Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Preachers, Avoid Alliteration Always

To some preachers I am a heretic. No, not because of any doctrinal deviation but rather because I oppose alliteration.

You know what that is, right? It is when a pastor forces each of his sermon's points to start with the same letter. Entire generations of believers have been forced to listen to sermons offering the "3 F's of Forgiveness" or the "6 P's of Salvation". Recently I stumbled across a sermon on John 3:16 which offered the following outline:

  1. The PASSION of God's love: "so"
  2. The PERIMETER of God's love: "the world"
  3. The PROOF of God's love: "he gave"
  4. The PRICE of God's love: "his only begotten Son"
  5. The PREREQUISITE for God's love: "whosoever believes"
  6. The PROTECTION of God's love: "will not perish"
  7. The PROVISION of God's love: "have everlasting life"
Now, some of you might be looking at that and ask, "what's the problem?" Some pastors would even consider me a heretic for daring to question the appropriateness of alliteration. I've had at least one pastor tell me that he doesn't believe faithful preaching can be done without it! 

Listen, I am not saying that alliteration can never be helpful. In the example above, I would argue the preacher certainly captured the thought of the biblical verse. But there are several reasons why I am dead set against ever using alliteration and strongly recommend that other pastors stop the practice. 

First, it isn't helpful as a memory device: This is the standard line we are fed by alliterating preachers: "people need alliteration in order to be able to remember the sermon". This assumes that people are actually trying to remember the points of your sermon. Let's be honest with ourselves, we don't even try to remember our best friends' phone numbers (that's what the Contact list is for on our phones). I have never bumped into the Christian whose told me "last month my pastor preached on the '4 G's of Love' and it revolutionized my life." The reality is that our congregants have never remembered the points of our sermon. Now, they may remember the big idea of the sermon, but rarely the main points.

Second, the congregation doesn't care: This may be hard for alliterating pastors to hear, but all the labor you spent on trying to find that third G-word or the seventh H-word was wasted time. The Body simply doesn't care. Several times, back in my alliteration days, I experimented by offering all of the sermon's points in alliteration with the exception of the last one. I was curious if anyone would be annoyed or even notice. No one did. Not a single person. Ever. 

Third, it tempts pastors to use a word nobody knows: Consider this sermon given by an alliterating preacher on the subject of Prayer: (1) The PURPOSE of Prayer, (2) The POWER of Prayer, and (3) the PERSPICACITY of Prayer. All that will happen is that 98% of the congregation will wonder "what in the world is perspicacity" and spent 10 minutes trying to google the word on their smart phones. Or consider the pastor who preached a message titled "Three Things God Wants From You": (1) Surrender, (2) Service, (3) Supplication. Really? The word "prayer" would have been more natural to most hearers and easier to understand. The whole purpose of preaching is to make things clear and relevant, but these kinds of words make the message unclear and harder to understand.

Fourth, it runs great risk of changing the author's meaning: Don Sunukjan, another critic of alliteration, offer this example: Suppose one hears a sermon from 1 Samuel 17:17-54 titled "Characteristics of a Leader". The preacher then lists the following points:
  1. Cooperative (17:17-24)
  2. Curious (17:25-27)
  3. Courageous (17:31-37)
  4. Careful (17:38-40)
  5. Confident (17:41-47)
  6. Conclusive (17:48-51)
Many would walk away praising God for a powerful "expository" sermon from a preacher who was "faithful to God's Word". Well, all except for the fact that the sermon wasn't faithful to God's Word. Not even a little. The first problem, as Don points out, is that many of these 'characteristics' of a good leader are not even mentioned in the passage. In what sense can someone legitimately claim that in vv.25-27 God's message is that godly leaders are to be curious? Worse yet, in what sense can one claim that 1 Sam 17:17-54 is even talking about the necessary characteristics of a godly leader? This isn't even the message of the biblical text. 

