Monday, January 17, 2022

Judging Believers More than Bombers

Suggested Reading: 1 Corinthians 5:1-13

The 2013 Boston bombings stirred up a lot of feelings for people. The fact that those bombings were once again committed by Islamic Jihadists upset many people. More than once I heard people lament that, in their opinion, moderate Muslims had not spoken up enough to condemn acts of violence committed in the name of their religion, that their alleged silence not only condoned these heinous acts but encouraged future atrocities. Whether those complaints had much merit or were simply voiced by people who hadn't listened to Muslim condemnations of the violence is a matter that could be debated at length, but the issue itself points to a problem within the Christian community, especially in America.

American society, and much of the American church has taken Jesus' and James' call to refrain from judging people and applied it everywhere but in the appropriate context. Why do I say this? Because of what Paul also has to say in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13: I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves (HCSB).

Jesus and Paul had two different contexts as Paul makes clear in the opening verses of this passage. We are not supposed to judge the people of this world, no matter how sinful their behavior appears. We cannot hold outsiders to the same standards that we would hold ourselves. We are supposed to provide loving witnesses to those people so that nothing we do will keep them from coming to God. But for believers, the standard is entirely different. We are supposed to hold believers (or those who claim to be) to a higher standard. When we see them living in ways that are consistently opposed to the teachings of Christ we are to let everyone know that they don't represent us and to have nothing to do with them until they get their acts straight. Not because we are better than them or above them, but because condoning their sinful behavior with our silence and acceptance provides a very bad witness to the people we are trying to reach.

We are not supposed to judge sinners. We are supposed to love them. Sometimes that means loving them enough to condemn the actions of those who should know better so that the damage to the Church's witness is minimized. Remember, even Jesus judged the religious people of his day for their hypocrisy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

From John the Baptizer to John the Doubter

Suggested Reading: Matthew 11:1-15

When Jesus began his ministry, he appeared at the river where John was preaching and baptizing people as they repented of their sins. When Jesus showed up to be baptized, John immediately recognized him and argued with Jesus about who should baptize whom, followed by Jesus' baptism and the opening of the Heavens as a voice proclaimed Jesus to be God's son (Matthew 3:14-17). But shortly afterwards, John was arrested and began to rot in prison while Jesus' ministry began to flourish. John had believed that Jesus was the messiah, but as he sat in prison things began to change. Perhaps John, like everyone else, had a mistaken idea of what the Messiah was supposed to be. Perhaps he expected that the Messiah would free him from prison and was trying to understand why that hadn't happened. Whatever the case, this man who had proclaimed Jesus as the coming Messiah sent a message by his disciples and asked Him, “Are You the One who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:2-3, HCSB).

Sometimes, when life gets hard and doesn't go the way we expect it to, we can begin to doubt ourselves and the truths we have learned along the way. Just like John, a man whose birth had been proclaimed by angels, who had recognized the voice of the Messiah's mother from inside the womb, and who began to doubt what he knew to be true, we can begin to doubt ourselves and the things we've learned as well. When our marriage hits a rough patch, we begin to question whether this was really the person God had for us and whether we can really handle it anymore. When tragedy strikes or that new job doesn't last like it was supposed to, we begin to question God's control, or his existence, or both. When people walk out on us and we're left picking up the pieces of a broken life, we can begin to question whether we are really who we thought we were or if we've just been fooling ourselves all along.

When John got discouraged and began to doubt both Jesus and himself, Jesus told John's messengers, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. And if anyone is not offended because of Me, he is blessed” (Matthew 11:4-6, HCSB). Because pain and suffering tend to shrink our field of vision Jesus told John to look beyond the circumstances of his prison, beyond the hardships he was currently facing and see the way God was moving around him, to remember that the movement of God was bigger than his own circumstances. Jesus reminded John to once again look at the bigger picture and to remember that, even if God is not doing what we expect, God is still active. Jesus reminded John that God blesses those who refuse to give up the faith when God allows them to experience difficulty.

When life is hard and God isn't doing what you think he should, when you feel trapped in difficult circumstances and wonder how you will ever escape, don't give in to the doubts that naturally attack you. Make a point of looking around you and seeing how God is moving beyond your own circumstances. Remember the examples of John and Job and all the heroes of the faith who experienced difficulty and hardship but refused to give up the faith.

