Friday, May 20, 2016

Yes, you can apply Jeremiah 29:11 to your life!



I have a pet-peeve. I really hate it when people take verses out of context. That doesn't mean I go around correcting everyone, because we all know someone like that and it's incredibly annoying. But it does drive me nuts.

Think about all the times you hear people trying to correct your eating habits by quoting 1 Corinthians 6:19, "Don't you know your bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit" (hint: that passage is about sexual immorality, not cheeseburgers). Or how about when someone doesn't like something you are doing, even though it's not a sin, and confronts you with the King James version of 1 Thessalonians 5:22, "Abstain from all appearance of evil" (hint: the word means "form" or "manifestation". It's saying don't sin in any way, shape, or form). Or what about Revelation 3:20, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in with them and they with me." How many times have you heard pastors use that to invite sinners to accept Christ? That's all well and good, but in context Christ is speaking to his Church (i.e. those already saved), confronting them with their need for repentance and renewal. 

Suffice to say, taking verses out of context really bugs me.

Which is why I find it interesting when I see all kinds of blog posts and internet articles about the need to stop abusing Jeremiah 29:11. That verse says "'For I know the plans I have for you', declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you.'" 

The context of that verse is insightful. In 597 BC King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah and carted off thousands of Jews to Babylon, several hundred miles from their homes. They would have been confused, angry, and distraught. Should they rebel or try to escape? In response to this, the LORD spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah. Instead of fighting against Babylon, God told them to "build houses and settle down; plant gardens (v.5)..."marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage" (v.6). He even told them to get involved in their new community (v.7, "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper"). It was then that God added a promise. In 70 years time, he would bring them back to Israel (v.10). The whole point of v.11 is to help these Jewish believers to be calm in the face of great difficulty, resting on the promise that God would bring them home (or rather, their descendant's home).

What I find remarkable is that there are some who claim this verse doesn't apply to the church today. At one pastor's conference I attended, the speaker brought up this verse and even did a good job explaining its original context. But then, to a chorus of 'Amens', he said "Unless your a Jew living in exile in Babylon 500 years BC, this verse doesn't apply to you!" 

Really? Is that how Scripture works?

By that logic, the Bible promise that "God will supply all your needs" (Phil 4:19) doesn't apply to you because you're not a believer in first century Philippi. And unless you were actually in the crowd listening to Jesus, his statement "Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest" (Matt 11:28) has nothing to do with you. 

The fact of the matter is that Jeremiah 29:11 does apply to you as a Christian believer today. Paul tells us that "everything that was written in the past [i.e. Old Testament] was written to teach us" (Romans 15:4). The same God who refused to forget or abandon Israel in a foreign land will not forget you if you are his child. The same God who had a plan for Israel's future has a plan for the future of all who put their faith in Jesus Christ. 

True, Jeremiah 29:11 doesn't mean that God has a plan for you to prosper at work. Or prosper in your golf game. Or prosper in your relationships. We've all seen people abuse the verse by twisting it into some kind of greed-based, health-and-wealth sense of personal fulfillment. It's not about your personal fulfillment at all, but rather about God's eternal plan for your life.

So yes, I am concerned by those who try to turn this verse into saying God is going to get you a bigger paycheck. But I am equally concerned by those who run the other direction and scold believers for daring to think it has anything to do with us at all. 

We need this verse. We need its reminder to live patiently and ethically in a world that often seeks to do us harm (Jeremiah 29:4-9), knowing that Christ will one day return for us. He has a plan for us (v.11), a plan for our eternal prosperity in a future with Him.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Start Calling Your Wife Hot


I was recently involved in a Facebook conversation with several Christians (including pastors) on the subject of whether or not it is appropriate to refer to your wife as "hot" to other people. A Christian blogger had recently written a post decrying the practice, even suggesting that to do so was "objectifying her". I do want to point out that the blog post, as well as my conversation with these men, was edifying, kind, and gracious.