I would go so far to say that the vast majority of alliterated sermons I've heard have twisted the text to fit the alliteration, at least on one of the alliterated points. The temptation is just too great, as pastors bend the meaning of the text to fit one of more alliterated words. I believe this is usually done unconsciously and without malicious intent, but it is done nonetheless. I'm to the point now that when I hear a pastor alliterate my brain immediately sends up red flags, as the preacher is most likely bending the text instead of being bent to it.

Fifth, it can become overly complicated: This is the problem with the example given above from John 3:16. That verse is remarkably simple and clear, yet the outline is complicated and therefore confusing. Perhaps there is a reason thousands flocked to hear Jesus speak and the majority of our churches have a few dozen.

Sixth, it feels contrived and does not sound natural: Let's be honest. Nobody speaks this way. Preachers, read that statement again: NOBODY SPEAK THIS WAY. Real life doesn't rhyme and, frankly, an alliterated sermon sounds phony. Your job as a preacher is to connect with your audience...something you are making much harder by speaking in a way that is unnatural and foreign to them.

Seventh, people prefer one practical idea over several points that happen to be alliterated: A decade of preaching ministry is teaching me the need to be clear, simple, and straightforward. What is the takeaway for my people? What is the big idea I want them to get behind? What is the single truth that I want to plant into their heart with this message?

This doesn't mean you can never alliterate. But it does mean that as preachers we need to rely more on the flow and logic of the Biblical passage, not try to repackage and recreate it into something more "memorable" (though see point #1 above).

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Finding Wise Counsel

"Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool,
but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered."
Proverbs 28:26

Navigating through difficult issues or major decisions can be a stressful process. As believers, we often find ourselves in situations where we simply don't know the best way to proceed. While we might yearn for a black and white world where lines are always clear, the reality is that we live in a gray, opaque world full of difficult issues that don't have easy answers. 
  • Who should I marry? 
  • Where should one go to school? 
  • Which job is a best fit for my gifts and family situation? 
  • Which church should I attend? 
  • How should one respond to an angry neighbor? 
  • How can we best confront an unruly friend? 
  • What is the best way to prioritize my finances? 

The list is never ending. Years ago I recognized the need to seek wise counsel for the major decisions of my life. But distinguishing good counsel from bad counsel, or perhaps better stated 'wise counsel from unwise counsel', can be difficult. Over the past few decades, I have followed three basic practices that have proven effective and fruitful in making wise decisions.

First, I listen to my spouse
This doesn't mean that all spouses are discerning or wise. At the very least, this recognizes that your spouse is your partner in life and that you need to be of one mind on all decisions. Yet in a Christian household, where one's spouse is a fellow believer living victoriously for Christ, involving him or her in the decision making process becomes key. Your wife or husband knows you better than anyone else. They can usually tell when your are deceiving yourself or when your being thick-headed or stubborn. They are also in the best position to have the strongest impact on your thoughts and feelings. 

Over the years, my wife has served as my 'go-to counselor' on all my decision-making issues. Getting on our knees together, pleading with the Lord for guidance, has been one of the most effective decision-making tools I've experienced.

Second, I listen to godly counselors
I've learned to avoid yes-men; that is, those friends who I sense just agree with everything I say. While I value those men as friends, they are unhelpful to me when it comes to making decisions. Instead, I have several trusted friends I can go to who will tell me the truth. I have a couple of men who have been involved in every major decision in my life over the past 20 years.

I've also found that it is most helpful when I can get these men in a room together and let them interact with each other. This protects me from introducing unnecessary bias or misrepresenting someone else's counsel. The best counselors are those who listen, ask hard questions, and don't automatically accept my version of the situation or the answers I give. I also look for men who are clearly Bible-driven in their thinking and are willing to take me to chapter and verse.

Third, I search the Scriptures
This isn't meant to be the last step but rather this needs to be done throughout the decisions making process. Search the Scriptures with your spouse. Search the Scriptures with your friends. The reason I list it as the last step is to emphasize the need for Scripture to be the final thing that determines my thinking.

