jasonbwatson

February 10, 2017

Deep Preaching

Christianity Today published some months ago a 64-page booklet entitled “The State of Church Ministry in America, 2017.” The note from the managing editor indicated that it was a special guide from CT‘s new resource, CTPastors.com.Now, I am not a pastor but for the past five years I have filled that role on many Sunday mornings for a number of churches. In addition to that, I have been a faithful church attendee just about my entire life and I have heard literally thousands of sermons preached. So, while I found a number of the articles in the booklet insightful, one that struck me as compelling was entitled “Deep Preaching in a Distracted Age” and was written by Matt Woodley, a missions pastor in Illinois and editor of PreachingToday.com.

Woodley’s thrust was how pastors can stay focused themselves and “capture people’s attention and keep it long enough for God to do his work”. I am going to take some of what he shared in the article as background, though, and focus instead on why deep preaching is so incredibly important.

Woodley writes that he sometimes has the spiritual attention span of a minnow after quoting poet Denise Levertov who wrote in one of her poems, “I stop to think of you [Lord], and my mind at once like a minnow darts away into the shadows.” Levertov and Woodley are not alone. A May 2015 article in TIME was entitled, “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish,” and focused on a Microsoft study that revealed that most people lose focus after eight seconds. The world we live in feeds this rapid-fire, short-attention phenomenon. We communicate in text messages that we keep so short we cannot even use proper grammar or punctuation, quick status updates on Facebook, tweets on Twitter and scrolling headlines along the bottom of the news or sports channel.

According to a Smithsonian.com article in September 2016 approximately 27% of Americans had not read a single book in the previous twelve months. That is despite the fact that, according to Woodley’s article, an American on social media is exposed to 54,000 words every day. That is the equivalent of a 180-220 page book depending on font and margin sizes.Think about that: the average American on social media is exposed to the equivalent of a short book every day but more than a quarter of them do not read one complete book over the course of a year!

Woodley determined that the best way to counter this distractability is to go deep. I agree. He writes, “In a distracted, outraged, shallow culture, people begin to hunger for something rare: the focused, balanced, deep. Because we chronically distract ourselves, we crave depth. Deep preaching is our best chance to change lives.” I could not agree more.

I have no problem with a short devotional thought or even an occasional brief sermon. In general, however, it is clear that far too many Americans are spending far too little time going deep with God on their own–meaning we need to take them there while they are at church. An April 2015 post on the Preachers and Preaching blog from The Master’s Seminary cited a poll that indicated that the most common sermon length is between 20 and 28 minutes. I find that alarming–especially given that so many American Christians now go only to Sunday morning services. When I grew up we were in church Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. Now I will grant you that I cannot identify anywhere is Scripture that it says three services a week are required–or that Sunday school is. I do not think it is coincidental, however, that as Americans have become busier and more distracted the number of churches with Sunday evening and mid-week services has decreased and the depth of spiritual knowledge has declined. Even the interest in spiritual things has declined I dare say.

I think churches that are serious about the spiritual maturity of their members need to take seriously the importance of longer, more meaningful services–and sermons in particular. Of course there does come a point at which attention spans can diminish even when the speaker is engaging and the topic is exciting, but that point should easily be well beyond the 25 minute mark. College courses are typically taught in 50 or 75-minute blocks. Movies tend to be about two hours in length. There is no reason a pastor should not be able to command the attention of a congregation for 40-50 minutes easily. After all, there is nothing more important in the world than the subject he is teaching about, nothing more important the congregation could be doing than growing in their knowledge and understanding of God.

As I said, I preach regularly. The church where I have preached most consistently over the past five years has made it clear that I need not worry about time, and I have appreciated that. They take seriously the privilege of learning God’s Word. Not only do I tend to preach longer than the average (40 to 50 minutes is probably my typical sermon) but I usually address very small portions of Scripture when I preach. Once in a while I will do a topical message but my preference is certainly verse-by-verse expository preaching. An August 2013 article on The Christian Post cited a seminary student who argued for “shorter, more viral sermons,” around 18-minutes long. The individual claimed that if pastors would follow the example of Jesus’ own teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount, they would keep their messages shorter and tighter. That struck me as ironic because I spent eighteen messages going through just Matthew 5–which represents only the first of three chapters that include the Sermon on the Mount. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, which is basically a written version of his own teaching on Matthew 5-7, runs nearly 600 pages long!

The Bible is practical and relevant to our lives. It is also deep, profound and at times difficult. It cannot be learned well in twenty-six hours a year (fifty-two thirty-minute sermons).

Pastors should not be long just for the sake of being long. No one wants fluff or space-filler or jokes or meaningless stories. But the Word of God is rich, powerful, deep and practical. Good churches should seek–dare I say demand–good preachers who spend the time necessary to understand and teach the Bible deeply, powerfully and practically. It can be done. I suspect pastors will even find that once people get past the initial unfamiliarity of deeper preaching that they will long for it. Just a couple of weeks ago I was teaching a Sunday evening class that was scheduled to go for 45 minutes. At the end of the allotted time I had not finished what I wanted to teach–partly because of questions and partly because there was so much to teach–and I asked if we should wrap it up or keep going. The consensus was keep going and not one person left. We went another thirty minutes. Now that was a one-time thing, but it proves the point that people do want meaningful teaching. They want to understand God’s Word and to know Him better.

Let this be a plea for deep preaching!

January 25, 2017

Authentic Christianity

Recently my family and I visited Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. I had been there before but my children had not. I had explained to my son ahead of time that there was something unique about the exterior of the house. It appears to be made of stone, but it is actually wood. Through a process called rustication, the wooden plans that side the house are cut with beveled edges periodically and then, while the white paint is still wet, fine sand is thrown onto the wood. The result is that it gives the appearance of stone blocks. This is both creative and effective, and for the purposes of architecture there is nothing wrong with it. However, it got me thinking about other things that are not what they appear to be–and specifically about the times that I cause myself to appear to be something other than what or who I am. As I pondered this I began to consider what it means to practice authentic Christianity.

If you google that phrase you will find plenty of hits. There are books and sermons by that title as well as plenty of blog posts and articles. I found a number of thoughts that were particularly helpful for me.

In one such message, titled “Authentic Christianity,” Steven Cole tells a story that was contained in a 1984 issue of Reader’s Digest. A bishop who had just had a cup of tea with a parishioner commented, “I’m glad to see in what a comfortable way you are living.” The churchgoer replied, “Oh, bishop, if you want to know how we really live, you need to come when you’re not here.”

That is funny, of course, but it is also true. How many times do I straighten things up and do my best to create the right appearance when there will be company coming over–particularly company whom I want to impress? Maybe that is no big deal really, but it is a big deal when we do the same thing with our lives, living differently at different times depending on who is around and whom we are trying to impress.

In that same message Cole said, “Unfortunately, a lot of Christians live that way, keeping up a good front to impress others with their spirituality. But if you knew how they really live, you’d find that they are faking it. They don’t live as authentic Christians.”

Several years ago Megan Hill wrote an article in Christianity Today about authenticity, with the subtitle “Do we Christians even understand what the buzzword means?”

In that article she suggested five principles for being an authentic Christian:

  1. Authenticity proclaims the reality of the Gospel – “Being authentic means that God and His Word define what is real,” she wrote.
  2. Authenticity doesn’t excuse sin. She writes:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s phenomenally popular Eat, Pray, Love was the memoir of a woman seeking an authentic life. Its first page bears the motto: “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.”

But for Gilbert, living authentically includes adultery, hedonism, blasphemy, and so on.

Gilbert’s type of authenticity is easy for Christians to reject. Her sins are “obvious.” But are we on guard against more subtle sins? …

Selfishness, love of men’s praise, lack of joy can all lurk, undetected, around our authentic edges.

  1. Authenticity seeks the good of the Body. “We live transparently, not to unload our own burdens and thus walk more lightly alone, but to intentionally share the burdens of others and carry them to the same grace that liberated us.”
  2. Authenticity honors wisdom. “Christians seeking to be authentic rightly value humility. We recognize that we are broken. But sometimes, in our quest to avoid the appearance of pride, we question our God-given ability to shine the light of wisdom.”
  3. Authenticity points ahead to a perfected future.

John Piper once said in an interview,

Here is the big issue: How do you go about living the Christian life in such a way that you are actually doing the living, doing the acting, doing the willing and yet Christ, or the Holy Spirit, is decisively doing the living and doing the acting and doing the willing in and through your acting and willing and doing? …

[W]hen I stood behind that pulpit, I wanted to preach by the Spirit. I wanted to preach in the strength that God supplies. I wanted to preach in a way so that I could say: “Not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (I Corinthians 5:10). I didn’t want to get up there and do nothing. It is my job. I am supposed to preach. I must preach. And yet the devil can preach. People can preach without the Holy Spirit. But that is not the Christian life.

