Hidden Disease

Three year old data collected by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) lists the two leading causes of death (COD) in the United States as heart disease and cancer.  Nearly 600,000 people were killed by heart disease and another 575,000 by cancer in 2010. For most of us these figures are unsurprising and empirical; we can all identify people in our life who are affected by one of these two diseases. And, as I continued to research I found the comparisons between the leading CODs to be very telling.  The data I was researching indicated that more people were killed by one of these two diseases (heart disease and cancer) than the top 20 remaining CODs combined.  In other words, heart disease and cancer are not only the leading CODs in the United States, they exceed any other COD by an extraordinary margin. I did some further research and discovered one primary and simple reason for this disparity. The reason heart disease and cancer are so deadly, when compared to any other leading CODs, is because these diseases are hard to detect. Incredible achievements have been made through modern medicine but when a disease is obscured or hard to detect it renders even our most cutting-edge treatments and medicines impotent.  And, after processing this data I asked myself a more pertinent question.  My question was: if this type of disease can exist in our bodies why could it not also exist in our spirit? Couldn’t there be serious spiritual diseases that are also obscure and hard to detect? There are a few possibilities that come to mind when I think of toxic spiritual diseases that are hard to detect.  However, there is one behavior (symptom) that seems to fit that profile better than anything else … and I believe it is the disease of gossip.

I view gossip within the church the same as plaque in an artery or a tumor in the brain. Like these diseases, gossip is hidden and lethal.  It doesn’t cause any noticeable disfigurement and its symptoms can be easily rationalized or dismissed.  For example, a brain tumor might affect a person’s vision or create headaches but these symptoms could also be part of everyday life.  As a matter of fact, most of the time these symptoms are dismissed as products of age, fatigue, out-dated contact lenses or any numbers of things.  An artery blockage might involve the feeling of indigestion or a loss of energy which, again, can be symptomatic of normal day-to-day discomfort.  So, it makes sense that if it is hard to detect diseases like cancer or heart disease there would be certain spiritual diseases that would follow the same pattern. This is why the symptom of gossip will often present as things we would consider ordinary and appropriate such as a statement of concern or request for wisdom.  Sometimes the symptoms of gossip involve: “venting” between friends, “accountability” between peers, “coaching” between coworkers or a “counseling” relationship.  Gossip can be so filthy and hard to detect that it can even masquerade as “prayer requests” among confidants. Gossip can take on many shapes and sizes which might be why the Bible has many terms for the disease … perhaps to help us detect it better.   Aside from the word itself (2 Cor. 12:20) the Bible calls people who gossip:  backbiters (Prov. 25:23), busybodies (2 Thess. 3:11 & 1 Tim. 5:13), slanderers (Rom 1:30), people with secrets (Prov. 20:19), talebearers (Prov. 11:13) and whisperers (Prov. 18:8 & 26:20-22). The church seems to do a good job emphasizing how we talk to each other but God seems to place a considerable amount of focus on how we talk about each other as well.

Being kind face-to-face is much easier for us than being kind behind someone’s back. Gossip is very effective and it works to reduce the risk of confrontation and provide people with a platform to galvanize relationships around what they perceive to be someone else’s dysfunction.  And, based on my own shameful experiences, I can say that there is indeed a twisted sense of satisfaction and unity that comes with being part of a lynch-mob.  Gossip promotes a sense of unity by giving two or more people a way to satisfy their desire to privately defame another person or group of people.  The tricky part is, the unity that comes from gossip can seem like a very good thing even though it’s not. The tragic irony is that the twisted unity that comes from gossip is actually the reason why the disease of gossip is so hard for us to detect … it’s the reason why the disease is allowed to grow and take over.

The following five points represent principles of wisdom that have helped me diagnose the gossip in my own life and avoid the long-term effects of this very toxic disease.

  • Avoid talking to people who gossip.  The Bible does not instruct Christians to engage situations that lead them into sinful behavior.  If you’ve identified someone in your life who is struggling with gossip then it would be best to avoid any long and in-depth conversations with that person for a while.  And, when you believe the Lord has prepared your heart you should eventually discuss your concerns about that person’s gossip with them face-to-face (Mt. 18:15).
  • Keep in mind that those who gossip to you will invariably gossip about you. The rules for gossip are not biblical, which means the rules for gossip are man-made, which means the rules are subject to change when the person applying those rules decides to change them. In other words, loyalties that are forged through gossip have a shelf-life.
  • If you’re not an active part of the solution then you should assume that you’re active part of the problem.  If your words are not being used to edify the person you’re speaking of then your words have made that person sport and are only functioning to compounding the problem.
  • Be prepared for awkward silences, disapproving tones and cold demeanors.  When a person wants to gossip to you they want you to gossip back. When you decide not to gossip, not only does it hinder what that person was trying to do, it will force that person to confront their own demons.  Unrepentant people do not appreciate this and you need to understand that your resolve will most likely be met with awkwardness, disapproval and coldness.
  • Pray to God for help. The Holy Spirit will help you identify and safeguard against the diseases of gossip.  Pray that God will help you identify when gossip is beginning to happen and pray that he will provide a clear way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13).

As with any serious disease, early detection and aggressive treatment are the keys to recovery.  The hidden disease of gossip is no different.  We need to understand its affects and how to treat it if we hope to keep it from damaging our relationships with each other and with God.

Why I Appreciate “Despicable Me 2”

I don’t fancy myself a serious theater enthusiast but on occasion I will endure two hours (plus previews) of someone else’s kid kicking the back of my seat while trying to cope with the injustice of a $12.00 bucket of popcorn. Suffice it to say, it’s not common practice for me to “go to the movies” unless I have a good reason to … and I’ve found that my kids are pretty good reasons.  That being said, I recently went to see the movie Despicable Me 2 in the theater with my kids, Kyla and Chase.  I’m not going to try to qualify myself as cinema expert or pseudo-movie critic but I would like to share why I left the theater last week with an unexpected appreciation for Universal Pictures and the movie Despicable Me 2.

From an entertainment standpoint, Despicable Me 2 was one of the funniest animated movies I’ve seen … it was hysterical.  On my first day off after a long week at work I expected to set the auto-pilot and zone-out, but I found myself engaged and laughing out-loud throughout the entire movie.  The plot, banter and character interaction was clever and relatively clean.  I have no complaints by way of entertainment; I left the theater a satisfied patron.  But, the satisfaction I felt for the witty dialogue and plot paled in comparison to my appreciation for the moral underpinnings of the movie.

The main character of movie is named Gru.  Gru is the voice of Steve Carrel using an eastern European accent.  Gru is a reformed super villain – once credited with stealing the moon – who decided to rehabilitate his sordid ways due to his love for three orphaned girls.  This was the plot thesis for the first Despicable Me movie.  Now, in Despicable Me 2, we find Gru doing his very best to love and care for his three adopted daughters.  Gru appears to be doing a fantastic job of parenting considering he’s not married and is a reformed crook.  However, throughout the movie we’re given different glimpses showing us that – even though Gru is trying to be the best father he can – there is still a sense of incompleteness within this family.  Gru and the girls are missing something, or more apropos someone, that they can’t seem to supplement or replicate on their own; this family needs a mom.  This becomes apparent to the audience around the time when Gru is enlisted (sort of kidnapped) by a government agency that monitors super-villain activity around the world.  The agent who enlisted (sort of kidnapped) Gru is named Lucy.  Lucy is the voice of Kristen Wiig and is the gregarious, daffy and kind-hearted handler for Gru throughout the movie.  Lucy and Gru work together to track a villain who is converting Gru’s lovable minions into slobbering purple monsters.  During their escapade Lucy and Gru develop a romance that culminates when Gru saves Lucy’s life.  At the end of the movie this romance has blossomed into something greater … something permanent involving wedding rings (not a spoiler).  And, as the movie concludes we see a family that is now complete and happy.

I find myself uncharacteristically yet sincerely thankful to Universal Pictures and the creators of Despicable Me 2 for advancing God’s design for a complete family.  Thank you writers and Universal Pictures for showing us that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18).  Thank you for showing us that it is good for men to be romantically attracted to women and good for women to be romantically attracted to men.  Thank you for showing us that it is good for men to valiantly protect women.  Thank you for showing us that marriage is sacred and should be celebrated.  Thank you for showing us that it is good and healthy for children to have a dad and mom in the home.  Thank you executives and cast of Despicable Me 2 for showing us God’s perfect design for marriage and family.

