“I have good news for you, but it might cost you your life. Would you like me to continue?”
Imagine that you answered a knock at your front door, and these were the first words out of the mouth of the man standing on your front porch. What would you do?
A pastor in Vietnam, who must remain nameless because of danger to his life, starts telling people about Jesus with these words. He might be eating dinner with someone, or walking down a street, or sitting in a grassy park. He strikes up a conversation, and when he feels led by the Holy Spirit to share Jesus with a person, he says, “I have good news for you, but it might cost you your life. Would you like me to continue?” He says that most people ask him to continue, because they want to hear the good news. Many go ahead later to receive Christ into their hearts. The good news of Christ brings them forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life, but the threat of losing their earthly life is not an idle one. When persecution comes, as it does for many Vietnamese Christians, it is not a surprise. This pastor warned them.
Vietnam is one of only five countries in the world today with a communist government, and communist governments as a matter of fundamental conviction consider religion to be an annoying problem, if not, indeed, a threat to the state. In Vietnam, the major source of religious persecution derives from the government’s determination to keep religion under control with the undisguised objective of eradicating it. The religions that do persist in the country, dominated by the Buddhist demographic, often view Christianity with no less contempt than the government does, leading to threats and violence against Christians, which the government is loath to prosecute.
For generations, Christians in the USA have believed that they were safe from persecution by the culture and safe from prosecution by the government for their religious words and deeds. No evangelist in the USA has ever started his sermon by saying, “I have good news for you, but it might cost you your life. Would you like me to continue?” It has not happened yet, but it could happen. Already, a preacher who said, “If you listen to me, the IRS may initiate an audit of your taxes,” would not be off base. There is considerable evidence that the federal administration at the highest levels wants to suppress and repress the expression of political and social views based on Christian teaching and wants to restrain and impede the exercise of the civil rights of citizens who choose to advocate for moral and legislative action in keeping with Christian principles.
It has been common in US history for people with Christian values to attempt to enact legislation and to influence policy decisions that embody the values by which Christians shape their lives. There has always been controversy about that, because there are always people who have differing, even completely opposite, views. The discussion has been brisk at times, but only the advent of social media has allowed the mass attacks such as those mounted against the owner of Chick Fil-A or Hobby Lobby. Only in the past five years has it been even thinkable that someone could lose a job for taping a Bible verse to her own computer screen at work. Only in the past five years has a professor been threatened with loss of tenure for declaring that evolution is not proved to explain biological species. Only in recent months has it been conceivable that a county clerk could be jailed for acting on her Christian principle that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. It has always been true in the USA and everywhere around the world that some people think Christian ideas are weird or old-fashioned or out of touch with reality. However, only recently has there been a growing pressure at all levels of government to shut up Christians and shut down Christian activism. Advocate for laws against eating meat if you are a vegetarian. Advocate for the end of oil exploration if you believe that solar is the only just energy source. Advocate for men to be permitted to urinate in women’s restrooms if they feel feminine at the time. But do not advocate that bakers be permitted to decline orders for wedding cakes celebrating same-sex marriage.
Such developments change the way Christians rear their children. My parents read Bible stories to me. They taught me to pray before eating. They took me to Sunday School and church faithfully. They talked with me about moral questions. But never did either of them say, “I have something to tell you, but it might cost you your life.” I am not sure what I would have done if they had talked to me that way. I do know that such a statement would absolutely have captured my full attention.
What do you say to your children? Do you dare continue teaching them to believe God and act on his teachings without warning them that they could suffer for doing so? Jesus said that the gate is narrow, and the path even moreso, that leads to eternal life. There are a lot of people on an interstate to somewhere, all singing “A Mighty Fortress,” but one wonders what the traffic on that interstate would be if the government or the culture or both decide to put a stop to the influence of Christians in the USA.
What you need to say to your children might even cost you your life, and it might cost them their lives if they heed what you say. Do you plan to continue?
By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Amazon.com. Watch for the release of Thrive! Live Christian in a Hostile World, planned for release in the summer of 2016
Your culture sees what you’ve been; God sees what you can be. Jim Denison
I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11
The words of Jeremiah to people in exile because of their sin stand shoulder to shoulder with Jim Denison’s statement which closes a post about the recent leak of a tape made by Monica Lewinsky. The tape is being circulated in one of the media’s endless exploitation of the willingness of the public to be titillated by public immorality. Nobody knows or cares where Monica Lewinsky is now, and the media neither knows nor cares how she may feel about this manipulative use of her story. The point of the publicity about the tape is to stir the cultural pot once more as Hillary Clinton poises herself to try again for the presidency.
