Tag Archives: Christian faith

For the Sake of Christ

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.  2 Corinthians 12:10

A pastor recently wrote in a church newsletter about the jarring discovery that while she had vacationed for the joy of it to a faraway beautiful place, back home, in the town where she lives, 35 people were killed. This truth about the evil in the hearts of men reminds us that the evil that befalls Christians on account of their faith is really just part of the big picture. Satan runs loose in time and space, and he is viciously angry, because he has been eternally defeated by Christ on the cross. Evil has lost the eternal battle, and only here in temporary quarters is Satan able to exercise his malevolent purposes. In the book of Revelation, Satan is described as a great dragon who lashes his tail in frustration, sweeping a third of the stars out of the sky.

Knowing that he is on the loose in this world, so free to do harm that he presumed to offer Jesus the kingdoms of the world in return for Jesus’ worship, should put every Christian on alert. There is nothing personal in the evil that destroys families, kills children, addicts, talented artists, and so forth. Even the evil that files suit to remove crosses from public buildings and silence church bells and end the use of the words “Merry Christmas” is not directed at Christians personally. It is all about the fact that Satan wants to be God. All the assaults directed at Christians by cultures, by governments, and even by other religions are instigated by Satan for his ultimate purpose of either luring or clubbing people away from God. Sad to say, violence between groups of Christians is also part of Satan’s destructive work, because he delights most of all in perverting the faithful to fight with the faithful.

Paul knew what it was like to face all these things. A list of all the misery he endured is daunting to contemplate. It certainly makes “The War on Christmas” sound trivial. Unfortunately, none of it is trivial. In the US, when a family decides to host a weeknight Bible study only to have the homeowners’ association send the police to notify them that their guests are violating a parking covenant, that is just as certainly the work of Satan as when the government of Laos revokes the citizenship of six Christian families and confiscates their land because they refuse to recant their faith. It is evidence that Christians who live their faith are shaking the defenses of Satan’s kingdom, the kingdom of hell.

Satan hates it when the kingdom of God draws near. When Jesus began his ministry on earth, Mark records that this was his opening message: “The kingdom of God is at hand.”(Mark 1:15 ESV) Eugene Peterson best captures the revulsion of the demons Jesus met who growled, “What business do you have here with us?” (Mark 1:24 THE MESSAGE).

From that day to this, Satan has busily stirred antagonism against anyone who loves and serves Christ. Every Christian, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, brings the kingdom of God near to every person he meets. Those who believe Satan’s lies about sexuality, marriage and family think they have evolved to a place where they know more about sexuality than Christians who are “mired” in biblical rules. The dangerous part of this situation is not the disagreement. Satan knows that we can deal with disagreements and go on living side by side in peace. That is why Satan ratchets up the conflict by instigating spoken and written words that belittle Christians and their faith. A mild version of this attack says, “You are as irrelevant as your deluded belief system.” The strong version cannot be printed, even if I were of a mind to write such words. No matter what form the words take, they are intended to grate and grind and beat down people of faith who are encroaching on the territory Satan claims for his own.

In the US, at the moment, the attack is mostly limited to words. However, the federal government has served notice in lawsuits against the HHS employer mandate that it considers people to have forfeited the right to exercise their faith when they enter into commerce. Christians must recognize that stating this position in these lawsuits is an issue for people of faith, even if the government loses one or more lawsuits. By taking this position the federal government is serving notice that it considers the exercise of religion to be something that takes place in a worship space during a worship activity. The federal government of the United States is telling Christians that their voices must be silenced during any other sort of activity – such as education, commerce, political campaigns, and so forth.

Before there were radios and internet, combatants lined up for warfare received their commands by means of a bugle call. The federal government’s stated position with regard to the exercise of religion that is protected by the First Amendment must be interpreted the way soldiers interpreted the bugle call to “Charge!” That sound signaled the onset of a struggle. For Christians in the USA, the federal government has signaled its intent to shove religious practice into a building and lock the door. The Constitution was written by people who believed that every person has the obligation to live his faith in every part of his life, not just the part inside a church building. The struggle between these two conflicting views will be fearful.