Actively avoid trying to find Bible verses to support your thoughts. The whole goal is for you to submit to Scripture, not to put Scripture into a headlock so that it can submit to you. Also actively try to submit to the whole counsel of God, not just select Bible verses. For example, if you are trying to determine if or how to confront someone, you could easily live out Titus 2:15 ("rebuke with all authority"). But remember you also have to live out Prov 10:12 ("love covers all sins"). 

Often my most fruitful times in the Word are during periods of fasting and praying. These are spiritually intense times, full of Satanic attack, but also filled with the intense working of the Holy Spirit as I grapple with God's revealed truth. Allow these powerful times to shape and determine your thinking.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Healing Power

"My soul clings to the dust,
give me life according to your Word."
Psalm 119:25 (NIV)

When is the last time you felt emotionally crushed? While we all experience moments of sadness, major episodes of depression leave an individual overwhelmed and hopeless. The sufferer feels hopeless and persistently sad, often has trouble concentrating or making even simple decisions, is plagued with fatigued, and loses interest in activities and hobbies that he once considered pleasurable. The depressed person can even acquire persistent aches, pains, headaches, cramps, and digestive problems--none of which ease with medical treatment. For this person, everything seems stale, lifeless, and dead.

In ancient times, those who deeply mourned would often pour dust and ashes over their heads, symbolizing that they had hit "rock bottom". They had reached an emotional point where they felt they couldn't go any lower. In Psalm 119:25, the psalmist acknowledged that he experienced times when it felt like his soul, the very essence of his person, clung to the dust. That is what depression does...it clings tenaciously to our hurt and pain, refusing to let go. It clouds our mind and warps our perspective.

That is why God's Word is so important. The psalmist had learned the only thing that could help him through the most difficult moments of life was the healing perspective of God. Depression lies to us. It twists our thinking and distorts our feelings. In this fog of deceit and misery, the light of God's truth shines through, giving clarity.

In your darkest moments, let God be your guide. Don't trust your mind or your heart. Instead, trust the One who always speaks truth.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Love That Cures

"And we urge you, brothers and sisters,
warn those who are idle and disruptive,
encourage the disheartened,
help the weak,
be patient with everyone."
1 Thessalonians 5:14

"Loving others" is the mantra of Christianity and with good reason. Scripture is adamant that love, above all else, be the mark of a true Christian. We can easily see this in the Old Testament Law, where God declared through Moses "love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD" (Leviticus 19:18). In other words, we are required to love because God is God, and he is a God of love. Jesus repeats this message in the New Testament, telling his disciples "My command is this: love each other as I have loved you" (John 15:12) and "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34, 35). Scripture even tells us that if we don't love other believers, we cannot truly be saved: "whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar" (1 John 4:20).

But what does it mean to love a fellow believer?

Well, there are all kinds of theories, but perhaps one of the most pervasive, and most damaging, is what we could call accommodating love. This is the kind of 'love' that desires a relationship with the other person above the spiritual growth of a brother or sister in Christ.

Let me give you an example. Say you've been going to the same church for several years and have become good friends with a number of believers. One believer in particular has become especially close to you. For several years you have shared life together, been in each others homes, attending Bible studies together, and helped encourage each other during times of emotional crisis.

There is just one problem, this brother has a serious problem with arrogance and pride. Or to slightly change the scenario, perhaps this brother has legalistic attitudes and judges other who don't adhere to his personal preferences. Or perhaps he disparages his wife and speaks of her in demeaning ways. Whatever the issue may be, this is a dear brother in Christ but you are fully aware of a spiritual weakness in his life. Yet you've never said anything to him about this.


