Glorious Failure

Life is a long series of failures. Here's to failing gloriously!

Practice Thankfulness

Giving Thanks to God

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

Two reasons: 1) It is uniquely American. And I am proud my country created a holiday to thank God and practice thankfulness. We do get at least some credit for continuing it. 2) It demonstrates humility and faith in God. I love it.

However, I do have some beef with my American pop culture today. We don’t keep Thanksgiving well. That is we don’t celebrate it properly, and we are missing out on blessings because of it.

So to keep Thanksgiving myself and for my family, I want to practice Thankfulness by giving thanks to God in this post. I will take a cue from a wise colleague of mine, Sue Bohlin (Check out her insightful blog.) Here I will make the choice to thank God even though I may not feel good about them.

In this post I will thank God for things that are hard.

First, I choose to thank you, God for my dad’s health issues recently. A couple Mondays ago I was finishing my day at the office when my mum calls. She says dad got checked out by his doctor for a routine check up when doc asked him to check into a hospital so they could run some tests.

The tests came back with good reports. All is fine. For now. But that was a scary day for me and my family. Thank you, God that You give us what’s best for us and not necessarily what we desire. My desires are broken and twisted. Thank you, God for giving me an opportunity to trust you by faith that you work all things together for my good and your glory.

Second, I choose to thank You that marriage is hard! Marriage is certainly NOT the butterflies, romance, and warm feelings as depicted in TV and movies. No it’s better. Thank you, God. Marriage takes work, they say. And my marriage seems to take work every day, sometimes hour by hour. Thank you, God that You believe I can handle the task. Thank you, God that you only give me what I’m able to handle. Thank you, God that you make a way of escape from temptation that I may never have to sin when I walk by faith in your Spirit.

Third, thank you ,God that my children are disobedient. By their disobedience I learn the depth of my own depravity. I feel angry when my son disobeys. I do. I felt it last night at dinner when he decided throwing rice on mommy was appropriate. I feel angry when he disobeys and I identify with your anger, God. Through it You remind me that you respond patiently with mercy and compassion. You alone are the One who deserves to be angry. You alone are rightly justified in your anger. Mine is motivated from selfishness. Yours is not. Yet still you treat me with love and compassion. You give me mercy when I deserve death. Thank you for teaching me patience through difficulty.

You are good. You want good things for me.

Thank you, God.

On Fatherhood and Snotty Shirts

I was at Home Depot last night buying light bulbs for the house. It was a family trip, and my wife and I had split the kids. She had our one month-old daughter. I had our two year-old son.

I hate referring to kids as snot-nosed because it demeans a beautiful and precious gift from God, which they are. But as in last night’s case, my son actually had a snotty nose. He has a bit of a cold it seems.

As I was patiently pondering the pros and cons of LED versus incandescence, my son decided he had waited in the cart long enough. He wanted to get down and explore. So he stood up in the cart, threw his leg over the side, and began to climb down. He quickly lost his balance. Sensing immediate danger I lunged to the cart just in time to scoop him into my arms and prevent his fall.

Whew! Catastrophe averted in the Home Depot tonight! I was relieved.

In my urgency I grabbed my son any way I could. It so happened that I was holding his chest against my chest and his face was planted on my shoulder. When he righted himself and sat up in my arms my shirt now prominently displayed the contents of what had been, only moments ago, in my son’s nose. My shirt now had a three-inch green stripe across the left shoulder. If you didn’t know better you might have mistaken me for a pilot!

I placed my son safely back in the cart, along with whatever bulb was in my hand at the moment, and headed for the check out. While en route I glanced down in disgust at my shirt’s new adornment. I was quite displeased by the unsanitary nature of it. Ick! I loathe having bodily fluids on my clothing. I rather like to be clean.

However, I then directed my eyes down toward my son. He was smiling–filled with glee to behold the many wondrous sights a home improvement store has to behold an impressionable young toddler. My frustration could not be rightly directed at him. After all it wasn’t his fault.

Now I’ve only been a father for a few years. And I detest the stereotype that parents live in messy homes doomed to perpetual chaos and that they always wear dirty clothes because their children continuously soil them. I shudder to think I fulfill that stereotype. Rather I work to reverse it fastidiously.

But in this moment last night at Home Depot I realized something. Yes I am a father, and yes I have a massive snot wad on my shirt. That cannot be denied. And I suppose to be fair then, I should have to at least entertain the possibility for discussion whether or not I fulfill this awful stereotype. Fair enough. But in this moment I lost no degree of disgust against wearing mucous for all to see. I loathed it every bit as much as I always have.