Someone has said, “Sincerity is the key to success. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made!”

But we have no business faking Christianity. The Bible is full of passages that tell us what authentic Christian living really is and looks like. Consider the Sermon on the Mount, the fruits of the Spirit or Paul’s writing about the new life in Christ in Ephesians 4 and 5 for starters.

So, food for thought from two perspectives:

First, am I examining myself and striving to live an authentic Christian life? We are not “playing a role.” I recently read a dual-biography of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. When I finished I told my wife I enjoyed it but if she wanted to continue to think of them as the lovable characters from The Andy Griffith Show I would not recommend reading it. Both men were tortured individuals with deep personal demons. They were, of course, actors–and very talented ones. That is what they were paid to do and they did it well. But we, Christians, are not to be actors. We are not to “play the part” of a Christian at certain times or put on certain appearances. We are to be like Christ.

Second, are we teaching our students, our own children, our co-workers and colleagues, friends and fellow church members, to pursue authentic Christianity? We do not want them to throw sand in wet paint, so to speak. We want them to be genuine, authentic Christians.

August 30, 2016

Built into your bones

I recently finished reading Yeonmi Park’s autobiography In Order to Live. Park was born in North Korea and eventually escaped to China–where she found her mother and herself in the hands of a human trafficker. After some time they were able to make their way to South Korea. The book is an interesting read and an insightful firsthand account of life in the Hermit Kingdom, but that is not what I am going to address here. Something Park wrote, though, jumped out at me. As she was describing all of the things that she learned upon arriving in South Korea that were contradictory to what she had been taught from infancy about the incredible power of the Kim family, she wrote this:

It’s not easy to give up a worldview that is built into your bones and imprinted on your brain like the sound of your own father’s voice.

Park’s point was that even though the things she had been taught about North Korea in general and the Kim family in particular are, once you know the truth, absurd, it was difficult for her to come to terms with that at first because of what had been taught to her for so long. It had been taught by her father–and her mother–and it had been taught so long and so often that it was embedded in her. It was as she said, built into her bones and imprinted on her mind.

Now in the case of Park she was taught something that was not true and therefore the result was dangerous and debilitating. But the example still proves an excellent one for the power of teaching children from an early age. God knows this, of course, and that is exactly why He told the Israelites so many times that they were to teach their children about Him–who He is and what He has done. They were to teach them young and teach them often. It was not to be confined to the Sabbath or to special occasions, but to be an everyday part of their lives. The most familiar example comes in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which reads:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The Hebrew word translated “diligently” in verse 7 above is shanan, which literally means to whet or to sharpen, like a stone, a knife or arrows. Strong’s Concordance says the word figuratively meant “to inculcate.” That is precisely what God had in mind when He gave this instruction to the Israelites and it is precisely what had happened to Yeonmi Park. Inculcate means, according to dictionary.com, “to implant by repeated statement or admonition; teach persistently and earnestly.” Is synonyms are “instill, infix, ingrain.” God instructed His chosen people, and His people still today, to teach their children from an early age and with such frequency and insistence that they become inculcated with the truth.

Here is how some other translations render Deuteronomy 6:7:

  • You shall teach them diligently to your children [impressing God’s precepts on their minds and penetrating their hearts with His truths] (Amplified Bible).
  • and tell them to your children over and over again. Talk about them all the time… (Contemporary English Version)
  • Repeat them to your children (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
  • You must teach them to your children (Living Bible)
  • Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children (The Message)
  • Impress them on your children (New International Version)
  • Repeat them again and again to your children (New Living Translation)

I think you get the point. Instilling a biblical worldview in children–an understanding of the world and all that is in it based firmly in the truth of God’s Word–does not happen by accident or by a one-time or even once-in-awhile instruction. It takes intentionality, repetition, consistency and perseverance. In his commentary, Joseph Benson says the verse means to teach God’s truths to children “so as that they may pierce deeply into their hearts.” Matthew Poole says the exact same thing. I like how the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges puts it though: “make incisive and impress them on thy children; rub them in.”

One of the reasons I like that in particular is that rubbing it in requires contact. It requires being up close and personal. Rubbing it in cannot be done from afar. It cannot be done only by words or by pointing the child to a book. No, rubbing it in means getting right there beside the child, rubbing shoulders, bearing burdens, opening hearts, sharing honestly, apologizing when necessary, correcting when needed.

This instruction from God to teach children consistently about Him is not limited to the Israelites nor to the Old Testament. It appears repeatedly throughout Scripture. There are multiple instances in Deuteronomy, but here are some other examples, though not an exhaustive list:

  • O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. (Psalm 71:17)
  • We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:4)
  • Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
  • Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)
  • Teach these things and make sure everyone learns them well. (1 Timothy 4:11, TLB)
  • But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

3 John 4 says, “I could have no greater joy than to hear that my children are following the truth” (NLT). I agree with that sentiment. In keeping with the thought shared by Park, I cannot imagine any greater joy than knowing that when my children think about God’s truth it is my voice they are hearing. Oh Lord, grant me the discernment and yieledness to parent my children according to Your Word, teaching them Your way and your Truth.

August 19, 2016

Would you like a receipt?

I have a pet peeve. More than one probably (like most people), but one of my biggest is when I use the “pay at the pump” feature at a gas station, select “yes” when it asks if I want a receipt, and then there is no paper to print the receipt. Sometimes nothing happens, sometimes the screen says something like “Clerk has receipt.” Either way, the result is that I have to walk into the gas station if I want my receipt. And I almost always want my receipt–either because I used a debit card and I need to remember the amount to deduct it later and/or I want to make sure the charge was correct. The entire purpose of paying at the pump, however, is avoiding having to go inside. In the grand scheme of life, this is really not a big deal, but it does irritate me.

One day not too long ago I had one of these experinces at a local gas station. I think I may have already been perturbed about something else anyway, but when the machine failed to print my receipt I was walking toward the building to get it, muttering to myself and vowing that I was going to let my irritation be known. “You know me having to come in here comepltely defeats the point of having a pay at the pump option!” I planned to say. “Would it be that hard to go out there and put mor ereceipt paper in the machine?!”

When I walked inside, though, I took one look at the lady working behind the counter and recognized her as someone who attends the same church I do. Immediately my irritation and planned tirade was replaced by the realization that I had to smile, ask how she was doing and say thank you when she handed me the receipt–for two reasons. One, she knew who I was and knew other people I know, so I had to be civil lest she tell other people what a jerk I was and what a rotten attitude I had when I came into the store, thus damaging my reputation. Two, she also knows I profess to be a Christian, so I needed to maintain decent behavior in order to avoiding tarnishing my reputation and/or the reputation of the ministry where I serve.

All of this went through my head in less than a second but I pondered it more later and realized how absurd it is to straighten up and behave myself because I am interacting with someone I know, yet I was fully prepared to unload both barrels if the person behind the counter was a stranger to me. For one thing, it would be quite possible that they knew who I was even if I did not know them; I have found this to be a regular phenomenon in the samll community in which we live. I am recognized frequently, either by name or by my position at the school. So, the two reasons identified above were still possibilities.

Even if the worker did not know me, though, my responsibility as a Christian is to show love, kindness, patience, gentleness and self-control to everyone I meet. I may, frankly, be even more important when interacting with non-Christians, since my attitude and behavior, if they find out I am a Christian, could taint their opinion of all Christians–and of Christ. Jesus made it clear in Matthew 5 that His followers are to be salt and light. When I act in a way that is not consistent with how Christ has called me to live I lose my saltiness, I hide my light under a bushel or a bowl. Jesus said such salt is good for nothing butto trampled under foot. I am to let my light shine so that others can see my good deeds and glorify God. My interactions with others–every one of them–are opportunities to spread salt and light in a dark and rotting world. Being polite-even kind–to a strenger may make his or her day, may provide some encouragement, may be the only posiitve interaction they have that day (especially if they work at a gas station and the pump printer is out of receipt paper and there are other customers who get as irritated by that as I do!). Too, being kind and polite may not do any of those things. The stranger may not even notice, or may be grumpy in response for whatever reason. It really doesn’t matter. We are not called to be salt and light only to other Christians or only when there is paper in the pump printer (in other words, only when things are going our way). Instead, we are called to be salt and light, to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit, all the time to everyone–because that is what Christ calls us to do.