Perhaps you are afraid if you say something he would leave the church or even end the relationship. I know many pastors who think this way. Many years ago I became aware that a man in the community was involved in an affair. He was a member of another congregation and in a conversation with me, bragged openly about an affair with a younger women. Not listening to my counsel, I sat down with his pastor and informed him of the situation. After I was done, the pastor looked at me and said "thanks, but I'm not sure what you expect me to do about this." Somewhat shocked, I replied, "Well, I simply expect you to address a spiritual sin in the life of one of your members". To my horror he replied, "Well if I did that he would leave the church."

Is this love? 

If anything, it is a selfish form of love, more appropriately called lust, because you value your friendship with this person more than you value them as a fellow sibling in Christ. You care very little about their relationship to God, but only the enjoyment you receive from the friendship. You've just gotten really good at hiding your selfishness under the thin veneer of Christian language. Throw in a couple of Bible verses about love, and you all set.

But is it really loving to allow a weaker brother or sister in Christ trapped in a pattern of sin to go unchallenged? Is it loving to allow this person to walk through life ineffective for Christ and undermining, by his sin, the very Gospel he claims to cherish? Is it loving to allow such a person to go to their death unwarned of the righteous judgement that is in store for them unless they repent?

The Christian way to love is to administer healing love. In olden days, pastors were sometimes referred to as "curate of souls". This comes from the Latin word curatus, which referred to one who sought to cure or heal someone's soul. A modern equivalent would be "counselor", which is one who attends to, provides for, cares about, and seeks to bring healing to someone who is troubled in soul and spirit. Perhaps the greatest compliment I ever received as a pastor was when a congregant, who was encouraging someone else to come to me for pastoral counseling, told her "don't go see Pastor Josh unless your willing to change, because he will always take you to God's Word."

In other words, Christians are not to treat other believers like they are in a hospice ward: bandaging wounds, administer painkillers, and stupifying immobilized believers so they can live their lives (if it can be called life) in complacency. Instead, we are called to bring the healing of the Gospel to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are spiritually wounded. Sometimes this means helping them cut out the spiritual cancer in their lives. Sometimes it involves a difficult intervention with a brother addicted to his pride. Other times it involves reminding a sister of God's great and comforting promises. It always involves a loving willingness to open God's Word and point them towards God's healing truths.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Good 'Ole Days

"Say not, 'Why were the former days better than these?' 
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this."
- Ecclesiastes 7:10

Remember when things were, well, better? We often hear people talking about the wonder of yesteryear. For some, this is the smell of grandma's freshly baked bread or the slight cherry tobacco aroma of grandpa's beard. For others, it was a time when there was less crime and more neighbors who were friendly and caring. Or perhaps back in those days when kids were more well behaved and more respectful to their parents.

Christians think this way about matters of faith, too. Some bemoan the present state of worship music, longing for "better" times when the church sang the hymns they knew as youth. Or perhaps they long for the days when all the church men wore stylish suits and all the ladies wore pretty dresses and even prettier hats. You hear people say "well, my generation was a generation of prayer", or "the church used to be more reverent for God when I was growing up."

For others, they long for a past when our country was "better" and "more Christian". After all, our great-grandparents didn't have to deal with moral issues such as the acceptance of gay marriage, abortion, or rampant (and public) sexualization of culture. Most people went to church on Sundays, and men didn't cuss in front of women, children, or the preacher.

Still others have enshrined ages of the past as being the doctrinal standard. I know entire churches that insist on using the 1689 Baptist Confession as their official church statement of faith. I know others for whom the era of Jerry Falwell & D. James Kennedy marks the the epitome of biblical faithfulness.

The real problem here is twofold: First, we are specifically commanded in Scripture not to speak this way. Second, it simply isn't true. The past was never what we try to make it out to be.

