It doesn’t make any sense

You may not have noticed, but we are in the midst of an age in which laws are being selectively enforced and upheld. President Barack Obama famously announced early in his administration that his Justice Department would no longer enforce the Defense of Marriage Act or even defend it in court. Republicans in Congress took on the task of defending the law but last summer the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional. When they did so, however, they also left the matter of defining marriage to the states. With increasing frequency, however, states that have attempted to do just that have had those laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman struck down as unconstitutional.

Today Texas became the most recent victim of activist judges overstepping their authority and completely reinterpreting the Constitution. Judge Orlando L. Garcia of United States District Court for the Western District of Texas ruled that the amendment to the Texas constitution passed by voters in 2005 and defining marriage as between a man and a woman violated the United States Constitution. Why? Because, he said, it demeans the dignity of homosexuals “for no legitimate reason.”

Part of Garcia’s ruling reads like this: “Without a rational relation to a legitimate governmental purpose, state-imposed inequality can find no refuge in our United States Constitution.” According to a article published today by the New York Times, however, the state of Texas had reasons for defining marriage as between a man and a woman. “The [state’s] lawyers denied that Texas’ laws were rooted in prejudice, linking the bills instead to the state’s interest in protecting traditional marriage to promote procreation and child-rearing by a mother and a father in ‘stable and enduring family units,'” the article said. Apparently Judge Garcia does not consider those to be “legitimate governmental purposes.”

The Times also reported that the two gay and lesbian couples who sued the state insisted that the state’s ban “perpetuated discrimination and put a financial, legal and emotional burden on homosexual couples.” Texas Representative Warren Chisum responded to that assertion by saying, “I’ve never made any statement that this bill did not discriminate. This bill does discriminate. It allows only for a man and a woman to be married in this state and be recognized in marriage in this state.”

Chisum is right on the mark. The problem is, discrimination is not automatically wrong. Almost every piece of legislation discriminates. “To discriminate” is simply another way of saying “to distinguish.” There are laws all across the country discriminating against people driving 90 miles per hour on the interstate or even 45 miles per hour in a school zone; laws discriminating against people who want to take merchandise from the store without paying for it; laws discriminating against people from buying alcohol before turning 21 or voting before turning 18; and, for now anyway, laws discriminating against people who want to be in government-sanctioned relationships made up of one man and two women or one person and one animal or one adult and one child. In other words, laws discriminate all the time; if they did not discriminate there would be no reason to have laws at all.

I have not read the case’s briefs so I do not know exactly how the homosexual couples who sued claimed to have experienced legal, financial or emotional burdens as a result of the Texas law, but I cannot imagine their reasoning would hold up under much legitimate scrutiny. Fortunately Judge Garcia was wise enough to stay his ruling pending the appeal that will no doubt be coming forthwith. Hopefully the judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, where the appeal will be heard, will actually read the Constitution and realize that it does not protect or entitle homosexual marriage.

The other laws you have no doubt been hearing about lately are those state laws that are allowing the recreational use of marijuana. Interestingly, the New York Times also has an article on that subject today. Rick Lyman’s article begins like this: “A little over a year after Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana, more than half the states, including some in the conservative South, are considering decriminalizing the drug or legalizing it for medical or recreational use.”

What few people seem to be commenting on (though the Times did mention it) is that marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Article 6, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, often called the Supremacy Clause, reads, “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” There are many court decisions over the years that uphold the principle of the supremacy of federal law.

Why do I bring marijuana into the marriage discussion? Simply because both are examples of states making their own laws and in one instance they are permitted to violate the federal law without consequence and in another they are being told that the Constitution prohibits them from making their own laws even though it does not and even though nothing in the Constitution protects the right of homosexual marriage. Indeed given the absence of any federal definition of marriage the states clearly have the right to define it according to Amendment 10 of the Constitution.

In other words, states are permitted–even encouraged, I might say–to pass their own laws allowing what the federal law explicitly prohibits because the behavior being permitted is considered to be in line with a progressive or liberal change that those in power support. When states pass laws upholding or enforcing more traditional or conservative behaviors (like marriage) they are told they cannot do so. Here’s the bottom line: federal law prohibits the use of marijuana but states are allowed to permit it and federal law permits the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman but states are prohibited from thus defining it. We have a very real problem on our hands; laws no matter mean anything beyond what those in power want them to mean.

President Obama has, by way, provided additional evidence for his own impeachment in his handling of the state marijuana laws. Despite the clear federal prohibition of the use of marijuana the New York Times reports that the “Obama administration has said it will not interfere with the rollout of legal marijuana in the states, as long as it is kept out of the hands of minors.”

Interesting, is it not, that Judge Garcia denied that the people of Texas have a right to define marriage as between a man and a woman even though they said it was in part an effort to protect children, yet President Obama has invited states to ignore federal law so long as they protect children when they legalize marijuana.

Don’t try to make any sense of it…it simply doesn’t make any sense.