July 28, 2016

Battling Porn

This post contains mature content that may be offensive to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

Pornography is not topic that many people are comfortable talking about in an honest and forthright manner. Many people do not like to talk about it at all–at least not many people outside of a locker room or frat house gathering. For many years the church was not willing to take about it at all in any constructive manner, by which I mean saying anything beyond “it’s bad, don’t do it” (or something even more directly threatening and minimally helpful). That has changed some in recent years with Stephen Arterburn’s The Every Man Series of books, Clay Crosse’s honesty in his 2005 book I Surrender All: Rebuilding a Marriage Broken by Pornography and others. In my November 6, 2015 post Not-So-Good News I explained that the announcement that Playboy would no longer publish nude images in its magazine was good news but actually indicative of the ease with which nudity and all manner of sexual activity is now available to just about anyone just about anywhere thanks to the internet. That post also addressed some of the high costs of pornography.

In April 2016 TIME ran a cover story on the subject entitled “PORN,” with the “o” depicted as a red circle with an X in the middle of it. Belinda Luscombe’s article was subtitled “Why young men who grew up with Internet porn are becoming advocates for turning it off.” The article consumed five-and-a-half pages of the magazine (not including a two-page photo and headline introducing the story) and included a graph showing that there were 58 million monthly U.S. visitors to adult internet sites in February 2006, which equated to 34.7% of all U.S. internet users. Broadband internet had just reached 50% of Americans that year. in January 2016 there were 107 million monthly visitors to adult internet sites, accounting for 41.3% of all U.S. internet users. The graph also showed that in 2009 there were 22.3 billion video views on the adult video-sharing site Pornhub. In 2015 that number was 87.8 billion. In 2016 Pornhub launched a virtual reality channel.

I already told you what TIME‘s cover said for the April 11 issue. The cover page of the article, though, reads this way:

Porn and the threat to virility.” The subtitle says, “The first generation of men who grew up with unlimited online porn sound the alarm.” The lead to the story introduces Noah Church, “a 26-year-old part-time wildland firefighter in Portland, Ore. When he was 9, he found naked pictures on the Internet. he learned how to download explicit videos. When he was 15, streaming videos arrived, and he watched those. Often. Several times a day, doing that which people often do while watching that genre by themselves.

The article then informs the reader that it did not take too long before those videos no longer aroused Church as much as they used to, “so he moved on to different configurations, sometimes involving just women, sometimes involving one woman and several guys, sometimes even an unwilling woman.” Church stated that he could find anything he could imagine as well as plenty that he could not imagine. Eventually the appeal and arousal from those diminished as well, and “he moved on ot the next level, more intense, often more violent.”

This is a truth that has been too often ignored over the years–that pornography is like a drug. Plenty of studies show that it has a similar effect on the brain as drug use and that, over time, the effect is diminished, requiring the user to find something stronger and more arousing in order to get the same result achieved previously. In other words, porn works just like gateway drugs which progress to stronger and more dangerous ones. Can use of porn eventually result in death, like a drug overdose? No. It could, I imagine, result in the user killing someone else as a result of acting out what was seen in the pornography or seeking to achieve a thrill by making what was fantasy a reality. I think there are a number of such stories that could be found with little effort.

The TIME article goes on to explain that when Church finally had the opportunity to “have actual sex” during his twelfth-grade year, his body would not respond. “There was a disconnect between what I wanted in my mind and how by body reacted,” he said. That was the segue into the article’s discussion of PIED–porn-induced erectile dysfunction. I had never before heard of this term or condition but, unlike some new medical diagnoses that seem to be fancy made-up terms that serve as excuses for something that is simply a matter of a lack of discipline or some other easily-corrected behavioral issue, this seems to be legitimate. I can easily imagine how regular, increasingly-graphic and extreme exposure to pornography can have a very real impact on the brain and, thus, on the rest of the body.

Luscombe describes the PIED progression like this:

A growing number of young men are convinced that their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic–more prone to permanent change–than in later life. These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning. The results of the experiment, they claim, are literally a downer.

While there are more publications–Christian and secular–openly addressing the dangers of pornography now, there is still confusion and conflicting information. The increasing availability of studies and professionals willing to address the dangers of porn are countered by plenty of studies and professionals willing to state the opposite. Just last November, for example, Dr. Sandra LaMorgese posted a blog on The Huffington Post that included the following:

Studies have shown no increase in rape or other sexual deviance due to porn viewing. There is also no apparent connection between excessive porn viewing and sex addiction. In fact, it might be good for you if used properly: a 2008 Danish study found that moderate porn watching gave viewers some benefits. Both men and women who did so said they had more satisfying sex lives and healthier attitudes towards sex and the opposite gender. One interesting find was that the more hardcore the videos were, the more positive the person’s view on sex tended to be.

Now, LaMorgese’s byline includes the, shall we say interesting, description that she is “Author, Podcast Host, Sexpert, Metaphysician, Keynote Speaker, Holistic Practitioner, Ordained Reverend” so maybe her thoughts on The Huffington Post are not the best source. Fair enough. How about this from TheHealthSite.com in February 2014:

In the last decade or so, it’s become quite fashionable for people to throw around big words like dopamine addiction and blame everything from the rise of sex crime to erectile dysfunction on porn. However, research suggests that sex addiction is not similar to cocaine or alcohol addiction, in fact there’s no proof that it reflects any unique brain-related issue at all. A study which looked to prove sex addiction was an illness, actually found the opposite. A new study claims that there really is no such thing as porn addiction and those who say it actually ignore the positive benefits of porn. The study has found very little scientific data to suggest that porn actually even causes any negative side-effects. ‘There was no sign that use of pornography is connected to erectile dysfunction or that it causes any changes to the brains of users,’ explained David Ley, a clinical psychologist and executive director of New Mexico Solutions – a large behavioural health programme.

In a 2010 post on the Psychology Today web site entitled “Pornography: Beneficial or Detrimental?” the findings of a 2008 paper written by Gert Martin Hald and Neil M. Malamuth are summarized like this:

In their survey of 688 young Danish adults (men = 316; women = 372), Hald and Malamuth found that respondents construed the viewing of hardcore pornography as beneficial to their sex lives, their attitudes towards sex, their perceptions and attitudes towards members of the opposite sex, toward life in general, and over all. The obtained beneficial effects were statistically significant for all but one measure across both sexes. Now here is the kicker: A positive correlation was obtained between the amount of hardcore pornography that was viewed and the impact of the benefits reaped. This positive correlation was found for both sexes. In other words, the more that one watched porn, the stronger the benefits (for both sexes)!

And, in a 2012 opinion piece for The New York Times Candida Royalle began with the statement “Watching pornography is not inherently harmful to men or women.” She went on to provide some potential benefits derived from the use of pornography before also saying of sex or porn addiction, “I don’t believe in it.” In the same online debate in which Royalle offered her opinion, Ana Bridges, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas played Tevye by writing, “Can pornography harm users? Yes, in some cases it can, but in the vast majority of cases it does not. Can pornography be beneficial? Absolutely, but many times it is not.” In the same debate, Mireille Miller-Young, an associate professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, headlined her opinion piece “Pornography Can Be Empowering to Women Onscreen.”

I mention all of this to make sure that we understand that, despite the increasing prevalence of voices opposing porn and exposing its negative effects, there still are–and always will be–those who say that’s all a bunch of baloney and porn is harmless and worst and beneficial at best. We can never hope that the world is going to reach the conclusion that something that sin is sin. In my previous blog post linked above I stated that “only a heart change can cause someone to realize that genuine relationships with real people are more meaningful and more satisfying than the fake interactions made possible through porn.” That remains true. There may be movements within the world that oppose porn and offer solutions for porn addictions, and those can be beneficial. Luscombe’s article provides a number of examples, describing “online community groups, smartphone apps and educational videos to help men quit porn” all of which are being created by men who have traditionally been “from the same demographic as [porn’s] most enthusiastic customers.” Noah Church, with whom Luscombe led her article, now “devoted about 20 hours a week to trying to help others eliminate porn from their lives.” Such efforts are admirable. Porn is not going to go away, and if you are a firm believer in free speech you may have a hard time even arguing that it should, but there are still reasonable means for limiting its availability. Luscombe describes one such effort coming from Utah state senator Todd Weiler, who said, “We’ve changed how we’ve approached tobacco, not by banning it but by putting reasonable restrictions in place.” There are reasonable ways to limit the access of pornography from public places and to minimize the exposure of children and teenagers to pornography.

Even then, though, there will be real work for the church to do. There will still be a need for candor and uncomfortable conversations. There will still be a need to find ways to help those struggling with porn be willing to acknowledge that and work through it. There will need to be a change from the judgment and condemnation that has traditionally been associated with any discussion of this topic.

The articles in the August 2016 issue of Tabletalk magazine are devoted to the topic of addiction. They are not dealing specifically with porn addiction, but the principles and recommendations in the articles are relevant. The first article is by Ed Welch and is titled “Addictions and Idolatry.” His article begins like this:

“I want”–addictions start here. Then, though small steps, want becomes need. There is no recognized definition of addiction, but most of its proposed definitions share a common core. Addictions are compulsive searches for a desired object or state of mind that are generally unresponsive to the inevitable harmful consequences of those compulsive searches. Most definitions also include how addictive behaviors change underlying brain patterns.

