way under. If you choose to get baptized, the word means to be immersed. To be baptized is to willingly bury ourselves, and our ways, in his death as we submerge under the water.

But many find it easier to just get sprinkled with Christ. It is much less inconvenient. You can still wear your same outfit, and you don’t have to fix your hair again. I am speaking less about the practice of baptism itself, as I am about immersion therapy, but the image should be instructive. To commit yourself to Jesus is to come to that place of so desiring that his life fill you inside and out, that you willingly put your own personal preferences, desires, habits, and lifestyles to death.

To be immersed in Christ is to take on everything about him. It requires that we surrender everything to his Lordship and rule. It means we must ingest his words. As the Spirit says, those who claim Jesus, must walk as he walked. Christian immersion requires that we take up our reflection of his cross every day and follow his pattern without mixing in our own. Immersion is about personal investment. It takes all that we are, all our hopes and dreams, all our desires, our daily activities, relationships, choices, and habits and immerse all of it–all of us–in Him.

I spend every Sunday sharing the hope of grace with prisoners, and one of the things I have noticed over the years is that once a lifestyle or habit has been established, it rarely changes for the better over time. It is often viewed as the bane of prisons that the incarcerated often become repeat offenders. The system of punishment or “re-education” has not fixed them or altered their behaviors. Such systems are necessary, and they are not responsible for the choices of the lawless, but changing what has already become ingrained does not generally occur without immersion in a new way of life.

Instruction about Jesus will rarely transform. Going to church will seldom alter the course of a person’s life choices. Going on mission trips can be impactful, but typically are insufficient to generate new life. Attending bible studies or small groups are helpful, but can’t bring about what can only ever be found through fully abiding in Christ.

“No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

To remain in him is to no longer remain in ourselves or in the world’s ways. It means we can no longer mix our own godless entertainments into a life that is trying to remain immersed in him. It means we are to “have nothing to do with godless talk”–which is anything absent of honoring God, anything that reflects human interests rather than God’s. It means we can’t cheer for what the world celebrates, we can’t indulge in what the culture fancies, we can’t participate with our eyes, ears, or bodies in what society promotes. To be immersed is to have our entire attention captivated and occupied with nothing left on dry land but discarded shoes.

As a teen, I taught swimming lessons at the local pool. It didn’t matter whether they were infants or elderly or swim-team kids, day-one meant everyone got fully into the water, and as a minimum at least put their nose, mouth, eyes, and face into the water. I can still picture the little girl in pony-tail, floating in my arms with complete and eager trust, taking a big breath and quickly splashing her face into the water, with her hair flinging up in an arc over her head as she flashed her gleeful smile that she had successfully done it. The most risky part of being immersed in water is to confront the fear of drowning and so I always began with immersion therapy. To learn to swim, and even to enjoy the water, meant that we had to conquer the fear.

I never advocated toe-dipping. Personally, I was a run down the dock and jump into the freezing water all in one shot kind of guy. Controlled full immersion is the only method that has the power to shatter the grip of fear, sin, hurtful habits, greed, lust, selfishness, and whatever else holds us down. Trying to change our lives and choices, while still hanging onto our old habits, may keep our options open, but it is a cheap investment that can only ever give worthless returns. Immersion is all or nothing.

That is what has been modeled for us. Jesus, the one perfectly immersed in the full glory and nature of God, immersed himself in humanity. He immersed himself in the Spirit. He immersed himself in “saying not only what my Father wants said, but also how”. He immersed himself in my sin and allowed it to fully bring the wrath of God upon him. Now resurrected from the dead, he stands immersed in the glory of the Father, offering the immersion of eternal life to all who dedicate their faith and life in him.

It is the immersion therapy of dwelling fully in Jesus, for Jesus, because of what Jesus did for us on the Cross, that heals, transforms, and fixes the impossible. Immersion is not about our effort; it is our willingness to jump full on into Christ and let his life live through us.