New Era

It appears the church is beginning to understand, albeit slowly and somewhat begrudgingly, that we are now completely immersed in a new age of thought and morality. Our culture is no longer in transition; the church is now conducting ministry within a society that has undergone a complete metamorphosis. The United States is no longer a nation anchored by the truth of the Bible or the methods by which it has been preached for the past 50 years. The United States is now a full-blown postmodern society.

For the past decade the church has witnessed the meteoric rise of ideologies like secular humanism and relativism. Subjective experience has become the high-water-mark for every medium and measure of human morality. Biblical principles that were once widely accepted in our culture decades ago are now viewed by postmodern people as restrictive and even hateful. However, even though the Judeo-Christian ethic is no longer the normative worldview in America, there is still a sizable population of Christians who are hungry for an unpolluted message of hope and truth. There is a next-generation of Christian who is faithfully seeking biblical answers in order to address some existential questions; questions about purpose, sexuality, materialism, marriage, fidelity, friendship, work-ethic, health, the arts, politics, social justice, philanthropy, humanitarianism, environmentalism, recreational drug use, wealth, etc. And, what I’m witnessing is a group of next-generation disciples trying to decipher whether or not their God, faith and convictions speak to the realities of their culture. Does the Christian message they’ve inherited from their parents or heard preached by Baby-Boomer pastors translate into a practical and meaningful way-of-living for the NEXT 50 years? Does their faith need to resemble their parent’s faith at all? Does it need to encompass the politics, patriotism, social views and financial priorities of the generations that preceded them? These are the hard questions and concerns sub-40 Christians are wrestling with … and it’s a concern because, frankly, their parent’s culture is just as guilty of bastardizing the teachings of Jesus as anyone else, e.g. divorce-rates, materialism, racial injustices, etc. The new postmodern age we’re living-in coupled with next-generation concerns lead us to two critical questions.

The first question is: are the unchanging truths of the Bible and the unchanging nature of God compatible with a postmodern society? The answer is, yes. The Bible and nature of God is compatible with every society. Postmodern America does not own the patent on godlessness. There have been many societies and people groups throughout the past two millennia that could easily rival and even surpass the godlessness of our current United States culture. In my opinion, the Gospel message of Jesus Christ has faced more daunting cultures than ours. And, even if this weren’t the case, in Matthew 16:18 Jesus says that the “gates of Hell will not prevail against [the church].” Hell seems like a pretty godless and terrible place to me and yet hell itself will not overpower the message of Jesus Christ or the organization he leads. So, suffice it to say, we do not need to modify or cleverly obscure the truth of God in order to minister to a postmodern culture. The truth in the Bible is still more than capable of ministering to every tongue, tribe and people with power and authority just as it has for the past 2000 years.

The second, and perhaps more difficult, question is: are the 50-year-old methods by which our preachers and church leaders communicate the Bible compatible with a postmodern society? Asked another way, will the methods of articulating the Bible from the PAST 50 years continue to effectively influence our culture for the NEXT 50 years? I believe the answer to this question is, no. Our methods of communicating the truth of the Bible must be retooled to minister a different cultural context. There’s nothing heretical or scary about this.  As matter of fact, Paul did this in Acts 17 when he visited the Athenians during his second mission journey. In many ways, Athens was a lot like our modern American culture. They were literate, well-educated, eclectic and affluent. They prided themselves on religious tolerance and what we’d call open-mindedness towards all practices of idolatry. It says in Acts 17:16 that Paul was in Athens waiting to rendezvous with Silas and Timothy after leaving them in Berea and traveling ahead. It says that while Paul was “waiting for them” he began to feel “greatly distressed seeing that the city [of Athens] was full of idols.” And, because of his burden for the people of Athens Paul begins to evangelize in one of their pagan synagogues until being noticed by a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. These philosophers were intrigued by Paul and his message and decided to give him an opportunity to preach in the local amphitheatre which they called Mars Hill. It’s obvious when reading the text that follows their invitation for Paul to preach (vs. 22-31) that Paul understood the Athenian culture and took some very apparent and deliberate steps to modify his method of delivering the Gospel as a result. Paul did NOT modify the Gospel itself but rather the way in which he communicated it. He delivered the unchanging and exclusive message of salvaion with an Athenian crowd in mind and, while it says that some “sneered” (vs. 32) at his message, some were reached and became ministers of this Gospel. God honored Paul’s commitment to preach the unchanging and authoritative truth of the Gospel through methods that were tailored specifically for this audience.

The simple fact is, the methods of articulating the Word of God from the past 50 years in the American church are no longer good enough … we must do better. We are Paul in Athens and we must handle the unchanging truth of God with more thoughtfulness and intentionality if we hope to influence a new crop of disciples.

The following points are not exhaustive — they are three examples of methods that have been used for the past 50 years to communicate the faith. These are just a few methods that need to be re-tooled in order to communicate the truth about Jesus to a new culture. There are many more that I could add but these three should offer a clear example of our challenge.

The following three points finish the statement “It is no longer good enough to …”

1. speak a truth that no one really understands or that everyone interprets for themselves.

Some examples of this might be:

“God has it all figured out”
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
“God doesn’t want our works he wants out hearts”
“Let go and let God”
“Keep God number one in your life”
“Make God the center of your marriage”

What do any of these statements really mean? To one person these statements mean one thing and to another they mean something completely different. They’re not all that helpful.

To speak truth without really understanding it or being able to clearly explain it is thoughtless and trite. It is a cliché and it is usually the product of laziness, ignorance, a general lack of concern or a combination of the three. Principles of truth are only genuinely adopted by postmodern people when the purpose/reason supporting those principles has been genuinely adopted. For example, I do not run red lights in my car because I have embraced the purpose for not running red lights. If we (the church) hope to influence a generation of cynics, relativists and humanists then we must be able to explain the reason for the Christian life. We must be able to answer the question “why” and utilize the word “because” if we hope to influence this new culture for Jesus Christ.

2. be right … and nothing more.

The church needs to be right … and, by and large, the church is right when we are committed to preaching biblical truth. But, this isn’t enough. The church also needs to be smart about our “rightness.” It is easy and unproblematic to be right when everyone involved in the debate is playing by an established set of rules. But, in a postmodern culture this doesn’t happen. Rules vary and are often subject to change based on the whims, emotions and propaganda that rule the day. Effective Christian influencers must learn how to compensate for people who do not play by the “rules” – the rules in this case being the Bible. Being right will not defend or champion your “right position” with a postmodern mind if you’re not being smart about “being right.” This means that we must think-through the context, timing, manner and packaging of our “right” statements (notice I did not say “conten”) if we hope to affect this new culture for Jesus.

3. preach from the Bible without communicating the heart of God with it.

When I’m given the privilege to preach the Word of God to the people of God it is my conviction to preach and apply the Bible in a way that gives those people tools — tools that will help them transform their lives … their marriage … their fidelity … their thought-life … their spending … the way they eat … the amount of alcohol they consume and so on. I believe the church is edified by the full Counsel of God (2 Tim. 2:14) and I believe it should be preached so as to give people purpose and direction in this life. Redundancy, predictability and/or catering to comfort are not effective methodologies … and they need to end. When God speaks it is to restore his people! It is to bring them into a right relationship with him so that they may experience abundance – a goodness that only a life devoted to God can generate. This does not necessitate modifying or tapering the Bible in any way but I do beleive it involves articulating the heart of God better then we’ve doing.

One of the things I heard growing up was “take a cold a shower” … but telling young postmodern Christians to “take a cold shower” is simply not good enough anymore. It’s not good enough because the world they live-in is slicing and dicing the biblical paradigm of sexuality. They don’t need to be told what to do sexually as much as they need to be told why it’s impotant. They must understand the affection their God has for them by desiring they experience his incredible goodness through his design for sexuality. It isn’t good enough to tell postmodern Christians to obey the Bible because that’s what Christians are supposed to do. Postmodern Christians must understand the nature and purpose for their obedience. They must understand the sanctification and blessings that come with obedience. These things must be made real for them because they need to understand and be able to explain the deep affection within the will and precepts of God before it is fully embraced.