That explains why porn is so prevalent and is not going away. The word says that sexual pleasure brings happiness and satisfaction and porn is one way to achieve that “desired object or state of mind.” Welch later writes that “We are able in Christ to do battle with old slavemasters rather than succumb to the inevitable.” Heath Lambert, in another article in the Tabletalk issue, writes, “God has made provision for enslaved addicts to follow a better master who brings freedom from slavery.” In yet another article, Michael Morales writes, “God’s Word calls us to flee our natural lusts, which would shackle us again, and to make every effort to progress in sanctification.” He goes on to explain, “The ‘putting off’ aspect relates to deliberate and disciplined mortification of sin, requiring both vigorous effort and sacrifice,” while “the ‘putting on’ aspect relates to training in godliness, the intentional replacement of corrupt habits with God-honoring behavior.” My post Besetting Sins from earlier this month talks about these issues as well, and includes discussion about how to overcome sin.

May we who profess the name of Christ become bold in our willingness to acknowledge and confront issues like pornography and do it in a loving but uncompromising manner. May God grant us the willingness and surrenderedness to defeat sins like porn addiction and replace such “compulsive searches for a desired object or state” with “training in godliness” and “the intentional replacement of corrupt habits with God-honoring behavior.”

July 14, 2016

Besetting Sins

This past Tuesday, Major League Baseball held its annual Midsummer Classic, the All Star Game. I am a big baseball fan and I love watching the ASG. This year the game was played in San Diego, so there was understandably a lot of celebrating the life of Tony Gwynn, often called Mr. Padre. Gwynn played his entire career with the Padres and then, after retirement, was the baseball coach at San Diego State University, his alma mater. He was a (relatively) local guy (born in LA) who became a hero for the local team. Gwynn was well-liked, a fierce but clean competitor who worked hard and gave his best. He was a 15-time All Star and an eight-time batting champion, ending his career with a lifetime average of .338 and 3,141 hits. Perhaps most amazing of all–he never struck out more than forty times in a season over his twenty-year career. By all accounts he was also a devoted family man. He was a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame, receiving over 97% of the vote. When he was inducted in 2007 I was in the crowd–because he went in with my favorite player, Cal Ripken, Jr. Both Gwynn and Ripken had clean images, clean careers and played their entire careers for their local team. Derek Jeter may well become the last player to be join the HOF having played his entire career with one team when he is inducted, but I can just about guarantee that there will never again be two players inducted in the same year who played their entire careers for one team.

I wanted to give Gwynn his just due, but this is not really about Gwynn ultimately. Instead it is about the example that Gwynn sadly left–an an example that was clearly described in a USA TODAY article in the July 11, 2016 issue. In it, Gwynn’s 2014 death from salivary gland cancer is described. His daughter Anisha is quoted in the article saying, “We tried so hard over the years to get him to quit [using chewing tobacco].” Their efforts were in vain, however. According to the article,Gwynn’s last days were unpleasant to say the least:

Gwynn had growths removed from his cheek in 2001 and 2007 and was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. He had surgery, only for the cancer to return two years later. Again in 2013, the cycle of tumors, surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy treatments started anew. Then came the seizures. Ultimately, Tony Gwynn Jr. said, there was an inoperable brain tumor.

Gwynn was in and out of the hospital for the last two months…the right side of his face paralyzed, his right eye taped shut at night so he could sleep and a walker required for him to leave the house….

Still, the article also states this: “Gwynn refused to listen, still dipping after all the tumors, seizures and radiation treatments, up until the day he died.”

As someone who has never smoked or used tobacco in any way that was hard for me to imagine when I read it. Then. though, I began to think about how I am the same way–as are so many of us. We have a natural tendency to keep doing those things we like even when we know we should not. That is really what sin is, after all–behavior from which we, for whatever reason, derive happiness, contentment, pleasure or satisfaction.By definition sin is coming short of God’s perfect standard of holiness and righteousness. Sin is missing the mark. We sin, though, because we want to. Sin is a choice we make, and it stems from pride, from wanting to do things our own way even when we know we should not. The first sin was committed when Satan tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit by telling her that it would make her like God. That was a lie, of course, but Eve thought yielding to the temptation would result in pleasure or satisfaction that would not come by obeying God’s command. And that, whether we like it or not, is why we all sin today.

Thanks to the sin of Adam and Eve we are all born with a sin nature, and when we behave in the natural we do things our own way–read, not God’s way. Everyone one of us is guilty of sin; the Bible makes that explicitly clear. Thankfully, God loves humankind enough that He sent His Son Jesus to pay the just penalty for our sin, and that forgiveness is available to all who accept His sacrifice in their place. Then, sin is forgiven and bondage to sin is severed. Some people like their sin too much, though; they do not want to repent of their sin and give it up because they think that the benefits of the sin are worth it–the pleasure and satisfaction sin provides outweighs the consequences they think. Or maybe they simply deny that the consequences of sin exist, though I assure you they do. God told Adam that if he and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit they would die and they did. They died spiritually immediately and physically eventually–and death entered the world.

Still, some–sorry, all–who accept Christ continue to sin. The frequency and severity of that sin should diminish over time but it will never go away completely. Even the apostle Paul described, in Romans 7, that he continued to do those things he did not want to do and did not do those things that he did want to do. I did not know Tony Gwynn, but I suspect it would be true that he wanted to stop chewing tobacco in a rational, detached way but he could not do it because he was hooked. Like a fish jerked from the water by a hook implanted firmly in its cheek, Gwynn was hooked on tobacco. Whether it was the flavor of it, the feeling it provided or just the act of doing it, Gwynn could not stop. In an of ourselves, none of us can. Sometimes, even when we know in a rational, detached manner that we should, we keep doing it anyway.

So what do we do about this persistent sin?

In a 2008 column in Christianity Today Kevin Miller wrote that God can still work through our “unconquerable imperfections.” Pondered Miller, “Could it be that our frustratingly persistent sins, which abound, lead us to a greater awareness of God’s grace, which so much more abounds?” Sure, that could be. However, Paul also made it abundantly clear (in Romans 6) that we are not to continue sinning in order to produce more of God’s grace. The fact that God will forgive our sins is not permission to keep committing them.

Miller also suggested that persistent sin can produce humility. “So when struggling with persistent sin, take heart. God is at work, and even your persistent failings may work to your good and his glory. Let yourself be humbled by your falls.” That, too, is true; when we keep doing those things we do not want to do we should be humbled by it, frustrated by it and grieved by it. “Wretched man that I am!” Paul laments in Romans 7:24.

This past May Gavin Ortlund wrote, on the Desiring God web site, the following:

Many Christians struggle with “nagging sins” — those entrenched, persistent, difficult-to-dislodge sins that continually entangle us in our efforts to follow Christ. Sometimes we struggle for decades, with bouts of backsliding and despair recurring. Most godly Christians, who have made true progress in their pursuit of holiness, can sing with feeling “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” or share the lament of Augustine: “I have learned to love you too late!”

I appreciate the way Ortlund stated this because he reminds us that even godly Christians struggle with sin. Like Paul did. Ortlund does not leave it at that, however. He goes on to provide four steps for eliminating those nagging sins from our lives. The first of those steps is simple: hate it.

I have no reason to believe that Tony Gwynn hated chewing tobacco. Quite the contrary, in fact. I have no reason to believe that Lot hated the sin he was surrounded by in Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, until his angelic visitors were in danger of being gang raped by an angry crowd we have no indication that he hated their sin at all. Even then Lot offered his virgin daughters to the mob. And when the time came for Lot to get out of town before its destruction, Lot “lingered” according to Genesis 19:16. Even after Lot and his family are dragged from the city by angels Lot pleads with them to let him go to the little city of Zoar rather than flee to the hills, and more than a few scholars and commentators think Lot was referring to the fact that Zoar’s sin was not as great as that of Sodom and Gomorrah. We are all good at rationalizing sin and thinking it is not as bad as someone else’s or some other sin we could commit.

The next thing Miller said must be done is to starve sin. Gwynn kept dipping. That means, necessarily, that he kept acquiring it, keeping it handy, having it at the ready when he wanted it. We do ourselves no favors when we say we want to stop a specific sin but we keep putting ourselves in situations to yield. Recovering alcoholics don’t hang out in bars, for example. Matthew 18:9 says that if the eye causes on to stumble the eye should be gouged out. That is a dramatic and unquestionably clear reiteration of the idea of starving sin.