I approached the check out however, totally unashamed and without an ounce of regret for the decision that resulted in my snotty shirt. I did not regret choosing to save my son. If presented as two possible options I would much rather have a snot-nosed shirt than a seriously injured son. I realized that being a father doesn’t mean you lose your sense of cleanliness, propriety, or healthy sanitation. Those are all important. I might even go as far as to say sanitation and propriety are hallmarks of civilization. But rather fatherhood means loving someone else more than even those important desires you have for yourself.

In fact Scripture calls us to a love even greater, indeed. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 NIV). Scripture calls me to value and love my son even more than myself. While I would definitely say I’m not there yet, I can also say I’m closer today than I used to be in large part because God made me a father.

I love my son. I love being a father. One thing I’ve learned is that being a father does not mean you lose all sense of dignity. Instead, I think, being a father means learning that some things matter even more than dignity. Or in this case, someone who matters more. Namely, my son.

Noah: A Christian film review and endorsement with qualifications

Russell Crowe as Noah

Russell Crowe in Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 production of Noah.

My initial read of the recent 2014 Aronofsky production of Noah was strong endorsement. After careful analysis I endorse it cautiously.

As a conservative Christian my endorsement comes with a few caveats about characters drawn from non-biblical sources, lines that question good theological interpretation, and thematic elements not present in the Genesis account. None however, will come as a great shock to the biblically minded Christian accustomed to digesting mainstream media these days with a discriminating palate.

Christian critics lampoon the film for its departure from the Genesis account (See Erick Erickson’s review). Christian theologians charge it as gnostic subversion of the biblical text  (see Dr. Brian Mattson’s insightful review).

I conclude that it is a masterful and insightful retelling of the biblical epic. Before I address the controversy condemning the movie for Gnosticism, let me tell you why I liked the film so much.

The film makers get three big things right.

[Warning: Spoilers contained below]

Reason #1 They get they story right. The movie’s producers remained faithful to the plot from the biblical text, which goes as follows. God commands Noah to build an ark to save them from the flood. Noah builds the ark. The flood comes. Mankind is wiped out. Noah, his family, and an ark full of animals are saved!

That’s it. It’s a rather simple story. But the movie makers remained faithful to it. And that is important. While this fact does not itself make the movie great, I will share below what makes the film great, it was however a requirement for excellence. It passes.

Reason #2 The film makers get the right perspective on three key concepts: God, man, and salvation.

  • God — Forgive my cynicism here, but I am used to God being mocked in mass media. I prepared myself for a dose of that in Noah, but found myself pleasantly surprised when the credits rolled and I hadn’t heard one word against the Creator. God is portrayed in the film very reverently, by Noah at least, and that is presented as respectable, honorable even. God’s authority is not seriously questioned, rather it is affirmed. God is unapologetically;) described as the Creator, the giver of life, and the ultimate authority on all things. He is also given the ultimate credit for saving Noah and everyone on the ark, as is fitting. God should rightly be praised as the savior. This movie definitely portrays him as most directly responsible for salvation, in this case, deliverance from death by flood.
  • Man — Introductory courses to theology teach four basic facts about mankind. (1) Man was created by God, and he was (2) created good. (3) Man bears God’s image. And (4) man sinned by disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. Those are the four facts. The movie got all of these right. That’s great. But what’s outstanding is that it is also correct on the implications of these facts. Because man sinned, he marred or veiled the image of God. Because he (we) sinned we broke the goodness of God’s creation. Nothing now is perfect. This is what we call the Fall. Nothing can be perfect, left as it is. And nothing is as it should be. What the writers of Noah got so incredibly right here is that they placed the locus of responsibility for the Fall squarely on the shoulders of mankind. There were no snarky potshots against God. There were no implications that really God is to blame. From each of our story’s protagonists and especially Noah, we see that they understand we sinned and we therefore rightly deserve death. (Romans 6.23)
  • Salvation — Scripture teaches that salvation belongs to the Lord. (Psalm 3.8 KJV) Man is the one in need of salvation. We are the weak one. God is the one who does the saving. God therefore deserves the credit and the glory for salvation. The filmmakers gets this right. Noah is portrayed as a humble man, a faithful man who obeys God, even if it costs him a great deal. His struggle to obey at great cost is explored in depth propagating some of the controversy surrounding the film which I will address below. However, Noah never indicates that he feels as though he deserves to live or to be saved from the flood. Noah is never shown boasting in his greatness, rather he gives thanks to God for salvation.