I’d love to hear about any methods or philosophies that have helped you process your faith better in this culture of postmodernism. Please leave a comment or email me so that I can hear from you.

-Matt

The Devil & Our Struggles

I’ve had countless conversations with struggling Christians – Christians who are experiencing hard and unpleasant things.  I haven’t been able to quantify what I’m about to say with any rigor but I am confident that more than 50% of the conversations I have with struggling Christians involve a common claim. There are obviously variations in wording but the spirit of the claim is consistent across the board. So here it is: when I meet with Christians who are struggling I hear at least 50% of them claim that the Devil is persecuting them in some way.  At some point in the conversation Satan is brought-up and touted as a source of hardship.  I do not question Satan and his army of demons.  I know the Devil and his minions stand furiously opposed to God and his church.  I absolutely believe in demonic oppression.  I also believe that a good number of the Christians I’ve spoken with, throughout the years, have experienced some form of demonic influence in their life.  And, I do believe that our adversary “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Pt 5:8).” However, is there a possibility that perhaps Satan and his demons receive a little too much credit for our day-to-day calamities?  And furthermore, is it possible that we’ve turned the Devil into a bit cartoon character?

Please do not hear me underestimate Satan’s power … that would be unbiblical and just plain stupid.  What I want you to hear is a gentle exhortation to think more critically about your struggles. Could we have some perceptions that need to be retooled?  Let’s just be honest: it’s easy to blame the Devil for the crap in our lives.  When things are hard it’s very intuitive for us to say something like, “The Devil is really attacking me right now.”  As a matter of fact, I’d suggest that those of us who’ve grown-up in the church are just as conditioned to say, “The Devil is attacking me” as we are, “In Jesus name, Amen” after we pray.  If we’re being honest with ourselves – which is usually a difficult assent in itself – blaming the Devil for our problems is often as insincere as blaming the dog for eating our homework.  I know I’m upsetting some of you already but just wait because I still have a couple points that will probably upset you even more.

Point 1: Ego-centric drama

Could it be that we’ve turned the Devil into a satire and in so doing created a twisted and theatrical love/hate dynamic?  Ok, maybe not love/hate … but validate/hate for sure. I know this question sounds strange – maybe even offensive – but think about it for a second. Think about how we’ve been conditioned from our earliest memories as children.  My earliest memories involve GI Joes and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  These toys were part of my life for the better part of a decade and when I played with them there was always one hard and fast rule: there are good guys and there are bad guys.  Every good guy needs a bad guy, right?  Every hero requires a villain. This reflects the past 500 years of theatre in the West.  The centuries-old struggle between a valiant protagonist and a vilified antagonist – Othello and Iago … Tom and Simon Legree … Bernardo and Riff … Skywalker and Vader.  With this conditioning in mind, is there any wisdom exploring the parts of our ego that might be validated, in a theatric way, by the existence of the Devil?  In other words, we resist the Devil because he is our adversary while completely enjoying the fact that we are the protagonist.  We could even take it step further and say the Devil is our enemy – he is the cause of our struggle conveniently exonerating us from any responsibility for our struggles.  Have we become the leading-character in our own ego-centric theatre-production?  Have we created a paradigm in which we wear the white hats while standing for truth, justice and the American way while the Devil wears a black hat and is the single source for all of our trials?  Allowing our diagnoses of struggle to be influenced by inflated egos or an affinity for the dramatic is a very dangerous practice.  The Devil certainly plays a role in the “theatre” of struggle but there are some other very large influences to consider as well. As a matter of fact, all our struggles in this life can be traced back to one of four sources as seen throughout the meta-narrative of Scripture.

These four sources include:

  1. Satanic/demonic oppression (Gen 3:1-14, Job 1:7, 1 Chor. 21:1, Mt. 4:1-11Eph. 6:12, 1 Tim 4:1, Rev 9:21, 18:23)
  2. Our own depraved nature (Isa. 64:6, Eph 2:1-5, Rom 3:10-11, 1st John 1:7, 1 Cor 2:14, John 3:19, Rom 8:7, Ps 51:5, Jer 17:9, Rom 5:12 & 19)
  3. The depraved nature of others (see citations above)
  4. God’s discipline and punishment (Rom 12:2, 2 Cor. 5:17, Phil 2:13, Gal 5:22, Mt. 3:12 and 25:41, Luke 16:23, 2 Thess 1:9, Rev 20:7-15)

When we struggle in this life (relationships, health, circumstance, etc) it is the product of one, or a combination, of these four sources. It is important to side-step our egos and understand that sometimes our struggle is the direct result of our sin-nature.  Sometimes our struggle is the direct result of someone else’s sin-nature. Sometimes God is using our struggle to discipline us for greater ministry or correct us when we’re disobedient. And, yes periodically we will experience demonic forms of oppression that create struggle for us.  But, the Devil is not ALWAYS the source of our hardship; we are not Skywalker and he is not Vader.  This is hugely important for Christians to understand because if we don’t we will misappropriate our energy and thinking when we struggle.  In other words, if we think that every bad thing that happens to us has its roots in demonic activity we are going to go bananas and in the process miss the lessons that God is trying to teach us.  These are lessons that we learn when we understand our capacity to sin and God’s discipline and/or correction in our life.  We can very easily spin-our-wheels blaming the Devil for our struggles while God is trying to teach us something different altogether.

Point 2: Healthy respect

I have people tell me that they are “being attacked by the Devil” with the same urgency and voice inflection that I hear from someone ordering a hamburger at McDonalds.  My question for them is: do you know who the Devil is?  Do you really, really understand who this being is and what he is capable of?  Because if you really understand who the Devil is and you truly believe you’re being oppressed by him – or a demon he has commissioned – you are in some tall grass my friend!  You are in some serious trouble!  These are the same beings that will deceive the entire world in Revelation 12:9.  These are the same beings that kicked the crap out of the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19:14.  These are the same beings that wrestled with Michael the Arch angel over the body of Moses in Jude 1:9.  This is the same creature that tormented Job.  These creatures are legitimate monsters and yet I hear people talk about them like they’re a facebook stalker or a boss they don’t get along with.  If you come into my office and you really believe you are being demonically oppressed please don’t expect me talk-through your emotions over a cup of coffee. We’re going to open the Bible and we’re going to fervently pronounce the name of Jesus Christ as authority over your demonic affliction.  The Devil and his army are not clichés to throw-around when life stinks – they are real beings bent on inflicting real damage.  The next time you’re about to say, “I feel like the Devil is attacking me” take a minute and evaluate whether or not you’re about to turn a terrifying super being into a cliché that simply fits your circumstance.

The Devil is a defeated foe.  In 1st John 4:4 it says, “… greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” Satan has already lost and we possess the authority of Jesus in our lives. However, it is still ill-conceived to make the Devil your hobby, cliché or scapegoat. He is a very powerful being and we are not the blameless protagonists we often believe ourselves to be.  Think critically and honestly about your struggles before you assign any blame. 2 Corinthians 13:5 tells us to “examine” ourselves.  This is a great exercise for us, especially when we’re struggling with something. We must open our bible, examine ourselves and pray for the Lord to help us discern the source of our struggles.  I’m confident that when we do this it will prove to grow us in ways that move us into a deeper relationship with God.

Sick People

I was recently asked how I intentionally minister to those who are lost, weak in the faith or hurting.  It was a great question – a question I’ve had to think through deeply and refine repeatedly since becoming a pastor.  One of the most interesting things about this question is just about everyone has an answer for it.  As a matter of fact, this question usually beckons a very emotional and impassioned response from most of the Christians I interact with.  The people I speak with possess very strong convictions, opinions, family influences, presuppositions, etc. related to the issue of helping those who need spiritual and/or physical healing. Perhaps this is because every person I speak with about this issue can readily identify someone in their family or immediate circle of influence in need of some type of healing.  It might be a pagan husband completely disinterested in spiritual things, rebellious adult child who’s walking away from God, brother with a substance addiction, sister who can’t hold-down a job or good friend going through a divorce.  Every Christian I speak with has at least one heartbreaking relationship — often several relationships — with a person in their family or social-circle who is in desperate need of healing … present company not excluded.