But I was concerned by what I read. Not concerned in the sense that anyone was denying the faith or advocating sin, but I was concerned by what I see as an over-reaction to a real problem, which in fact leads to an equally bad problem.

So what's the problem? Frankly, we do live in a cultural context that sexually objectifies women. And quite honestly, the word "hot" is almost always used in a sexualized way. As an experiment, I typed the word "hot" into Google image search. Not "hot women" or "hot babe" or "hot girl"...just "hot". I had expected to see pictures of flames or a stove top as well as pictures of beautiful women. Though I didn't scroll down, I was surprised that every single picture was of a gorgeous model.

"Hot" is a sexual word.

And because of that connotation, many in the Facebook conversation were agreeing with the blogger that Christian men should never use that word about their wives. To be clear, most of the husbands in the conversation believed it was OK to tell our wives privately that she is 'smok'n hot', but maintained it was inappropriate to do so in front of others.

So we've seen the problem, and now we've seen the cure...or rather the over-reaction. Which leads to an equally great problem.

As a pastor and professional counselor I've counseled many married couples. Many were considering divorce, others coping with the death of a child, and still others dealing with a myriad of issues from financial stress, to parenting disagreements, to in-law struggles. But very rarely are any of these issues at the center of the marriage's difficulties. At the center of most of those marriages, I've discovered, lies an intimacy problem. And quite often, a root cause of that problem is the husband's failure to think and speak of his wife in the same manner we see in Song of Songs.

In that biblical book, the man is obviously head over heels in love with his bride. Whereas elsewhere Solomon focused on the character and intelligence of an excellent wife (Proverbs 31), in Song of Songs the focus is on her physical beauty. The entire Song is a living out of Proverbs 5:18b-19 ("Rejoice in the wife of your youth; A loving doe, a graceful deer; may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be intoxicated with her love.").

In chapter 4, the most "heated" description of her beauty, includes this statement: "You've captivated my heart, my sister and my bride, you've captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes" (v.9). Verse 11 says "your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue." It only heats up from there.

In light of the graphic nature of Song of Songs, referring to your wife as "hot" seems rather tame. Now, it's very possible your wife doesn't like that term. One woman in the Facebook conversation recalled the catcalls she experienced from other men, who often referred to her as 'hot' and causing her to dislike the term. Fair enough, and the Christian husband must be sensitive. The whole goal here is to speak to your wife, and about your wife, in such a way as communicates that your eyes are only for her. Your job as a Christian husband is to find the right language to do that.

The argument has been made that the Song of Songs only describes how we speak to our wives, and that it is wrong to speak about her that way. I think that argument forgets that is exactly what Solomon is doing. The language of the Song is to her, but the song was sung publicly, and put in print for all to see. Solomon had no problem sharing with other men how gorgeous he thought his wife was. His goal wasn't to get other men to fantasize about his wife, but rather to teach them to have eyes and a heart only for their own wife (Prov 5:18-19).

Over the years my wife and I have counseled many Christian women who long for the eyes and hearts of their husbands. I remember one particular woman lamenting to my wife and I how she used to buy dresses and try different hair styles all in an attempt just to get him to want to hold her hand in public. After several years of trying to catch his eye, she finally had given up. At she spoke, we saw a window into a bruised and wounded soul.

But is there a danger here? If a Christian man begins to publicly say his wife is hot won't this be awkward for other men? I don't see why. I expect every man to insist that his wife is the most beautiful woman on the planet. I generally don't get mad when a new parent tells me they have the most beautiful baby. I simply rejoice with them. They are telling me what they see...what they are supposed to see...what they must see. And if they don't see that, something is clearly wrong.

But won't this objectify our wives? There are probably Christian men who are doing that, but it certainly isn't through this. I recall one young 20-something who had a habit of bragging about how good his wife was in bed. I had heard rumors that he spoke this way and eventually had the unpleasant experience of hearing it in person. I listened as he spoke, trying to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding him. There was no mention of how enraptured he was with her beauty, or intelligence, or character. He didn't describe his love for her, or even his attraction to her. He never said she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. His words were all about how she performed in bed. After a point I interrupted with a stern rebuke. Not only did I not want to hear any more, I cautioned this young man that he needed a fundamental shift in the way he viewed his wife. He was destroying his marriage, even if he was enjoying the sex. She had ceased to be an object of his love and had become simply an object.