What Really Matters

Today on Ann Oldenburg has a story entitled “Jane Fonda: I have ‘so little time left.'” Oldenburg’s post, in USA Today‘s Life section, is not really much of a story. Rather it is a overview of a recent Fonda blog post, with extensive quotes from the post. The gist of it is that Fonda, who is 76, has recently been “contemplating her age, her mortality, her emotions.” Nothing wrong with that, of course, and I suppose rather fitting for anyone who is 76 years old. In reality, though, I think such reflection is appropriate for any person of any age. My hope and prayer, though, would be that such reflection has a completely different result than what Fonda shared.

“How come,” Fonda wrote, “pretty things, kind deeds, sad stories, acts of courage, good news, someone’s flax [sic] of insight, all get me crying or, at least, tearing up?” We’ve probably all been around people like that at one time or another, and I suppose we’ve all even been that person at one time or another–seemingly over-emotional and “touched” by even the littlest things. Fonda’s conclusion is that her emotions are “way more accessible” than they were when she was younger and they are so because she has come to the realization that her remaining time is precious. “I have become so wonderfully, terribly aware of time, of how little of it I have left; how much of it is behind me, and everything becomes so precious,” she wrote.

Such a perspective is, of course, biblical. James 4:14 says, “[Y]et you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (ESV). I like how The Living Bible words that verse: “How do you know what is going to happen tomorrow? For the length of your lives is as uncertain as the morning fog—now you see it; soon it is gone.” In other words, whether we are 76 or 36 or 16, we have no idea how many more days we have ahead of us. Fonda has been blessed to live to 76. She seems to be in good health and, who knows, she may live another couple of decades. She doesn’t know, and neither do I (I’m at the 36 mark myself).

It is because we do not know how many days we have on earth that we must use what days we do have wisely. Paul wrote, in Ephesians 5:16, “[make] the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” The ERV presents the verse this way: “I mean that you should use every opportunity you have for doing good, because these are evil times.” The Amplified Bible says “buy up every opportunity,” and the Contemporary English Version says “make every minute count.” This is not a message that is unique to the Bible; you hear it often at events like high school commencements and you hear it from plenty of motivational speakers. The reminder to use our time wisely is one we all need.

Sadly, Fonda does not seem to have grasped the “using time wisely” concept. The things that she has determined are important and that move her during these limited days she suggests she has left are things that may have merit but they are not things or eternal significance. Fonda says she now sees the beauty in the small things, and wonders if maybe part of the reason is not that she will soon be on the other side of the dirt. “Maybe, without my being conscious of it, there’s the reality that in a few decades (if I’m lucky) I will be in the earth, fertilizing some of the very things I look at now and tear up over,” she wrote. I don’t know about you, but thinking about the possibility of becoming plant food is not something that would cause me to tear up in any good way. When her time is up, and she does die, Fonda’s wishes are quite simple: “I’m not going to be cremated, uses up too much energy and gives off too many toxins, nor do I want to be in a coffin. Just dump me in a hole and let me morph into whatever as quickly as possible.”

Fonda’s worldview is evident in her interpretation of what happens after death. “Morphing into whatever” is not what happens, of course. (I have to reiterate, though, that if that is what I believed I really cannot imagine being so sanguine about it). Those who hold a biblical worldview believe that they must “redeem the time” because we are stewards of our time, we are to make the most of the minutes, days and years we have on earth, drawing closer to the Lord ourselves and pointing others to Him by the way in which we lead our lives. That can be done in many ways, in many places and in any occupation or activity. Those who believe the Bible seek to make the most of their days because they know that death is not the end.

Fonda evidently believes that death is the end. What that has motivated her to care about seems odd to me, though. She writes, “I ache for unwanted children in the world,” and I can understand that one. Children who have no one to love them, who face each day struggling one their own for survival, are a legitimate cause of emotion, of caring, of tearing up. That kind of care and compassion motivates people to action–people like Katie Davis, who founded Amazima Ministries and has adopted many little girls in Uganda while working to improve life for hundreds more.

But what else does Fonda care about besides unwanted children? Here is the complete thought from her blog: “I ache for unwanted children in the world, for polar bears, and elephants, whales and Monarch butterflies, and dolphins, gorillas and chimpanzees.” Though I suspect she did not intend it to, the rest of Fonda’s statement completely nullifies her concern for unwanted children. Taken as a whole, Fonda’s “aches” for various wildlife minimizes her ache for unwanted children. When one sees unwanted children on the same plane as polar bears and butterflies one has a tremendously warped sense of God’s creation. Polar bears and butterflies and dolphins and maybe even gorillas are beautiful and wonderful and part of God’s creation, but they are nowhere near as important as children. Only human beings are created in God’s image. Only human beings have a soul. Only human beings will live for eternity. Yes, we must be good stewards of the earth and demonstrate proper care for creation, but we must never allow children and critters to be considered equals.

Towards the end of her blog Fonda wrote, “Maybe because I’m older my heart is wider open, like a net that wants to catch all the things that matter.” Let us not forget, however, that when everything matters equally, nothing matters.

Adjusting Our Focus

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s “Word of the Year” for 2013 was selfie. Familiar with the word? It’s an informal word–I would even go so far as to say slang–for a picture taken of oneself, most often with a smartphone, and usually to be shared on a social media site. If you’re on social media at all you have no doubt seen a selfie. For some time they often involved taking a picture of oneself in a mirror. The now ubiquitous camera feature on cell phones and other mobile devices, however, has led to the all-too-frequent image of people extending one arm out as far from themselves as possible in order to take their own picture with the device. The advent of self-facing camera features now means that smartphone users can see themselves on the screen before taking the picture, presumably making it even easier to take smashing selfies.