Enough questions about the temperature or the depth or whether someone will catch you. Are you ready to take the plunge? Then jump!

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Direction Of Pleasure – a commentary on worship and entertainment

It’s all about finding that sweet spot.

Each of us is different, but we all look for those things, experiences, and relationships that please us. Life worth living can often be measured in terms of how we feel and how attractive something is to us.

When rightly directed, pleasure is a very good thing. When misdirected, even what captures our fancy can turn ugly. In this regard, there is one area that for many Christians is sacrosanct and seemingly beyond criticism: Worship.

The local radio station plays the latest Christian songs. The Sunday church service typically draws the members with well known songs. CD’s, downloads, concerts, and YouTube video clips register in the mega-millions. Music is both powerful and popular. And, in the minds of many, it shouldn’t be messed with.

But that special spot can be numbed or even damaged, if abused. And so the question at hand:

What impact does entertainment have on worship?

According to online dictionaries, worship is “reverent honor and homage paid to God”, whereas entertainment is “something affording pleasure, diversion, or amusement, especially a performance of some kind.” Both have to do with pleasure. Both involve personal expressions and experiences and often involve music. However, what makes them different is their direction.

Worship emphasizes human expression toward God and for his pleasure.

Entertainment emphasizes human experience toward self and for self-pleasure.

Neither can exist equally with the other, because they aim in opposite directions; one away from self and one toward self. When the motive of a worship service or similar performance that is orchestrated to offer praise toward God is packaged with the primary intent of bringing all participants into a combined expression of pleasure for God, then worship can be enjoyed by all.

However, when those same events and gatherings are designed to draw the interests and enjoyment of participants, entertainment forces an opposite direction to the pleasure of the expression. When churches build up their bands to reflect the popular music of their target audience, they cause a direction of flow that cannot remain toward God. Suggesting that once the audience is hooked, then the ministers can go to work at turning the unsuspecting attendees toward God, is what in marketing terms is called bait-and-switch, and is not only illegal, but highly immoral. By definition, entertainment directs enjoyment toward self, and worship directs self toward God.

This is not to say that we cannot enjoy worshiping God, rather that the expression can only be designed with one direction. Worship cannot remain worship, if it is presented as entertainment, if it is designed with the intent of attracting the attention and pleasure of the crowds, or if it distracts the participants from keeping the direction of the expression clearly in focus.

By nature, we are all wired toward that which makes us feel good. It is little wonder then, that if left to our own natural motivations, we would all rather to attend a church that sings songs we like. We all have a tendency to desire church services that make us feel good. We easily gravitate toward youth groups that have activities and friends that excite us. We turn on our radios and listen to our iPods to hear artists that cause our heart to leap, our feelings to soar, and our sweet spot to tingle.

The problem, is that all of this is focused on me, me, me. Even when it has powerful words and catchy tunes that celebrate the Lord Jesus Christ, when worship becomes entertainment, it stops being worship.

“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

It is something to think about. Worship or Entertainment. Do the mega-stars of Christian pop culture reflect a life of the Cross?  Does your church promote the born-in-a-manger kind of environment, or does the glitz of the facility, or the skill of the media presentation, or the draw of the activities point toward what you want and like? Do you voice your own praise because you are attracted to that song, or do you strive to give pleasure to God in the ways he requests of his faithful?

Think about the Lord’s words and see if you can recognized how well it describes most stars on stage, whether of music or teaching:

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and his disciples: ‘The teachers of the law [like many seen on TV or who write popular study books] and the Pharisees [like religious leaders with titles and recognized status in churches] sit in Moses’ seat [or today they represent Christ to the body of believers].

‘So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

‘They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. [Or, in our modern times, they often go to the other extreme and tend to remove all biblical burdens and teach what the masses want to hear].