It is painfully clear, upon reflection that the writers consulted theologians when writing this story. The writers didn’t just nail the story, they tell it in a way that is faithful to the biblical definitions for God, man, and salvation.

Reason #3 The movie makers get the big picture right. Here is where I lose patience with critics who denounce this film because of the liberties taken from the text. Yes they took liberties. But they got the big picture very right. Look, the reason God includes this story in our Bible is to warn us. It serves as a warning that sin is heinous. Sin is a big deal. God takes it very seriously. We all have within us the capability for great evil.  The atrocities executed under Adolph Hitler don’t make him a moral monster, they make him human. We are each of us capable of despicable evil, and when we engage in sin, it grieves God. This story serves a sobering warning from wickedness. Noah gets this right.

Sometimes I fear Noah’s story has been cemented in the minds of American Christians as a feel-good children’s story. They picture him as the guy with a fluffy lamb under each arm and all smiles. Countless children’s wings of church building have depicted this story in murals with rainbows and smiling animals walking respectfully into the ark in an orderly manner as if nothing were wrong with the world. These murals portray nothing of the Fall or the wickedness of man which necessitated God’s sweeping global judgment. They entirely miss the point. The writers of this motion picture did not.

Noah’s story is born out of desperation. A peak into Noah’s world would have been bleak to put it euphemistically, disturbing is probably more like it. This fact was not lost on Noah’s producers.

Perhaps most importantly what this movie gets right is correctly situating this story into the larger meta-narrative of Scripture. While the Bible is made up of 66 books, penned by dozens of human writers, in multiple languages, from different nations, over the course of more than a thousand years, through the Bible, God is telling one story. The Bible tells the story of God making man, man rebelling against Him, and God coming to rescue man.

Noah the motion picture tells this same story. God created man in the beginning. He created him good, and gave him a choice to obey or disobey. Man chose disobedience and so brought death upon himself. How do we become free from this curse of sin and death upon mankind? God. God is the only hope mankind has for deliverance. As Noah’s only hope was God’s provision in the ark, so our only hope is God’s provision in Christ.

Jesus Christ alone is the way the hope the truth and the life. No one can enter the Father except by Him. While the movie does not mention Christ by name, it makes plain that the only hope of salvation is found in God. God would later reveal himself to us through Jesus Christ. But as far as Noah’s concerned that wouldn’t occur for centuries.

Noah gets so many things right I love it. The three most important things it gets right are the story, a biblically informed cosmology, and where the story fits into the big picture of the Bible.

Controversy

Are there non-biblical influences on the story? Yes. Were some of those influences Jewish mystics? Yes. Did teachings from Kabbalah influence the movie? Yes. Is the movie a gnostic subversion of the biblical text? I don’t think so.

Here’s why.

Doctor Brian Mattson makes a pretty compelling case for the gnostic themes woven throughout the movie. It’s a good read, and worth your time. Compelling points include Adam and Eve portrayed as fleshless beings of light, the snakeskin talisman used to pass on the family blessing, and the subsequent reversal that talisman suggests that the serpent is in fact divine (true wisdom) and not the Creator, who is rather Himself deceived.

After further consideration, I do not agree with Dr. Mattson’s interpretation. To his credit he posted not to educate the public as much as criticize Christian leaders who endorsed the film without even being aware of its gnostic themes he claims were obvious. I admit I did not see any connection to gnostic teaching. That is mostly due however to my casual familiarity of Gnosticism.

Doctor Mattson, criticism humbly accepted.

Nevertheless, weighing his interpretation against my reading, and the readings of others, I do not think the film is a gnostic attempt to subvert the biblical text and dupe Christians into agreeing with a gnostic story influenced by Kabbalah.

My primary reason? Darren Aronofsky, the films director and co-writer, says so himself.

Peter Chattaway sat down with the co-writers Aronofsky and Ari Handel and asked them about their creative process and what sources influenced them. In one particular segment Chattaway asks about discrepancies between the movie and the Genesis account. Here is what Aronofsky said.

“[W]e treated Genesis as the word of God, as complete truth. We were trying to bring that story to life so we didn’t want to contradict anything. We wanted to represent everything that was there and let it inspire us to tell a dramatic story with the themes and the ideas that are in there.” (patheos.com)

Deceptive? Doesn’t sound that way to me, though that’s Mattson’s charge.

During the interview both writers openly admit they consulted non-biblical sources including Jewish midrash, Kabbalah, and Enoch among many others. Their conversation revolves around it really. Were they influenced by texts other than the Bible? Absolutely. Would I have consulted those sources if I made the movie? Probably not. But more importantly are the film makers attempting to cleverly deceive faithful Christians, and Jews for that matter? No.