If you’re at all like me, you find most selfies to be rather silly. Selfies have replaced the status updates and tweets of old that informed the world of mundane and useless drivel about people’s everyday activities. Remember when people used to post or tweet things like, “Making lunch!” or “Just left the dentist.” Frankly, I don’t really care. Now, however, we do not have to read about it because with selfies we can actually see people engaged in mundane everyday activities. Somehow this doesn’t strike me as progress….

Full disclosure, I have never taken a selfie. I have, however, appeared in one or two with other folks who wanted (believe it or not) to take a picture of themselves with me.

Silly though they may be, however, I would ordinarily resist any temptation to write an entire blog post about the topic of selfies. But there is more to them than just silliness and nonsense, and I want to explore that just a bit. More specifically I want to elaborate on some comments made by Janie B. Cheaney about selfies.

She opines, “Most selfies are arranged to make the subject look good, but not always–the subject can look goofy, slutty, or pie-eyed depending on the photographer’s mood. The unflattering ones mystify: Why would you want to post or send a picture of yourself looking like a goon or a porn star?” Good question. Sadly, I think the answer to that question is the same, or at least has the same root, as the answer to the question of why in the world Miley Cyrus decided to twerk on stage with a big foam finger (Twerk, by the way, being a runner-up for Word of the Year). She wanted to simultaneously demonstrate that she was not bound by anyone else’s expectations of who she is or what she should do and and achieve attention through shock value. Cyrus’s twerking and many people’s, shall we say odd, selfies are both means of announcing to the world that they could care less what anyone else thinks. They will do their own thing, thank you, and if you don’t like it you can take a hike. In other words, if you’ll pardon the expression, a lot of selfies are the subjects’ 21st-century version of giving everyone else the finger.

Cheaney makes another pertinent observation, too, though. She writes, “The selfie permits posing on a grand scale, and every tweeted image seeks an audience among our peeps: Here’s me. How do I look? What do you think?” For every person who posts selfies in order to tell the rest of the world to shove it there is at least one more who posts selfies in order to ask the rest of the world for approval and praise. The selfies become a by-the-photo meter of acceptance.

Cheaney wraps up her column by bringing God’s plan into the discussion. “God made our eyes to look outward,” she writes, “but our vision boomeranged when we took our eyes off Him.” Selfies, in other words, have become for many the modern equivalent of the pond in which Narcissus gazed at his own reflection. So enamored was he with his own reflection that he eventually died. So fixated are many today on showing off their whatever to the rest of the world that they fail to even notice the rest of the world. They are quite wrapped up in their own little world, and the universe, they think, revolves around it. As sad as that skewed focus is, far sadder is the fact that they also fail to notice the Creator of the world, the One who spoke it into existence and who keeps it spinning in place. The One who gave His only Son to die in their place so that their identity could be found in Him. It’s time we pry our focus off of ourselves, and cast our eyes on Him.

President Hamilton?

Though the quote has appeared in several different forms over the years, philosopher George Santayana wrote this: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If I may, I would like to reword this famous statement and apply it to a current event: “Those who never learn the past are condemned to misstate it.”

What has prompted me to mess with the immortal words of Santayana? A monumental President’s Day blunder by online coupon provider Groupon, that’s what. According to a plethora of major news outlets Groupon issued a news release last week promoting $10 off of local deals over $40, complete with this explanation of the deal: “The $10 bill, as everyone knows, features President Alexander Hamilton — undeniably one of our greatest presidents and most widely recognized for establishing the country’s financial system.”

Now, in Groupon’s defense, Hamilton is generally credited with laying the foundations of the nation’s financial system, having served as the first Secretary of the Treasury the U.S. ever had. However, as with Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill, Hamilton never served as president of the United States.

Compounding the problem, Fox News has reported that upon being informed of the blunder Erin Yeager, Groupon spokesperson, told, “We’ll just have to agree to disagree.” Agree to disagree? Whether or not someone was ever president of the United States is not a matter of opinion; it is historical fact, easily checked and verified.

Groupon’s press release–which, believe it or not, is still available on its web site–refers to Hamilton as president three times and refers to him once as “our money-minded commander-in-chief.”

In the grand scheme of things this is pathetic but not that big a deal. However, it is evidence of a greater problem. That problem is a two-edged sword of ignorance of and disrespect for U.S. history. There is no excuse for having multiple professionals at a major corporation failing to recognize that Alexander Hamilton was never president of the United States. (Presumably more than one person has to approve press releases and ad campaigns). There is no excuse for a company spokesperson responding “we’ll have to agree to disagree” when the error was identified. The error was a result of ignorance or stupidity (or both), and the explanation once the error was identified is a result of ignorance or stupidity (or both, but most likely the latter).