I devoted some deliberate study-time, over the past year or so, to refine my own ideals and approach to helping people who need healing (spiritual, emotional and physical).  My study resulted in two guiding principles that are related to helping people who unquestionably need some form of assistance and healing in their life. I tried to keep these principles general enough to apply to most of the situations I’ve heard about or experienced personally.

Principle # 1: Empathy is always Christ-like

Matthew 9:36, 14:14, Mark 6:34 and Luke 7:13 all contain the phrase, “He felt compassion.” The pronoun refers to Jesus and the verb “splanchizomia” (felt compassion) originates from the noun “splánchnon” which the KJV translates as, “bowels of mercy.”  The closest modern-day idiom to “splanchnon” might be the phrase “gut-wrenching.”  Jesus experienced a gut-wrenching empathy for broken people who needed healing.

Empathy is a divine characteristic exhibited by Jesus throughout the course of his ministry. Empathy is very powerful quality for us to emulate but we need to understand it as more than just an emotional gesture offered by people with bleeding hearts.  Empathy is an expression of dignity; it demonstrates to people that we recognize their human experience. Like Jesus, we recognize the factors and influences that have contributed to (not caused) their situation of brokenness. Empathy shows that we recognize the hardship, temptations, failures, discouragement, naivety, imprudence, family or origin, etc. that all contributed to the pain and hardship being experienced.  Empathy recognizes that there are countless variables with varying degrees that feed the sickness.  Empathy does not negate justice or due process, it augments it.  Empathy does not ignore folly or justify sin, it is simply a gut-wrenching expression that offers grace and dignity to a hurting people, who are deeply valued by God, even when those people are being dumb and sinful.

A few months ago I met with a desperate mom with an adult son who was addicted to heroin. She came to me because her son’s life had deteriorated to the point where he was involved in extremely dangerous and criminal behavior. She had decided that contacting a pastor was better than contacting the police, which was part and parcel to a much deeper pattern of dysfunction and enablement. After listening to her situation I soon realized that this mom was beyond just complicit – she had become a full-blown accessory to his lifestyle. But, I listened nonetheless.  I listened to this mother’s anguish over her child.  I listened to her talk about him as a little boy. I tried to envision her going to his little league games or throwing him birthday parties.  I tried to envision the hopes and dreams she once had for her little boy. I thought about the meta-story (the overall picture) of this mother and her son beyond just the addiction, dysfunction and enablement.  When I was able to step-back and look at the big picture it moved me to offer this mom dignity and grace.  It compelled me to empathy.  It moved me to recognize her pain notwithstanding her bad decisions.  I felt a sense of deep compassion (splanchnon) for this sick and hurting mom.

Principle # 2: We can only offer

I’ve found that it is profoundly important to diagnose whether or not people want healing. This is important because the sad fact is there are many people in our society who need healing but have no desire for it whatsoever.  They may appear or even say they desire healing but their motivation and actions speak contradiction.  We must understand this reality if our goal is to minister to the needs of a person beyond what is spoken or seemingly obvious.   Most people are acutely aware of what they want but far less acquainted with what they need.  In other words, every sick person wants “help” – at least as they define it – but not every sick person wants healing.  It is incumbent upon the church to conduct efforts and speaks messages that promote true healing rather than thoughtlessly respond to what a person appears to need or even indicates they need.

There’s a great example of this in John chapter 5 when Jesus is in Jerusalem.  It’s during this trip when Jesus visits the Pool of Bethesda. In this narrative Jesus does something peculiar with a man who had been crippled for 38 years.  In verse 6 John writes, “When Jesus saw him [the cripple] lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” This is very peculiar exchange when we consider the obvious.  Not only is Jesus omniscient God but the text indicates he had been told that the cripple, “had been in this condition for a long time.” This fact is confounded even further when we notice that the man was sitting outside of a well-known and popular pool of healing in the city of Jerusalem for nearly four decades.  The need for healing seems to jump off the page.  Any one of us, in Jesus’ situation, would have probably assumed that this man wanted to be healed … and, if we had the ability, we probably would have tried to help him no questions asked.  However, Jesus – who is all-knowing God and had been told about this man who had been sitting outside of the well-known pool of healing for 38 years – does not immediately heal him.  This speaks volumes about how Jesus viewed and approached people who needed healing.  Jesus did not assume this man wanted to be healed even though every visible variable indicated he did want healing. Rather than assume, Jesus asks this man a profoundly important question: “Do you want to be healed?” I have found this question to be a hugely important step when trying to diagnose people who need healing. Jesus knew what this man needed healing but he waited to hear if this man wanted it.  There’s no question that weak, poor and hurting people need healing. The question is: do they want healing.  Jesus only offered healing to people who desired it … he did not force healing on people.

There are many people who are desperately searching for healing within our churches and communities and the church must absolutely mobilize for these people.  However, there are also many people who are searching for ways to support or prolong their sickness as well, and the church must navigate this too.  We must recognize that in spite of our efforts people posses an uncanny ability to remain sick if that is what they ultimate want. We cannot force healing anymore than the Jesus Christ did.  This means we must do a better job of diagnosing people.  We must be thorough, diligent and earnest as we try to identify which people are actually looking for healing and which people are not.  We must offer efforts and messages of healing understanding that not everyone desires what true healing involves.  The sad reality is that some people simply want to stay sick … and there’s not much we can do to change that.  We can and should offer help to everyone but we cannot force everyone to embrace efforts and messages that will bring them life and goodness.

Please do not grow weary of showing empathy or conducting efforts and speaking messages of healing to people, even if your effort and message is rejected.

-Matt

It’s an owl

Since it’s Father’s Day weekend I felt moved to write something about fatherhood.

In the New Testament we’re shown the dynamic of God as Father and the church as his children. It says in 1 John 3:1, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” This statement, while encapsulating God’s affection, communicates truth beyond his endearment. When the dimensions of this statement are explored more fully it introduces a relational dynamic that empowers the children of God with a principle that can change our lives.

I have two very different children named Kyla and Chase. My son Chase is seven – he’s in 2nd grade and he’s learning how to read. Kyla is a “creative spirit” while Chase tends to be more scientific and analytical. Chase is inquisitive and notices lots of things that usually prompt him to ask lots of questions. Learning how to read has unlocked an entire new world of exploration for Chase. Anything with words such as freeway billboards, TV commercials, bumper stickers, etc. constitute a secret code for him to try to unlock and decipher.

I was driving home from a church event several weeks ago with just Chase in the car. Kyla was with her mom. Chase was riding shotgun, which he loves because he can see much more than when he’s stuck in the backseat. There was a low tone of music coming from the radio – more of an ambient noise than anything else. We were both quiet. I was tired from a long day and wasn’t paying any attention to what Chase was looking at. We exit the freeway near our home and stop at the red light at the end of the off-ramp. The car rolls to a stop and stare-off at nothing allowing my mind to disengage. Eventually I hear Chase begin to spell something under his breath. I couldn’t tell exactly what he was spelling because I still wasn’t paying all that much attention. However, even with a superficial interest, I could tell that he was using his phonics to try to figure out a word he had never seen before. His voice grew a little louder and little clearer as I heard him mumble, “H-O-O” under his breath. One more second passed and I hear him pronounce, “H-O-O-T.” Another second goes by and I begin to refocus my mind to prepare for the green light. The light turns green and Chase yells-out, with a proud tone of accomplishment, “HOOTERS!!!” After nearly spitting out my gum, I immediately trace his line of sight to identify what he was looking at. It only took a brief moment for me to identify the big orange sign with big block letters belonging to a popular restaurant chain located across from where we were stopped.