Ecclesiastes 7:10a offers us a command: "Say not, 'Why were the former days better than these?'" I admit I am not the most brilliant individual who ever graced a pulpit. But I can recognize a command when I see one. Solomon is not even offering us a suggestion: "Hey, it might be a good idea not to say...etc". He is straight to the point: "Do not say". Simply put, Christians are not allowed to talk this way. God doesn't want his people to have their gaze stuck backwards, because it distracts us from our current spiritual assignment. Paul reminds us that we are to "make the most of every opportunity right now" (Eph 5:16), because time is short and we are surrounded by much evil. A soldier on the battlefield is no good if, instead of taking the fight to the enemy, he sits in the grass moaning about how great life was before the battle. When we demonize the present and idealize the past, we are in disobedience to the command of our King.

But Scripture also gives a reason for this command. Frankly, the idealization of the past is based on a lie. In Ecclesiastes 7:10b, Solomon continues his thought: "For it is not from wisdom that you ask this." Believing that former days were better is foolish. Utterly foolish. It is based on a faulty presupposition and an inadequate understanding of sin.

Nostalgia is a seductive liar. The church of your past was not more holy than the church of today. The America of the past was not more "Christian" than the America of today. Sin isn't more of a problem today than it was a couple of generations ago. Satan was just as much the "ruler of this world" in 1850 as he is in 2014. 

The problem with such thinking is that is a ploy of the devil. Such thoughts creep into our minds, robbing us of the thing we are supposed to be yearning for. The Devil would LOVE for you to spend all your effort trying to recapture some spiritual experience of the past instead of living as one destined for Heaven. But the apostle Paul is emphatic: "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way" (Phil 3:13b-15a). The Gospel forbids us to look backward to some mythical golden era of our past, but to look forward to Heaven, that "city whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:10).

I love much of my past. There were some spiritual experiences that greatly shaped me, and I praise God for them. But the past is just that. The past. It is't heaven, far from it, and not an ounce of me ever wishes to return to some bygone era. Not in a million years. It simply isn't the direction my King is calling me. Soldiers of Christ aren't supposed to retreat, but press forward.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, forget what is behind. Press forward.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

You're Disturbing My Worship

"You are disturbing my worship". Have you heard fellow Christian brothers or sisters make that statement? Have you yourself ever uttered it? Perhaps you've heard a version of it: "they are disturbing my worship", "that family is disturbing my worship", "that song leader is disturbing my worship", "that style of music is disturbing my worship", etc.

Forget for a moment the inherent paganism in such a statement. Yes, paganism. When we say "I can't worship to that kind of music" or "I can't worship in an environment like this", how different is that from the pagans of old who would need to perform the "correct" magical incantation to achieve their desired state of spiritual ecstasy? As pagan as that mindset is, there is an even deeper problem.

The older I get in the faith, and the more time I spend in God's holy Word, the more I am convinced that the reason we become so easily disturbed in our worship is because we have been giving the wrong offering in the first place. We've made worship about ourselves, instead of making it about God and others. Sadly, this problem is as old as humanity itself.

In the early chapters of Genesis, in the very first human family, two brothers came together for worship. One of them, Abel, came with a right heart and offered God a sacrifice of praise. The other brother, Cain, also offered God a sacrifice. The only difference was that Cain offered what he wanted to offer. Not only did he care little about what God actually wanted, he also cared nothing at all about his brother.

Across the worship spectrum, whether it be traditional or contemporary, I hear many Christians complain about worship. Many of my Christian friends complain about the worship styles in their churches. Old people complain. Teenagers complain. Mothers complain. Pastors complain. My neighbors in my community, who attend other churches, complain. And yes, even within my own congregation such complaints are heard every now and again. Is there a church in America that is really free from this evil spirit? At the center of all of this is the heart of Cain, an individual who is so obsessed about what he or she wants. "True worship be damned" (such is the attitude), "both God and fellow Christian must take only what I have to offer."