Peter Chattaway, who conducted the above interview and posted it for Film Chat, concluded similarly. So has Ryan Holt. And it is to them I give credit for my position. [hat tip]

[Spoiler] The last allegation of Dr. Matston’s I’ll consider is that Noah’s erratic behavior on the ark is best explained as a gnostic seeking to become more like the Creator by murdering his newborn granddaughters. Again I refer to the words of the writers themselves from the same interview mentioned above.

Says Aronofsky, “the story of the film is a test to bring Noah to the same conclusion that God wants him to get to.” (interview source) While not referring explicitly to Noah’s actions on the ark, it’s obvious Noah’s crisis of character experienced on the ark constitutes part of this test. Regarding the testing of Noah and how that reflects/changes his character, Aronofsky later in the same interview says,

“[H]e is tested, and goes through the most difficult test possible, and he comes out the other end with the way God wanted him to sort of succeed, and I think that, you know, within that mythology, that’s the way we decided to perceive it, that there’s this long line of people being tested with their faith, and either they succeed or they don’t. And Noah definitely succeeds.” (interview with Chattaway)

Conclusion

I endorse Aronofsky’s Noah and recommend Christians go see it to re-imagine this biblical epic. I qualify that endorsement by reminding you believers in Christ, this picture does not hold the authority of God’s Word. Therefore, do not allow this film to mold your perception of what actually happened where the Text has already clearly spoken. [Spoiler alert] Easy application: there were no rock monsters who protected Noah.

I caution believers to keep in mind there are extra-biblical sources which significantly influenced this rendition of the story, sources which I do not think are necessarily true. However, I still recommend the film’s viewing because these sources don’t necessitate the falsity of their teachings. That is to say, while I do not think the way this story is portrayed on screen is likely how it actually happened, based on what I read in the authoritative text–the Bible–it is at least still possibly true. And that was all Aronofsky was aiming to achieve. He wanted to retell this epic story from Scripture with imagination.

Go see it. Enjoy it. Keep thinking.

3 ways to make sense of illogical conversations

A friend of mine asked me for advice the other day. His name is Jack. Now Jack has been talking with his friend John about a Christian response to the problem of evil. It would be more accurate to say Jack asked me to recommend some good reading to pass along to John. Jack didn’t ask me for my advice. But before I made any recommendations, I wanted to know more about John, their relationship, and how Jack has lead the conversation so far. So I asked a few questions.

Both Jack and John are believers in Christ, so they approach the issue from a standpoint of faith. John struggles to reconcile two facts he knows for certain, yet seem to contradict one another. The first is that God exists. He is good. And He is all-powerful; The second is that gratuitous evil and suffering exist.

I’m not surprised Jack asked me for help on this issue. It’s a very sticky one. Consider, for example, that it has been around virtually since man has been writing and thinking. It’s a very difficult issue – not impassable – but very difficult. To be specific, the difficulty is in accepting both statements as true without contradicting one another. Acceptance is far more difficult than understanding intellectually how they can be reconciled. Isn’t that how most things are in life?

Here’s what surprises me. The more questions I asked Jack to properly understand what’s really going on with John and to best diagnose his issue, the more Jack became frustrated. Jack was frustrated by my not answering his question. He wanted to know what books and/or articles to read so as to help John. The implication I picked up from Jack’s subtext was, “Tell me what John needs to read so he gets it–so I can fix him.”

I applaud Jack’s heart to love John with truth and to call him to a deeper understanding of God’s truth, and ultimately to a deeper faith. But I paused when I realized Jack thought John’s problem was an issue of understanding — that John just doesn’t get it.

Even though Jack is my friend, I look up to him like a mentor so I didn’t have the heart to share with him what I’m about to write which is what went through my mind next.

When people are being illogical there’s usually an explanation. John doesn’t recognize that there are intellectual (Christian) resolutions to the problem of evil. In this context Jack knows John is being illogical, but couldn’t figure out why. I propose three ways to straighten out these curves in the conversational path.

1) It’s personal. John may have history encountering people he perceived as righteous, let’s even say they were faithful Christians, yet were unduly struck by calamity. Maybe he watched that happen to his parents or a close friend. Personal experience often dictates our most closely held personal beliefs whether they are intellectual or not.

2) It’s emotional. Maybe John sees himself as righteous and resents God for the calamity that has befallen him. Perhaps he is deeply hurt and he feels God is responsible. In this case his resentment prevents him from acknowledging God can be both good and powerful, yet evil can still exist.