‘Everything they do is done for men to see [like make-up and attractive staging] : They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long [like expensive suits, glittery jewelry, and top-of-the-line instruments]; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues [like fancy hotels, billboard charts, or the NY Times Best Seller list]; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces [like concert venues or at mega-churches or on radio stations] and to have men call them ‘Rabbi’ [like ‘Successful’, or my favorite, or my hero, or you are the best]…

‘For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Woe to you teachers” (Mt 23:1-13).

Recall John the Baptist’s words, “He must become greater, and I less”. Consider Paul’s declaration, “we do not peddle the word of God for profit”–no matter if it is spoken from a fancy pulpit or sung from a lighted stage. Another thought that might apply to your church’s next building campaign, or approval for a new audio system; “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that”. It is almost shocking the lengths to which churches and Christians will go to explain why doing what attracts others would be good for everyone. It seems that the pattern of the Lord to reach into the needs of others and speak truth even when unpopular, without building up an empire, has been substituted for a more successful model of how to do church.

Which direction is your heart facing? What does your entertainment say about the status of your worship? It is fine to enjoy appropriate entertainment, but it is not ok to think that it can replace worship. Sadly, many take Christ in “an unworthy manner”, and bring serious disability into their own lives as a result. We cannot serve two masters, any more than we will be allowed to worship toward God while also trying to entertain toward self.

If you have gotten this far, then perhaps there remains within you a spark of life that might be willing to hear the truth. This is what your Lord desires in worship:

“We speak [and sing, and dance, and express our devotion to God in all the variety of true worship] as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God who tests our hearts.”

God is checking each heart, each church member, each worship leader, and each singer-of-Christian-songs, to see if the direction of our pleasure is clearly toward him, or more about what we want and like. As noted earlier, God will not allow anyone to remain a servant of Christ, if they continue to do what they do with the intent of attracting a following. Worship cannot survive when mixed with the intent of entertainment.

“Those in the realm of the flesh cannot please God”.

For he has “instructed you how to live in order to please God.”

God was pleased through the foolishness [rather than the attractiveness] of what was preached to save those who believe.”

It is one of those raw truths about surrendering to a holy God, that we must re-train our special spot to register pleasure as a result of first bringing pleasure to Another. Those who live for self will set their desires toward what they naturally like. Those who live for God will deny self, even to the point of putting their own pleasures to death, so as to be fully able to give all of themselves without diversion or distraction, for the pleasure of the Lord.

There is a lot of money in singing what people want to hear. There is a far better likelihood that your church will grow fast, and large, if you put on a performance and make people comfortable. Many will defend their approach as necessary for reaching the lost; or, as one pastor told me regarding their slogan of come-as-you-are and how that impacts their worship services, “there are probably more lost people in church than anywhere”. In contrast, there is also a real chance that you may be able to hear your own voice (due to how many have left the room for an attractive buffet somewhere else), if all you surround yourself with are those who are willing to worship for the pleasure of God, rather than for their own gain.

Worship is not so much about the style of music you prefer, or about the repetition from week to week that you like, or about the expression of ourselves toward God. Worship is about HIM. When we get the direction correct, we may soon discover how much we enjoy his real presence.

Yes, we can enjoy worship, but that must never lead the way. Yes, we may find the result of true worship pleasurable, but if it starts to mix entertainment in the expression, then the winds have changed and a storm is brewing.

It was during those horrific events of the passion week, that some experienced worship as they heard the cries of pain, the pounding of nails, and the barely audible prayers being whispered. Others experienced the entertainment of the procession, the jeers of the hand-waving crowd, the anapestic drum beat of the Lord’s plodding steps up to Calvary. As worship leader over the whole event, Pilate “wanted to satisfy the crowd”.

That was nearly 2000 years ago. What about in your week today? What is the direction of your pleasure? Do you claim worship, but tolerate entertainment? Do you sing “Hosanna in the highest”, but then later in the week shout “crucify him”? Does such worship from you come with music or other sounds of this life?