How different is the attitude Scripture commands us to have. "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Colossians 3:17). Or consider 1 Peter 2:9, which commands us to "proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." This means, first and foremost, that in all circumstances and situations we are called to declare God's worth. So yes, you can worship with the baby 3 rows in front screaming. You can worship even though some teens up front are raising their hands and slightly swaying to the music. You can worship if a vocalist is singing off tune. You can worship if the song leader is using a style you don't care for. You can worship if the music is loud. You can worship if someone dances in the aisle. You can worship if the organist is playing so slow you are convinced she might be dead. You can worship if the guitarist is wearing flip flops. You can worship if they are singing old hymns with painfully archaic 17th century English.

You can, but like Cain you might be choosing not to.

Thankfully, there is another model we are supposed to follow. Consider how Paul and Silas could worship God with joy after being stripped, tortured, and shackled in iron chains. Or even better, consider how Jesus was able to praise the Father on the eve of his arrest, knowing the horror that awaited him. They didn't need the "right" music or the "correct" atmosphere. True worship is a "living sacrifice", meaning that it only becomes an offering acceptable to God when it ceases to be about what you enjoy.

Has something disturbed your worship? Then my dear sibling in Christ, it is time to face an uncomfortable truth. The only one disturbing worship is the one who is being disturbed by worship.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Safely in His Arms

Some time ago I was talking with a devout Muslim about the Islamic religion. During that conversation I asked him about his view of eternal life and salvation. As he was describing his beliefs, which included the need to be fully devoted to Allah, he added this comment: "of course, none of us can know for sure if we will even be accepted."

Imagine that! Imagine dedicating yourself to a religion and to a supposed "god" who demanded total obedience but refused to give any assurance of acceptance. And now think about how this is radically different from the message of the Gospel. God, the one revealed in the Bible, is a God of truth. He is one that makes promises and forms relationships. He is one that gives assurances and provides a way to be saved.

Dear believer in Jesus Christ, God wants you to be fully assured of your salvation. In 1 John 5:11-13, the apostle John wrote: "And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life." 

This is why, throughout the Bible, the message of the Gospel is communicated in clear, forthright terms. For example in Romans 10:9, Paul tells us plainly "if you declare with your mouth 'Jesus is the Lord' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." He does not say "you got a really good shot at being saved" or "you might be saved". He says emphatically, "you will be saved." 

Jesus himself was clear on this point: "I give them eternally life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:28-29). In other words, our salvation is guaranteed precisely because God is the strongest person in the universe! The apostle Paul understood that the promise of salvation rested fully on the power of the living God. In Romans 8:38-39 he writes, "for I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Still, some believers, in what can only be described as utter folly, insist that their salvation is not guaranteed. They place needless weights upon their own shoulders, having convinced themselves that they somehow might lose that which the Father has given. But salvation isn't a gem that we frantically clutch in our hand, afraid that we might lose it or that it might one day be stolen. It is a seal stamped onto our hearts by the Holy Spirit, a mark upon us that cannot be removed. Martin Llyod-Jones, preaching on the inability of any person or thing to separate us from God's love, once wrote, 
"Yet some people foolishly say 'Ah yes, but he does not say that you yourself can not do it.' I see, you are the great exception, are you? You are the one in the universe who is stronger than God and stronger than the principalities and powers, and the height and the depth, or any other creature. My dear friends, you are included. Nothing, not even yourself, can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Friday, September 12, 2014

Summer Soldiers and Sunshine Patriots

The Bible promises that “all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). Peter, seeking to calm his own congregation, said “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange was happening to you.” John, who if tradition is correct was boiled alive in oil and banished to Patmos, also told us “do not be surprised that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). Paul recognized that “we are afflicted in every way” (2 Cor 4:8). Later, he urged a young Timothy to obediently “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim 6:12).