This isn't what Solomon is doing. True, he doesn't shy away from discussing the wonders of sexual intimacy. Yet nowhere in this Song is the focus on his gratification. The focus is on her beauty and the joy he experiences by being in her presence.

Christian husbands, live and speak in such a way that your wife knows you only have eyes for her. Share that with the world. Make it a truth that is beyond doubt in anyone's mind. To your eyes, your wife is beautiful. She is stunning. She is 'hot', if that term is meaningful to her. Let the world know you believe it. Frankly, our world needs to see and hear about the kind of intimacy-filled, sexually-pleasing, affection-giving, and mutually-uplifting eyes-only-for-each-other kind of marriages the Bible calls us to.



Thursday, May 5, 2016

Blameless



Many years ago the Nominating Committee at the church I attended presented a list of names they wanted us to consider as potential deacons. All of the men listed were good names, and I could see why others had recommended them to the position. However, when the leaders gathered together to discuss the names, one leader objected to a young man who was on the list. He said, "I can't support this person as a deacon. I happen to know that several years ago he and his wife struggled in their marriage and they were in counseling for a long time."

For the rest of the group, that seemed to settle the issue. Another leader agreed and said, "OK, let's strike him from the list". At that point I spoke up and started asking questions: "how long ago was this?" "Did the man achieve victory?" "Did he respond well to counseling?" "Was he repentant?" "What is the state of his marriage now?"

Come to find out, the man had indeed responded well to counseling and God had brought tremendous victory in their marriage. In fact, he and his wife were leading Bible studies in their home, sharing their faith with others, bringing friends to church, and highly involved in various ministries. But none of that was good enough for the individual who made the objection. He simply shrugged his shoulders and said "well, I still vote no. After all, we have to have leaders who are above reproach."

Sadly, this leader had forgotten the central message of the Gospel. There is a word in the Bible that we need to pay attention to. It is translated in various ways, but the Greek word is amomos (ἄμωμος), which literally means "no-blame". It is found in several verses, one of which is Ephesians 1:4, "He choose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight." This means that despite all of our wrongs, our failures, and our sins God declares us to be without blame if we put our trust and faith in Jesus. When Jesus went to the cross, he had taken the sins of this young man and restored him to righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). Sadly, this leader was determined to continue to caste blame.

We cannot make others see us the way God sees us. But we can control how we see ourselves. If you are reading this I can assume some things about you. I can assume you have sinned. I can assume you have hurt others as you sinned. Perhaps you've even destroyed a relationship. Maybe you have criminal record. Maybe your reputation has been trashed.

But none of that matters. If you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ, God has declared you to be holy and without-blame. Perhaps some would object that this belief simply excuses you from taking personal responsibility for the wrongs you have committed. Let me humbly suggest they have missed the entire point of the Gospel. The whole message of the Gospel is that Christ has accepted the responsibility for your wrongs. A punishment has been paid. There has been a reckoning. Someone has already answered for your crimes, sins, and faults.

Live as someone who is blameless, even when others continue to caste stones.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Spiritual Gift of a Critical Attitude


I once attended a large Christian conference with several friends from my church. The speakers were all godly men and I recall the event as a time of wonderful spiritual refreshment. However, during one of the meal breaks, a few of us sat down at a table where a conversation was already underway. Most of the people at the table were from the same church.

As we listened, it was clear this group (led by their pastor) were not fans of the last speaker. I couldn't detect any major theological disagreement. Rather, they spent the next 15 minutes picking apart the speaker's mannerisms, mocking his clothing choices, and splitting hairs over his wording choices. One exchange went like this:

Pastor: Did you hear him say "IF Jesus is God why wouldn't you give your life to him?"?