Difficult times will inevitably bring discouragement and doubt. Don't give in. Keep your head up, watching for the movement of God around you. Don't let go of the truths you've learned because things get hard.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Driver's Education and Collapsing Buildings

Suggested Reading: Luke 6:43-49

The first time my dad ever let me drive on the street was when I had just received my permit and was headed to my first driver's ed class. I had read and passed the test on the driving laws and I knew, for instance, that I was supposed to slow down going into a turn and accelerate out of it. Unfortunately, I still didn't know quite what it meant to slow down going into a turn. How much should I slow down? How soon should I slow down? My lack of understanding became apparent when I turned off of the main street onto the little side street which led to the school. I didn't slow down enough and swung around the corner far faster than I should have, turning directly into an oncoming car. Fortunately for me,  the other driver was paying attention and managed to avoid the unskilled teen driver heading straight for him. The experience of actually turning that corner gave me more understanding about driving than the three dozen times I had been told, "slow down going into the turn."

Far too often in our highly educated world  (even with just a high school diploma we have more formal education than 99% of the people throughout history) we make the mistake of believing that reading something or being able to quote something provides the same level of understanding as actually doing it. Then we take that mistake and apply it to the Word of God, somehow convincing ourselves that knowing what God's Word says means we understand it. But, wisely, the psalmist advised us, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow His instructions have good insight (Psalm 111:10, HCSB). Notice that the ones with good insight are the ones who follow His instructions not the ones who know His instructions.  The psalmist understood that simply being given instructions does not provide the same kind of insight and understanding as actually carrying out those instructions and seeing how they work in the real world.

Jesus passed on that same concept through a parable about a man building a house. Jesus said that those who heard his words and put them into practice were like a man who built a solid foundation for his house so that it would stand against the coming storms. But those who only knew his teachings by hearing them were like a man who built his house on the sand, without preparing a foundation, only to have it collapse when the storms came (Luke 6:46-49).

No matter how long or short a time you have been studying the word of God, greater insights come from putting it into practice, from following God's instructions, than from simply being able to recite back the words found on the Bible's pages. If you want to grow in your faith, if you want to understand God's Word more, you must do more than simply study God's Word from an academic perspective. You must live it out. Knowledge comes from reading and listening. Understanding comes from trying it out in the real world.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Stopping the Choir for One Wrong Note

Suggested Reading: Psalm 101

In college I had the chance to study under one of the most respected choir directors in the state. Quite often, he would drive those of us in the choir crazy because of his common practice of stopping the choir the moment he heard a mistake. Sometimes, we wouldn’t sing two notes before he would stop us and start us again. You see, as far as our director was concerned, we were striving for perfection. We never really achieved perfection as a choir and I don’t think our director was under any illusions that we could ever be perfect. But he believed that if he pushed us toward perfection and we strove for it ourselves, we might get very close.

I have always enjoyed reading the Psalms, especially those attributed to David. But the other day something occurred to me that had never occurred to me before. I was reading Psalm 101, a psalm of David, where the psalmist writes, No one who acts deceitfully will live in my palace; no one who tells lies will remain in my presence. Every morning I will destroy all the wicked of the land, eliminating all evildoers from the Lord’s city (Psalm 101:7-8, HCSB). Those verses sound great, but David didn’t seem to live up to them. His children raped and murdered each other but David never seemed to remove them from the palace.  He allowed Joab to stick around even though the military commander had killed his rivals in peace time and in cold blood. He himself plotted and schemed to kill Uriah to hide his own adultery with Bathsheba. David himself did not live up to the standard he set here. Shouldn’t that invalidate the whole thing?

No.

All of us fail and fall far short of perfection, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to hold the standard of perfection in front of us as something to strive for. Sometimes, our weakness and failures serve as a reminder of how important it is to hold up a standard of perfection. The idea that we should stop striving for perfection because we have fallen short is like telling a baseball player to stop swinging the bat because he doesn’t hit every ball or a musician to stop playing because she plays a wrong note from time to time. We don’t strive for perfection because we can ever reach it on our own, but because striving for perfection points us in the right direction, even when we fail and act like hypocrites. We must maintain a realistic outlook that remembers we will sometimes fail but that keeps us pointed in the direction of perfection as we move forward.