Chase and I sat in silence for another second or two as the traffic began to move. I began to prepare myself for the looming question that was sure to follow my son’s new discovery. It felt like an hour – even though it was only a few seconds – between his discovery and when he looked up at me and innocently asked, “Dad, what does ‘“hooters”’ mean?” I took a deep breath and summoned all of my theological acumen, pastoral training and wisdom in an urgent attempt to answer his question. The voice in my head said, “The Bible says don’t lie … I really don’t think I should lie. But, I can’t tell him what it means either! Maybe I should lie … just this once … OR, maybe I could just ignore him and pretend like I didn’t hear the question.” I was leaning towards ignoring Chase’s question until he asked it again after not receiving any response from me the first time. “Dad, what does “’hooters”’ mean?” he asked still looking at me intently. I thought I was out of options and that I would be forced to respond with the inadequate “it’s nothing … don’t worry about it” statement that I’ve given in the past. “Don’t worry about it” was going to be my answer until the Holy Spirit guided me to a concept at the last moment. God gave me a principle that offered a better response: I would tell Chase the truth he was ready to hear … nothing more, nothing less. Empowered by this new principle I finally looked over at Chase and said in a very casual voice, “It’s an owl.”

Believe it or not, this is what loving fathers do with their children. Loving fathers give their children the truth they are ready to hear … nothing more, nothing less. I could have easily dismissed my son’s question by saying, “it’s nothing … don’t worry about it” or I could have lied. Those are responses born out of lack of concern. But, I am concerned about my son and I understand that, in the long run, those answers will leave him feeling slighted and frustrated with me. Chase did nothing wrong by asking a question. It’s human nature to look for answers to things we don’t understand. And, sometime we ask hard questions and when the answer is dismissive or deceptive we quickly lose faith in the person offering it. This is why loving fathers do not dismiss or deceive their children when they ask a question. Rather, loving fathers offer their children answers they are ready to hear. This is what our heavenly Father does with his children.

We have questions about the human experience that the Bible does not answer as thoroughly as we might prefer. These questions are hard for us. It can be a healthy exercise in faith and spiritual discipline when we wrestle with these questions … but sometimes it can backfire on us too. Sometimes we spend a great deal of time and effort trying to understand what certain things mean or why certain things happen, and in the process overlook the father/child dynamic. It’s easy to believe that because we serve God and we have closeness with him that we’re his buddy. But, we’re not his buddy – we’re his kids. We’re his naïve, simple-minded, finite children who do not have the spiritual, mental or emotional capacity to withstand every truth of the universe. We simply do not possess the threshold to be God’s “buddy” because, when compared to God, we have some very serious limitation with our comprehension and cognitive abilities. Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” While this passage is often cited as a platitude it actually expresses a much deeper sentiment than as a simple condolence or resignation. This is the father/child dynamic! This passage shows the vast dynamic between a loving Father and his simpleminded children. Our faith in the Father would increase if we explored the dimensions of this father/child dynamic with more fervor. We would find ourselves less troubled by things that leave us so puzzled – bad things that are hard to reconcile with a good God – if we were willing to explore this dynamic better. We would find a greater peace in those moments when our sense of justice is attacked or our conscience is unsettled if we embraced our role as child and God’s role as Father; a Father who has “thoughts” and “ways” that are higher than ours.

Throughout our lives we will only know a fraction of what God is doing and why he’s doing it. But, we can trust that God loves us as a father loves his children. We can trust that he will give us certain truth when we are ready to handle it. We can trust that he will not lie to us or dismiss our questions. We can trust that his special revelation, the Bible, already contains more truth than we could ever possibly uncover in this life. We can trust that our Father God has figured out the most complex and convoluted truths of our universe, even if we haven’t. We can trust that sometimes all we need to know is, “it’s an owl.”

Happy Father’s Day!

-Matt

My convictions on homosexuality & same-sex marriage

Over the past three decades the topic of homosexuality has been propelled to the forefront of our social and political landscape. Recent Supreme Court cases, sweeping amendments to state statutes, pop-culture and media support and even a handful of vocally liberal church leaders have compelled Christians to galvanize, refine or reevaluate their convictions on the topic. Ready or not, the American church has now been tasked with the responsibility to exercise biblical diligence with propaganda that is more evolved and organized than ever before in our history.

I have been asked about the homosexual debate by a number of discerning Christians; people I believe are devoted to exercising both biblical grace and biblical truth. I have conversations with extremists too but I find those conversations more oriented towards hate-speech and less the disciplines of grace and truth. I will admit that I have been pleasantly surprised by the growing number of thoughtful Christians who are trying to graciously and truthfully articulate their convictions about homosexuality. It was with these people in mind that opened my Bible and began, yet again, to refine my own personal positions on the subject. It was out of this most recent study that I developed the following four general categories outlining my convictions concerning homosexuality and the same-sex marriage debate happening now. I do not consider these concepts to be unique from other schools of thought nor do I believe them to be completely exhaustive. These four points simply constitute the convictions I hold and believe are germane as we witness American churches confronted with a new culture of sexuality.

1. I believe the church is called to exercise true love.

This conviction begins with the premise that Christians, who are theologically and biblically sound, believe the act of homosexuality to be damaging to a person’s soul (their body and spirit). We base this conviction on several passages throughout the Bible. It is not my purpose for this point to thoroughly argue the exegesis or hermeneutics surrounding the passages addressing homosexuality, although I am willing to engage the debate. I will, however, contend that any Christian who opposes the historic and normative church position on homosexuality carries a much heavier burden of proof then do I. The Old Testament law discusses the sin of homosexuality. Jesus discusses the sin of homosexuality. Paul discusses the sin and damaging effects of homosexuality. And, all of this is corroborated by 2000 years of church history and volumes of biblical scholarship asserting the damaging effects (both spiritual and physical) of homosexuality. Because I am writing this for Christians whom I believe are truly trying to exercise biblical grace and biblical truth I will leave any further debate over hermeneutics or exegesis for another day. For our purposes I will assume that professing Christians affirm the historic biblical position on homosexuality; that you believe the act of homosexuality is sinful and therein damaging to one’s body and spirit. Assuming this is the normative conviction of the American church my question then becomes: how can the church truly love the homosexual community and neither speak or act on this truth? Stated another way: How do Christians lovingly condone a lifestyle they believe is damaging another person?

Most functional parents will understand this train-of-thought. In your mind’s eye picture your child when they were three years old. Now envision a heated stove in your kitchen. Assuming you believe the stove is actually hot, does true love compel you to support your child’s decision to touch the hot stove? What if your child really wants to touch the hot stove? What if your child believed they were born to touch the hot stove? What if your child was empowered by the constitution of the United States to touch the hot stove? With all of these compelling factors would you be persuaded to support your child’s decision to touch the hot stove? Would your positions evolve under the pressure of your child’s resentment, genetic arguments or the U.S. constitution? Or would your true love prompt you to do everything within your power to discourage your child from burning their hand on the hot stove?

If you are a discerning believer who holds to high view of the Bible then “true love” should compel you. True love should challenge any mediocrity, reluctance or ambivalence you have towards the homosexual debate. Not only is it an affront to 2000 years of church scholarship, one could argue, it is inhumane and cruel to believe the Bible to be true and yet compromise on the topic of homosexuality. The two paradigms are illogical and irreconcilable. The church does not truly love the homosexual community if we are unwilling to discourage the behaviors we truly believe are damaging that same community of people.

2. I believe the church is called to affirm a higher morality.

This conviction is based on our standards for measuring morality. We must first decide whether morality is subjective or objective? In other words, is morality something I determine or is it something that is determined beyond my thoughts, feelings and influence? I have met many people who are living a homosexual lifestyle and I can honestly say that most of them are very “nice” people. Most of them have extended dignity and shown goodness to me. If morality was subjective then I might be inclined, due to my fondness for these friends, to alter or altogether change my convictions about their behavior. But, what measure of morality should I trust? Should I trust a subjective or objective measurement? If I trust subjective morality then how can I disagree with really “nice” liars? If I trust subjective morality then how can I disagree with really “nice” people who cheat on their spouse or evade paying their taxes? Subjective morality does not allow me to disagree.

This argument of trust can be taken a step further when we apply it to broader concepts of sexuality – concepts that may become “open for discussion” in the future. One real-life example of this would be a grandmother and grandson who are now living in New Zealand and have decided to get married and have a child together using a surrogate’s uterus. They seem to be very happy and it appears they are “not hurting” anyone with their sexual activity or the steps they are taking to produce a child together. They would say they are “in-love” and they have proven themselves to be congenial enough to at least be interviewed by their local news paper. Should we subjectively trust their judgment or be swayed to alter our convictions because they are nice people who are in-love?