The cultural climate today makes it clear that the behavior of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in the past means nothing. The dominant theme of the culture is that each person should figure out what sexual behavior makes him or her happy and then should behave that way as often as possible. The culture won’t view the tape through a moral lens; it will view the tape through an entertainment lens. The culture does not care if two consenting adults engage in sexual behavior that some people consider to be adulterous and wanton. The culture only cares if it is something fun to talk about, especially if it permits the culture to belittle people who do view the tape and the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky through a moral lens.
In short, the culture is happy to gossip about anything and everything. The culture enjoys gossiping about the fact that some people find the Clinton/Lewinsky relationship shocking and immoral, even as it enjoys smirking at Lewinsky for trying to resurrect the relationship Bill Clinton discarded when it became inconvenient. The culture is entertained by issues that hurt people. The culture happily dissects people and relationships, no matter the circumstances, and after it has put the people through a wringer to extract the last full measure of public comedy, it scornfully flings the remaining dregs into the deep gloom of yesterday’s news. As Jim Denison says so plainly, all the culture remembers is who you were. The culture neither knows nor cares who you are or who you might be.
Jeremiah spoke to people who felt like yesterday’s discarded and forgotten news. They had been crushed in battle with a powerful empire. Their capital city, including their temple, had been violated and destroyed. The people had been transplanted to strange lands, and they not only felt forgotten by God, but they felt hopeless that they could ever get his attention again. Jeremiah brought them a message that said, “God certainly knows what you have been, but God also knows what you can be.”
When I was small, a spanking was still an accepted punishment for the misbehavior of a child. When my brother and I got in the habit of snacking after school on food our mother had told us not to eat, she eventually discovered what we were doing – what made us think that she would not notice that the food had disappeared? Our family’s tight budget meant that what we regarded as a minor error was a major loss, and our behavior called for a major punishment. Each of us received a spanking with Mother’s hairbrush. What I remember most about that experience was what happened next.
After the spanking, I was in tears, more from the shame than the pain, which was minor. I stood up rubbing my eyes and sobbing. When I turned around, my mother stood there sobbing, too. She put her arms around me and said, “I hate doing this. Please don’t ever act like this again.” Then we both cried together. My mother did not want to dwell on this past failure; my mother wanted me to look forward and do better. She had a hopeful view of what I might become.
That is how God feels when he must punish our bad behavior. That is how he felt when he allowed Israel to suffer the consequences of idolatry and wicked behavior. He hated seeing Israel dragged out of the Promised Land, the land he had given to his chosen people. He hated seeing the temple destroyed. He hated the misery the Israelites endured as oppressed captives in a foreign land. Nevertheless, he also hated the way the Israelites had pretended to worship him while actually giving all their loyalty to idols. The Israelites did not simply abandon God for idols. Rather, they pretended to worship him while giving first place to the idols. Rejection was bad, but the deceit was worse.
My mother hated spanking me, but she hated the lie my brother and I perpetrated by eating the forbidden food. Even though she had had plans for that food, it really wasn’t the loss of the food that hurt; it was the deception. Our disobedience was bad, but our sneakiness was worse.
I don’t remember much else about that day, but I will never forget my mother’s tear-stained face as she said, “Please don’t ever act like this again.” God felt that way about the Israelites, too. My mother knew I was capable of better behavior. God knew that Israel was capable of better behavior. When I fail God and mess up and make him simultaneously angry and ashamed of me, God nevertheless still loves me and continues to have plans for me. My mother didn’t throw me out on the street after I made a mistake; she held me close and continued to believe that I had it in me to be a better person.
How do I know that God sees what I can be? I know it because I know what he saw on the cross as Jesus died. Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?” and the reason is that all my sins, along with all the sins of the world, covered him at that moment. God looked down at the cross and all he could see there was my sin. When Jesus died, all my sin was washed away in his shed blood. Now when God looks at me, he sees that shed blood. Because I am washed in the blood of Christ, I can become what he created me to be. The gifts God gave me at creation cannot be rubbed out by my sin, but the blood of Christ does “rub out” or wash away my sin. Because God saw my sin on Jesus when he hung on the cross, God can’t see my sin when he looks at me. My next-door neighbor may be blinded by my sin so that she can’t see me, or my boss may be blinded by my sin so that he can’t see me, but God doesn’t see my sin anymore.