Ortlund goes on to talk about cornering sin and overwhelming sin. That last part, thankfully, we need not do on our own. In fact, we cannot do it on our own. In Romans 7:18 Paul writes, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” Bad news… The good news is in the previous chapter, where Paul writes, “But you have been set free from sin…” (6:22).

The point of this is not to pick on Tony Gwynn. I am just like him. To my knowledge he was not a believer. But his life, which ended with him continuing to use the product that killed him right up until the day that it killed him, is an excellent example of where we will go if we try to live life in our own strength. We will continue to do that which harms us, trading the ultimate consequence for the temporary pleasure. May Gwynn’s demise be a lesson to us that we must hate and starve our sin, yield to the work of the Savior in our lives and overwhelm that sin which so easily besets us.

June 13, 2016

ὑστερέω

Back in 1992 I was thinking I was pretty big stuff. I was starting to drive and I was making some money. I had a paper route that I did with my brother, rising far earlier than any other kids I knew at school so that I could deliver my papers, get home, shower, watch SportsCenter and get to school in time for my early bird classes–a voluntary class period offered before the start of the regular school day. I also did some yard work for a few customers, mostly mowing, and seized other opportunities that came along to make some extra money. Then I got a part-time job working at the local drug store, which I did in addition to all of the above. My expenses were minimal and I had a goal in mind.

I wanted my own car. Not just any car, mind you. Despite not really being much of a “car guy”–when it came to the mechanics of an automobile I knew very little and even basic auto maintenance was beyond me–I had somehow developed a fondness for Porsche cars. I do not remember where that originated, or even when, but I knew I liked them. On the rare occasions when I would see one on the road it always caught my eye. I knew what I wanted and I was going to work hard and get it.

After a few years of the paper route, innumerable miles walked behind a lawn mower, driveways shoveled after snow storms and lots of change counted back to customers at the drug store I had accumulated a nice savings account. On top of that, I was a well-behaved young man, earned excellent grades and spent most of my free time playing sports or reading books. The most trouble I had ever been in was a police officer telling me I had to obey all traffic laws after I had failed to stop my 10-speed bicycle at a Stop sign coming home from work one day.

So, shortly after I turned 16, I went to the bank and withdrew my hard-earned $4,296.17 (including interest earned for letting it sit there!). I borrowed the family’s Chevy station wagon–you know, the one with the lining of the ceiling held up with thumb tacks–and set off for the Porsche dealer. There was not one in our town so I had to drive a ways to the big city to get there. I got a few looks when my dark blue wagon pulled onto the lot, but I didn’t care; I knew I would soon be saying goodbye to that car forever.

I walked into the showroom and there is was: a beautiful 911 Turbo S. It was a metallic navy blue, shiny chrome on the wheels and the spoiler was up, just how I liked it. I walked around the car and admired it from every angle. I think I avoided having drool spill out of the corner of my mouth, but it had to have been close. This was the car I had dreamed of and here it was. Behind me a sharply dressed man approached and said, less politely than I would have imagined from a Porsche salesman, “Can I help you?”

“I expect so,” I responded. “I am here to buy this car.”

“Is that right?” he said, the less-than-polite tone seeming to become even less polite, yet somehow mixed with a bit of incredulity.

“Yes it is,” I responded. “I have been dreaming of this car for a few years now, and I have worked hard and I am ready to make it mine.”

“Young man,” he said, “do you know how much money it would take to buy this car?”

“No I don’t,” I said. “I thought that was why you’re here.”

He smiled, but not a friendly smile. More of a you think that’s cute, kid? smile. “The list price on this car,” he then said in measured words, “is $118,935.”

I had been smiling up to this point, I am sure. Ear-to-ear smiling probably. But the smile disappeared in an instant. Somehow this caused his smile to grow wider. “Not quite what you have with you?” he asked, clearly condescending now.

“No,” I replied. “Not even close. But I have worked extremely hard for what I have. I have earned excellent grades in school, I have stayed out of trouble and I have saved every penny I could because I want this car. I have Porsche posters on the wall of my bedroom and pictures of Porsches in my locker. My favorite t-shirt has the Porsche logo on it and look,” I said, pulling it out of my back pocket, “so does my wallet.”

“That’s all very nice,” the man said, “but none of that matters much. We do appreciate your affinity for our automobiles, of course, but that does not entitle you to drive one.”

“But I have been telling everyone about this Porsche,” I told him. “Everyone! I can tell you the length of it, the wheel base, the horsepower! I know the name of the engineer who designed the original engine. I have been waiting, hoping and longing for this day. Anytime someone asked me I told them I was going to buy a Porsche! I have worked as hard as I can to save this money–almost $4,300. You can’t send me away without that car…”

“I’m afraid I can,” the man replied. “The money you have there is far short of what is required. You would need about twenty-five times more money than you have there to purchase this car. Your efforts are commendable, I suppose, but you’ve simply come up short. Waaaayyy short. Now I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

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The story above is just that–a story. There are elements of truth to it; I really did have those jobs, for example, and I really did have a police officer fuss at me for not stopping my bike at a Stop sign. I also am not a car guy, yet I do have a fondness for a Porsche 911 Turbo–especially with the spoiler up. But I am wise enough to know that I could never purchase one with forty-three hundred dollars. The point of the story is to (inadequately, I acknowledge) illustrate the meaning of ὑστερέω. That is a Greek word, rendered hustereó in English, that means “to fall short.” HELPS Word Studies says “This state of lack (insufficiency, privation) naturally results when a person misses out on what is vital.” I my story above I had missed out on the vital realization of exactly how much a Porsche would cost. But that same word appears in Romans 3:23, which says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (ESV).

The Voice paraphrases the verse this way: “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” The standard God has is perfection. Absolute holiness and righteousness. Ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the garden we have all been born in sin and, try though we might, we cannot ever come close–not even one twenty-fifth as in my story above–of that standard. It does not matter how good we are, how hard we may work, how many people we tell about God, how many t-shirts or car magnets or wrist bands we have with crosses or fish symbols or John 3:16 on them. All of that combined and multiplied exponentially would still leave us infinitely short of God’s standard. Of our very best efforts the Bible uses some very vivid language–and not in a complimentary way, either! The cleaned up, suitable for polite conversation version says that all of our efforts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

Romans 6:23 tells us that the just due for our sin is death–eternal separation from God. The good news is that that same verse tells us that the gift of God–the free gift which no one deserves but which all can receive–is the eternal life. In other words, God has set an impossible standard that none of us can meet, but He has also provided a way for it to be met for us. He did that through His Son Jesus, who died on the cross in our place as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23, KJV).

That would be, by way of pathetic example, as if the salesman in the story above looked at my savings and said, “You’re not even close to being able to pay for this car. However, because I love you, I will give it to you.”

God has looked at each and every human being and said, “You are ὑστερέω. You are not even close. You could do your very best from now until you die but you will be no closer then than you are now. You simply cannot do it. It is not possible. However, I love you. And if you will accept my love, acknowledge your own inadequacy and fallenness, and accept the sacrifice of my Son on your behalf, I will give you eternal life anyway. You cannot earn it, and you do not deserve it, but I will give it to you…because I love you.”

That is the wonder of God’s love.

May 30, 2016

Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a day set aside in the United States to remember those who have given their lives in service to our country—who have served in the Armed Forces to protect the freedoms that we enjoy as citizens of the United States of America. It is, to borrow words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

I grew up just a few miles outside of Washington, D.C., and as someone who loves politics and U.S. history I have always loved much of what that city has to over. I have taken my children into D.C. several times, and they enjoyed it too, for the most part, though they did grow tired of all the walking. Most anyone who visits Washington, D.C. will see several of the most recognizable monuments in the city: the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial and the World War II Memorial. There are many others in D.C. and in other places around the country—particularly in places of historical significance. Visiting these monuments with my children provided me with an opportunity to tell my children about why the monuments had been erected, about the people and events they were there to remember and honor and about the freedoms we enjoy because of them. That, of course, is exactly why the monuments are there.

I am not going to write about the monuments to important events in our nation’s history, however, nor about the sacrifice that has been paid by the men and women who have served in our military and given their lives in defense of our nation. Instead, I want to talk to you about a spiritual memorial day of sorts.

I want to first take a look at several examples of monuments or memorials that God used in Scripture to remind His people of important truths or promises–to help them to remember those things because we are, in the natural, quite prone to forget. After we look at these examples I want to identify for you three areas where I think we should be creating memorials or reminders for ourselves and for our children.