Eventually a subjective morality becomes unreliable and we need something more reliable to stand-on. We must trust and cling to an objective truth that does not decay or vacillate with our perceptions, preconceived ideas of justices and whims of emotion. This is why choosing to trust an objective moral truth is critical to ANY moral decision, not just the topic of homosexuality.

3. I believe that biblical roles and functions must be maintained.

This concept is specific to the recent debate over civil rights; the legal rights for homosexual-unions currently being heard by our Supreme Court. It is conspicuous that the Bible does not assign the definition – or any of the functions related to marriage for that matter – to the agency of government. I believe the government is an agency that has been appointed by God for a specific function (Rom 13:1-7). I believe that function to be the preservation of life and the administration of law and order. However, I also believe in the agency of church and I believe it is the biblical role of the church to represent and advance the ministry of Jesus Christ (cf. John 8:31, 15:8 & 18, Luke 21:17, Mark 13:13, Matthew 10:22).

Jesus is speaking to a Jewish audience in Mark 7:20-21 and Matthew 15:18 about the sins of sensuality and sexual immorality, which this audience would have understood this teaching to include homosexuality (Cf. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13). Later in Matthew 19:4-6 Jesus says, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man [masculine singular] shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife [feminine singular], and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” According to these passages it’s clear that Jesus not only views homosexuality as sinful, he further defines marriage as exclusive to one man and one woman joined together as one flesh for a lifetime. Jesus offers terminology that defines the intent and design for marriage based on the biblical meta-narrative of sexuality (Cf. Gen. 2:24, Mark 10:7 and Eph. 5:31). And because this is a teaching of Jesus Christ it is the church’s function to represent and advance this teaching. Conversely, it is NOT the government’s function to purvey the teaching and ministry of Jesus Christ. This should preclude our government from being part of the topic of marriage altogether. In any event, it is the responsibility (not to be confused with prerogative) of the church to purvey the definition of marriage given by Jesus Christ with or without our government’s agreement or consent.

4. I believe the church is called to guard terminology.

Understanding terminology and employing it correctly as a Christian is critical because it connects to one of the strongest arguments supporting homosexuality within the church. The term “sin” is becoming alarmingly less synonymous with homosexual behavior. Homosexuality is viewed by a growing contingent of Christians as something that is as uncontrollable as a person’s race or sex. The vast majority of Christians would never say that I am sinful because I am a Caucasian male. In the same sense, if homosexuality is as uncontrollable as a person’s race or sex then human decency dictates the behavior of homosexuality be A-moral as well. This conviction naturalizes the lifestyle homosexuality making it an unalienable quality embedded within the fabric of a person’s mentality, physicality and spirituality.

In his only published novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the 19th century poet, Oscar Wilde, is quoted as saying, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.” Suffice it to say this was a well-practiced conviction for Mr. Wilde considering he died from syphilis at the age of 46, one decade after writing these words. This hedonistic conviction stands in stark contrast to the words we read in Matthew 16:24 (cf. Luke 9:23) when Jesus says, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” To conclude that the naturalization of homosexuality renders it A-moral is an argument based on a type of morality that condones unbridled impulse (hyper-hedonism). This argument suggests that anyone who is predisposed to think, act a feel a certain way should be left to their devices because their inclination is the greater good. In actuality it is an affront to a human being’s conscience and God-given dignity because as this argument simply relegates the person acting on immoral behavior to something primordial or animalistic – an uncontrollable animal instinct. While based in self-gratification, the effort behind this argument is to remove culpability from a person engaged in homosexuality by making their lifestyle as uncontrollable as their gender or skin color. However, ask the same proponent about adultery or sexual promiscuity or deception and the vast majority would affirm those behaviors as being personal decisions; a controllable choice. I personally believe that men are predisposed to want to have sex with women so does this male predisposition sanction the act of adultery? Most Christians believe that a “straight” man or woman who commits adultery is choosing to do so, and the term the Bible connects to that choice is called sin. People who lie to their bosses are deciding to lie, and the term connected to that decision is called sin. People who gossip and slander are making a decision to defame, and the term connected to that decision is called sin. People with homosexual tendencies living a homosexual life are choosing, of their own volition and faculty, to engage a homosexual lifestyle, and the term that is connected to that choice is called sin.

Guarding certain terminology such as “choice” and “sin” is critical to understanding the goodness of God. Jesus has empowered us with the life-giving choice of denial; the choice to suppress our sinful nature through his nature and way of living. Where hedonism endeavors to satisfy every whim and impulse, Jesus endeavors to bring life and goodness through the denying one’s self and the taking-on of his yoke (Matt 11:29).

You may disagree with my convictions and even question why I decided to write this article. It is not my intention to be caustic or inflammatory. I can only offer anyone reading this the assurance that my convictions were born out of a desire to see people take-on the easier yoke and lighter burden of Jesus Christ. My desire is for everyone I know to experience the amazing abundance found away from an alluring enslavement (Rom 6:1-7) and within the provision of God’s truth and grace.

-Matt

You can be President!!! Really???

I remember watching “The Muppet Show” when I was six years old. The Muppet Show was one of my favorite shows when I was a child … my favorite character was Gonzo … not sure why. It always seemed like every day was a party on the Muppet Show – there was always lot’s of singing, dancing and humor. I also remember each episode being structured around a moral lesson with different moral musings built-into the dialogue. This might involve Fozzie telling a lie to Kermit and then later confessing the truth which served to teach all the boys and girls about being honest. In one episode I remember Miss Piggy talking to Gonzo about what they wanted to be when they “grew up.” Gonzo tells Miss Piggy that he wants to be something conventional, like a plumber or school teacher. Miss Piggy responds to Gonzo and tells him that she plans on being President of the United States. Gonzo and Miss Piggy begin to argue because Gonzo thinks her ambitions are unrealistic. But, Miss Piggy holds her ground and insists that she can be a president of the United States someday. The moral lesson begins to surface as Miss Piggy proceeds to argue that ANYONE can be President of the United States! All you need to do is try really hard and want it really bad and you too – six year old Matt watching The Muppets while eating Spaghettios – can be the President of the United States! As a matter of fact, you can accomplish anything you want to accomplish or be anything you want to be, you just have to put your mind to it.

Fast forward 28 years from that Muppet Show episode and I’m now resigned to the fact that I’ll never be President of the United States. I think I can say that I’m finally at peace knowing that I will never become President or win the Nobel Prize. I think I’m at peace knowing that I will never be a professional football player, astronaut, brain surgeon or accomplish any number of aspirations I was told I could if I just “put my mind to it” … if I really, really wanted it bad enough. I think I’ve made my peace with this but it took a little while for me to get there.

So, what went wrong? Are there actually limitations on what I was created to do and be in this life? Does my calling and purpose come with a set of parameters? Was Miss Piggy’s moral message a lie? The simple answer is: yes.

I watched the movie “Rudy” on TV a few months ago. The movie was based on a guy named Rudy who is trying to earn the affection of a lousy father by playing football for the University of Notre Dame. Rudy was pintsized and had very little football playing ability to speak of. However, Rudy eventually endears himself to the coaching staff and players and is allowed to play in one game his senior year. As I watched this movie recently I realized that the entire movie was based on Miss Piggy’s lie. Rudy had bought into the message that I heard when I was six years old. When we extrapolate the emotions connected to Rudy’s struggle and plight and we observe the story objectively, it’s actually quite sad. The objective truth is: this guy had no business playing football for the University of Notre Dame. He was undersized and did not have the skill to play at an elite division one University and he spends his entire college career getting knocked into next week by real (big) football players. He’s lucky he didn’t get himself killed. The Hollywood version has Rudy eventually convincing the coaches and players with his tenacity (they call it “heart” in the movie). The storyline was based on Rudy believing that he could be anything he wanted to be if he wanted it bad enough. But, in actuality he couldn’t. Rudy was only allowed to play in that final game because he was able to marshal pity from the players and coaching staff. He did not play in that game because God had created him to be good at football or because he merited any playing time. I actually think Rudy is a sad story of an unloved son who rejected how he was created. Rudy rejected who he was and what God had created him to be.