Younger man: Yes! That shocked me.

Woman: My mouth about dropped open.

Pastor: As if there is any doubt! What kind of Christian would say IF? It is a concrete fact that Jesus is God. Never trust a man who says "if".

Woman: I'm just so glad we have enough discernment to see this. I bet few others here did.

Perhaps I should have spoken up. But at that moment I choose to heed Proverbs 26:4, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly or you yourself will be just like him." My friends and I just hurriedly finished our meal and left the table. But what I found remarkable was that the rest of the people at the table, presumably all from this pastor's church, were in complete agreement with the criticism. There were many nods and verbal affirmations at this supposed "discernment".

Of course, a key problem is that we find these kinds of statements in the Bible. Elijah confronted the people of Israel, who had fallen into idol worship, and said "how long will you waiver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him. But if Baal is God, follow him" (1 Kings 18:21). In the New Testament, Paul says "if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, then make my joy complete by being of the same mind" (Phil 2:1-2a). Elijah and Paul were not introducing doubt and their if-statements clearly are meant to help people see the truth of the situation and then respond appropriately to that truth. For Elijah, he was confronting them with the incompatibility of their beliefs. They still claimed to believe in the Lord, but as he pointed out if that is actually true (which it is) then that truth demands they stop worshiping Baal. In Paul's case, since it is true that Christ gives us encouragement and the Holy Spirit has already brought us into spiritual fellowship, then those truths should put in us a heart for unity. 

That group sitting around the table really didn't have a problem over grammar or wording. The real problem was that they had allowed themselves to be consumed by pride and negative attitudes. Yet instead of repenting of their negative spirit, they had baptized that pride and renamed it "discernment". They had even nitpicked a Christian speaker's appeal for people to accept Christ as Lord. Sadly, I've encountered this same criticism many times since then. Several weeks ago I read a blog article where the writer was attacking a Christian speaker for making a similar statement and I've even had the same kind of critical nit-picking directed at me on occasion. 

Yet how often have I been guilty of the same critical attitude? Or how about you? There is no spiritual gift of a critical attitude, yet we find this attitude alive and well in our own hearts far too often. Biblical discernment is a precious gift that is very much needed (and sadly often lacking) in the local church. But if your "discernment" only manifests itself in the ability to find fault in others, you've confused a prideful and critical heart with discernment. Sadly, that means your operating out of the very sinful spirit you claim to be able to detect.

Prayer: Father, forgive us for our critical attitudes. Lead us instead towards a loving spirit and a wise & discerning mind. Amen



Friday, December 11, 2015

Dealing with False Accusations


Be not silent, O God of my praise! For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened 
against me speaking against me with lying tongues. They beset me with 
words of hate, and attack me without cause. In return for my love they accuse me, 
even as I make prayer for them. So they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love.

(Psalms 109:1-5 RSV)


Have you ever been falsely accused? Perhaps you overheard friends speaking ill of you at a party or heard "through the grapevine" about a horrible rumor about you. Maybe you have even been confronted with an ugly accusation by someone, and despite your explanations, they refused to believe you.

Accusations are damaging and harmful. It is because of this that God condemns gossip and slander repeatedly throughout the Bible. In fact, making false accusations is considered just as great a sin as adultery or murder.


1. Respond with gentleness. The Bible says that "a soft answers turns away wrath" (Proverbs 15:1). This doesn't always solve the problem, but it opens doors for resolution on your end. Always seek to be compassionate and gentle.

2. Show tangible acts of love. Scripture tells us that "love is kind" (1 Corinthians 13:4). Kindness is a word that must be expressed if it truly exists. The idea here is that love results in kind deeds. Go out of your way to do acts of kindness for the person who is making false accusations. Invite them to dinner. Send them a birthday card. Drop off a freshly baked pie. 

3. Praise God for them. Regularly thank God for this person. True, they are currently being used by Satan to slander and accuse you, but recognize where God is working in their life. If they are gifted in a particular area, praise God for that gift. If you remember wonderful times with them in the past, thank God for those memories. Paul tells us in Philippians 4:8 to think about whatever is right, noble, true, and commendable.