3) It’s a sin issue. John may be in willful sin and the direct consequences are hurting someone else, not him. He can see the death that sin leads to, but because it isn’t his death, he has no motivation to stop. Yet, to admit that God is good and just, and that evil may abound now, but one day God will justify the righteous and penalize the wicked, would require him to submit to the authority of God and lay down his sin. That’s something he just isn’t prepared to do yet. In this case John’s sin is blinding him to the truth that evil is not a problem for God.

My next step is to have a conversation with Jack that people are more than just brains. Just because what they say is illogical, doesn’t mean they don’t understand what you’re saying. God made us in His image, and He is both glorious and complicated. Sometimes misunderstanding another human being requires us to dig a little deeper to make sense of what happened. Most of the time, I find it requires me to dig a little deeper to understand myself.

Who Needs the Gospel?

WARNING: Explicit lyrics and adult content. Please exercise discernment when viewing, especially younger viewers.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are Seattle-based musicians. Neither are believers, as far as I know. This dark video samples “Otherside” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, and outlines the deleterious effects of illicit substances and its abuse. Its redemptive theme is that this duo has discovered their need for the gospel. What I find interesting, is that they may not know it.

Consider the lyrics in the above video. They’re intimate and revealing. They’re honest about very real issues like pain and hurt. I love how he doesn’t shy away from the significance of it.

It has been my experience when sharing pain or hurt with friends that they are quick to dismiss it, quick to point out the bright side. I know they’re trying to help. But most of the time I just feel invalidated, like my pain doesn’t matter. That’s one thing this song gets very right. Our hurts do, in fact, matter. They matter greatly to God.

In one line he explains the motivation to use illicit drugs. “Purple rain coated in the throat/Just so healin'” This is the key to the whole experience he’s trying to communicate. Healing is what he desires–healing from hurt, frustration, and devastation. But Macklemore goes on to explain another layer of frustration. A few lines later he explains that he’s, “trying to escape the skin that barely fit him.”

His frustration is not merely conflict between him and the world. It’s his conflict within himself. He wrestles with his very identity. He’s struggling with who he is. I love that. Yet, at the same time, how disturbing is the notion that he attempts to escape his own skin? How can a man despise his own person? He goes on, “Friendship cease, no peace in the mind/Stealin and takin’ anything to fix the pieces inside.”  The turmoil he experiences over who he is, spills out onto others, into behaviors, and into relationships. I identify with that.

We can all identify with struggling with our identity. Anyone who doesn’t has either no clue who he is, or is lying to himself. It is in our nature to struggle against ourselves. The apostle Paul wrestles with this very thing. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15 NIV)

The beauty of this video is that it illustrates what the apostle Paul said would happen elsewhere in Scripture. “[T]hat which is known about God is evident within them [those who don’t know God]; for God made it evident to them.” This is to say that even those who don’t believe in God can still understand that there is a God. A Hebrew prophet famously wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” (Psalm 19:1)

The apostle Paul goes on to clarify. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made.” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are not declaring there is a God, not directly. They are however, declaring one of the first truths revealed to us from Scripture about the nature of man: we’re fallen.

The second story told in the Bible, the one following the story of creation, is about God’s command to Adam – His creation – not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam disobeys. Sin enters the world and mankind is changed forever, and not for the better. By sin we marred the very image God stamped on us. By sin we broke our right-standing with God, we broke fellowship with our fellow man, and as this song so succinctly depicts, we broke our own selves.

We are not whole. We are not the way we were meant to be. We need healing.

This profound truth, the brokenness of mankind is one of the first revealed truths from Scripture. It is also a truth discovered by Macklemore, and he shares that vulnerable process of discovery with us through this song. It’s beautiful because it’s true, and I appreciate it because so few people are willing to face this glaring reality. I’m refreshed that he accepts reality in a culture so eager to deny our brokenness.

Macklemore may not believe in God. But, when he’s right about something, he is certainly declaring the truth of God because God is all truth. Macklemore is not just a talented writer and performer. He’s an artist I greatly admire. But the best part, is that Macklemore even without knowing it or intending to, is declaring the glory of God.

The Purpose of the Law

Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned. (1 Timothy 1.5 KJV)

I am in an ongoing discussion with my friends on the purpose of the law. Recently I began reading 1 Timothy and this verse screamed to me from off the page. In it, Paul explains the purpose of the law to his young pastor protégé, Timothy, to begin his letter.