Don’t give up the standard because you fall short of it. Just allow it to point you in the right direction. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

Integrity is Like a Nice, Juicy Steak

Suggested Reading: Psalm 101

A few years ago I was introduced to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. I had wandered in with a group of friends as we were visiting Washington D.C. and was completely unprepared for the experience. Under most circumstances, I have a hard time justifying paying $20 for a steak and Ruth's Chris's steaks started at $45 each. So I was very skeptical about dishing out that much money. But this steak came out piping hot, bubbling in butter and extremely tender. As the meal ended, I gladly dished out more than I'd ever paid for a single meal in my life and began plotting how to return. When I got home and my wife wanted to go to a local restaurant where I normally ate steak, I discovered that the old steak wasn't any good anymore after having Ruth's Chris's steak.  I had been ruined for steak. But as the months progressed and I continued to order steaks knowing they weren't going to be as good, my distaste for them slowly lessened. Eventually, I found normal steaks to be edible and even began to enjoy them again.

Believe it or not, integrity is a lot like my taste for steak. And the psalmist expressed that sentiment when he wrote, I will pay attention to the way of integrity. When will You come to me? I will live with a heart of integrity in my house. I will not set anything worthless before my eyes. (Psalm 101:2-3, HCSB). Desiring a life of integrity, the psalmist vowed not to put worthless things before his eyes because he knew that the more you expose yourself to something undesirable, the less objectionable it becomes. Just like those inferior steaks, that were horrible compared to my Ruth's Chris experience, slowly became palatable and then enjoyable as I continued to expose myself to them (and slowly forgot the better experience), the more we expose ourselves to objectionable and sinful behaviors, the more palatable and, eventually, enjoyable they will become to us.

The more we read books that describe romances that cross the moral lines, the more palatable and desirable they will become. The more we watch television shows where sinful behavior is viewed as funny, the less objectionable and the more acceptable it becomes. The more movies we watch where barbaric behavior is portrayed, the less our guard is raised when we observe or experience it in real life. 

Integrity is not simply a matter of behavior but is influenced by the things to which we choose to expose ourselves. In many ways, integrity begins with the eyes. What will we choose to see? What kinds of behaviors and attitudes will we choose to entertain us? Jesus warned us, "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell" (Matthew 5:29, HCSB). In other words, if the things you see lead you into sin, stop looking at them. And if it takes getting rid of your eyes then so be it. Wouldn't it be easier for most of us if we simply chose not to look?

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Entertaining Fortune Cookies

Suggested Reading: Lamentations 2:8-14

Many children's favorite part of Chinese food is getting the fortune cookie at the end of the meal. But fortune cookies and I have always had a love/hate relationship because you never know what kind of "fortune" you are going to get. Some fortunes are ambitious and attempt to predict life-changes like "You will soon have an opportunity to change your life, don't let it pass you by." Those fortunes are an attempt to tell the future by reminding us of things we should already know, but they at least put on the pretense of giving a fortune. Others, I feel, are much less entertaining because they say something like, "No one wants to be friends with a grumpy person." The fortune cookies in this second category are probably much more useful but those aren't the ones that I want to get. I want the fortune cookies that entertain me, not the ones that tell me some useful principle that I should already be living by.

The author of the book of Lamentations described a similar phenomenon in the visions and prophecies during the time of the downfall and eventual destruction of Jerusalem.  Lamentations 2:14 reads, "The visions of your prophets were false and worthless; they did not expose your sin to ward off your captivity. The oracles they gave you were false and misleading" (NIV).

In several places throughout the writings of the Old Testament prophets, God condemns both the people and the popular prophets of the time because they were of no value to the people. Many prophets cried, "Peace! Peace!" (Jeremiah 6:14, Ezekiel 13:10) when there was no peace simply because the people wanted to hear it. They falsely assured them that Jerusalem was secure and invincible because God's temple existed there. They gave messages that made the people feel good about themselves, that would keep people coming back for more. The author of Lamentations pointed out those false prophets as part of the problem; they were entertaining but they were useless.