Furthermore, the explanation is a prime example of the foolishness of relativism. Relativism is the idea that there is no absolute truth, that all beliefs and points of view are relative, subjective, and based on the preferences and viewpoints of those who adhere to them. “Agree to disagree” is a shorthand definition of “tolerance” and it works fine for things like which baseball team has a better starting rotation, which fast food chain has the best French fries or even which U.S. president was the best president. Those are topics subject to legitimate differences of opinion and conviction. There are different ways of defining “best” and legitimate, cogent, rational arguments could be made for multiple answers to those questions. Relativism has its place. I see it demonstrated almost daily at family meal times, for example–particularly when it comes to the vegetable of the meal and the opinions of my children as to how good–or not good–the vegetable may be!

Relativism has no place, however, when it comes to verifiable facts. There can be a difference of opinion as to which fast food chain has the best French fries, but whether or not a fast food chain even exists or even serves French fries is not open for discussion; the answer can be found and proven. Which U.S. president was the best will bring plenty of different answers, and you will probably find plenty of them today in particular, since it is Presidents Day. At a minimum I can guarantee you will find arguments for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. There is no definitive standard by which one can determine “best president” so that range of opinion is fine–healthy, even. But there is no question as to whether or not Alexander Hamilton was a U.S. president.

It is a sad day when a major company errs on what should be basic elementary school history. My favorite professor in college used to refer to some things by saying, “Every good schoolboy or schoolgirl should know this….” Sadly, the number of things every good schoolboy or schoolgirl knows is rapidly diminishing. That is due in no small part to an observation regularly made by my favorite graduate school professor: “Sometimes there is nothing common about common sense.”

God’s Love Is

I don’t believe I have ever done this before, but it seems fitting today. Below is a slightly-edited transcript of a message I preached last Sunday, entitled God’s Love Is.

British evangelist, pastor and Bible scholar G. Campbell Morgan said,

There is a text that I have never attempted to preach on, though I have gone around it and around it—John 3:16. It is too big. When I have read it, there is nothing else to say. If we only knew how to read it, so as to produce a sense of it in the ears of people, there would be nothing to preach about.

David Jeremiah, in his book God Loves You, writes this:

John 3:16 has long been regard as our greatest, most direct, and most concise statement of the Gospel. With almost miraculous precision, it places the good news of the love of God in the smallest of packages. When you say “John 3:16,” even many unbelievers either know what it means or know the verse itself. It is the most famous chapter-verse reference in the entire Bible. You’ll see it on a banner at a sporting event, emblazoned on a t-shirt, or scrawled in graffiti on an underpass. It’s a shorthand way of saying, “God loves us all.”

Throughout history millions of words have been written about John 3:16. Yet none of them are necessary to grasp the meaning of the verse. God communicated the heart and meaning of the Gospel—the most profound, far-reaching message of all time—in only twenty-five simple words of English text. When translated into any language, this verse is supremely easy to understand.

Yet Jeremiah goes on, just a few paragraphs later, to say that John 3:16 is “a statement of the Gospel so simple that a child can understand it and so profound that a scholar could never fathom its depths.”

Max Lucado, in 3:16—The Numbers of Hope, writes, “If you know nothing of the Bible, start here. If you know everything in the Bible, return here. We all need the reminder. The heart of the human problem is the heart of the human. And God’s treatment is prescribed in John 3:16. He loves. He gave. We believe. We live.”

It’s simple, yet profound. Everyone knows it, but no one completely understands it. I am neither arrogant enough nor stupid enough to suggest to you that in the next few minutes I am going to accomplish what G. Campbell Morgan never attempted or that I am going to somehow gift to you a full and complete understanding of this most famous of verses. I cannot. However, on this Sunday before Valentine’s Day, I think it is fitting that we take a look at what some have called God’s Valentine.

You can see from your outline that I am going to make six points. Don’t panic, I will endeavor to make them relatively quick. In fact, you can be grateful that I pared the list back a bit, because as I was preparing I generated a list of at least a dozen points. What I want to do this morning is provide us a glimpse into the incredible love of God. The six points I will make are six adjectives of God’s love, each of which, I trust, will enlighten us on a facet of that love.

John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

First, God’s love is Unspeakable. This word means “exceeding the power of speech; indescribable.” The love of God defies words. There are no words we could come up with that would adequately describe God’s love. Frederick Lehman in 1917 used to words to describe just how insufficient words are to describe God’s love. His classic hymn, entitled “The Love of God,” begins this way: “The love of God is greater far/Than tongue or pen can ever tell.” Lehman wrote the first two stanzas of that great hymn, but the third stanza, the one that is perhaps the most poetic and descriptive of the depths of God’s love, apparently has its origins in a Jewish poem written in 1050 AD. The original poem, called the Haddamut, was concerned with the liberty of man rather than the love of God. Later, the words were found scrawled on the wall of a cell in an insane asylum. Whether it was the asylum inmate or Frederick Lehman who changed the words to describe God’s love I don’t know, but I do know that it is a beautiful lyric, one I am sure you have heard:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

John 3:16 begins “God so loved the world…” We use “so” in the English language when we do not know how else to indicate the extreme level of something. When there are literally no words capable of expressing the depth or level of what we are trying to communicate we find the closest word to it and stick “so” in front of it.