Discussions with my friends can get complicated quickly, not to mention heated! So, what I love about this verse, is that Paul cuts through the complexity and offers us something easy to understand.

According to Paul, the purpose of the law, or “the end of the commandment” is love. The KJV renders that word as “charity.” Love is the purpose of the law. The purpose is a good conscience and faith.

In a conservative Hebrew sense, the law includes hundreds of commands. To consider their implications, hundreds more! This is where the discussion gets complicated. What was God’s purpose for instituting them? Morality? National purity? There are a myriad of reasons, to be sure. But, Paul writing to Timothy explains clearly one purpose for the law: love, a good conscience, and faith. He has a way of cutting through the complexity to give my small mind one thing it can wrap itself around.

The beauty of this verse is the insight offered by the modifiers that describe love, faith, and conscience. This love is “pure”, the conscience is “good”, and the faith is “unfeigned.” When love comes from a pure heart, it is genuine. It seeks the best for others for their own sake. When our conscience is good it is clean. It has integrity. It’s not hiding or harboring secrets, things it fears others will find out. When faith is unfeigned it’s not fake. It’s ingenuous. It’s not malicious or manipulative.

This text does not say that we become loving when we obey the commandments. Romans clears that issue. We know that no one is good and able to obey the commands (3.23). Further, it is not the law that makes us good. “For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God.” The law is the mirror God holds up to us, so we can see ourselves by His standard, marred, broken, and disobedient. But the better hope ushered in by the law, Jesus, does make us perfect through His blood. That is why we have hope.

1 Timothy 1.5 paints a portrait of faith that is genuine. It’s the real deal. It’s trustworthy—the “real McCoy” as my fifth grade teacher would say. When we reach the end of the commandment we love.

Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5.17) Jesus fulfilled the law, every commandment (Hebrews 4.15). What better portrait have we than Christ loving with a pure heart, a good conscience, and a faith unfeigned?

When we reach the end of the commandment we love. We participate in and with the One who is love. And in so doing, we become more like Christ.

Christian Consumerism

Happy girl shopping

From 123rf.com

Surveys* show a significant percentage of Christians don’t behave consistently with their beliefs. Surprise, surprise, huh? For Christians whose beliefs are in line with Scripture, that discrepancy is generally called sin. So, this is no big surprise.

But, this survey done quite recently, went further. It asked these believers if they had a problem with this inconsistency between their convictions and their actions. A significant percentage said no. They were not bothered by the fact that they did not live according to their beliefs. It’s as if they just don’t care.

I mentioned this to some of my co-workers and we began to wonder. What is a day in the life like, for an individual Christian described by this survey? We know she is faithful enough to go church and calls herself a Christian, but when it comes to things like giving in to self-centeredness, lying, or not keeping promises her actions don’t seem to bother her. According to this survey about half of those folks who struggle with this sin, don’t feel guilty about it.

How could she be okay with that? Self-centeredness and lying are not like making meals, going to work or school, or keeping oneself clean.  The Bible calls lying and self-centeredness sin. And sin is a big deal. Jesus died to deal with that.

The question I come back to, is what about this individual Christian’s experience, allows her to encounter sin, not realize it, or not think it’s a big deal? One possible answer is consumerism.

In a culture where appearance is everything and whoever dies with the most toys wins, then matters of holiness have little to no value, unless they make me look better. When my mind spends most of its time focused on my things: my work, my car, my house, my money, my investments, I just don’t spend any time considering whether I look more like Christ today than I did last week.

The scariest part of consumerism is not that I fear I might face the devil one night on a deserted highway and make the wrong decision to trade my soul for a million dollars, it’s that I’ve already sold it. And I already have my reward.

—-

*Culturally Captive Christian Study 2010, research commissioned by Probe Ministries and conducted by Barna Group, 2010, 57-63.

For more on this issue, consider a work by a colleague of mine Kerby Anderson.

Paul Rutherford

World Peace: An Eventuality–Just Not Like You Might Think

World Peace from treehugger.com

I’m sitting in a coffee shop. On the bulletin board a poster encourages recycling to eradicate poverty. Just the other day, I was at a different coffee shop dedicated to the mission of global peace.

When I encounter such posters or missions, I find myself overtly skeptical, and I wonder at myself. “Why am I so dismissive of projects like recycling to eradicate poverty, or global peace?” I have to ask myself  if I’m somehow opposed to recycling, or unconcerned for the poor, or even the idea of global peace. And the honest answer is that I’m not. I do recycle. I give to the poor. I want global peace. At the same time, why do I find myself instantly skeptical?