Paul fought just such a battle in the Roman Empire. Christians over the past two thousand years have fought this battle with cultures and governments many times. Christians in countries like Uzbekistan and China are fighting this battle today. Weak though we may be in the face of the might of the US federal government, there is One who stands with us in this battle who is mightiest of all. We cannot fight this battle with our wits and our courage. We can only fight this battle by acknowledging that our wits and courage are worthless unless we fight in the strength of God’s power, because “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  2 Corinthians 12:10

Truth, the First Weapon

The major reason that the events at Benghazi in 2012, now nearly nine months ago are still headline news is a deficit of truth. Many people feel betrayed and disappointed, even alarmed, by administration speakers who avoid giving the facts about Benghazi to the citizens. Some people believe that misinformation provided by individuals speaking for the administration was deliberate, and the specter of uncovering lies by senior officials raises other horrifying images, including the moment when Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency in disgrace.

We all want truth and expect truth and even normally assume truth when someone speaks. That fact actually makes it easy to deceive us. Salesmen have a bad reputation because they often find ways to speak the truth in words that lead a prospective buyer to the wrong conclusion. If a sales representative says to a prospective customer, “This price won’t be available next week,” the customer assumes that the price will be higher next week. The words sound like a friendly, helpful warning that to hesitate is to lose, and the customer may rush into a poorly-considered purchase, only to discover that when next week comes, the price is lower. The salesman did not lie, but he certainly deceived.

People don’t like to be deceived. Even though people play little games with their own minds by claiming there is a difference between a “white lie” and a “black lie,” nobody likes the moment when unpleasant truth shines through a web of deception. If, for example, someone provided incontrovertible evidence that the President of the United States knowingly and deliberately withheld military assistance from the beleaguered Americans in Benghazi, the deceptive words that have hid that truth would only make the discovery of the truth more disturbing. A failure to speak truth is at the root of many broken relationships and broken nations.

Truth is at the root of the name of God, given to Moses at the burning bush. You may remember that God had a very tough job for Moses after he got Moses to pay attention. Moses recognized right away how impossible this job was, because he knew the pharaoh of Egypt personally, having grown up in Pharaoh’s household. Moses tried repeatedly to weasel out of the assignment, but God would not relent. Moses’ life story would not make him very credible to the Israelites, and he knew it. They would want to know why they should believe that God had sent him. They had every reason to believe he was a spy for the pharaoh, even though they knew that Moses had left Egypt as a fugitive from Pharaoh. Why should they believe that Moses had actually escaped justice at Pharaoh’s hand and committed himself to help them escape as well? Moses demanded of God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13)

God’s answer to Moses was “I am who I am.” (Exodus 3:14) In other words, God said, “I am exactly who you think I am, I am the One I appear to be. You were stopped in your tracks by a miraculous phenomenon – a bush on fire that did not burn up. Who do you think can do that?” Jesus, God in the flesh, later said the same thing in words that clarify the meaning of God’s words to Moses. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Bottom line: God is Truth. You can trust God. You can trust God’s words and God’s messages and God’s promises. If God says, “I am with you,” he will be there, because he doesn’t just speak truth; God is truth.

Maybe this is why Paul listed the “belt of truth” first when he was naming the weapons and protective armor God has given us for our lifework of combat with evil. If Paul had been standing behind Moses at the burning bush, listening to the call of God to an impossible job, Paul would certainly have recognized the experience. God did the same thing to him. After Paul’s amazing experience with Christ near Damascus, a man named Ananias came with a message. The message God gave to Ananias for Paul was this: “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:16) That is not the kind of message people like to receive. They would rather hear, “Your dreams are about to come true. Dream it and do it. You can get rich, because God wants you to be rich while you have a good time.” That is not the message God gave to either Moses or Paul. They were both asked to march onto a battlefield where evil was lying in wait for them, and both of them were told to speak and live the truth.

If Paul had been standing behind Moses when Moses received his call, Paul might have immediately told Moses what he told the Ephesians who were engaged in the same battle. Paul wrote, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) Moses was headed to Egypt to lead a battle with Pharaoh, who thought he was a god. Paul traveled over much of the Roman empire battling what might have appeared to be political and cultural pressures, but they were all headed up by an emperor who thought he was a god.

Paul would have told Moses that his first weapon in confronting Pharaoh was truth. The truth God spoke when he said, “I am who I am.”  When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he said, “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth.” (Ephesians 6:14) That is ultimately what won the day against Pharaoh. The Egyptian pharaoh actually thought he was the son of one of the gods in the Egyptian pantheon. Paul would have told Moses, “Just tell the truth about God who is Truth, and all those false gods will be defeated.”  Ultimately, after Moses stood firm and spoke truth, Pharaoh died along with his army, demonstrating the ultimate truth that he was not a god. God, Truth, repelled the lie of Egypt’s gods and the lie that Pharaoh was a god. With that truth established, Israel could see the real truth and move forward in God’s plan.