When my daughter was just an infant I made up a little song that I would sing to her. I still sing it to her once in a while but now that she is 10 years old apparently it is not very cool for your dad to sing to you, and I am sure she would not approve at all were I to sing it for you today…so I won’t. But the words are simple. It ends like this—“that’s how much I love you/so much.”

2 Corinthians 9:15 in the KJV says, “Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.” The ESV says “inexpressible” gift. The Living Bible puts it this way: “Thank God for His Son—His gift too wonderful for words.”

God’s love is indeed unspeakable.

Second, God’s love is Unearned. John 3:16 says “God so loved the world that He gave…” God gave His Son. It was a gift. There was nothing that I did, nothing that you did to earn it. There is no way that we could ever deserve God’s love or the gift of His Son. His love, His unspeakable love, is so deep, so powerful that it motivated Him to give His Son on our behalf.

Romans 6:23 presents this clearly; it reads, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I like to give gifts. My wife says it is my love language. We all like to receive gifts. But the very idea of a gift is that it is unearned and undeserved. If, when payday comes around, the boss says, “Hey I have a gift for you,” and he hands you a paycheck for the amount of money that you earned, you don’t consider that a gift do you? Of course not. When we receive what we have earned no one is giving us anything. We have not earned God’s love; we cannot earn it.

Third, God’s love is Unimaginable. God’s unspeakable love motivated Him to give us something unearned, and what was that? His Son. His only begotten Son. His one and only Son. There is no greater gift God could have given. There is no way to imagine a love so awesome that He would give His own Son to die in our place so that we would not have to. I am not God, not by a long shot, and for that, by the way, we can all be exceedingly grateful! But I have one son. He is my only begotten son. And I can tell you right now in all honesty and sincerity that there is not one person on the face of the earth that I love so much that I would give my son to die in their place. That is because my love is limited.

God’s love, however, is Unlimited, and that’s the fourth point. There is no limit on God’s love. He gave His one and only Son; there was nothing more He could have given. Unlimited means, at least in one aspect of its definition, that there could never be more. Why? Because the existence of more necessitates a limit. It is very difficult for us to fully comprehend the idea of “unlimited” because everything that we know, everything in this life, has a limit. There is a finite amount to everything. There is an end to everything, eventually. But not to God’s love. There is no more than Jesus Christ. There was nothing more that God could have given.

God’s love is unlimited in another aspect, too, of course. John 3:16 says “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him…” Now I am not going to get into the finer points of Calvinism here; we are not going to talk about limited versus unlimited atonement; if that’s a conversation you want to have I’d be happy to talk to you about it later. The verse says “whoever” and the beautiful thing about whoever is that it has no limit. There is no one not included in whoever. Now the verse does present a condition, right—it says whoever believes in Jesus—but within that condition there is no limit.

Max Lucado puts it like this:

Whoever invites the world to God. Jesus could have so easily narrowed the scope, changing whoever to whatever. “Whatever Jew believes” or “Whatever woman follows Me.” But he used no qualifier. The pronoun is wonderfully indefinite. After all, who isn’t a whoever?

The word sledgehammers racial fences and dynamites social classes. It bypasses gender borders and surpasses ancient traditions. Whoever makes it clear: God exports His grace worldwide. For those who attempt to restrict it, Jesus has a word: Whoever.

I mentioned a few minutes ago that we can all be exceedingly grateful that I am not God, and here is a really good reason why—if I were God, there’s no way there would be a whoever option. Those eligible for my love, my grace, my mercy, my gift, my heaven—that would be a very exclusive list. But not God’s love. His love is unlimited.

Fifth, God’s love is Unfair. At first that no doubt sounds wrong; it does not seem to fit at all with what I have been saying. That’s because we tend to think of unfair as a bad thing. But in our case it is a really, really good thing! We mentioned earlier that God’s love is unearned. That goes right along with it being unfair. After all, if God’s love was fair what would we get? Death. Romans 6:23, remember, says that the wages of sin is death. Death is what we deserve. If God was fair, death is what we would get.

There is another way in which God’s love is unfair. In the first 16 verses of Matthew 20 Jesus tells a parable about the laborers in the vineyard. You probably know the story; the estate owner went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard and he agreed to pay them $1 a day for their labor. We went back out at 9:00 a.m. and hired some more laborers. He did it again at noon and at three o’clock in the afternoon and at five o’clock in the afternoon, not long before quitting time. And when it was time to stop working the laborers presented themselves to receive their wage—what they had earned—and the owner gave the ones who started first thing in the morning one dollar and he gave the ones who he hired at 5:00 one dollar too—and everyone in between. Our immediate human reaction to that parable is summed up in three words: “That’s not fair!” That was the reaction of those guys who worked hard all day, too. And if you want to get hung up on fairness, you’re right…it’s not fair. The owner at the end of Jesus’ parable says, in essence, “I can do whatever I want with my money. I hired you guys at the crack of dawn for a dollar and you willingly came to work. I hired these guys at 9 and these at noon and these at three and these at 5 and I promised them all one dollar. There is nothing unfair in the way I dealt with you…you just don’t like the conditions.”

