Tag Archives: self-denial

Humans Are Vengeful Gods

The venom of cultural restriction is startling to anyone who has seen the venom of diatribes against God’s recorded actions in the Old Testament. Atheists are outraged at the God who ordered the Israelites to separate themselves from ungodly people or ordered the execution of all unbelievers in besieged communities, right down to the babes in arms. They contend that such a God is evil and vicious and not to be tolerated. They say that he should apologize to the heathen he condemned. Yet these are the same people who contend that an unborn baby is a nonviable mass, or that a 100-year-old woman should not have surgery to make her life more comfortable. God Almighty, in their view, has no right to decide when someone’s life ends, but these very people believe that they have the right to end millions of lives every year.

In light of that attitude, it is hard to accept the behavior of secular celebrity voices such as Chris Matthews and Whoopi Goldberg who condemn anyone who disagrees with them to fates worse than death. How do people who instigate a campaign to destroy the Washington Redskins football team have the temerity to accuse God of wrongdoing? Humans who have arrogated to themselves the role that Christians leave to God’s judgment are callous in the extreme, far beyond what the God they reject has ever done to anyone.

As a follower of Christ, I will say quickly that God does not need me to defend him. I bring this subject up only to compare the actions of people who believe that they are their own gods. People who say God does not exist must somehow deal with all the problems of the universe, and the evidence demonstrates that they are arrogant far beyond anything they criticize in God Almighty. People who deny God declare that they know what other people should have and what other people should do. People who are removed from the class of aborted fetuses only by the event of having been born alive declare that nothing is too huge, too important, or too complicated for them to control.

Among other things, secular thinkers believe that they have the right and the obligation to interfere in the operations of businesses. They believe that they should tell businesses what products to sell, or what to wage to pay employees, or whom the businesses should hire, or what health insurance to offer employees. When the owners of businesses reject the pressure, the secular thinkers believe that they should destroy the businesses. Secularists have tried boycotts of retail businesses and Twitter wars against global enterprises. They have even tried to threaten the advertising sponsors of media personalities they disagree with.

Secular thinkers believe that nobody has a right to question the morality of what they do, because they determine the morality of their actions according to whether it makes them feel good. Apparently, it makes them feel good when they eliminate a baby or an old person or a business that is preventing one of them from feeling good.

Some Christians have lost their connection with Christ’s teachings and have engaged in reprisals that mirror the cultural strategies. When secularists launched an attack on Chick Fil-A over the issue of same-sex marriage, Christians launched an attack on Starbucks over the same issue. This is a huge error on the part of the Christians. It is at complete odds with Christ’s teaching. Christ said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:43-45 ESV). Christians cannot engage in destructive, petulant reprisal over differences of political opinion. Christians may not be their own gods and still claim to belong to Christ.

When Christians embark on destructive campaigns to destroy businesses because of the expressed political or even social views of the owners, the first thing wrong with the campaign is that Christ taught us to love, bless and pray for everyone. The second thing wrong is that many, many innocent people get hurt. The employees of companies have no control over the political views of their employers, yet if the destructive campaign succeeds, then Christians have destroyed the livelihoods of those employees. The third thing wrong is that it becomes impossible to distinguish Christians from secular thinkers. Jesus said, “Whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:21 ESV). Jesus expects the actions of Christians to be a testimony to their faith. That is why refusing to participate in a same-sex wedding is the right thing for a Christian to do, while boycotting a business over a political argument is wrong. Refusal to participate in a same-sex wedding is a testimony to God’s plan for marriage and families. A campaign to destroy Starbucks over the opinion expressed by its owner is no testimony to God; it is a testimony to the power of a mob, the same message expressed by a secular mob action against Mozilla.

The words and deeds of secular thinkers express their rejection of God’s authority and his very existence. The words and deeds of Christians must express their testimony to God’s authority and their conviction of his existence. When Christians reject a cultural movement that conflicts with God’s authority, their expression of that rejection must not compromise their obedience to the law of love. A Christian can and must refuse to facilitate disobedience to God. A polite refusal to participate in wrongdoing need not include a curse on the people involved. In fact, if they are enemies, then the Christian response is to love them and pray for them to see the light.

The culture increasingly insists on words and deeds to state support for things that Christians must, on principle, refuse to do. Where that pressure will lead is still unclear. Christians in countries like Saudi Arabia and Laos wind up in jail when they reject the cultural norms. Christians in the US must be prepared for the culture to push the government to enforce its will. It is time for all Christians to pray for wisdom and courage, and to pray for the election of leaders who will pull governments at all levels back inside the Constitutional boundaries that protect First Amendment rights.