Paul died at the order of the Roman emperor, who still thought he was a god. Yet two thousand years later, the Roman Empire is history, while God’s church, those who believe and speak God’s truth, outnumber any other religion on the face of the earth, and growing daily.

God has provided Christians with many weapons in the war against evil. Probably the most undervalued weapon of all is truth.

What faith challenge or cultural challenge faces you today? How could you use truth as a weapon in this conflict? Add your comment to the conversation and share your thoughts with others.

Looking Back at Sunday’s Gospel

Sunday’s readings: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18     Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1     Luke 13:31-35

The Gospel: 

            At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.

’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”     Luke 13:31-35 

One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after; to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. … for he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent.” Psalm 27:4, 5 

When someone warned Jesus that Herod wanted to kill him, Jesus did not stop doing what he was doing. He did not run and hide. Nor did he rush to Herod and get in his face. Jesus pointed out that his death was essential to his work, and he was ready, knowing that only if he died could he rise again. He said, “On the third day, I finish my work.” Then he began to weep over Jerusalem where the temple represented God’s choice long ago for a point of contact between heaven and earth. He wept, because people had so thoroughly corrupted temple worship that it could not serve God’s purpose any longer, and the same people did away with anyone who tried to assert God’s purpose. Jesus looked ahead to the rending of the curtain that would end the useful life of the temple of stone, because Jesus was the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God on earth. In him, the kingdom of God drew near to everyone, but after Jesus returned to heaven, there needed to be another way for the kingdom to draw near to the people.

That goal would be accomplished by individuals. In Psalm 27:4 the writer said that all he really wanted was to live in the house of the Lord always. His relationship with God the sort of relationship God had in mind in the model of the temple. The psalmist felt that he was part of God’s family who could count on God’s presence and protection in time of trouble. This theme is repeated in many places in the Bible. Perhaps the best known is in the 23rd Psalm where David wrote, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” This theme is one of the places where the unity of God’s revelation in the Old Testament and the New Testament is very clear. It would be most vividly repeated when Paul wrote to the Corinthians that our bodies, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, are temples.

The temples where Israel worshipped in Solomon’s day and in Jesus’ day were gigantic stone structures intended to portray the greatness of God and to be places where God literally took up residence on earth. They were physical representations of that grand day in the future described in Revelation saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.” Paul’s words make it clear that until the fulfillment of the prophecies in Revelation, we have that same role. We are the vessels of God’s presence among men, walking temples that bring the kingdom close to the people we meet.

That is a huge responsibility. It is more than we could possibly do on our own. Fortunately, the fact which makes it true is the same fact that empowers the reality. When the Holy Spirit dwells within us, we are no longer on our own. We serve God according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, speaking and acting in obedience to our call to serve Christ and to be light and salt in the world.

The fact that the Holy Spirit indwells the people who serve God was known to the men who founded the United States. Those men believed that human beings were God’s servants and in the spirit of that belief, they also believed that no human institution should interfere with a person’s obedience to God. They would be appalled if they heard that the government of the USA had determined that only behavior confined to a building dedicated to worship was considered to be religious behavior. They were like the psalmist. They believed that in our hearts, we were always in the house of God and always subject to his sovereignty in our lives.

Because of our great responsibility to be agents of God’s in-breaking kingdom, we have an equal responsibility not to let human tendencies muddy our message. We have the right and responsibility to follow Christ’s teachings with regard to the sanctity of life and the meaning of family, but in the battleground of ideas, we must equally project Christ’s love for all people, even people whose agendas are in complete opposition to God. When Jesus heard that Herod was looking for a way to destroy him, he did not try to zing Herod with “nastier than thou” rhetoric. In fact, on the night of his trial, Herod gave him a chance to do just that, but Jesus chose to stick to his mission, the salvation of all people.

How should we respond to the terrible things people arguing cultural and political issues say about Christians and Christian ideas? We might learn something from Pastor Saeed Abedini. Pastor Saeed was able to send a letter to his family in America via Iranian relatives who are allowed to visit him. In his letter he said:

They are just waiting to see how I react to all of their pressures and persecution. What will come out of me during these intense times? But again, this is another golden opportunity for me to shine the light of Christ in this dark world and to let God to use me.

Yesterday when I was singing worship songs, the head of my cell room attacked me in order to stop me from praising but in response I hugged him and showed him love. … It is during these harsh conditions, that I deeply need God’s Saving Grace so that I can be the fragrant scent of Christ in the dark house of Evin prison.