Because of the shed blood of Christ on the cross, God says to me as he said to Israel in exile, “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11
Do not despair. God still sees a future for you.
Every time there is a violent event like the bombing at the Boston Marathon, there are people who cry out, “How can you tell me that there is a God when things like this can happen?” Interestingly, when someone like the Shoe Bomber is prevented from destroying an airplane full of people over a densely populated area, you do not hear someone cry out, “How can you doubt that God exists when things like this can happen?” People do not jump to the conclusion that God has micro-managed the people involved when evil is prevented, but they quickly and vocally jump to the conclusion that God was either powerless to act when evil succeeds, or else he simply does not exist. Why?
Secularists reject the existence of both God and Satan, calling them ghost stories. Secularists also believe that humans are evolving into morally superior beings, despite evidence that evil is just as prevalent in human society today was it was at the dawn of time. What’s more, secular thinkers believe that it is possible to write laws against murder that will ultimately prevent murder. They believe that society can design laws which constrain behavior so tightly that murder cannot happen. It is interesting to compare God’s law against murder – Do not murder! – with the bill that recently died in the Senate – a law that required three days to read at any normal speed, a law that constrained all people severely and deprived all people of rights not abused by most people in an attempt to prevent a few people from acquiring a weapon. Secular thinkers fear disorder so much that ending freedom is an acceptable price to suppress evil, yet secular thinkers cannot produce any evidence that any law has ever prevented any person from thinking he could outsmart the people who enforce the law.
Law does not prevent crime.
If law prevented crime, the murder rate in the USA would be zero. There is no place in the world, for that matter, where murder is not a crime. Neither better laws nor better police nor better jails will ever prevent crime. Secular thinkers claim to operate on the basis of reason and the revelations of science. If that is so, why would they believe that the human race is evolving into morally superior beings? If that is so, why is there still murder and mayhem like the bombing at the Boston Marathon?
We humans do need law, and enforcement, and punishment. Laws actually stop some people from doing bad things, because some people fear they will be caught. However, plenty of people believe they are smart enough to elude capture, and those people commit evil deeds with complete confidence that nobody will be able to do anything about it. The same human ego that leads secularists to believe that a better law will stop crime also leads people to believe they are more clever than the enforcers.
Christians do not reject the need for law and enforcement and punishment. Christians do not believe that fear of punishment makes people better moral beings. Christians do believe that there is a force that makes people better moral beings. That force has demonstrably changed the lives of many people. Society is not that force. Law is not that force. Punishment is not that force. The one force that fundamentally transforms human beings is the Holy Spirit. People who receive Christ receive the Holy Spirit, and that power changes them forever.
We all know very well, however, that Christians are both sinful saints and saintly sinners. The story in Acts that describes how two new Christians conspired to pretend to make a sacrificial gift to the church provides evidence that Christians are not perfect. A society made up entirely of Christians still needs a mechanism for administering justice when Satan’s temptations triumph in a Christian’s life.
Christians agree with secular thinkers that human society needs law in order to have any justice or peace in the community. They disagree with secular thinkers that the suppression of God-given human rights is the necessary price for the prevention or cure of evil. Christians look at God’s law in simple words, plain language, and respect for human liberty as a model for human law. Christians advocate for good laws, but object to oppressive laws that pretend to be able to shape society in a way that prevents evil. Society cannot take on a role even God does not assume by trying to create such oppressive societal barriers that evil would be impossible. Everybody, Christian and secularist alike, grieves at something like the Sandy Hook shooting or the bombing at the Boston Marathon, but Christians do not believe that human beings oppressed by more restrictive laws and regulations are any less likely to perpetrate evil than people governed by laws written in plain language that shows respect for the responsible way most people manage freedom.
Murder is illegal, no matter what weapon is used. When someone commits murder, he should be punished, no matter what weapon is used. Jesus set an even higher standard. He said we should all love our neighbors and love our enemies. That covers pretty much everybody. Jesus’ law is all-inclusive, but it oppresses nobody. We can all be thankful that we have good laws and good law enforcement and even-handed justice. We can also be thankful that our US Constitution prevents the government from following secular thinking to its logical conclusion – a police state where evil is theoretically impossible.
Liberty? or freedom from all evil? Which do you choose?