First, the biblical examples:

* Perhaps the most prominent example is the rainbow. See Genesis 9:8-17 and note the repetition of “sign” and “remember”
* Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan River and God instructed him to take twelve stones and create a monument specifically so that future children would be prompted to ask about them, thus giving parents an opportunity to tell their children what God had done. See Joshua 4:1-3, 6-7, 21-24
* The Passover was designed to create a memorial for the Israelites to remember how God had spared His people and led them out of captivity. See Exodus 12:14
* Easter, as well as the fact that Christians worship on Sunday rather than Saturday, are memorials to the resurrection of Christ, which is the most important event in the Christian faith
* Communion, or The Lord’s Supper, is designed to cause partakers to remember the love of God, manifested in the gift of His Son who died in our place. See 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Now, those are five biblical examples of memorials or monuments whereby God provided direction for remembering important events and promises. It is quite fair to say, then, that the use of symbols and monuments is appropriate and that they are not dishonoring to God in any way. (Provided, of course, that they do not become idols). Take, for example, the cross. Here is what Max Lucado has written about the cross:

The cross. Can you turn any direction without seeing one? Perched atop a chapel. Carved into a graveyard headstone. Engraved in a ring or suspended on a chain. The cross is the universal symbol of Christianity. An odd choice, don’t you think? Strange that a tool of torture would come to embody a movement of hope. The symbols of other faiths are more upbeat: the six-pointed star of David, the crescent moon of Islam, a lotus blossom for Buddhism. Yet a cross for Christianity? An instrument of execution?
Would you wear a tiny electric chair around your neck? Suspend a gold-plated hangman’s noose on the wall? Would you print a picture of a firing squad on a business card? Yet we do so with the cross. Many even make the sign of the cross as they pray. Would we make the sign of, say, a guillotine? Instead of the triangular touch on the forehead and shoulders, how about a karate chop on the palm? Doesn’t quite have the same feel, does it?

Why is the cross the symbol of our faith? To find the answer look no farther than the cross itself. Its design couldn’t be simpler. One beam horizontal—the other vertical. One reaches out—like God’s love. The other reaches up—as does God’s holiness. One represents the width of his love; the other reflects the height of his holiness. The cross is the intersection. The cross is where God forgave his children without lowering his standards.

How could he do this? In a sentence: God put our sin on his Son and punished it there.

2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The cross, then, is a monument, a memorial, a symbol that reminds us the God loves us—that He loved us enough to send His only begotten Son to pay the penalty of sin in our place that we could never pay. We do not, by the way, use a crucifix, because we know Jesus is alive. Yes, His death is significant and meaningful, but I He had died on that cross and stayed dead, we would be without hope.

So, I said I was going to share three areas where I think we should be creating memorials or reminders for ourselves and our children. The first is the one I just shared–the love of God, the gift of His Son, the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. We cannot overemphasize that love or that atoning sacrifice. I am not suggesting that you must wear a cross necklace or hang crosses in your home or anything else, but I am suggesting that we have a responsibility to remind ourselves and—if we are parents, to remind our children—regularly of the love of God and the gift of His Son.
In an article published just before Valentine’s Day 2015, entitled “Remembering the Unquantifiable Love of God,” Christina Fox wrote,

But real love isn’t something you can measure. The love God has for us is beyond numbers and can’t be tallied. When God promised to bless Abraham with countless children, he used the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore as a metaphor. These are things people simply cannot count. Paul described the love of Christ as surpassing knowledge (Ephesians 3:19). And the psalmist wrote, “Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds” (Psalm 36:5).

God’s love for us goes farther than even time itself, into the deep recesses of eternity past. It stretched all the way from forever, forward to the cross, and will continue into eternity future. “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:4–5).
His love for us is a love that doesn’t hold back. His love gives everything, to the point of sacrificing his very own Son. At the cross, the perfect eternal love of the triune God was shown most vividly as the Son bore all our sins for us. This is unquantifiable, immeasurable love.

We have opportunities at church, opportunities with communion, opportunities when we forgive, when we explain justice and mercy-—we have opportunities around us all the time, every day, to recognize, remember and celebrate the love of God.

The second area where we need to conscious of creating reminders or memorials is in what God has done in our lives. Each of us has stories and instances of God working in our lives, through the circumstances we have experiences, the trials we have endured, the valleys we have passed through, to see God at work and to experience His grace, His comfort, His mercy, His strength, His patience, His faithfulness. We need to be intentional about remembering those instances—and willing to tell others about them.

In Luke 8 Jesus heals a man indwelt by many demons—so many that they call themselves Legion. He casts them out of the man and into a herd of pigs. In verse 38 of that chapter we read that man who had been freed of the demons begged Jesus that he might stay with Him. But Jesus sent him away, and in verse 39 it says that Jesus said to him, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And what happened next? The verse finishes, “And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.”

Now, you probably do not have a testimony so fantastic as being freed of a legion of demons. Neither do I. And frankly, for a long time, I thought that my story, my testimony, any examples of what God had done for me, were pretty boring. But that’s simply not true. Any of us—all of us—can tell others of what Jesus has done for us. It may not be dramatic, it may not incredible, it may not be the stuff of a made-for-TV movie, but the simple reality is that if you have accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior, you have a miraculous testimony. The almighty, sovereign God of the universe gave His Son to die in your place, and you are now forgiven, set free from sin, and destined to spend eternity in heaven with Him. That is miraculous!

Stephen Altrogge wrote an article entitled, “If you don’t have a dramatic testimony.” In it, he recounts feeling the same way I did—that his testimony is nothing exciting. He grew up in a loving family, was a pretty good and did not do anything terrible from which, or out of which God saved Him. That may make your life story less exciting from a human standpoint, but it is really all the more reason to be grateful and thankful to God. Altrogge writes:

Don’t be disappointed that you don’t have a gripping, over-the-top testimony. Don’t feel like you somehow missed out. Will you get to tell your story in front of large audiences? Probably not. But that’s a good thing. Be grateful that God spared you from the heart-breaking, soul-wrenching consequences of some sins. Be grateful that God saved you before you could wreck your life. Be grateful that you’re not carrying years of baggage around with you.

Those with incredible testimonies may have greater opportunities to tell their stories to larger audiences, but everyone one of us can tell others about what God has done for us. The story of our salvation itself may not be dramatic but every believer has a story of how God has worked in our lives, of how God has provided peace, provided direction, provided comfort…

Let me ask you a question—–could yousay that one or more of these describes you or where you have been at some point in your life: By the grace of God you still alive; delivered from committing suicide; delivered from addictions; no purpose in life—-felt hopeless, lost, no meaning; in the midst of incredible despair, turmoil or uncertainty and you had no idea what was happening or why, but God sustained you and brought you through; you thought you had everything figured out and God told you to do something else that made no sense from an earthly standpoint; you found strength and peace in the midst of incredible physical, mental or financial difficulty… If any of those are true of you then you have a story, you are a monument, a memorial to the faithfulness and goodness of God, and you can and should tell others what God has done in and through and for you.

The third and final area in which we need to create memorials and reminders is the way that God has worked in and through others. The Scripture is full of stories of how God has done marvelous things in the lives of those who follow Him. Look what He did with Job, with Moses, with Noah, with Daniel, with Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, of Gideon, of Esther, of David, of Peter, or Paul, of so many others—those are encouraging to us because they are examples of how God works in and through fallen, fallible human beings in order to shape us to be who and what He wants us to be and to do what He wants us to do. We should study and know those stories because they are reminders to us.

At the same time, there are many other examples post-Bible times, of how God has worked in incredible ways through very ordinary people. Some of the great individuals of Christian history–Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther, George Muller, William Carey, Jonathan Edwards, William Wilberforce, Hudson Taylor, Charles Spurgeon, Amy Carmichael, D.L. Moody, Corrie Ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jim Elliot, Joni Eareckson Tada, Chuck Colson, and so many more. In the day and age in which we live, there are people being persecuted for Christ every day-—and we can pray for them, we can know their stories, we can find encouragement and strength and courage and hope in their willingness to stand firm in their faith even when doing so costs them their life. In Hebrews 11 we see a long list of individuals who accomplished great things for God because they obeyed “in faith.” Paul often referenced other believers in his writings. It is not the purpose of Paul or the writer of Hebrews to hold those people themselves out as examples, but rather to serve as reminders–as monuments or memorials–of what God can do in and through ordinary, fallen individuals who get out of their own way and obey God, following His direction and leading in their lives.

For the child of God, every day can be–every day should be–memorial day.

March 21, 2016

The Triumphal Entry

Today is the day on the calendar that we call Palm Sunday. It marks the beginning of what is often referred to as Holy Week or Passion Week, and it is the day on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheers and accolades of the masses. It is often recognized with excitement and celebration—but I would suggest to you that it really was not. The ultimate end of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem would be cause for excitement and celebration, because the ultimate end would be, one week later, when He rose from the grave having defeated sin and death. For that reason we can recognize this day with celebration. On the day in question, however, only Jesus understood that that was what was coming. If we look at the triumphal entry from the perspectives of the various groups of people who were present on that day we will actually come away with a feeling quite unlike excitement and celebration. And frankly, when we really look at those various groups of people, we may find ourselves staring face to face with ourselves—or at least ourselves as we are and act at various times in our lives.