Pastor Saeed shows by his behavior and attitude that the Holy Spirit lives in him. He truly is a little temple bringing the Kingdom of God near to his fellow prisoners, his guards and all who come in contact with him. When we are engaged in conversations and verbal combat on the subject of culture change demanded by secular thinkers, we need to remember how Pastor Saeed defeats his enemies. He prays to be the fragrant scent of Christ, the incense of prayer in a temple, in the dark house of Evin prison. We must pray to be the fragrant scent of Christ in the dark house of political discourse in the USA. 

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
1 Corinthians 3:16

Read this week’s news from the persecuted church and the culture wars in the US at Living on Tilt the newspaper.

Secular religion. Yes there is such a thing.

We normally do not think of the debates between candidates for public office as a source of spiritual education, but last week we received an important lesson. The debate between the candidates for vice-president surprised me by providing a vivid example of the difference between a biblical definition of commitment to faith in Christ and the secular definition of religion.

People who enter into a relationship with Christ discover immediately that it permeates their lives. In relationship with Christ, everything is touched by that experience. In baptism each new believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, just as the Holy Spirit descended into Christ at baptism. Each of us, like Christ, is the visible in-breaking of the kingdom of God into the world.

In the book of Mark, Jesus found himself in constant conflict with Satan and other secular powers around him as he literally carried the kingdom around to the people of Galilee. Today, Christians, filled with the Holy Spirit, do the same thing at work, at school, in the grocery store, in the voting booth, in the halls of Congress, and so forth. People living in relationship with Christ cannot turn off that relationship when they leave the church building on Sunday morning any more than married people can turn off that relationship when they exit their homes.

Last week at the end of the vice-presidential debate, the moderator asked each candidate to describe how his faith affected his views and actions relative to the issue of abortion and how it would affect his actions in office if he were elected. Paul Ryan said simply that his views and his values are shaped by his faith, and his views would not be changed if he were elected to public office. He said nothing about trying to force anyone to agree with him. He simply stated his position. Joe Biden said that his faith shaped his views, but he wouldn’t try to force his views on anyone. Joe Biden’s words made it very clear that his religious life takes place exclusively inside the walls of church buildings and has no relevance whatsoever to his behavior outside of those buildings. It is reasonable to conclude that he would say that religion is a private matter. The concept that religious people try to “force” their views on others is a common thread in secular comments about religion. When an individual advocates for views rooted in religious conviction, secular thinkers believe that he is “forcing” those views on people who advocate for views rooted in something other than religion. Secular thinkers dismiss values and views rooted in religion, because they view religion as a fairy tale. They demand that religious people find some other source for their values in order to deserve serious consideration in public life.

I describe this observation not to support or attack either candidate. I describe this observation, because the federal government has defined what is religious as the worship, evangelism and teaching that take place in church buildings. Period. The executive administration currently in power has written into regulations a clear definition of religion that confines its scope to religious activities that take place on church property. Joe Biden accepts that definition. Paul Ryan does not. To say this is not to say that Paul Ryan is the perfect candidate, or even to say that Paul Ryan is the perfect Christian. Both Joe Biden and Paul Ryan are imperfect and unsaintly human beings. This small segment of the debate was only one view of each candidate, but it is the view that relates to this blog. Every Christian lives in a world where secular thinkers want to confine faith and the views and values of faith inside church buildings. If I had tried to write a dramatic script to show what it means to think about faith from the secular perspective and what it means to think about faith from the Christian perspective, I could not have written a scene that portrayed this difference any more clearly.

Secular thinkers consistently reject the existence of supernatural or “spirit” power. Some secular thinkers tolerate religion within bounds, that is to say, they think people have a right to enjoy the singing, the prayers, the beautiful buildings, the artistry of ancient texts and so forth that are associated with religion. However, even the most religiously tolerant secular thinker rejects any hint that someone’s religious values should play any role in public life. This is Joe Biden’s position. Joe Biden is Catholic in his religious choice, but he restricts the influence of his Catholic values to his life within the church. He has every constitutional right to do that, and voters have no right to say he can’t do that, but every voter has values, too. If voters consider Joe Biden’s candidacy seriously, they need to recognize from his own statements that in his elected office, he operates by secular values, not by Christian values. A voter who chooses the secular worldview will admire Joe Biden for this stance. A voter who believes that a Christian is a little Christ bringing the values of the kingdom of God with him wherever he goes will not admire Joe Biden’s position.