How is it then that our churches are filled with people who have no stomach for the fight? There is within the visible church far too many “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” (to borrow an image from Thomas Paine) who shrink at the first moment of crisis or difficulty. Where in modern American Christianity is there the mindset of Pilgrim’s Progress, which depicts the spiritual life as one of great struggle and labor until Christian arrives safe in the Celestial City? Certainly, as Job testifies, the days of every human being are full of trouble (Job 14:1), but the believer in Christ endures yet another difficulty. We are, after all, at war with the god of this age. Have we really come to believe that Satan has embraced pacifism?

As Thomas Watson once reminded his congregation, “a soldier does not have his soft bed or daily fare, but undergoes tedious marches, and such is the Christian life.” This Puritan pastor decried those he called “delicate, silken Christian.” God has called us to stand and fight against our sin and the devil’s rebellion, under his banner and obedient to his leadership. With the Old Testament saints we are to recognize that “God is with us; he is our leader” (2 Chron 13:12). The King James renders this as “captain”, though the Hebrew literally means “head”. He is "on top" and the rightful ruler and therefore the guarantor of our victory.

Until that day of final victory comes, fight the good fight of faith. Don't grumble or act perplexed when difficulty comes. Despite what peddlers of false peace may promise, you were never intended to have 'your best life now'. Recognize your "fiery trials" for what they are...the endurance of a good soldier and servant of Christ living in a lost world at war with our Captain. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Stop abusing Philippians 4:13

In 2011, Hollywood director Sean McNamara released the film Soul Surfer, the true life story of Bethany Hamilton who suffered a horrific shark attack while surfing off the coast of Hawaii. It was a wonderful film with a positive, inspiring message. For Christians, the film was especially meaningful because Bethany and her family are devout believers, which while not an overt theme, nevertheless came through in the film in a positive way.

I want to be very clear on this: I absolutely LOVED this film.

Thumbs up! Rent it. Watch it. Own it. The acting is delightful, the special effects are well done, the camera work excellent, and the plot is inspirational. While not a "Christian movie" per se, it is an inspirational story about a young girl who happens to be Christian. Far from mocking her beliefs, her faith actually features as a key component in the story line. I praise God for this film.

But yes, I am going to use it as a negative example. Just know I'm not a hater.

One scene caught my attention. While Bethany lay recovering in the hospital after the accident, she asks her father if she will ever be able to surf again. Her dad, play by Dennis Quaid no less (awesome) quotes Philippians 4:13, "You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength". (OK, the writers of the film replaced "Christ" with "Him", but let's not get sidetracked). In essence, he was saying 'yes daughter, with God at your side you can one day surf again.'

Philippians 4:13 is a popular verse. Tim Tebow, a young Christian man with loads of integrity, regularly placed that reference on the black strip under his eye (alternating with other verses such as John 3:16). The verse is quoted by coaches giving pre-game pep talks and by moms encouraging their little girls to perform well for ballet recitals. Well meaning adults, when counseling teenagers with low self-esteem and who are convinced they will never amount to anything, quote this verse to convince the despondent teen that anything is possible.

The meaning is clear: You can accomplish anything. You can be anything. With God at your side, the world is at your fingertips!

Except, that's not at all what the verse means. Not even close. Let's look at in in context:
"...I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength." - Philippians 4:11b-13
Paul's letter to the Philippians is one of his Prison Letters, so titled because he wrote it while in prison. In fact, he was quite literally chained a Roman guard. Despite the miserableness of the situation, Paul stay positive. In Philippians 1:12-13 he even wrote, "Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Gospel. As a result, it has become clear to the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ." He goes on in the next verse to say that because of his imprisonment, other believers have become more bold in "proclaiming the Gospel without fear". 

Imprisonment in the Roman empire wasn't a picnic. There was no minimum security prison for white collar criminals, complete with ping pong tables and free college classes. The conditions were brutal. Often they wouldn't feed or clothe prisoners, which is why Paul was so thankful to the believers for sending provisions. Chained to a Roman soldier, Paul would have been beaten, abused, and humiliated.

But Paul was happy. Joyous even.