4. Pray for them. Pray for this sin that is gripping their life. Yes, their sin is hurting you, but it is hurting them far worse. The only thing damaged is your reputation but they are damaging their standing before God and their effectiveness in God's Kingdom. Worse yet, they are damaging the cause of Christ. Pray for their softening, for reconciliation, and their repentance. 

5. Decide not to retaliate. Let's face it, sometimes gentleness and kindness simply don't work, which the writer of Psalm 109 understood all too well. He wrote "In return for my love they accuse me, even as I make prayer for them. So they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love." Despite all his best efforts, they responded to his love with hatred, and his acts of kindness with further insults. Believers shouldn't be surprised when this happens, because anger is a dangerous, venomous thing. But live in such a way that it may never be said you returned evil for evil.

6. Recognize that often the accuser isn't after truth. The psalmist said his accusers had "deceitful mouths" and "lying tongues". Some years ago I remember being confronted by a fellow believer demanding to know why I had not sought out another believer who had left the church. When I explained that I had sought him out dozens of times, and continued to seek him out only to be constantly rebuffed, the brother said "I just spoke to him and he said you've never even tried to contact him." In this other person's anger he resorted to telling lies, and there was nothing I could do about it other than give it to the Lord. In my experience, gossips and slanderers almost always prefer lies over truth and distortions over clarity.

7. Live to please the Lord. A good reputation is a wonderful thing and it is terrifying to think how it can be ruined through no fault of your own. But in the end, we live to please our Lord. I remember one well-meaning brother coming to me, alarmed at what some were saying. He told me "you must put a stop to this! They will ruin your ministry." I replied that I didn't have to put a stop to anything. These other people were welcome to ruin my ministry because it was never mine to begin with. It belongs to the Lord. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Muslim Threat: A biblical response

Every day we turn on the news to hear some politician, and even entertainment celebrities, responding to Islam. Some, like Donald Trump and even Evangelical stalwart Franklin Graham, are calling for a temporary ban on any and all Muslim immigrants or tourists due to the widespread threat of Islamic terror. Others, like President Barach Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg are championing solidarity with the Muslims, who they are increasingly viewing as a persecuted class.

One the one hand, fear seems to have taken hold. One the other hand, any perceived link between the terrorists (who kill in the name of Allah) with Islam is seen as pure, unadulterated racism. The divide between these two groups is only growing.

For example, recently the U.S. Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, said in response to the Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris that her "greatest fear" was retaliatory violence against Islam. Again, her greatest fear isn't that there will be more terrorists attacks, or that innocent civilians would be killed by ISIS or Al Qaeda, but that Muslims would be treated unfairly by a population living under imminent threat of Muslim terror. This fear is so great for AG Lynch that she has threatened to procescute anything her office deems as "hate speech" towards Islam. Further compounding the problem, all three of the democratic candidates for president are on record as refusing to use the term "Islamic terrorists", despite the fact that every single Islamic terrorist proclaims they are killing in obedience to their religion.

On the other hand, we are increasingly hearing politicians (and even Evangelical leaders) make statements that seem to give into fear. Current GOP froncitizens, Donald Trump, is calling for a temporary ban on all Muslims into the USA. This ban is now championed by the likes of Franklin Graham. While most of the other GOP candidates have distanced themselves from this ban, or even outright condemned it, most are supportive of stopping any Syrian refuges from entering the United States, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings are fleeing for their lives from the barbaric regime of ISIS. Mr Trump has even hinted at special identification requirements for Muslims in the US (even those who are American citizens) and spoken faborably about FDR'S WW2-era interment camps. A few days ago a nationally-known pastor and president of the largest Christianity university in the world, Jerry Falwell Jr., called upon the students at Liberty University to arm themselves in order to "take care of those Muslims" (in context he was referring to Islamic terrorists).