Paul Ryan expressed a view much more in keeping with traditional Christian teaching. He said that his views and values do not change when he acts as an elected official. He did not suggest that he will scoff at or ignore laws that contradict his views, but he did say that he would act in accordance with the views shaped by his faith. A voter who chooses the secular worldview would regard this statement with concern, because he would know that Paul Ryan is unlikely to conform to secular views, even if most of the people want the secular views. Secular thinkers believe that when a group of people gets together to hammer out laws for society, they should recognize that no member of the group has more understanding of what is right than any other. Secular thinkers reject revealed, absolute truth. Secular thinkers believe that society is evolving and that the rules about what is right and what is wrong must evolve with it. Christians, who believe that there are absolute truths revealed by God in the sacred text of the Bible, appear hard-headed and hard-hearted to secular thinkers who want to legislate in keeping with the evolving culture.

You can find comments expressing a secular analysis of the debate here .

You can find comments expressing a Catholic analysis of the debate here.

American culture is definitely changing. A recent Pew study showed that the number of people who are disconnected from any religion is growing rapidly. In this culture, it takes courage for anyone to say that his religion shapes his views and values. What this trend will mean for Christians in the next few years is not clear. It is also not clear how this trend will affect the outcome of elections. After all, values and views certainly shape people’s positions on the issues, but in the end, it is the position, not the philosophy or religion that is important to voters. This blog discusses this issue as a way of asking each reader to do some self-examination. Each reader needs to look within and ask, “Where do my values, my views, my choices come from?” Each reader should look within and ask if Christ sits on the throne of his/her heart, or if self is enthroned at the center of life. As voters, people must evaluate candidates such as Joe Biden and Paul Ryan and make important decisions with impact on the future of a nation. Please do that. But don’t forget to take a look within and ask if the values and views you express in public life are consistent with the values and views you claim when you are in church.

It’s Always the End Times

I remember the world-wide frenzy generated by the “Left Behind” series. I don’t happen to share the hermeneutic stance of the authors, so I don’t have those books in my library. That doesn’t mean, however, that I reject either the significance or the value of the book of Revelation.

Quite the contrary. I believe that book is critical to a Christian understanding of the way we live our faith. The central message of the book of Revelation is that we must cling fast to Christ and live in faithful relationship with him no matter what is going on around us. That message is timeless, and that message has value in all eras for all people. What’s more, the urgency of Revelation is that we should always live and speak of our faith as if time were about to end. Why? Because for every one of us, time is about to end. Whether it ends for all people is irrelevant. The end of time is imminent for every human being, because none of us gets out of here alive, as somebody so famously said in some pop song. God has written it in our souls and we all know it is true that this life, this time, this place is temporary.

That is why I can’t get very excited about an attempt to find a timeline to eternity in Revelation. I don’t think it matters, because the message of Revelation is to be steadfast in faith at all times. Be ready for rejection. Be ready for persecution. Be ready to give the answer as Peter told us (1 Peter 3:15) because somebody will need to hear it. You don’t know if the heavens are about to be rolled back, or if you will be hit by a bus on your way to church. You do know as surely as you know your own name that time will end for you, one way or another.

In the letters to the churches, Jesus cried out for people to live their faith wherever they were. He pleaded for people to reclaim the enthusiasm and energy of their first profession. He reminded them that the gift of his love is not something to hide in a closet; it is something to share in our faithful testimony. He warned people that we will be so filled with regret if we don’t live our testimony that the day will come we will wish rocks could fall on us.

This is what I learn from Revelation. I have a few thoughts about the similarity between the world I live in and the world of the author of Revelation. I have seen calls to worship the state that closely parallel the call to worship Roman emperors. I see all sorts of temptations in daily life to substitute human accomplishments for God’s grace and glory. But I am not able to discern any clear timeline in either Revelation or my own era that say that the final big bang is imminent. However, remembering that Christ said we never will know these things, I don’t worry about these things very much. I have something bigger to worry about.

Myself. What? Am I the most self-centered person you ever heard of? Maybe I am. I pray daily to topple SELF off the throne of my heart, but to date, I am unsuccessful at making that commitment stick. Every time I think for even a moment that I have successfully denied SELF, I am filled with such pride at the accomplishment that SELF climbs right back up on that throne. My faithful testimony is shredded by my complete inability to deny SELF once and for all and follow Christ faithfully in a life of love and service.

So I don’t worry much about the end times. I worry about these times. I worry that I will fail to give my testimony in a way that provides salt and light to a culture that is disintegrating. I don’t worry that time will end. I worry that my time will end before I ever serve Christ for even one minute in faithful testimony. It is always the end times, and I need to act like it.