The central issue for me is over-simplification of the problem. What is the problem? Well, the impression I gather from posters, essays, and people with whom I dialogue regarding this, see the world not getting along–in tension or turmoil. That’s the issue. At it’s core, the world, nation-states, cultures, people groups, etc.–they just don’t get along. The solution: get along–peace. It seems the movements answer to global conflict, is peace. And I don’t see it that way. I don’t think peace is the answer.

To view peace as the solution, is to say that we all really just need is just to get along. Now, I’m not accusing advocates of world peace as seeing the world like PolyAnna. No, they understand that conflict is complicated. The Middle East hasn’t seen peace in centuries. They can’t deny it, and I don’t think they do. But I see the problem not so much as one of actions–getting along, as much as a problem of the heart.

The Bible says that mankind is not perfect. In fact, one translation describes mankind as “desperately wicked,” and another “beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17.9 KJV, NIV). Ick! As a believer in Christ, I see the primary obstacle to global peace not so much as our actions, but as our very selves. The problem is inside us. Put another way, we are the problem.

If the obstacle to global peace is conflict and fighting, and those fights begin in our own hearts, I’m sorry to say, but that means it’s not going to change. Being wicked, sick, or deceitful in our core, is how Scripture describes our very nature. It’s not something that can change, at least not by our effort.

How’s that for irony? We are the very obstacle between us and the solution. Just thinking about that gets me down.

Is world peace even possible then? Yes. But it won’t happen by getting along, increasing tolerance, raising awareness, or even education.

But Lo! There is a remedy. And that’s the good news. There is a solution to the problem. The world can live in harmony with one another. It’s just that we are not part of the solution. Clearly we cannot be part of the solution. We are the problem.

The answer is Christ. He can purify our hearts and make us clean (1 John 1.9). Scripture also discusses how He is the only one who can fix the problem. And just in case you’re wondering, “Maybe it’s Him plus me”, Scripture is quite clear to point out that we can in no way accomplish this of our own effort (Ephesians 2:9).

World peace? Yes. Eventually, just not yet. One day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Christ is Lord. That’s gonna happen. Bank on it. That is what world peace will look like–when every living soul submits to the sovereign authority of Jesus Christ (Romans 14.11).

I don’t think it’s going to look like heads of state laying aside their differences while the people they represent put down their RPG’s to take up hand-holding. I believe the world will one day be at peace. It just won’t look like that.

Why am I skeptical about world peace organizations? It’s not that I’m not on board with the vision. It’s more that I disagree with the means. Where the means constitutes right action, that method is fundamentally flawed. Unless we seek peace by furthering the gospel–that nations of people make peace with God first, peace between persons or nations by extension won’t happen. Can’t even.

Is world peace worth pursuing? Yes. Scripture also says believers are to live at peace among men, as far as possible (Romans 12.18). Conflict resolution, especially between nations, is absolutely wonderful. We should pursue it. As an American, I want my country to pursue it. At the same time, I don’t want to delude myself about the ends of those means–that we can accomplish it by any effort of our own.

I want a world at peace. I look forward to it. I just don’t want to dupe myself into believing that I can bring that about by my efforts, or the efforts of anyone else. That would deny the complexity of the problem and the solution God has provided through Jesus Christ. That’s the gospel. And I’m not about to deny that.

Boston vs. Dallas [warning: tongue-in-cheek]

Massachusetts Capitol

My bride and I went to Boston!

I celebrated a year of marital bliss last month with my bride. God has blessed me beyond what I deserve, yet God in His graciousness gives me life. And He gives it abundantly!

To celebrate our one-year anniversary, we planned a trip. And for a winter celebration we chose a sensible location whose climate would be more agreeable than might be otherwise. So we chose a destination that any Southerner might choose: Boston.

I jest. Our trip was, in fact, a double celebration of matrimony for while in Boston, we celebrated the marriage of my college roommate to a terrific young lady in ceremony and mirth. We are blessed men, my college roommate and I, for marriage is a tremendous gift.

It’s funny how traveling teaches me more about my own home. Here is one thing I learned about Dallas while visiting Boston.

Dallas is bigger (read: better) than Boston. Boston may have historically significant places like the Old North Church, world renowned universities like Harvard and MIT, or even bragging rights to the birthplace of Christian Science, but it has downsides too. It’s small. That’s right Boston is small. According to wikipedia, Boston proper is a mere 90 miles square. Dallas, on the bigger hand, is over 380 miles square! And I learned that with every step I took through Bostonian streets.