I have commented before that I observe a massive cultural change in the USA. Our country was founded by people who believed in God and considered the Bible to be a holy text. They attended Christian churches and sang Christian hymns. When they spoke, they exercised a level of restraint on their speech that seems quaint to twenty-first century ears. In eighteenth-century Boston, nobody would have considered it cute for a seventh-grader to shout “Oh my God!” at the sight of a beautiful necklace. Local, state and national leaders in the early days of this country were expected to behave respectfully toward Christians and to live by Christian standards, an expectation that occasioned little concern on the part of the leaders who pretty much accepted those standards in daily life anyway.
It happened this way, because the vast majority of the people who came to the east coast of North America came from countries where Christianity was the state religion. Even if they came in protest at the particular church the state had chosen, it wasn’t because of a desire to worship a different God.
As a result, our culture and our cultural expectations were shaped by Christian teaching. In many instances, those expectations actually perverted Christian teaching into little more than a cute little proverb for schoolchildren to learn. Nonetheless, Christian ideas and Christian words shaped the culture. Even as immigrants from around the world came to our shores, they, too, soon absorbed the cultural norms. Until very recently, both immigrants and American citizens assumed that immigrants would assimilate. We didn’t expect them to abandon their festivals or even their religions, but we did expect them to speak English and dress in clothing that we considered normal. The immigrants likewise expected to become part of this nation when they came here. They did not expect to bring their old country with them, even though they continued to protect their heritage in festivals and holidays of their own. They expected that when in this country, they would become more like the people who lived here.
Even though the civil rights demonstrations alleged to be about integrating the culture, its outcome has been to divide the culture in ways I don’t believe the original leaders ever considered. It is the subject for another post to examine the issues of language and law that have steadily widened the rift between the many subcultures in this country. For today, I simply observe that it has happened. Rather than become more thoroughly integrated, more deeply unified in cultural and political values, our nation has become steadily more divided. Every subculture presses strongly for pre-eminence, and failing that, it demands equality. The word “equality” has become a weapon, not a unifier. In the service of this conflict, the word “diversity” stands right beside “equality” as a weapon of division.
The bottom line is that the culture that dominated life in America for almost two hundred years is disintegrating. You may have your own ideas about how it happened or why it happened. You may think that it is broken and needs to be fixed. Nevertheless, no matter how you look at it, our culture today is not the Norman Rockwell culture many people imagine to be the bedrock of American life. I believe that his state of affairs will persist into the foreseeable future. For good or ill, this is the world we live in.
Christians need to recognize this truth, because we cannot continue to live by the same expectations that worked in 1950. We cannot assume that people respect us for being Christians. The new normal in American culture is the idea that religion is something to keep locked up in houses of worship and not dragged out into the streets. If we Christians want to continue to be free to live and speak our faith, we need to recognize the realities. In order to deal with them, we must remember what Jesus promised us.
As Jesus ascended to heaven after his resurrection, he sent his followers out to share the good news and baptize believers into the kingdom. Knowing that in the Roman Empire, this work would meet with cultural and political resistance, much as it does in the contemporary USA, Jesus promised, “I will be with you.” It is important to know that when we are living our faith, swimming against the cultural current, our Lord and Savior in the person of the Holy Spirit is with us. That is comforting, but it isn’t the only thing we should remember. We must also remember that Jesus promised us we would endure persecution, resistance, and hatred, and we must absolutely remember that he told us the answer to all of Satan’s assaults on us was love. The Christ who asks us to serve him faithfully says that our defensive weapon against people Satan uses to persecute us is love.
I encounter a lot of people online who really scorn Christian faith. They scorn God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, churches, and Christians in general. Some are respectfully resistant, but others trash Christians and their faith in words I would neither speak nor print. We must expect this, because the new normal in American culture is not a Christian standard for behavior.
For those of us accustomed to the general accommodation of Christianity by the culture, this state of affairs is hard to take. We are tempted to feel hurt personally. We must remember that Jesus said the world would hate us, because it hated him first. Our job is not to respond in kind. We don’t serve Christ by whining that things used to be different. It won’t help anything to accuse people of a war on Christians. We must, instead, do exactly what Jesus told us to do – be salt and light in the world. The Satanic way to deal with rejection is to act out, to take the initiative and pound the opposition into submission. God has been enduring rejection since the day Eve rejected him and bit into the forbidden fruit, and his way to deal with it is to love us even more. If we want to be like God, we, too, must simply love our enemies even more than they hate us. That is how we live with the new normal.