For most of us the encumbrances of being a “grown up” attack the message of naivety that says we can be anything we want to be. We can certainly try to be anything we want to be – as a matter of fact we can devote our entire life trying to be or accomplish something – but trying is where our journey tragically ends. This cold hard truth can create a crisis of calling and purpose, especially when we factor-in cultural and family pressures. I know many people who are struggling through their adult life because of Miss Piggy’s lie. They’re trying so desperately to be who THEY want to be and accomplish what THEY want to accomplish (like Rudy) and it’s failing them. This invariably leads to a crisis of calling and purpose. Sometimes this crisis presents as insecurity or low self-wroth because we never quite measure-up to the things we were told we could accomplish. Sometimes it presents as a fake and inflated self-image. Sometimes we walk around with a Napoleon complex or a chip on our shoulders. Sometimes we just hate ourselves for not being as smart, fast, good looking or capable as next guy. The good news is that the Bible offers an incredible answer to this crisis of calling and purpose. Paul writes the following exhortation related to spiritual gifts in Romans 12:3: “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” What a freeing statement! It’s about God’s allotment. When healthy, the body of Christ functions with unique parts that are working in unison to advance the Gospel message. This is where God wants us to find our life’s calling and purpose.

There is an extraordinary liberation that comes when we embrace the way God has gifted us – the identity that God has for us! This liberation comes when we understand that God made us different for a reason. God made Rudy to be 5’5 and 150 lbs for a reason. It’s not about being what we want to be or accomplishing what we want to accomplish; this will only leave us frustrated and empty. It is all about being who God wants us to be and accomplishing what he wants us to accomplish. Perhaps God wants some of us to be Olympians, brain surgeons or even President of the United States. Or, maybe God wants some of us to be stay-at-home moms, chemists, school teachers, engineers, pastors, factory workers, food servers, police officers and missionaries. God can definitely use those people in extraordinary ways too. When you are who God wants you to be you will find an incredible freedom from the lie that Miss Piggy told. You will expend you time and resources more wisely. You will find a much deeper and lasting peace. You will live a more contented and purposeful life within the unique calling that God has for you.

Jesus and scary waves

“Come on, you’ll be fine. Trust me.” I said with a tone of frustration. I stood alone, waste deep in the Pacific Ocean off a southern California beach. It was mid afternoon late into the summer. The swells were small – fairly peaceful and unimposing – at least from my perspective. The water was not intolerably cold as is common with most Pacific beaches up and down the California coastline. On the beachhead, approximately 50 yards away, stood my [then] six year old son Chase. Born and raised in Arizona, Chase has seen plenty of beach but very little ocean and he was one step short of terrified. He stood on the beach looking at me motioning to him with a concerned furrow in his brow and an overly cautious posture. The prospect of entering the water had him in full flight or fight mode. The waves, noise, smell, seaweed and shear vastness of the ocean had produced an anxiety in Chase. His senses were on red-alert. I called out to him again: “Chase, it’s not that bad once you get in.” I had removed the tone of frustration from my voice to try to be as convincing as possible. “I can’t dad, it’s too scary,” he replied with desperate inflection. This simple exchange would be indicative of the next 30 minutes as I stood in the water trying to coax my reluctant son into the waves. I moved closer to the shoreline, used encouraging language, tried to show him how safe it was and, at one point, even offered to carry him into the surf on my back. There were moments when Chase would venture out a few feet into the water but would quickly retreat back onto the shore to escape the surf slamming against his legs. My efforts to convince Chase that the situation was safe were waning. He’d measured the risk and determined that is was insurmountable. Neither one of us were having any fun and so, after 30 minutes of emotional gridlock, we both decided that our efforts were better spent building a sand castle. I was happy to spend time with Chase on a beach enjoying the weather and he was happy that he was able to play with his dad on dry, trusted, secure land.

That evening I began to reflect on the interplay from a few hours earlier while Chase was standing on the shoreline and I was standing in the ocean. I questioned my actions. Did I do right by my son? I’ve never been a permissive parent. I don’t agree with permissive parenting. So, should I have been firm and demanded that he obey me and walk into the ocean? Was this a simple obedience issue or was there more to this? There was something about the situation that made me believe it was much more complicated than an oversimplified conclusion. I don’t normally expose my kids to situations that make them afraid, but I wanted Chase to overcome this challenge. I wanted him to experience the deep satisfaction of courage. I wanted him to subdue his fear and expand his life-experience. And, I wanted him to do all of this without me forcing it on him. I knew that I would rob Chase of a very rich experience if I simply forced him into the ocean.

My son’s fear was understandable. He’s an Arizona kid and the Pacific Ocean is more daunting than anything he’d ever seen or experienced in his six years of life. I understood his intimidation but I wanted him to act on his self-confidence and trust. I wanted him to find confidence and courage in his swimming abilities. I wanted him to be confident in himself and I wanted him to be confident in me. That was it!!! I realized what was bugging me. I began thinking more deeply about his response to me while he stood on the shore. His reply to me was, “it’s too scary.” The word “scary” didn’t bother me … everyone get’s scared. Everyone struggles with fear, doubt and anxiety. I was empathetic to my son’s fear. What compelled me the most was the entire phrase; it wasn’t just scary, rather, it was “too scary.” This added a whole new dimension. Chase could have simply said it was scary and I could have addressed each fear specifically. But he didn’t just say it’s scary, he said it was “too scary.” The waves were scarier, bigger and tougher than the things he was normally confident of, namely me. This was a level of fear that outweighed his everyday level of trust in me. The crashing waves and scale of the ocean were enough to cause Chase to actually distrust me. My loving intentions, my guarantees of protection, my concern, my relationship with him was all outmatched by his distrust for the situation he was in. This was a dilemma of distrust.

The apostles experienced a similar dilemma of trust in Matthew chapter 14. This is a familiar passage for anyone who’s grown-up in the church. This section of Matthew is rich with the undertones of Christ’s divinity. Jesus exhibits supernatural qualities in this chapter that should have generated, in any reasonably thinking person, a high degree of trust and confidence in his divinity. In verses 13-21 the apostles witness the act of Jesus feeding five thousand people from five loaves of bread and two fish. Immediately following this incredible display of power and provision the apostles are lead by Jesus in verses 22 to a docked boat on the northern side of Galilee. Jesus instructs the disciples to sail on ahead of him assuring them that he would catch-up after he had spent time in prayer alone. Several hours pass by (we don’t how many) and the disciples are now several miles from land. A storm ensues and begins to batter their fully loaded fishing boat. After some time in the storm the disciples suddenly see a figure walking through the waves towards them and they being to freak-out. They presume the figure is some type of ghost walking towards them. By this time the disciples had completely forgotten the incredible miracles they had seen Jesus perform just hours earlier and his commitment to regroup with them later. Jesus identifies himself to the men on the boat in order to calm them down, and perhaps correct their ghost theory. We don’t know exactly how this exchange was received by the majority of the group but we do see Peter in vintage fashion. Peter decides to display his loyalty to Jesus while the others sit around presumably cowering in the boat. Most of us know the story: Peter gets out of the boat and makes it a few steps before fear overtakes him and he starts to sink. Peter knows he’s walking to Jesus and even sees Jesus walking on the water but the waves eventually overwhelmed Peter and he cries out, “Lord save me!” The word “cried” in verse 30 is the Greek verb “krazo” and it means to squawk like bird. Peter had lost all trust and had been relegated to squawking like a bird in this moment terror. Nothing he saw or believed about Jesus in that moment would generate a trust that outweighed his fear. Peter wasn’t sinking as a result of the water – Jesus had taken care of the water. Peter was drowning in his distrust for who Jesus was and what Jesus was capable of doing for him in that moment. But, my bigger question is: what about the other guys who stayed in the boat?

Peter gets a bad reputation from us because he’s the biggest target in the group. But, let’s give some credit where credit is due. At the very least Peter was willing to get out of the boat. There was at least a modicum of faith when Peter walked on water, even if it was just a fleeting moment. Why is it that only AFTER Jesus restores order to the sea that the other guys begin to worship him as the Son of God (Cf. vs. 32)? The answer: their trust in Jesus was even weaker than Peter’s! Not only did the rest of the disciples NOT get out of the boat but, frankly, there is no real indication they exercised any faith or lordship at all until after Jesus had fixed their circumstances.