And the reality is some of us don’t like those conditions, either. I got saved when I was five years old. Someone else could get saved five minutes before they died at age 95 and we would both receive the same grace—we would both be spared from hell and would receive eternal life. That doesn’t seem fair, perhaps, but it’s God’s prerogative and He can dispense His grace and mercy and love as He sees fit.

One last way in which God’s love in unfair. God gave His Son to die in my place and your place. God placed the sins of the world upon His Son, His perfect, sinless Son. Jesus did not deserve that. There was nothing fair about that. One of the greatest promises of the Bible, one of the first ones we turn to in our times of need, is this: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” And yet when Jesus was hanging on the cross, suffering excruciating pain because of our sin, Scripture says He called out with a loud voice… Jesus Christ was forsaken by God. Only temporarily, granted…but He was forsaken nonetheless. That’s not fair.

Finally, God’s love is Unbreakable. John 3:16 says that “whoever believes in Jesus shall not perish but have everlasting life.” There is no question, there is no condition, there is no fine print or exception, there is no hope so when it comes to the eternal life God has promised to those who accept His Son as Savior.

Paul makes this very clear in Romans 8:38-39:

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There is nothing…absolutely nothing…that can separate is from God’s love. It is truly unbreakable. And if you want to discuss eternal security or the preservation of the saints, we can have that discussion later, too.

So…God’s love is Unspeakable, Unearned, Unimaginable, Unlimited, Unfair and Unbreakable. We could go on, but those six adjectives give us an incredible glimpse into the awesome love of God.

Lastly, in closing, notice this. God’s Love Is. It just is. God’s love exists because God exists. There was never a time when it wasn’t and there will never be a time when it will not be. The apostle John, the same one who wrote John 3:16, also wrote 1 John 4:16:

So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love….

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Beware Appearances (Part 2)

Yesterday I looked at the danger of focusing on image enhancement at the church level, a concern raised by John MacArthur in a February Tabletalk article and by Sophia Lee in a December WORLD article. Today I want to address the danger of focusing on image at the personal level.

MacArthur writes, “Worst of all, this attitude is pervasive at the individual level. Far too many Christians live as if a pretense of righteousness were as good as the real thing.”

He goes on to point out that this was the major error of the Pharisees. So true is this, in fact, that the very words “Pharisee” or “pharisaical” are now used to describe someone who is far more concerned with the external than the internal. defines “pharisaical” this way: “practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit; self-righteous; hypocritical.” Hypocrite is probably one of the most common synonyms for Pharisee in any contemporary vernacular. Not exactly anything to aspire to!

The Pharisees’ problem was that they had mastered the art of making, interpreting, creatively bending and then living by the rules. So hung up on rules were they that they greatly added to the Ten Commandments God gave Moses and generated lists of hundreds of rules. So hung up on rules were they that they condemned Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath, condemned His disciples for grinding grain on the Sabbath when they plucked a few heads of grain with their hands while walking through a field. So hung up on rules were the Pharisees that they completely missed–indeed even denied–that Jesus was the Messiah because He did not fit their idea of what/who the Messiah should/would be.

MacArthur writes, “The Pharisees’ teaching placed so much emphasis on external appearances that it was commonly believed that evil thoughts were not really sinful as long as they did not become acts. The Pharisees and their followers became utterly preoccupied with appearing righteous.” Jesus, of course, turned that manner of thinking on its head, making clear that hating someone or lusting after someone is no different than murder or adultery. In other words, thoughts matter just as much as actions! No wonder the Pharisees hated Jesus; He challenged their entire religious system and made clear that all their rule-keeping was for naught.

Few, if any, of us have the same fastidious attention to countless rules that the Pharisees did. That does not mean at all, though, that we are not just as hung up on external appearances. How comfortable we can get carrying our Bibles to church every Sunday and bowing our heads before every meal, deluding ourselves into thinking that surely means we’re doing pretty good. God doesn’t look at that stuff, though; He is far more concerned with our hearts. He made it clear way back when Samuel was anointing a king for Israel that man looks at appearances but God looks at the heart.

What we do matters; do not take anything I am saying here to mean otherwise. James, of course, makes it crystal clear that our faith must be demonstrated by our works. But faith must precede works. The Pharisees saw no need for faith; works was their means to salvation. So we should carry our Bibles and go to church on Sunday, we should tithe and give offerings, we should show love and mercy in our interactions with others, but all of those things must flow out of a heart transformed by the realization that none of that will get us to heaven or earn us anything. We must also grasp that none of those things negate any “secret” sins of the heart and mind. No one else may see or no about them but God does, and He cares about them. They matter to Him.

In MacArthur’s words, the central lesson underscored by Jesus was this: “External appearance is not what matters most.” Let us not forget that.

Beware Appearances (Part 1)

The 2014 issue of Tabletalk from Ligonier Ministries contains an article by John MacArthur entitled “Appearance Is Everything?” MacArthur begins the article recounting a letter received by his ministry from an advertising agency that contained this message: “Let’s face it: appearance is everything. Let us help you enhance your image.” Initially MacArthur thought that the agency must not have realized it was writing to a Christian ministry. After further reflection, though, MacArthur came to this conclusion: “that is precisely the impression many unbelievers get from the state of evangelical Christianity today: appearance is everything.Truth and reality often take a back seat to image.”