The temptation to pick and choose what we listen to based on what entertains us or makes us feel good still exists today, even in our churches. We want people who encourage us and inspire us and motivate us, but we don't want people to point out our sin. We want people to say that our selfish lifestyles and bad decisions are okay and we don't want anyone to "judge" us by saying that certain things (which we happen to do) are wrong.  We want our preachers, teachers and friends to "mind their own business" and give us some generic teaching that doesn't intersect with our lives at all rather than hear a useful truth that might ward off disaster. But if we have any hope of moving forward in our relationships with God, if we have any hope of maturing spiritually, we need those teachers and friends who are bold enough to tell us in love, "This is wrong and it will lead you to a very bad place." We need those people who care more about our welfare than our approval. And every day we make the choice of which kind of people we keep in our lives.

What kind of teachers and friends have you surrounded yourself with? Are they entertaining fortune cookies which do you no good? Or are they people who are brave enough and loving enough to expose sin and ward off disaster? I'm not always sure which kind I want in my life, but I certainly know which kind I need. 

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Moral and Ethical Subroutines

Suggested Reading: 1 Samuel 28:3-18

In the movie Star Trek: Insurrection, there is a very interesting contrast between one of the Enterprise crew members and a Starfleet Admiral. Data, the android second officer of the Enterprise is injured and his moral and ethical subroutines kick-in. In essence, these subroutines cause Data to have a hyper-sensitivity to right and wrong so that no one can take advantage of him in his injured state. Another crew member described his condition as, in essence, being able only to act on the difference between right and wrong. Data is foiled against a Starfleet Admiral who, because he thinks it is necessary for the survival of the Federation, violates the Federation's most sacred law. I don't know that the writers set up this comparison on purpose but they effectively posed the question, "When circumstances get tough, do you abandon your morals for the sake of survival or cling to them even more?"

Toward the end of 1 Samuel, we see a similar choice made by King Saul. Saul and the prophet Samuel have not gotten along well since early in the king's reign. Now Samuel has died and the king is facing a significant battle against the Philistines and is terrified at his prospects. In the middle of the story, the narrator informs us that Saul had gotten rid of all of the mediums and spiritists in the land. Now, whatever Saul's reasons were for doing so, removing those who practiced the occult from the land  was the right thing to do according to the law of Moses. But facing this important battle against the Philistines, Saul's nerves are rattled. Saul has tried consulting the Lord about what to do but God is not answering. Even with Samuel's hostility toward the king, Saul would gladly have consulted with Samuel but the prophet is dead. So, Saul decides he has only one option: Saul disguises himself and tracks down a medium so that she can speak to Samuel in the grave and ask the prophet what to do. When Samuel actually appears, Saul complains, "The Philistines are fighting against me and God has turned away from me. He doesn't answer me anymore, either through the prophets or in dreams. So I've called on you to tell me what I should do" (1 Samuel 28:15, HCSB). Samuel essentially responds by asking what Saul expects Samuel to do if God has abandoned him.

Saul's reign was never one marked by righteousness. In many ways, removing the mediums and spiritists from the land was the moral highlight of Saul's reign. But when things got tough, Saul abandoned the single moral achievement of his reign and turned to the very occult he tried to remove from the land.  Saul did not lose his kingship because of this decision but this kind of decision reinforced the reasons for why God had already chosen to remove Saul as king.

When things get tough in our own lives, how often does doing the right thing become a casualty of survival? Money is tight at home and so we hold back our tithe or decide its ok to "borrow" something from the office or "modify" our tax return. We realize that a personal mistake could harm our relationship with our spouse or with our parents so we choose to lie and hide the truth rather than deal with it. We discover we simply don't have enough time to do all the things we need to so we steal time from our family, hoping that they will forgive us down the road. We fear that our status at the workplace may suffer if people find out about our faith, so we choose not to tell people about the hope that we have in Christ. When times get tough, doing the right thing gets tossed out the window.

What tough decisions are you facing today? Are you considering abandoning what is right because you are more likely to get through your circumstances without suffering? Are you considering cheating, just this once, because you know that doing the right thing might cost you or make things very uncomfortable for you? Character isn't measured by how often we do the right thing, but by how often we do the right thing when it might hurt us to do so.

When Saul got scared, he abandoned what was right and he died anyway. What about you? When things get tough, will you compromise, hoping it will make things better? Or will you choose to do the right thing and trust God with the consequences?  When circumstances scare you, will you abandon your morals for the sake of survival or cling to them even more?

Judging Believers More than Bombers

Suggested Reading: 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 The 2013 Boston bombings stirred up a lot of feelings for people. The fact that those bombings w...