During my years in church I have heard countless comparisons made between Peter’s dilemma of trust and the dilemma of trust experienced by the modern day Christian. However, I think I see the modern American church more closely resembling the cowards in the boat. How many of our church members attend a worship services celebrating the power of Jesus Christ only to leave their place of worhsip and lose all faith on Monday. As long as the seas are calm they’ll fellowship in the boat and extol Jesus as the object of their worship. But, when seas get rough people hunker-down and forget all about the greatness of Jesus Christ in their everyday life. The tricky part is that their distrust is often concealed within the normal regimen of life. It is hidden well within the comfort and expediency of modern American living … that is until the storm hits. That’s when they confuse Jesus for something he’s not (like a ghost). That’s when they refuse to trust him even after he calls to them from within the storm. The situation is “too scary” and their confidence in Jesus is outmatched. They distrust their circumstances more than they trust their Savior and it keeps them from experiencing something extraordinary and life-changing!

Hebrews 12 implores us to fix “our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” He is the originator, sustainer and supreme example of truth concerning what the church believes about life, death and eternity. If we do not begin to REALLY trust him in the storms we will not begin to REALLY live the life he desires for us. This is the lesson I learned reflecting on my experience with Chase on the beach. He, like all of us, was “too scared” to move towards the person he knows loves him more than anyone else in his life. His fear outweighed his trust for me. The difference is, Jesus loves his church immeasurably more than I am able to love my son. But, the life that Jesus has called his church to live is peculiar and scary a times.

If we do not trust the architect of this peculiar yet extraordinary life then we will not experience the unique and extraordinary goodness that comes with it … like the act of walking on water. We will live conventionally within the parameters of our comforts but what we’re actually doing is a masquerade. We’re masquerading as trusting followers who refuse to get out of the boat and walk towards our Savior when the storms of life seem too scary.

Romans 8:28 Dilemma

Romans 8:28 is a popular passage in churches, particularly when ministering to circumstances that are painful or hard to explain. But, how does it really apply to me when my life seems to be falling apart?

The entire letter of Romans is a deeply theological section of the Bible. Romans eight essentially functions as the crescendo or the high-water mark for Paul’s meta-narrative of redemption outlined in the preceding chapters. The chapter begins with the mind-blowing statement, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This is the product of justification and it establishes a tone of optimism carried throughout the rest of the discourse. Paul goes on to outline the process of sanctification; the process of being set apart for the work and purposes of God. Throughout the chapter Paul details the process of sanctification with a hopeful view of eternity — the glory that we will experience some day as the adopted children of God. However, there is a practical tension to Romans eight as Paul describes the balance between the hopefulness of our adoption and the sufferings we experience during our sanctification.

Sanctification is not easy. The process of being separated and refined for the purposes of God is often filled with awkwardness and pain. We could probably base this on pragmatism alone but Paul is very clear to explain this with statements like, “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth” in verse 22. A paradox seems to emerge as we experience the good work of God in our lives and yet struggle through this mulish process of sanctification. You might ask: how can so much good and so much discomfort share the same process? God “adopts us as sons” (vs. 15) and yet we’re called to “suffer with Jesus” (Vs. 17). God promises to reveal his “glory” to us (vs. 18) and yet we “groan within ourselves” (vs. 23). We do not “know how to pray” (vs. 26a) and yet God “intercedes for us” through his Spirit (vs. 26b). And, in Romans 8:28 we read that, “[God] causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” and yet I experience painful things all the time. So, what does this statement really mean for those of us who are walking the hopeful yet painful road of sanctification?

Sometimes we do stupid things and the pain that is produced by the natural consequence of our sin or imprudence is a real thing. However, there are times when we don’t do sinful or unwise things and yet our suffering is still alive and well. For example, I had a stomach bug a few weeks ago. It’s not an overstatement to say that I hate stomach sickness and all of the disgusting things that come with it. I’m pretty sure I was not suffering from my own sin or stupidity … I think it was a simple case of the stomach flu. But, how do I reconcile Romans 8:28 with a stomach flu? I know that I love God so how was my nausea and stomach pain advancing anything good? Frankly, I haven’t seen it yet. It may seem like a paradox; the kind of thing where right is wrong … up is down … good is bad. However, before we dismiss Romans 8:28 as being practically useless it would be wise to notice a critical verb in the first clause. Let’s begin with what Romans 8:28 does not say. To be clear, the verse does not say: all things work for good. Romans 8:28 says, “all things work together for good.” The verb “work together” is the Greek word sunegeo and it’s where we derive our word synergy. This is the operative verb in this passage and it is a very important part of the promise being communicated in this verse.

Understanding the true promise of Romans 8:28 is especially important when it’s painfully obvious that our circumstances are NOT working for good; it is in those moments we must understand and embrace synergy. We must understand there is timing, people and circumstances “working together” to produce a broader outcome. Our unexplainable circumstance of hardship may indeed not be working for good as we see it but it is absolutely “working together” with other circumstances to produce something good under God’s sovereignty. There is a greater work being accomplished by God in those moments when our sanctification feels lousy. Perhaps God will choose to disclose his good work to us in time or perhaps her won’t but, in either case the synergy is there. Our mulish and uncomfortable sanctification is playing a part in a much larger and perfect theatre of goodness. This means we should not expect every bad situation or season of suffering to lead to something good. We should, however, find peace in fact that our pain is being used by God to produce a greater good – even better yet, a greater holiness. Don’t dismiss it or treat it flippantly. Maybe God is using your discomfort to generate good in the life of your kids. Maybe God is using your pain to produce something good in the life of your spouse. Trust this Romans 8:28 promise, especially in those moments when things are lousy and it seems like nothing good can come out of what you’re experiencing.

Bad Times

Are you preparing your people for the “bad times?”

I was studying the Seal Judgments in Revelation chapter six recently and my mind began to wander. I began to think about the recent appetite our culture has developed for television shows with a doomsday theme or underpinning. It seems like almost every show I see on Nat Geo, Discovery, A& E, etc. are fixated on the thesis of preparing for disaster. This would involve anything from designing and building your own fallout bunker to learning how to survive on leaves and grubs in the Alaskan wilderness. Preparedness has become good television … solid entertainment … amusement for people, most of whom have never probably experienced the threat of domestic terrorism or even a nature hike gone wrong. But, has this entertainment come with a price tag? As I was thinking about this question I began to realize that the disciplines of being prepared are becoming, or have become, anecdotal; an amusing satire of conspiracy theories and crazy people draining their life savings on ammo and bomb-shelters. The virtue (if we can call it that) of preparedness has been cheapened – maybe sterilized completely – in the eyes of our culture and within the heart of our church. The irony is that our attitude about preparedness should probably concern us more than the disasters we’re neglecting to prepare for.

As part of my study I was also reading through Matthew 24 (the Olivet Discourse). As I was studying the text in Matthew I found that the most upsetting statements Jesus makes were not about the suffering and persecution Christians will experience; the most upsetting statements foretell the professing “Christian’s” response to those things. In Matthew 24:9-13 Jesus tells his disciples, “… they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. 10 At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. 11 Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. 12 Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.” What a heartbreaking day when many will fall away because their faith was not healthy enough to carry them through this future period of persecution and suffering. Perhaps this is one reason why God inspired the author of Hebrews to write these words in Hebrews 10:24-25, “… let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds. 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” It is within this stimulation of fellowship that we refine our level of readiness for the Day that is approaching.

Please know that I am in no way suggesting the church should stockpile weapons or invest in freeze-dried food. I am, however, encouraging the church leaders I know to inventory the spiritual preparedness of their people. Is the faith of the people you influence equipped to overcome catastrophe? Is your church’s devotion to Jesus Christ able to survive the suffering that we see described in the Olivet Discourse? Would the faith of the people you lead and influence survive the hardship of losing a job, the crisis of a bad diagnosis or the heartache caused by a rebellious child? The best question we can ask as church leaders is: are we doing everything within our ability to be used by God to equip our people for bad times? The trials that confront the Christian faith are neither a conspiracy nor a theory. They are very real and they are openly disclosed to us throughout the New Testament. When those trials come will the people you lead, love and influence have a faith that is robust enough to overcome the fallout?