One response panders to political correctness and seems to deny the reality that is looking us in the face. The other response smacks of reactionary fear and is curiously devoid of anything resembling compassion.

In light of these two responses, is there a response that is biblical & Christlike? Let me suggest there are three biblical principles that should guide our response.

First, Christ commands that we love our enemies. While a true believer might not actually view anyone as his enemy, the fact is that a very large portion of the Islamic world views the West, or more technically anyone who is not Muslim, as the enemy. They hate us. The terrorists target the defenseless and seek to bring the entire world under subjection to Allah. In Matthew5:44-45 Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Going even further, we are commanded to pray for them and seek ways to actively do good to them. Whatever social or political policy we choose to affirm as Evangelicals, we must ensure that it is loving and compassionate to our Muslim neighbors.

Second, the Christan is commanded to have compassion, specifically for refugees and others who are in need. Compassion to the immigrant and refugee was a basic and foundational part of OlWhiletament law. In the New Testament, John the Baptist continued this teaching when he told the crowd that "anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same" (Luke 3:11). In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) Jesus teaches us to view even the most cultural despised group in society with compassion. Likewise, in Hebrews 13:12 we are commanded to show hospitality to strangers and in Matthew 25:35-39 Jesus tells us that failure to provide aid to those in need in tantamount to failing to show love to Christ himself. This does not necessarily require we bring Syrian refugees to America, but at the very least it means we seek to provide substantially for their needs and get them to safety. It also means that if our nation chooses to continue to allow in Islamic refugees Christians should be the first in line to give compassionate care.

Third, we must not fall into the trap that these first two principles somehow force us to ignore basic principles of safety and self-defense. Exodus 22:2-3 teaches us that when a thief breaks into our house in the middle of the night we are allowed to defend ourselves, even if that means killing the intruder becomes necessary. Because of this passage of Scripture, I have a concealed carry permit and regularly train in order to be able to defend my family, neighbors, and co-workers (where allowed). Certainly our nation is wise to take reasonable steps to protect its citizens. In fact, as citizens in a democratic republic, we should insist they do so.

Yet something grotesque, spiritually speaking, begins to occur when self-protection becomes the only (or even the main) emphasis when confronting the radical Muslim issue. While safety & protection are allowed in Scripture, the center of our faith isn't "the right to keep and bear arms" (as wonderful & necessary as that American right is), but rather the self-sacricing love of Christ.

While Rev. Falwell's comments on self-defense where right and true, as a believer he serves the Gospel better by allowing Christlike love, not self-protection, to be the central point of our response to the radical Muslims (or anyone else who might seek to do us harm). Likewise, Franklin Geaham would become a better advocate for the way of Christ if he focused less on the Islamic threat and more on Christ's path of peace & love towards our enemies.

On the other hand, Scripture never calls on us to deny existential threats. We do no one any good when we deny the reality that is before us. People are trying to hurt us. There is a real threat of Islamic terrorism. It is right and proper to take steps to protect ourselves from these threats, but never at the cost of compassion and love.





Wednesday, December 9, 2015

WWOW? (What Would Others Want?)

"Love does not insist on its own way."
1 Corinthians 13:5

Remember the WWJD? bracelets?  While that acronym has become somewhat of a punchline nowadays, back in the day it was an honest attempt to remind ourselves to think like Jesus in all situations. I confess I owned and wore several of those bracelets and I'm still asking myself that question several times a day.

While that is a great question (in fact, one of the best questions we can ask ourselves) there are other important questions as well. One of those questions, too often neglected, is this: "What would others want?"

Imagine a man coming into his pastor's office to vent about his wife. Their annual vacation was coming up and they had gotten into several heated arguments over where to go. She wanted to visit family down South. He wanted to rent a vacation house on the beach, far from any trouble (including in-laws). For 45 minutes he laments how difficult work had been, how he needs to relax, and how his wife is being completely unwilling to reason. She is rebellious and selfish, or at least that is his perspective.

