Thursday, March 26, 2015

Last Night: 4 Things People Get Wrong About Sin

Pieter Bruegel's Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony
On Jesus' last night with his disciples, He shares with them several details about the purpose and work of the Holy Spirit, who He's going to send to them after He leaves. One of the Spirit's tasks will be to "convict the world", as many translations put it. I like the way the NIV says it:
But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16:7-11)
First, the Spirit proves the world wrong about sin. There are several things the world, and sometimes even disciples of Jesus, get wrong about sin.

Sin is about breaking a list of rules

Actually, sin is about unbelief. As Jesus says, the reason Holy Spirit will convict the world about sin is not because of a list of charges against them, but because of one charge: they don't believe in Jesus.

Unbelief is the root of all sin. The unpardonable sin, at its root, is about choosing to not believe in Jesus.

It makes sense, then, that the best way to approach sinners about their sin is not by haranguing them about their sins, but by pointing them to Jesus.

What they need is to believe in Jesus.

Sin is NOT about a list of rules

In our rush to correct the legalism many Christians grew up with, we sometimes swing too far the other way in our insistence on Christianity not being about morals and obedience.

No, sin is not all about the rules and commandments, but there are indeed rules. You really have to read the Word with blinders to miss the rules. Jewish scholars say there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament. That's not even counting all the  principles, statutes, precepts - the rules - in the New Testament.

Christianity is about faith in Jesus (see point #1) and about grace. But there's no reason for Jesus' sacrifice, no reason for mercy and grace, if we all haven't fallen short of the glory of God.

We just need to remember that the list of rules is not an arbitrary list. The laws and commandments are a codified reflection of the character of God. And, again, this means the best way to approach sinners about their sin is to point them to the character of God, as lived out by Jesus.

What they need is to believe in Jesus.

Sin is about societal dysfunction

The world's definition of "sin", or of right and wrong, takes the character of God and belief in Jesus out of the equation. To non-believers, sin is all about doing harm to your neighbor.

Sins like murder, violence, and theft have been considered wrong in nearly every society throughout history, because those actions violate the social contract necessary for civilization. But if sin is defined by its impact on others, the list of what is truly wrong becomes quite short.

Sexual sins like adultery, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, prostitution - even polygamy and bestiality - can be rationalized and normalized as long as they're done in a way that doesn't oppress or harm someone. Whatever is done by consenting adults is OK, by that standard.

The traditional seven deadly sins - pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth - are all allowable within the limit of not harming other people. In fact, each of those is in some way celebrated by modern society.

If we're all just a product of evolution, the survival of the fittest, then anything that helps us survive and thrive, without inordinate cost to the survival of society, is OK.

But if we're all created in the image of God, designed to function best the more we express God's character in our lives, then there's a greater good that defines what is bad.

What we need is to believe in Jesus.

Your sin is worse than my sin

Phil Robertson, a Christian, and the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty clan, was asked by GQ magazine, "What in your mind, is sinful?" His answer: "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."

He's not wrong, but his starting point betrays a skewed attitude about sin, one shared by many people.

If you begin your definition of sin by naming the nastiest, worst things you can imagine, you're basically just following a more personalized version of the "societal dysfunction" definition. Instead of sin being what's bad for society, sin is what's bad in your own eyes. Sin is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Usually this means sin begins with the things you personally find most repugnant, the sins "those other people" do. Certainly not the sins you know most easily drag yourself down.

It's a quick trip from there to the attitude of the Pharisee toward the tax collector.
God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. (Luke 18:11)
I'm frequently disturbed in the prison ministry when women who are incarcerated for murder, drug dealing, and other crimes look down on their noses at fellow inmates who are involved in sexual sins. Somehow they, along with Phil Robertson and a host of other believers, have concluded some sins are worse than others.

They're not. Sin is sin. Some believers like to argue some sins are worse because of the consequences or because of certain adjectives used to describe them in scriptures.

In the end, all sins are equal because of one inarguable point.

Jesus' sacrifice covers every sin and every sinner. The only ranking that matters is forgiven or unforgiven.

What we all need is to believe in Jesus.