So we will unpack that idea more momentarily. Let us begin by setting the scene for what takes place on Palm Sunday. We could dwell on many aspects of this text but I am going to skip over some of them because they are beyond the points I want to examine here. John 12:1-2 tells us that six days before the Passover Jesus and His disciples arrive in Bethany. This was the hometown of Mary, Martha and Lazarus and it was very close to Jerusalem—two miles or so. This was where Jesus had performed perhaps His most famous miracle—raising Lazarus from the dead. They had a meal for Jesus here and Lazarus was one of those individuals reclining with Jesus at the table.

Jump to verse 9. Here we see that word got out that Jesus was in town and a large crowd flocked to see Him—and to see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. Now John says that the people wanted to see Jesus and Lazarus, but I think it stands to reason that the real appeal was to see them together. This was where Lazarus lived, so if the crowds wanted to see him in particular they could have done so almost any time. But now Jesus, the man who raised Lazarus, is in town again and the opportunity presents itself to see both the miracle and the miracle worker.

Verses 10 and 11 tell us that the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death because, verse 11, “on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.” Now what about this word believe that we have here? This sounds like a wonderful thing, right—Jews by the dozens are flocking to Jesus and believing in Him. I would suggest to you that this is not as wonderful as it appears. The Greek word is pisteuó, and it means “to believe or have faith in.” However, the HELPS Word Studies explains this important detail: the word is “used of persuading oneself (= human believing) and with the sacred significance of being persuaded by the Lord (= faith-believing). Only the context indicates whether pisteúō (“believe”) is self-serving (without sacred meaning), or the believing that leads to/proceeds from God’s inbirthing of faith.” I think, based on what is about to happen in the following verses, that many of those who were “believing” in Jesus at this time were doing so in the self-serving sense. They recognized a man who could do incredible things—literally, miracles—and they wanted to be on His side. They also, no doubt, wanted what He could do for them.

Just a few chapters earlier, in John 6, we see Jesus feeding the 5,000 and then walking on water. The people were thrilled and wanted to make Him their king. But in verse 35 of that chapter Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” and proceeds to explain the plan of salvation. What happens then? In verse 42 we read, “They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I came down from heaven”’?” Jesus proceeds to teach them further and then, in verse 66, we read, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” Why did they no longer follow Him? The phrase translated “from this time” means, basically, “as a result of.” In other words, because of what Jesus said, they said, “Forget this. I’ve had enough of this. This is not what I had in mind.” They were following Jesus because of what He could do for them and because of their earthly Messianic hopes, which involved defeating Rome and returning Israel to the Jews.

Now, go back to John 12 and look at verses 17 and 18. Here we see that those who had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead were still talking about and spreading the word and, as a result, verse 18 says, the crowd went to meet Him—or to see Him. There was a procession now, with Jesus coming into town riding on a donkey, and the crowds wanted to see Him. These people were impressed by the idea that Jesus could raise someone from the dead. No doubt they had also heard of many of His other miracles, including healing the sick, the blind, the lame; of feeding the massive crowds of people with a handful of food. This, they thought, could be the one who was going to lead them out of their Roman captivity!

The people, as Jesus entered Jerusalem on Sunday, began waving palm branches and carpeting the road with branches and their own clothing. The palm branches were plentiful in the area and they were often used at festivals and celebrations as a symbol of joy and victory. The people were thrilled that Jesus was coming. Now, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey. The most important significance of this is that it fulfilled specific Old Testament prophecy saying that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem on a colt. There may be other significance, primarily symbolic—with the colt being a symbol of peace rather than a horse, which would more likely represent a military conqueror.

The people wanted something more like a military conqueror because they wanted a Messiah who would free them Roman oppression. But that was not Jesus. The people were shouting “Hosanna!” which literally means, in English, “Save now.” The salvation they had in mind, though, was temporal and material, not spiritual and eternal. We know the “belief” of most of these people was not sincere because, within just a few days, their cries of “Hosanna!” will be replaced instead with cries of “Crucify Him!”

Now, let’s look at a second group, the religious leaders of the day. These individuals were furious with Jesus and determined to put Him to death. Why? Because they were losing their power and their influence. Look back at John 12:9-11. We see here that because so many people were flocking to Jesus the leaders determined to put Lazarus to death as well—meaning they were planning to kill Lazarus and Jesus. In verse 19 we see the attitude, the revealed heart, of the Pharisees—they are lamenting that “the whole world has gone after Him.” This implies that there were masses of people going to celebrate the entry of Jesus and therefore leaving the leadership and influence of the Pharisees—and they found this unacceptable. They were realizing that they should have followed the advice of Caiaphas. Look back at chapter 11, verses 45-53. The words of Caiaphas here seem to allude to the death of one man—Jesus—saving a people or a nation, and therefore alluding to the salvation made possible through the death of Christ. That, however, is not what he had in mind at all. He was expressing that Jesus—whom the Pharisees viewed as stirring up sedition and anti-Roman thoughts among the people—should die so that He did not succeed in leading a rebellion which may result in the Roman army killing all of the Jews in response and, more practically for Caiaphas, in the Pharisees losing their power and influence.

This second group of people is perhaps the group with which we are most familiar and the group whose motives are easiest to discern from a first reading of the text.

Let us look at one last group of people in John 12:42-43. Apparently there were those, even among the Jewish leaders, who truly did believe on Jesus. We know, of course of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, but they did not reveal publicly their faith until after Jesus had died. What we see in these verses is that they remained silent about their faith because they feared the response and retaliation from the other Jews. They loved the position, the power and the influence they had and they were unwilling to give that up. Back in John 9:22 we see that the rulers had determined that anyone who acknowledged Jesus would be excommunicated, thrown out of the synagogue. These leaders knew the truth, and the accepted it apparently, but at this point only secretly.

So we see three groups of people among the crowds on the first Palm Sunday. We see those who were impressed by what Jesus could do and were following Him because of what they thought they could get out of it. They imagined free food, free health care, a throwing off of the Roman oppression. Reflect on your own life for a moment. Are you ever guilty of following Jesus or of seeking Jesus just for your own benefit? Do you look to Him only when you want or need something, expecting that He will come through and provide what you want, when you want it, but you ignore or reject the hard parts of His teaching, the parts about dying to self and serving others?

Next, we looked at two different groups of leaders responded differently to Jesus but for the same reasons. The majority of the religious leaders were so mad that the people, who had always been under their influence and control, were leaving them to go follow Jesus that they wanted to kill Him. If they could just get rid of Jesus they could continue to live life the way they wanted, to do things the way they wanted. There are many people in the world today, and have been many people throughout history, who have denied God, wished Him dead or claimed He was no longer relevant, because then there would be no one to whom they were accountable and they could do whatever they wanted to do—especially if they were ones in power and positions of influence and control.

The second group of religious leaders accepted Jesus, but they would not tell anyone because of what they thought it would cost them. They already had the prominence, the position, the influence that the world could offer and they did not want to give it up. They wanted to keep the riches and glories of this world while also claiming those of the world to come, of the heavenly kingdom. Take a moment to reflect. How many times do you—do I—not speak up and claim the name of Christ because we are afraid of what others will think? Because we are concerned about the social, political or professional repercussions of being known as “one of them”? Jesus Himself said, recorded in several of the gospels, “What good will it do for a man to gain the whole world yet lose his soul?” There is nothing that this world has to offer us that could possibly come close to the promise of what is waiting for us in eternity if we know Christ as our Savior. We must not allow the fear of man to keep us quiet about Him!

Interestingly, those religious leaders who wanted to kill Jesus were the most honest of the three groups we have seen here. They were opposed to Jesus and they were completely upfront about it. The first group professed to follow Jesus but their following was self-centered and not sincere. The third group believed Jesus but would not admit that they did. It was a sincere but silent and secret faith. There are many today who fit those two groups. Many who profess to be Christians are following after Jesus only because of what they think they can get out of it—because of what they think He can do for them. Many others may have a sincere belief in what the Bible teaches about Jesus, about sin and salvation, but they believe in silence, preferring to keep their faith to themselves so as not to reap unpleasant consequences of making that belief known. Scripture makes it clear that God is not pleased with that kind of faith.

There was a fourth group of people present that day, and that was those who truly were followers and disciples of Jesus. Even many of them, however, were unaware of what was really happening. In verse 16 we see that explained to us, as John writes, “His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about Him and had been done to Him.”