Worship seeks to please God. Entertainment for many Christians aims to use the name of God to justify getting what we like and want. Like a voice from the back of the room, I encourage you to reconsider what you may have allowed to mix in with your heartfelt worship of the Lord. Now may be a good time to dedicate your sweet spot to Jesus.

He is worthy of all worship.

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But God Knows My Heart

How easily we find phrases that help justify our tendency toward selfishness and rebellion.

Undoubtedly you have heard from others, if not from your own vocal cords, the popular phrase, “But God knows my heart!” It is typically presented in light of conflict or personal struggles of weakness and is intended to ease both our own conscience as well as the opinions of others toward our behaviors.

We may recognize and even admit that we have a problem in some area of our character or choices, but it will all work out fine, because God knows that our heart wants to do good. We take an idea that has some merit in Scripture and repackage it with new meaning. The idea that God looks on the heart is very biblical. However, the concept that such a view of our mostly-good-heart and trying-really-hard-intentions is not what God sees in our hearts.

I heard one well meaning sister-in-Christ use the phrase to suggest why a rebellious relative will still make it into the Kingdom–because God knows his heart. An inmate in local lockup, stated that even though he was a repeat offender, and fully expects to continue in his pattern of doing jail time, he’s just fine–because God knows his heart. An ordained pastor listed his favorite quote online that people can sin all they want and still enter heaven–because God knows our heart.

How about you? Does God know your heart? Is that the reason you expect to enter the pearly gates?

Here is what the Bible reveals about what God sees in our hearts:

“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Gen 6:5)

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart” (Jer 17:9)

“For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come” (Mk 7:21)

“You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts” (Lu 16:15)

The heart of man, in his natural condition, is always bent toward evil. All of our thoughts, desires, and choices aim away from God and toward sin. That is what God knows about our hearts. Yes, God knows your hearts, and he is fully aware that many use the idea of him knowing their hearts as a way of justifying themselves in the eyes of others.

Consider why Scripture records that Jesus refused to entrust himself, even to his own disciples who believed in him:

“But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men…he knew what was in a man” (Jn 2:24-25).

The Lord does know what is in my heart and in yours–that is why he trust himself only to his Father who is righteous. Later he states that he refuses to accept human testimony about him, and “does not accept praise from men”–the reason?–“but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts” (Jn 5:34, 41-42).

When Scripture uses the phrase that God looks at the heart of mankind, there are a few keys to understanding what he actually means. The first is that God views the hidden and internal motives for why we do what we do, rather than judging by external observations. This in no way is meant as a statement of approval by itself. It is simply a contrasting between the human approach to things and Gods.

The second key is that what God sees in every human heart is evil all the time. That is very humbling, and frankly very unpopular in a modern Christian culture that prefers to hear what it wants to believe. There is nothing in any of us that causes God to take notice and decide to select us as one of his own, because of what is in our hearts. Recall, that we are saved, “not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Tit 3:5).

A key part of the meaning of searching our hearts is that God is judging man. He is assessing our choices in order to reward or discipline and he is doing so, not by how the outside looks, but by the root causes and reasons for each of our choices. In this sense, it provides a way of administering justice in the common, every-day choices in how we treat each other. This particular usage can be applied even to unbelievers, but it is not the primary or final purpose. When it is used this way, it only speaks of the incidental choices of decency by law-abiding citizens, and does not include any reference toward eternity, salvation, or true internal goodness–those are gifts with a different source than can be found naturally in our hearts.