Perhaps she was being selfish (it would be hard to tell from a one-sided conversation). But what we do know was that the husband was failing to love. In fact, they probably both were to some degree. James 4:1 says "what causes fights and quarrels among you? Is it not this, that your passions quarrel within you?" In other words, whenever our personal desires become that which guides our behavior, we are automatically put onto a path towards conflict with other people. We become the god which must be appeased.

Whenever we focus on ourselves we actually practice the opposite of love.  By its very nature, the focus of love is outward, towards others. This means we become chiefly concerned with what those around us desire. Sadly, nearly all marital, relational, and church conflicts come down to one or more parties putting their own desires ahead of everyone else.

Of course, the cure is to do the opposite. Find joy in pleasing others. Let the older congregant sing some more of the hymns, or if you are the older congregant, take pleasure in allowing the younger members of your church to have their contemporary music. Seek to put your spouse, or your peer at work, above yourself.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Rude Christians?

"...love is not rude..."
1 Corinthians 13:5

A few thousand years ago there was a small but growing church in a thriving metropolis within the Roman Empire. The city of Corinth was cultural diverse, had a swelling population, and had proven itself to be a great place to make a small fortune if one had a mind for business. It was also known as a moral cesspool. Yet in the middle of all these a group of Christians gathered together to worship Jesus and learn from his word.

The problem (or at least one of the problems) was that the believers who were part of the church at Corinth didn't seem to like each other very much. They were openly critical of each other and even some of the apostles (for example, most didn't like the apostle Paul very much). Some were even openly involved in sexual sin, while others considered themselves more holy than those around them. Some, while truly saved, nevertheless hadn't grown very far in their faith and were trying to insist that everyone adhere to the Old Testament laws. Others, confident in the grace of Christ, were forcibly insisting that those "weak Christians" were just being dumb.

The conflict just wasn't during the Sunday morning service. It was destroying relationships. For example, some believers felt the freedom to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. After all, it was good meat and since they believed in Jesus, they could care less where the meat had come from. They also felt the freedom to drink a little wine now and again, in moderation. While this was perfectly within their rights as believers (as Paul makes very clear in 1 Corinthians 8 & 10, and Romans 14), they were also being arrogant and pushy. They started to flaunt these freedoms in front of people who were offended by them. In other words, "you must also practice my list of 'do's' for me to accept you and be nice to you."

Then there was the group who took offense to those behaviors. Instead of just quietly having their own personal opinion, they made it their personal quest to make sure everyone in the church lived according to their man-made standards: no meat, no booze...and whatever other rules they decided to come up with. This isn't to say that setting personal preferences is wrong or that choosing to forgo certain activities is legalistic. We have that freedom, too (and my wife and have said 'no' to a great many practices other believers take part in). But these believers were essentially saying "obey my list of don't's for me to accept you and be nice to you."

In 1 Corinthians 13:5 Paul tells us that one of the marks of love is that "it is not rude." The King James Version says "it does not behave unseemly." We are rude when we behave in such a way that is offensive, indecent, or dishonorable to others. It's not so much about breaking social norms and customs (i.e. wiping your feet before entering a home, calling before stopping by someone's house, etc) but more about the hurt that we cause when we neglect to show honor and decency towards someone else.

Paul was telling the Corinthians who felt they were "strong" in faith not to shove their sense of Christian freedom up the noses of those people offended by those behaviors. That's being rude and therefore isn't love. But he was also telling those offended by such behaviors not to go to war with a fellow believer on the (un)holy hill of one's own petty preferences. Jesus said something similar when he told us "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31). In other words, true biblical love values relationships and it treats others with dignity and respect. 

Some time back I was talking to a group of Christian men when another man approached us. While most of us engaged him joyfully in conversation, I noticed one man was clearly agitated by this man, even to the point of refusing to return his greeting. 

After the man walked way, I turned to the brother and said, "hey I couldn't help but notice there was a problem. And if you'll forgive my frankness, I also couldn't help but notice you seemed a little rude." 

He replied, "I have no respect for that man and I refuse to even speak to him!"