Friday, March 20, 2015

God Had Other Plans

From my latest published article, God Had Other Plans, in the April issue of Christian Standard magazine:
Months later, in a sermon delivered at CWCC, Nathan confessed, “When we prayed, when we pleaded with God, we begged him for complete healing. We prayed that if the tumor were to grow back, and Josiah had to have chemo, that God would take him home. After countless hours of wrestling with the reality that we could lose our son, we were at peace. We had given Josiah to God. We knew that for Josiah, to die was gain. We couldn’t bear the thought of him having to struggle through chemo, to struggle for life at such an early age. 
“But God had other plans for us. God felt it was more necessary for me, for the doctors, the nurses, the other patients, the countless lives that have been touched . . . it was more necessary that Josiah remain in the body.”
Read more HERE

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Last Night: Two by Two

Nearly everyone has seen something similar to this photo. Mormon missionaries, dressed in white shirts and ties, riding bicycles, have become ubiquitous not only in every part of America, but throughout the world.
More than 88,000 missionaries are serving missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at any one time. Most are young people under the age of 25, serving in more than 400 missions throughout the world. Missionaries can be single men between the ages of 18 and 25, single women over the age of 19 or retired couples. Missionaries work with a companion of the same gender during their mission, with the exception of couples, who work with their spouse. Single men serve missions for two years and single women serve missions for 18 months. (
The missionaries are sent out in pairs, according to LDS sources, because Jesus chose 72 disciples "and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go." (Luke 10)

It's always been a good idea to work side by side with a fellow Christian, no matter what the work you're doing.

For my wife, Karen, and I, one of the greatest joys of our marriage has been leading the Christian Campus House prison ministry for the past several years. We don't ride bicycles together, on the 70 mile trip to Vandalia, Mo, but we do plan together, we travel in the van together, we lead worship together, we teach together, we counsel together, we train students together. We finish each others' sentences when we're answering the prisoners' questions. We feed off each other, even if between the two of us we start off with only a thimble-full of energy. We're working as a match pair, a team.

When there's no one else going with us, we call it date night, stopping at Stacey's Place in Mexico, MO, a great little small town diner, for a meal together on our way to the prison. If you're married and you're not involved in some sort of specific ministry together, you're missing out on one of the great joys of marriage as designed by God.

If you're a dating or engaged couple, there's no better way to get to know one another and grow closer together than by being on mission together. Before Karen and I began doing the prison ministry, a pair of CCH students, Corey Rebekah, volunteered to help the prison ministry and also worked together on the CCH worship team. The Whitakers would tell you those experiences were vital to the growth of their relationship.

Jesus obviously thought being on mission in pairs is good idea. It's such a good idea, He made it possible for every Christian to never be alone when on mission for Him.
When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27)
The Holy Spirit, living in the heart of every Christian, has one overriding purpose. It's not to make you shiver and shout. It's not even to give you gifts or help you bear fruit.

The Holy Spirit was sent to us to speak the truth, to testify about Jesus.

That's our purpose as well. i didn't become a Christian so I could feel fulfilled in my life, or so I could bask in the glow of His glory and wallow in His blessings.

I must testify to the truth about Jesus. I must and you must, if you're a Christian.

And wherever I go on mission for God, I'm never alone. The Holy Spirit is always with me. We plan together, we travel together, we lead worship together, we teach together, we counsel together, we train students together.

If you're wanting to be field with the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, to hear the Spirit speaking to you and through you, you've got to be on mission with the Spirit. I've seldom heard the Spirit's voice when I'm just sitting in a pew or watching TV. He finishes my sentences, He energizes me.

We work as a matched pair, a team.

Two by two.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Last Night: H8ers Gonna H8

The phrase "Haters gonna hate" is a meme used widely in popular culture. It doesn't refer simply to someone who hates something or someone else. "Haters gonna hate" because they're driven to go beyond private dislike into actively looking down on someone, The Urban Dictionary defines haters this way:
A person that simply cannot be happy for another person's success. So rather than be happy they make a point of exposing a flaw in that person. Hating, the result of being a hater, is not exactly jealousy. The hater doesnt really want to be the person he or she hates, rather the hater wants to knock somelse down a notch.
The phrase and the attitude has its roots in the code of the street. The number one principle at the core of urban street life is the issue of respect. Much of the posturing and language and attitude outsiders observe (with disdain) among the hiphop culture grows out of the need to put on a front that demands respect. Whether or not the person's life and character is actually worthy of respect, the message is constantly shouted out, "Respect me! Or else!"