The main key to understanding what God means, is that he is looking deep within, well beyond the cognitive reach of any of our minds, and far far further than any of our efforts could ever impact, to see if there is any shred of evidence of his own heart planted and sustained within us. He is looking at our hearts to see if he can recognize his Son. For as the Scripture declares, “Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart” (1 Jn 5:10). This looking does not change the reality of our natural condition, but it reveals a real transformation that can only ever occur if the Lord dwells within through the penetrating power of the Holy Spirit. This is what the apostle meant when he stated:

“God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.” (Act 15:8)

If the earlier passages are not kept in their proper context, this verse can give the false illusion that God gave his Spirit to people because he saw in their hearts that they were so deserving. This is where the deception is often rooted, by those who take such statements as stand-alones and interpret them in ways that violate the rest of Scripture. Above, Peter is actually referring to a group of non-Jewish believers, who were already responding to the call of God, before the apostles showed up and the dramatic “proof” of giving the Spirit was displayed. In other words, by saying that God knew their hearts, he is showing that God saw that these people truly believed in him and were willing to accept the truth, not because of their own righteousness, but because they had been showing that faith over time well before Peter ever showed up at that pivotal moment, and God confirmed that it was genuine.

God knowing our hearts is a phrase that often means the very opposite of what many want it to imply. In short, if any of us persists in deliberately sinning and refuses to repent of their patterns and choices in some area that Scripture declares against, then yes God knows that person’s heart, and they will get what they deserve. If on the other hand, someone continues to struggle with some addiction or sinful habit, but truly repents and strives with all of their might through the Spirit of grace to change, then yes God knows that person’s heart, for he recognizes that they remain under the heart-blood of the Lamb.

If you find yourself as one who has claimed a good heart as justification for why God will overlook sin, then:

  • Step one is to admit to the misuse of biblical phrases.
  • Step two is to prayerfully read the word of God more carefully, perhaps using the above quotes as encouragement to adjust your beliefs.
  • Step three is to humbly acknowledge that by nature, every part of who you are naturally turns away from God and is identified by the Lord as evil.
  • Step four is to recognize that there is only one who is Righteous in heart, mind, soul, and strength, and in spite of everything, he loves you.
  • Step five is to put your faith in the heart of God, as displayed through Jesus, rather than in your own heart.
  • Step six in a new direction of faith is to both love and fear God, using his words the way he intended.

This pattern is not popular, especially the idea to fear God and not be so casual in our quoting of Scripture. But again, if you are willing to take his words in context, you will find from Genesis through Revelation, that those with willing hearts will approach the throne of grace as Scripture teaches and not as many frocked men have taught.

Yes, God knows what is in your heart, even if you claim Jesus. Do you?

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Cold Love in the Face of Global Warming

All the reports over the past week are thousands of miles away.

A Christian missionary is kidnapped in Nigeria by those angry with what she represents. Christians in Libya are attacked and decapitated for world-wide viewing. Dozens of Christians are captured in Syria by ISIS.

Sobering as the events may be, there is a part of me that wonders about the claim behind the label. Not everyone who claims to be Christian actually lives in line with Scripture, and the Bible separates true worshipers from false. Judging faith is not the job of any of us, and yet God expects us to make assessments sufficient to determine whether or not we are allowed to maintain fellowship with others who claim the same faith.

I want to care, but I want to do so in right submission to Scripture. So what ought we think about in light of the recent trials inflicted on those who claim the name of Christ?

I don’t know much about the missionary herself, except that she was reported to have been commissioned through the Methodist denomination. Although many would not agree, it is my observation that the unfortunate missionary represented a denomination that has slid off the moral bench in favor of social justice. I don’t reject that group, but I do have several serious concerns that stand in my way of embracing fellowship with them. I am left with an echo of the Lord’s commending words: “You have one thing in your favor, you hate the practices of those I hate”. Strong language about what Jesus expects about our views of others who claim to be Christian, but I am not the Lord, and his words must direct my choices if I am to remain submissive to his kingdom.

The Coptic Christians in Libya have an ancient tradition towards the eastern orthodox side of Christianity, but after living for a year in the Mideast, I witnessed first hand the significant bent toward repeating formal traditions and the surprising tendency to favor religious tradition over scriptural authority. This is not just a casual observation; that is actually part of their historic theology, which views Scripture as a back up to tradition, but it is tradition that establishes what is right. I have a big problem with that, since Jesus himself stated at one point: “You have a fine way of upholding your tradition over the word of God”. I respect Coptic Christians and their heritage, but I do struggle with how to rightly accept their claim of faith. God has a lot to say about those well-meaning believers who tolerate the recognizable abuses against Scripture by those around them.