That is a sobering thought. When I read it reminded me of something else I read a couple of months ago, so I dug it out. The December 14, 2013 issue of WORLD contains an article by Sophia Lee on the television show The Preachers of L.A. I have never seen the show, but Lee describes it as a reality show on the Oxygen network starring six mega-pastors. According to Lee’s review, “They claim to live for God, His people, and His kingdom. But halfway into an episode, it becomes clear that they are the gods–though they sure do love the people for their adoration, and they’ve built a nice earthly kingdom for themselves.”

MacArthur’s article is not about super-rich pastors of mega churches and I do not intend to turn this post into that, either. Indeed, MacArthur’s focus is more on the appearances Christians tend to present individually in their day-to-day activities. Lee’s article is about the appearance presented by individual mega church pastors but also about the appearance presented by mega churches and parachurch ministries. I would like to address Lee’s point first and MacArthur’s second.

Later in her article Lee mentions three former pastors who now “own a consulting company, called Church Hoppers, which helps struggling churches balance three components: business, marketing and systems.” Interesting, is is not, that the three-fold purpose of this church consulting group includes nothing about biblical principles, sound doctrine or theology. In fact, Lee proceeded to ask one of the partners of Church Hoppers about what they do if the church they are consulting with has a problem that is theological. “We’re not going to go in and try to change their theology,” Lee quoted Jerry Bentley saying. “I think churches are there in the community to meet the community’s needs.” Lee elaborated by explaining that Church Hoppers exists to “help churches give ‘customers’ what they want.”

First of all, there is a real problem when “customers” is the word used to refer to or think of individuals attending church or considering attending a church. This mentality is what led to much of the error of the seeker-friendly movement. This mentality is what leads many churches to put food courts and bookstores and other “amenities” within the confines of the church. Food courts and bookstores and playgrounds and coffee shops are not wrong in and of themselves, I might add, but the motivation for including them must be questioned. Churches need to plan and design their ministries first and foremost based on what people need, not what they want. After all, what people need and what people want are polar opposites if you believe in the total depravity of man. In their sin nature no one wants to hear sermons about sin or hell or the need for a Savior. That is exactly what sinners need, though.

I feel quite certain that the Apostle Paul would have run the other way had anyone suggested to him that he should consider improving his image, that he should carefully consider what the “customers” were looking for. Paul, after all, received the message loud and clear, on numerous occasions, that what he was offering was not what very many people wanted. He never wavered in his mission, though, because he was all about pleasing God not pleasing people. He was so committed to that mission that after being stoned and left for dead he got up and walked back into the town! I rather doubt market analysts would recommend that response.

Church Hoppers focuses on “business, marketing and systems.” I would suggest that churches focus instead on the Basic Message of Salvation. When churches remain faithful to the Word of God they will have effective ministries and their church will grow. The church may not grow in attendance, in offering, in building size or in publicity, but those are not the measures of an effective church. Therein, of course, lies no small part of the image problem–image isn’t really worth much. After all, some of the largest, richest, flashiest and most well-known “Christian” ministries are teaching things and promoting things that are contrary to the Word of God (and not teaching things that are in the Word of God, I might add).

I should state that I am not anti-image. In fact, appearance does matter, I think. I believe that churches and Christian ministries should be good stewards of what the Lord has entrusted them with, and that includes presenting and maintaining a clean, well-cared for and pleasing physical plant, regardless of whether it is new or old, big or small, expensive or cheap. So do not read this to indicate that I oppose nice buildings, comfortable seats, attractive decor or well-manicured lawns. I do not…not by a long shot. Quite the contrary, in fact, I think that Christian ministries should present very impressive appearances if by “impressive” you mean worthy of respect. But the impressive appearance should come as a result of doing all things to the glory of God, not as a result of bringing glory to ones self or ones ministry. When that becomes the motivation the impressive appearance becomes an idol.

Let us remember the old adage that appearances may be deceiving, and appearances must not be where our focus lies.

Next time I will address the appearances MacArthur writes about, the appearances on the individual level….

The Debate

On Tuesday, February 4 an historic event took place in Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati. It was attended by more than 800 people and it was viewed live through Internet streaming by more than one million. Odds are, you already know what I am talking about. As I skimmed through comments on Facebook last night after the event was over it seemed that many people were referring to it simply as “the debate.”

The Debate was just that, an intellectual exchange of ideas between Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” and Ken Ham, co-founder and CEO of Answers in Genesis. Nye is an evolutionist and Ham is a young earth creationist. Their debate, at the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum, was over the question of whether or not creation is a viable model of origins in today’s scientific climate. To no one’s surprise, Ham believes it is while Nye believes it is not.

No doubt many individuals far more articulate than I will dissect the various arguments and elements of the debate, and no doubt from both sides. I can assert with equal certainty that individuals on both sides will also no doubt make derogatory comments about the individuals and the arguments on the other side, though history bears evidence that far more of these will come from the evolutionist side than the creationist side. I will leave the analysis of most of the nitty gritty details to others, and I do not intend to call anyone names.