As such, the rule of respect ironically results in an attitude of arrogant pride that "wants to knock somelese down a notch."

Over the past ten years of involvement in prison ministry, I've seen how the street code of respect leads many people into a violent, arrogant, and eventually self-destructive lifestyle.

On that last night, Jesus warned His followers that "haters gonna hate."
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’ (John 15:18-25)
For someone raised with the code of the street, those words actually can sound very familiar. The leaders of a gang would tell the gang members and other people in their neighborhood that they can expected to be disrespected by people from other neighborhoods and other gangs. This is true because the leaders of those gangs hate each other, which naturally means one crew will hate the other crew. Even unaffiliated people in the neighborhoods may be suspicious of one another.

So does this mean Jesus is telling his disciples to have an arrogant "haters gonna hate" attitude? Obviously not. Jesus says these things within the context of talking about love and righteousness and holiness and fulfilling His mission.

Unfortunately, some Christians fall into the trap of reacting to the hatred and disrespect they receive from outsiders by developing a dismissive attitude toward the critics.

Every time I hear yet another preacher using derisive and mocking words to describe certain groups of non-believers, my ear is hearing the arrogance of "haters gonna hate." Every time I see yet another Christian friend's Facebook post dismissively making fun of atheists, Muslims, sinners, or political opponents, I have trouble seeing any difference between the the mocking heaped upon believers and mocking believers are shoveling right back.

Yes, haters are going to hate. But Christians are supposed to turn the other cheek, overcome evil with good, repay evil with blessing and respond with gentleness and respect.

We don't belong to the world. We belong to Jesus.

We don't respond to h8ers according to the code of the world; We respond according to the code of Jesus:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ( I Peter 2:21-23)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Last Night: FOJ

The term FOB became popular during Bill Clinton's administration, referring to the president's inner circle, the Friends Of Bill. Some have continued to use FOB for Friends of Barack, for the current president's closest pals and advisors, including friends from Chicago, grad school, and a few going all the way back to his years in Hawaii.
"Many people call Obama aloof, and he hasn't made a lot of friends in Washington," [Douglas] Brinkley said. "When you're president, everybody wants something from you and only these types of friends are able to simply want your well-being. They have a different level of affection for you than friends you meet later in life." (Meet Obama's Hawaiian Posse, AP/HuffPo, 12/30/14)

In the first century world of Rome, the phrase "friend of the emperor" was in common use (although I doubt they shortened it to FOE). It carried much the same meaning as the FOBs today.

According to one scholar, a true Friend of the Emperor would be known for his frankness:
In the first-century world of the New Testament, discussions of friendship moved from a friendship ideal to focus on the more pragmatic realities of patron-client relationships and on the political expediency captured in expressions like “friend of the emperor”. One of the main distinguishing marks of a friend in this context was the use of “frank speech” (parrÄ“sia). Philosophers counseled the patron to be on the lookout for whether “friends” were speaking honestly and openly or whether they were engaging in flattery to further their own ends. . . According to the Hellenistic philosophers, to be someone’s friend was to speak frankly and honestly to them and to hold nothing back. (I Have Called You Friends, Gail R. O'Day, Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University)
We think of Peter, Andrew, James, and John as FOJs, His inner circle. Jesus, though, invites all His followers to be FOJs.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.  This is my command: Love each other.  John 15:13-17
Like the "friends of the emperor", there is a clear understanding of a patron-client relationship underlying the friendship. Jesus is not saying we are all his casual pals.

Like the  emperor, Jesus cherishes the"frank speech" of His friends. To be an FOJ is to be open and honest with Him.

The best example of an FOG (Friend of God) being frank and direct is David, who was describe as a man after God's own heart. The Psalms are filled with David's questions toward God, some of them quite blunt. The psalmist takes it upon himself to remind his friend of His promises, wondering out loud whether He intends to follow through. In the end, though, David always finishes with praise and trust in God, not presuming to be an equal.

Some of the questions the disciples asked Jesus on this last night, as well as during the preceding three years, were open and honest, sometimes blunt. They obviously felt comfortable enough with their friend to not be intimidated when talking to Him.

If your prayer life seems stale and lacking intimacy, maybe it's because you're not accepting Jesus' invitation to be an FOJ. He wants to hear everything that's on your mind.