Admittedly, I know even less about the claims of Christ coming from those recently captured by ISIS in Syria. They resided in the old Assyrian empire where ancient Israel (northern kingdom) was scattered. History records that Christians in that area were dominated by the theological tradition of Arianism, which had some serious problems with their view of Christ’s divinity. We are told in Scripture, that anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus as both God and man, is part of the antichrist. Judgment is not necessary here, just an assessment, in order to make a decision for which the Bible says I will be held accountable for what I know.

Just the near constant news about Muslims against Christians in other countries, or about secular science dismissing the validity of science conducted by Christians, or about how our government seems intent on promoting an affirmative action plan to demote Christian influence on American soil in favor of promoting any other religion. The attacks are reminiscent of air-raid bombardments that eventually numb our senses as we wonder about in hopes of eventual relief.

And so I struggle. I want to bear with the burdens of my brothers and sisters in faith. However, I don’t want to dishonor God by embracing and accepting what he has revealed belongs to the disobedient.

Love hangs in the balance. The globe is heating up. Love is at risk of growing cold.

“Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.”

Nothing of what I assume above prevents me from allowing my heart to go out to those in such pain. But it definitely has an impact on how I am allowed to fellowship, be that in person, or in the above cases, in prayerful spirit.

There is, however, something else worth considering.

“The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

Although I may have to adjust my approach a bit if my assumptions are valid, I can still pour out my heart toward them, because all three stories above involve those who in varying ways are preaching Christ. It is less a matter of what I think of others, and far more important that I demonstrate support of the name of my Lord. I am not compelled to embrace what I assume are errors, but I am encouraged to express love.

Again, in terms of how to rightly interact with other Christians who may be living contrary to what I understand of Scripture, the Holy Spirit gives several guidelines. We are told that we will be held accountable for judging others. In context, the Bible states: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” The point being, that yes, you are commanded to review the repeated choices of those around you who claim to be Christian.

That assessment may result in a separating of fellowship and open support, for that very same passage also says: “You must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is [living in sin]”. And in a companion verse, we are instructed: “Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”

Where does all this bring us?

I may have some real concerns about the claim of Christ represented by others, such as those noted recently in the news, however, just because I am compelled to separate from associating with those who live contrary to the word of God, I am not restricted from assuming that they may still be brothers-in-Christ!

For one thing, my assessments could still be wrong, even though I am bound to uphold what I understand at the moment. Also, they profess Jesus, and for that I should rejoice, and lend my voice along side theirs in honoring the name of our Lord. The Bible says to view those who claim to be Christian as if they are brothers with me, even if their behaviors or some of their beliefs restrict my participating with them. And finally, because the God that Christians worship is a God of love, he allows me to still express my heart, my concern, my prayer, my efforts to help, my willingness to support their needs.

A form of global warming is turning abusive against all who call on the name of Christ. We may be different. We may have some beliefs and practices that concern each other. However, we have the one and same enemy: Satan. And, we claim the same Savior: Jesus.

Let’s not allow the onslaught of news to chill our hearts. Let’s not allow our differences to stand in the way of loving each other in a way that gives our resources and lives to help our brothers in need. May God grant his protection and grace to that wonderful missionary in Nigeria during her desperate time of need. May the Lord comfort those who lost their loved ones in Libya and may he strengthen that church in his name. In Jesus name, may the lion be crushed that has taken children of Christ in Syria. And, may my heart remain open and warm and compassionate for all God’s people–those who claim him, and those who will eventually believe in him.