With a smile I put my hand on his shoulder and said "Let me tell you a story. A few thousand years ago there was a small but growing church in a thriving metropolis within the Roman Empire...."

Thursday, November 19, 2015

It's not about you (or me)

"...love does not boast and is not arrogant..."
1 Corinthians 13:4

I sat in the hospital waiting room, having promised a congregant I would be there praying for him and be with his family during his long surgery. The large room began filling with other people. Children were playing with toys. Men were desperately trying to find something a guy would want to read. Ladies were conversing with one another. And, of course, some were watching soap operas on the single TV.

After a while a young man walked in and, judging by the priest's collar and wedding ring, I surmised he was probably a clergyman from an Episcopal or Lutheran church. The actual denomination didn't really matter, but what did matter was the conversation I overheard for the next hour. Like me, he was there to bring comfort to the family waiting for a loved one during surgery. But over the next hour all I heard was this young man talk about himself. When the husband of the lady in surgery started to talk about how he feared he was going to lose his wife, the clergyman cut him off to tell a story about how he almost died in a car accident. When the adult daughter tried talking about how much her mother meant to her, the priest interrupted to claim he knew all about loss, only to tell a story about how his favorite dog died when he was a child. When an older woman (presumably the mother of the woman having surgery) began to weep, the priest looked over at her, then back to the husband and proceeded to tell a long and detailed account of a car he was restoring.

Telling stories about ourselves and engaging in generic conversation during times of crisis isn't necessarily wrong. In fact, sometimes it can be a great comfort and help take a grieving family's mind off the pain, even for a moment. But what I witnessed was a man who had not yet begun to understand biblical love. Paul tells us that "love does not boast and is not arrogant." In other words, the believer is not supposed to be the person who has become consumed or defined by the exhibition of self-importance. He or she isn't supposed to try to inflate their status or reputation.

The believer is supposed to be the person who cares very little about himself and very much about other people.  To be honest, as I sat and listened to that young clergyman I didn't become filled with righteous indignation. I wasn't angry or offended by his behavior. Instead I was humbled. It caused me to sit back and reflect on many of my past conversations and wonder if this is what others heard when I talked.

A good way to gauge whether or not we are becoming boastful is by looking at the subject of our conversations. Are your conversations usually about yourself or do you instead show genuine interest in others?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Envy: the enemy of love

"...love does not envy..."
1 Corinthians 13:4

We walked into my daughter's room on her 6th birthday and woke her up to a birthday surprise. There, in the middle of her room, was a brand new bicycle. She was thrilled, screaming in delight and jumping onto the bike, pretending to ride.

But we soon noticed someone in the room wasn't happy. Her older brother was standing off to the side, silently crying. When we asked him what was wrong he said "I'm just a little jealous, OK!" We walked over and gave him a big hug and suggested he go over and open the front door of the house. At first he resisted, too consumed with his envy at his sister's bike. Eventually with enough prodding, he relented and opened the door. There, complete with bow and ribbon, stood a brand new bike just for him.

We often talk to children about the "green-eyed monster"...that envious attitude that becomes consumed with (and enraged by) what another person has. In I Corinthians 13:4 Paul tells us that "love does not envy". The actual Greek word he uses is zēloō, which elsewhere is translated zealous. That is exactly what envy is, a consuming and energy-zapping zeal for something that doesn't belong to you. It is the painful desire for another person's advantages, possessions, or achievements. Or, closely related to this, it is the bitter anger that develops when someone you're disgruntled towards seems to be rising when you feel yourself sinking lower (in finances, in relationships, in career, in reputation, etc). It's been said, correctly I believe, that "envy is the art of counting the other fellow's blessings instead of your own."

One of the evidences that we are walking with Christ is that we seek to put to death this attitude when it arises within our hearts. A spirit of envy blinds us to what God is doing in our own life and makes us unable to see the bike outside the front door. When we become envious of others, not only do we fail to love others as Christ instructed, we also fail to love and trust God who blesses us beyond measure.