To authenticate the genuineness of my Boston experience, I had to forego the rental car, and pick up my metro card (Charlie Cards as they’re known). When in Rome. . . you know. Ironically, I didn’t use mass transit all that much. I found myself walking most places. There are plenty of bus and train stops, don’t get me wrong, and they’re close together (Did I mention Boston’s small?). But the stops are so close together, that I could frequently walk to my destination and arrive before mass transit arrives considering all the time required to find the proper station, wait for the next bus/train, ride, then alight. Frustrating – having to walk everywhere. No wonder Bostonians are so skinny!

What can I learn from this situation? What could God, perhaps, be trying to teach me? Well, given the universally acknowledged truth that bigger is always better (think Christmas presents, automobiles, and houses), I’m not certain. Perhaps He’s warning me not to leave Texas because anywhere else I go will just be smaller, and therefore  not as satisfying.

What is Atonement?

The past few months I’ve been reading through a systematic theology with an older, wiser, and better educated friend of mine (Christian Theology by Millard Erickson). Recently, we discussed atonement. He asked me a question I had never stopped to ask myself before – not for very long at least. What is atonement? How does it atone? For whom? For what purpose?

Growing up in Christian home and going to church often, atonement was part of my vocabulary like furniture in the office. It’s there. I know I’ve seen it before, but I just couldn’t tell you a precisely what it looks like. Or in the case of atonement, answer some of the questions above.

So I want here to explore answers to those questions. The first is answered easily by our friend Webster 1998. Atonement: the reconciliation of God and man through the death of Jesus Christ 2. reparation for an offense: satisfaction. This is a good start. The definition answers my first question directly. What is atonement? Reconciliation. Ok great. My Sunday school answer could have gotten us that far. But what is meant by reconciliation? Are you saying that God and I aren’t on good terms? Is there something wrong between us? Are we not speaking to one another?

Yes. The answer to those questions is, yes. And the reason is sin. I have fallen short of God’s glory, His standard (which happens to be perfection, by the way). Scripture teaches that every person finds himself in this position (Rom 3.23), which shows us everyone is in need of atonement then, right? If everyone has problems in their relationship with God, then everyone needs a remedy – reconciliation. Who needs atonement? Everyone. But how?

Our working definition states that reconciliation comes through the death of Christ. But I have difficulty accepting this at face value. Someone else dying for my wrong makes no sense to me whatsoever. How exactly does His death atone – reconcile- my sin to God? It seems to me that if I’ve wronged God, then I need to do something to make it right. I could offer to fix what I broke, or perhaps get him a gift – you know a peace offering – to make Him happy. “It’s my mess. I’ll clean it up.” I reason. That makes sense to me. That’s what I do in human relationships.

The trouble here, is that I am incapable of making right my sin against God. Scripture teaches the penalty for sin is death (Rom 6.23). So I’m going to die because I sinned. How can I fix or do anything at all for that matter, if I’m dead? Let’s say I could, just for fun. What then? Do I still have a shot at reconciling myself to God in the face of my sin? No, unfortunately. There is nothing good in me that can please God, nor can it ever (Rom 7:18). So I’m completely shut down in any attempt to reconcile myself. So is it still possible to fix? Can the wrongs still be made right? Yes. Just not by me.

Enter: Jesus Christ. This is why he’s called the Savior because He’s come to our rescue! The reason I can’t make things right before God is because of my sin, because I’m dead. Even then there’s nothing good in me which can please Him, anyhow. This is the beauty of Jesus. Jesus is both alive and fully pleasing to God (Matt 3.17). The penalty for sin is still death, so Jesus has to die.

But the thing is, because the penalty has been paid, I get to live. This is where we get the phrase vicarious atonement – simply because the reconciliation isn’t made by us. It’s made vicariously – through someone else – Jesus Christ. And this is where the latter half of Webster’s second definition comes into play: satisfaction. Because Jesus offered himself to die on the cross to pay the penalty for the wrong I committed against the Lord, the Lord’s justice is satisfied. Fascinating. God is absolutely amazing that He would pay the price for my sin – that he would clean up my mess. He picked up my tab.

I know this won’t be new for most of you, more likely a theological refresher. But I wanted to share this moment with y’all – wondering at atonement, at the amazing act that took place on the cross. Such an enormous spiritual transaction occurred there. I am convinced I will never fully comprehend it, but it sure is fun to try. And my admiration for the Lord grows every time I do. May we never lose our wonder for the cross.

Glorious Failure

Life is a long series of failures. Here's to failing gloriously!

Scott Eckstein

Helping define, describe and defend Servant Leaders

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