The best way to keep our hearts alive and warm is to exercise them for the benefit of others. Let’s not allow the signs-of-the-times, and spiritual storms, to turn our hearts away from those in trouble. Let’s increase our efforts to “do good to all men, but especially those of the household of faith”.

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Cope Dope or Hope

Success in the face of difficulties is what makes heroes.

One thing guaranteed to all is the opportunity to deal with hardship, pain, loss, difficulties, and undesirable problems. They come to us all, and to the last man standing, we all cope.

You do it. I do it. Everybody copes with life. By definition, to cope means to deal with difficulties on an even playing field or even with some success. In days past, it meant to face combat.

I like that older idea of coping. It gives more thrust to the challenge of doing business with our problems with a do or die ultimatum. It’s you, or it’s me bugger…and I’m not going down without a fight.

There is something to be said for the strength-of-will to push through turmoil with a hope of brighter days beyond. Far too many give up at the first sign of discomfort. To cope well is to slay, surmount, or just survive for another day.

However,  the difference is that we do not all cope in the same way. A recent article on ultramarathoners highlighted how many of those extreme athletes deal with nausea, intense pain, boredom, and mental doubts. The growing popularity and public acceptance of marijuana has brought that drug into play as a way to cope with running success.

Steroids and enhancement drugs are so widely used in professional sports, that coping has become synonymous with doping. If Rodriquez can dominate in America’s game with a little substance injection, then why shouldn’t the overworked business executive makes his target numbers with something intoxicating? If Tyson can beat all opponents with white powder, then why can’t the overstressed homemaker streamline her emotions with a little meth. If Armstrong can keep most of his millions even after coping with tour-de-blood-doping, then perhaps it isn’t so bad if the frustrated employee copes with his poor pay with a little extra collection on the side from the company treasuries.

Cope doping is a national pastime.

Those awkward stages of fitting in that result in tattoos, body piercings, smoking, and related expressions are all methods of coping with acceptance. New parents find that candy and indulgent-purchases are quick coping fixes for demanding youngsters. The overweight (in mind or body) may cope through self-inflicted eating disorders.

Alcohol is a coping substance of choice. Work-a-holism is a powerful tool for coping with inadequacy or keeping other problems at a distance. Music, movies, and now even the internet are all super-effective numbing devices for those who struggle with hearing their own thoughts or coming up with their own ideas. Advil and Tylenol have become the breakfast of suburbia champions. Even religious busyness can seem to quite the demons that accuse us of not doing good enough.

Having kids is a coping attempt for many who find their early marriages drifting apart. TV had doped entire generations who found it an easy way to cope with loneliness or used it as a way to avoid unwanted house chores. Setting up walls around our hearts is a secret way of trying to cope with relationships that bring us pain. Binge reading is a great way to get lost into fantasy and disconnect from dealing with reality.

And who can deny food? Not even Adam and Eve were capable of avoiding that forbidden fruit. We cope, because we all do it naturally.

There are near endless ways, when faced with difficulties in life, to cope our way through them. All have varying degrees of apparent success and hidden consequences. Most people don’t even care one way or the other about the acceptability of their particular coping styles, at least not until the little problems they were trying to sedate, now become life-threatening.

And so, writing about coping, is a lonely enterprise. Who really cares?

Well, I guess, those who have finally come to recognize their own brokenness, and are willing to admit that they need help with a different method of dealing with problems, are ones who might have ears to hear. It seems that when we come to an end of ourselves, we are often in a better position to look up.

The Bible tells us “do not be drunk with wine, but be intoxicated with the Spirit”! Problems don’t just go away on their own. We still have to deal with them. We can cope on our own, or we can cry out for help to the Father of our spirits and seek to be filled with God.

What coping seeks to do is to inject power to combat problems in our lives. What the Holy Spirit enables us to do is to dominate all our challenges with the same power that raises the dead.

Rather than doping as a way of coping, the Lord recommends hoping — in him.

Would you like to trade in your cope for some hope?

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