On the contrary, I would like to commend both Mr. Ham and Mr. Nye for their willingness to engage in such a public exchange of ideas, placing themselves literally and figuratively in the spotlight on an international stage. Regardless of one’s convictions, beliefs and training, being on the spot, live, in front of millions, tasked with defending a belief system held strongly by millions as their sole at-the-moment spokesperson is not a position many people would envy or be willing to assume. The event no doubt benefited both men and the organizations of both men. Answers in Genesis, for example, reported more than two million visits to its web site in the month leading up to the debate. So sure, publicity was no doubt part of the motivation on both sides. I do not believe, however, that it was at the heart of either man’s willingness to participate in the debate.

As Albert Mohler pointed out in his blog post today, “Nye was criticized by many leading evolutionists, who argued publicly that nothing good could come of the debate.” Criticism is never pleasant, and when it comes from your own camp it is even less so. Kudos, then, to Bill Nye for his willingness to stand on a stage beside one of the world’s leading apologists for the biblical account of creation, and to do it on the creationist’s home turf.

The debate was well planned, well executed and–in a rarity for many debates these days–well moderated. Ham and Nye were civil to each other and respectful. Nye even told Ham after Ham’s initial presentation that he had learned something. (Interestingly, he never said what that something was, though, and it may well have been that Ham holds even crazier ideas than Nye originally thought).

I am a young earth creationist, as is Ham, and I believe that God created the world in six literal, 24-hour days. Odds are good that if you have ever read my blog before that you already knew that. If you are a newcomer, there you go–full disclosure, I agree with Ham. Actually, if you want truly full disclosure, I am a charter member of the Creation Museum and have supported both the museum and Answers in Genesis financially. So it will come as no surprise that I agreed with what Ham said in the debate and disagreed with much of what Nye said. That I went into the debate with my mind made up puts in no small company, though; the same can be said of both Ham and Nye as well as many, if not the majority, of the folks who watched the debate. As Mohler wrote, “If you agreed with Bill Nye you would agree with his reading of the evidence. The same was equally true for those who entered the room agreeing with Ken Ham; they would agree with his interpretation of the evidence.” No one expected Ham or Nye to be convinced by the other or to change his mind. Neither, I suspect, did either man expect to change the mind of the other. One thing that came through loud and clear in the debate is that reason will not change the minds of individuals devoted to either position. Sure, there may be people who have not made up their mind either way, and they may have been swayed, but the debate was more a presentation of data and dogma than an effort to win votes or converts. Ham, by the way, admitted that he would never change his mind, since his beliefs are rooted in the Word of God. Nye suggested that he would if evidence was presented to sway him, but he almost simultaneously stated that such evidence could not exist, so his seeming openness to change was not entirely legitimate.

There were a couple of things that the debate made clear to me that I will comment on. One is that Bill Nye has apparently never read the Bible. His comments about it, and his apparent shock when Ham stated that some of the Bible is history, some poetry, etc, served as proof positive that he is, at best, unfamiliar with the Word of God. One point in favor of those with a biblical worldview is that they are willing to listen to and even study the other side in their defense of their faith.

Two, Nye’s own comments made it clear that the evolutionist position relies just as much on faith as the creationist position does. There were at least two times during the question-and-answer section of the debate when Nye responded to a question by saying, “We don’t know.” Translation: no proof exists for what he believe on this issue, we just believe it. Interesting, given how strongly Nye and others on the evolution side of the argument criticize Ham and those on the creation side for clouding their understanding of science with “beliefs.” Ham made the point early in the evening that the evolution position is just as much a “religion” as the creation position; I never heard Nye comment on that statement.

Three, Bill Nye seems scared to death that schools might actually consider allowing creation to be taught in schools, or at least allow evolution to be questioned or “critically examined.” There were times during the debate when he sounded like a political candidate, appealing to voters to save the United States from falling behind in the world. This was not a new position for Nye; in a widely-seen video Nye made last year he said of those who believe in the creation position, “[I]f you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can—we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.” In other words, Nye is suggesting, if you believe in the biblical account of creation you cannot be an intelligent, practicing scientist. You cannot accomplish great things within the scientific community. This position was why Ken Ham made such a point of quoting, mentioning and even playing video clips from accomplished scientists who hold to the creationist viewpoint, including the inventor of the MRI machine. I confess, initially I wondered why Ham kept including these references and dwelling on this point, because it did not seem to be a major tenet of the argument to me. As Nye went on though it became increasingly clear that it is a crucial part of the argument and Ham knew what he was doing. Oddly enough, perhaps, it had never occurred to me that someone would think that if you believe the Bible you cannot also be good at science. How naïve of me!

Albert Mohler concluded his blog post this way: “The central issue last night was really not the age of the earth or the claims of modern science. The question was not really about the ark or sediment layers or fossils. It was about the central worldview clash of our times, and of any time: the clash between the worldview of the self-declared ‘reasonable man’ and the worldview of the sinner saved by grace.” I really could not say it any better. Nye insists he is reasonable, and by default that Ham is not (nor are those who believe as he does). Interestingly enough, the Bible describes godly wisdom as “reasonable.” James writes, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). I am thankful that Ken Ham demonstrated wisdom from above in his debate with Bill Nye; my prayer is that Bill Nye will come to know that reasonable wisdom from above some day, too.