This wasn't because he felt he could realize any potential or accomplish any task. In fact, there wasn't many tasks he was even considering. Except maybe survival. For Paul, the presence of Christ in his life wasn't the promise that he could accomplish anything, but rather that he could endure anything. In all situations, he could find contentment. No matter the hardship. No matter how far down the rabbit hole one fell, Christ remained his strength. The devil would not win. Sinners would never ultimately triumph. His faith faith and his joy could remain as strong as ever, regardless of what the Enemy threw at him. He could endure to the end.

No promise of freedom was given. In fact, for all he knew he might be killed the next day after enduring a brutal beating, but the point was that he could endure. No matter what, the joy that he found in Christ couldn't be broken.

Paul learned this lesson and he is inviting us to learn it as well. Whatever the situation, no matter how horrific it may be, we can endure.

As far as the movie was concerned, I actually found it very inspirational that a young girl would overcome all odds and surf again. I admire the strength and resolve. I find the dedication and 'can't-keep-me-down' attitude praiseworthy. The movie has much to celebrate.

But surfing was never the promise God made to her. The promise was, despite her circumstances, that Christ was with her. She could endure. She could find joy.

From everything I've read of Bethany Hamilton, God kept his promise to her: her faith remained strong. That's the real story.

Oh, by the way, it just so happens that he let her surf again, too.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Stop abusing Psalm 37:4

"...and he will give you the desires of your heart."
Psalm 37:4b

Mr and Mrs Jones come up to the pastor on a Sunday morning, their 6 year old girl Susie in tow. "Pastor", Mrs Jones says, "Susie has a question about Heaven that we couldn't answer".

"What's your question, Susie?" the pastor asks.

"When I go to heaven will my dog Fido be there? I love my dog and I want to be in heaven with him."

The pastor answers, "Well, I do know the Bible promises that God "will give you the desires of your heart", so if you desire Fido, then God will make sure he is in Heaven with you.

Now listen. I'm not mocking the question. This little girl clearly loves her dog and we can all understand how important the question is to a 6 year old. Also, I'm certainly not mocking the principle that God will richly bless us in Heaven. What I am addressing is the complete and under disregard for the meaning of Psalm 37:4. This is one of a handful of Bible passages that we treat as if it were a giant spiritual blank check and by doing so act as if the Trinity is the cosmic version of the "Make a Wish Foundation" and as if Jesus were Santa Clause.

Once when I was discussing this verse with a fellow Christian, after saying something similar to what I've said above, I was curtly interrupted with a question: "So you're denying that God is making us a promise?" The question was asked with obvious resentment. "Well, I for one believe that God means what he said and always keeps his promises."

So do I. The question is what has God promised? Has he really promised to give us anything we desire?

The problem with quoting half a verse is that you only quote half a verse. Look at what the entire verse actually says:
"Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart."
This verse is indeed promising something. God will give you your heart's desire if your heart desires God. This promise isn't a spiritual blank check which will allow you to get an Xbox, new friends, an attractive spouse, or the guarantee of a beloved pet for all of eternity. It is not the promise of a better paying job, or reconciliation with a family member who remains bitter towards you, or a better health care package that will cover your spouse's cancer treatments.

No, it is something far, far, far better.

It is the promise of the presence of God. The reason this is so important is because God's presence changes everything. Both Moses and Joshua tried to show Israel that God's presence brings strength and courage.  "Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go" (Joshua 1:9; see Deut 31:6). The apostle Paul clung to this promise so tenaciously that he wrote "I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39).

The coming of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the promise God made in Psalm 37:4. As the Old Testament saints delighted in God, he gave them their desire by sending Jesus Christ. For this reason, Jesus was first called Immanuel, which means "God with us" (Matthew 1:23). This promise is realized anew in the heart of everyone who calls upon the name of Jesus Christ.

If you desire God, he will give you himself. Richly, freely, and without restraint. That is a promise he always keeps.