Here is why the Triumphal Entry is such good news, despite the mixed bag of people who were present that day. It is good news because Jesus knew exactly what was coming…and He went anyway. Luke 19 tells us that as Jesus approached and saw the city of Jerusalem He wept over it. Why? Because He knew the response of the people that was coming. Despite the fact that they were about to welcome Him with shouts of adoration and celebration, he knew that they would reject Him. As they were celebrating the Passover feast, remembering the escape from physical death for those who had applied the blood to their doorposts when the angel of death passed over Egypt, they were preparing to reject that sacrificial lamb who would free them from eternal death and separation from God. He was weeping because, as Scripture tells us, He is not willing that any should perish. He knew both that most of those in Jerusalem were about to reject Him, and He knew that many throughout history would reject Him, refusing to accept the free gift of salvation made possible through His obedience to God’s plan, His death on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and His resurrection from the grave, proving victory over hell, death and sin.

Jesus knew what was coming and He went into Jerusalem anyway. Look at the end of John 12 – verses 44-50. Verse 44 says that Jesus cried out. This implies that He was making a public proclamation in a loud voice, likely addressed to the crowd that had followed Him. In the preceding verses we see that the people’s unbelief was revealed. Jesus is now proclaiming the consequences of believing in Him and of rejecting Him. Jesus makes it clear that believing in Him, or rejecting Him, was believing in, or rejecting, God the Father. He makes it inexplicably clear that they are one. These few verses seem, really, to be Jesus summing up all that He had done during His earthly ministry. He explains that He has done what He has done, and taught what He has taught, because it is what God the Father determined for Him to do. The audience hearing Him here was left without excuse. He made clear to them, unmistakably clear to them, that He was the Son of God and that believing in Him brings light and life, rejecting Him brings death and darkness.

We too are without excuse. Indeed, Romans 1 tells us that all humankind is without excuse. Of the groups of people we have seen here, which are you? Are you following Jesus just because of what you think He can do for you? Are you following Him but keeping it yourself, fearful of what others may think or what the consequences may be if your faith is known? Have you rejected Him, preferring to do your own thing and live your own life how you want? Or have you truly accepted Him, received the gift of salvation made possible through His life, death and resurrection? My hope and my prayer is that you are in that fourth group. If you are not, I urge you to examine your heart and your life and to get right with God. Verse 48 of John 12 says, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” You have received the truth and you are now accountable for it. You are without excuse.

For those who have accepted Christ, Palm Sunday truly is a celebratory day because we know that Jesus, recognizing and knowing full well what was before Him and the painful death He was about to endure, went ahead anyway. He obeyed. He entered Jerusalem to give His life for you and for me.

February 26, 2016

God’s Unbreakable Love

Filed under: Biblical Worldview,Spiritual Growth — jbwatson @ 9:43 pm
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A couple of years ago I posted a message I had preached on the love of God, a message I had entitled “God’s Love Is.” in that examination of John 3:16 and the characteristics of God’s love, I ended with the point that God’s love is unbreakable. I said that there is nothing…absolutely nothing…that can separate us from God’s love. I drew this from the closing phrase of John 3:16, which says, “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.

To reinforce this point I also looked briefly at Romans 8:38-39, and I want to unpack that verse a bit more here as a follow up. As you read this text, ponder carefully the words:

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.

Now read it again from The Living Bible, because hearing or reading it a different way can sometimes reinforce a point or reveal something you did not notice the first time.

For I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from his love. Death can’t, and life can’t. The angels won’t, and all the powers of hell itself cannot keep God’s love away. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, or where we are—high above the sky, or in the deepest ocean—nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God demonstrated by our Lord Jesus Christ when he died for us.

Depending on your translation, verse 38 begins with “I am persuaded,” “I am convinced,” “I am sure.” This word meant, in the original language, a strong and unwavering confidence or certainty. So Paul is saying, in other words, “I have no doubt whatsoever—I am 100%, absolutely, positively, no doubt about it, sure that nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

At the risk of bringing you crashing down from that spiritual mountaintop, let me give you two important points before I unpack these verses a bit more, because they are full of such profound truth that we cannot miss it. First, you must always remember that the unbreakableness (if that’s a word) of God’s love has nothing to do with you and everything to do with God. You and I are not expected to maintain our connection to God’s love, nor can we. We are fallen sinners and, even after salvation, we continue to sin. That we are still loved by God is not because we are so wonderful, certainly not because we deserve it, but because God chooses to love us.

Finally, the fact that God’s love is unbreakable and nothing we can do can separate us from that love is not permission to sin. The fact that we could never mess up so badly that God would stop loving us does not mean that what we think and how we act does not matter. Galatians 6:9 says that we are not to grow weary in doing good. James 2:26 says that faith without works is dead. Hebrews 13:16 says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Ephesians 2:19 reads, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” And Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

I think it is also worth noting that just a few verses earlier, in verse 28, Paul said “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” In verse 35 Paul rattles off another list of things that his readers might think could separate them from the love of God–or be evidence of their separation from the love of God. He writes this: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” Then in verse 37, the verse immediately preceding the two verses we looked at last time and began with here, Paul answers that question like this: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Now, did Paul know a thing or two about suffering and persecution during his lifetime? Absolutely. We know, from Scripture, that Paul was stoned and left for dead. He was beaten with rods three times. Five times he received thirty-nine lashes with a whip. That was the maximum number allowed by Roman law, and it was so violent and severe that there are many instances of people dying from those whippings. Paul was attacked by an angry mob. He had to be lowered over a wall in a basket in an order to save his life. He was shipwrecked and floated at sea for hours. He was bitten by a poisonous viper. He was under house arrest for two years without ever facing a trial. So Paul knows that of which he speaks!

John Calvin commented on this passage this way: “He is now carried away into hyperbolic expressions, that he might confirm us more fully in those things which are to be experienced. Whatever, he says, there is in life or in death, which seems capable of tearing us away from God, shall effect nothing….”

Alexander MacLaren, a 19th century Irish minister, had this to say about Paul’s list:

The Apostle begins his fervid catalogue of vanquished foes by a pair of opposites which might seem to cover the whole ground-’neither death nor life.’ What more can be said? Surely, these two include everything. From one point of view they do. But yet, as we shall see, there is more to be said. And the special reason for beginning with this pair of possible enemies is probably to be found by remembering that they are a pair, that between them they do cover the whole ground and represent the extremes of change which can befall us. The one stands at the one pole, the other at the other. If these two stations, so far from each other, are equally near to God’s love, then no intermediate point can be far from it. If the most violent change which we can experience does not in the least matter to the grasp which the love of God has on us, or to the grasp which we may have on it, then no less violent a change can be of any consequence.

Rev. Rodney Kleyn addressed this passage in a sermon by recounting a story he had heard that made abundantly clear to him the power of God’s love, and I think it bears repeating since it could indeed help to grasp just how comprehensive the love of God is:

I heard an illustration in a sermon preached on this verse from one of our older ministers. That was ten years ago. It stuck in my mind. So I am going to use that illustration now so that, I hope and pray, it sticks also in your mind. This is like a child who has to sleep at night and it is dark in his room. He is crying to his parents: “I can’t sleep. I think there is a bogeyman in the closet.” And so his father comes into the room and says, “Son, there isn’t. Let me show you.” And he turns the light on. And he opens the closet door to show his son that there is no one there. And then he says to his son, “Just to make sure you know, let’s look in every part of this room.” They look in all the drawers, and they empty out the toy box—and there is no one there. Then he says to his son, “But just in case you still wonder, let me take you through the house.” He takes his son by the hand and takes him into every room in the house. They look in every closet, in every drawer, in every trash can. They go into the basement. They look in the utility room. They dig through the garage. And he says to his son, “See, you can sleep. There’s no bogeyman.”

Something like that here. Paul transports us from our experience in our life to all the expanses of the universe—past, present, and future. He takes the doubting and the fearful and the questioning child of God who is looking at his own life, and he says, “Come with me, let me show you.” Not death, not life, not angels, not principalities or powers, nothing in the present, nothing in the future, not height, not depth, and in case I missed it, no other creature, no other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of Christ. Why so? Because there is a love stronger, greater, than any creature. What a wonderful comfort that is for the child of God.

Everyone has fears. Everyone is afraid of something. For us as adults it probably is not the bogeyman. For us in America it probably is not persecution for our faith. But we still have very real fears that we face. Taking some of those fears from Chapman University’s 2015 Survey of American Fears, and adding some others that I know many people fear and think about, let me offer you a rewording of Romans 8:38-39 in very contemporary vernacular:

I am certain that neither terrorism nor nuclear attack, nor global warming nor overpopulation, nor Democrats nor Republicans, nor government corruption nor Obamacare, nor earthquakes nor tornadoes, nor unemployment nor bankruptcy, nor artificial intelligence nor identity theft, nor cancer nor heart attack, nor anything else ever created nor yet-to-be-created shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Psalm 118:1 says, “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

God’s love truly is unbreakable.

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