Secular thinkers believe that everything they do is guided and bounded by reason, an impersonal concept, but in fact, they themselves testify that they know what is right by observing what makes them happy. Clearly, it is self-gratification, not reason, that guides their actions. Christians must commit to Christ’s truth as their guide and watch carefully to assure that they do not delude themselves that they are serving Christ when they are actually serving self. It is self-serving in the extreme to attempt to stand in the place of God and shut down a business whose owner holds an undesirable political view. Secular thinkers are extremely vengeful when they try to stand in the place of God. Christians must be alert to avoid being lured into such behavior by their own willingness to serve self instead of Christ.

 

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A Christian Worldview

                Last Friday I examined a study by the Barna Group that alleged to identify adults with a Christian or biblical worldview. In truth, even though the study and the post used “Christian” and “biblical” almost interchangeably, the fact is that people being polled might not have considered the words equivalent in this context. That is a challenge for surveyors. Despite universal compulsory education and the wide availability of dictionaries in hard copy and online, it is still extremely difficult for people to communicate fully on most subjects. My husband and I cannot agree on the color of one of his jackets, and this difference is quite trivial. To disagree on the meaning of the word “person,” however, can precipitate incomprehensible violence. This very disagreement is at the root of Mohammed’s rejection of Christianity in the 7th century, and this semantic problem underlies violence between Christians and Muslims to this day. People very often do not recognize the number of issues that are actually rooted in a misunderstanding about the meanings of words. I vividly recall a shouting match when my daughter was in high school during which it became clear to me that our argument was due to our choice of words, not a real difference of opinion. I shouted, “But I agree with you!” to which my daughter replied at the top of her lungs, “Well, I agree with you more!”

                Differences in worldview are a bit more substantive than my differences with my teenage daughter. Differences in worldview underly many gigantic issues such as the US national debt and the perceived need for government to assure universal healthcare. A worldview is by definition comprehensive and powerful. That is to say, an individual’s worldview truly shapes his life.

                In the course of teaching a study of the book of Mark, Dr. Rick Carlson took some time to talk about worldview. It made perfect sense, because the book of Mark is the life of Jesus, and Jesus’ life, like anyone else’s life, reveals his worldview. The Greek word that led to this study is phroneo. Dr. Carlson’t definition of the word is evaluative point of view, in other words worldview.

                To understand Jesus’ worldview, it must be remembered that Jesus is God in the flesh. When Jesus spoke, it was God speaking. When Jesus acted, it was God in action. The story of Jesus is the story of God walking around among people. Several years ago, I remember hearing a song in which the singer asked, “What if God were one of us, just a slob like one us?” When I heard that song, I knew that the singer had never truly confronted Jesus, because if she had met Jesus, she would know the answer to her speculative lyrical question. Jesus came down from heaven and became one of us. He lived with 24-hour days. He had to pay bills and taxes, just like everyone else. He got tired. He got hungry. Everything humans do, Jesus did. Yet he never stopped being God, and his Godhood established his evaluative point of view. He evaluated everything and everyone he encountered based on his worldview, just as every person does.

                God’s worldview is very different from that of most people. God’s starting point to evaluate what is happening around him is loneliness and servanthood. There is a great choral work whose name I forget now that begins, “And God stepped out in space and he said, ‘I’m lonely. I think I’ll make me a world.’” God’s behavior in the creation story shows us a person lovingly creating a place for people to live, and then he creates the people: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” Then later, knowing what loneliness is, God looked at Adam and said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” God knew loneliness, and God knew fulfillment, and God made woman.

                We can see the elements of loneliness and servanthood that set boundaries and burst customs as we read the story of the life and ministry of Jesus. After his baptism, he immediately confronted Satan’s worldview in the wilderness. That battle is a model for our lives, too, because even though we can look around and see all sorts of worldviews at work in our world, every conflict ultimately boils down to the same conflict Jesus endured in the wilderness.

                What was Jesus up against in the wilderness? What are the elements of Satan’s worldview?

  • No suffering – not the cross
  • Me first – serve self, do what feels good to me, get what I want
  • Greatness and power – be in charge, tell other people where to go, or simply scorn their very existence
  • Save your life – Avoid risk and danger unless it feels like fun. Never confront when deception will get you past the risk without revealing truth
  • Conform to other people’s values – be a chameleon. Fit in. Look like all the others
  • Blend in with the collective mentality – trade in your personal values for the community’s values
  • Exploit others – others are expendable, if you must use someone to get to your goal, just do it
  • Acquire for self–Cannot give to others because to do so limits what you can do for yourself

When Satan showed up in the wilderness, he began to grind away at Jesus’ worldview. “You poor thing. So God sent you out here to starve. Why should God’s son starve? Just make these rocks into bread. Who will know? A man’s got to eat, you know. Why, when all is said and done, who really cares if you fast or not? Why should you suffer this way? “

Jesus demonstrated his worldview and showed us all how it is done. He told his disciples about this experience later. How else would anyone know this story? He told them so they would know that it is possible to live by God’s worldview, and so that they would know the consequences of accepting God’s worldview. I don’t feel strong enough to stand up to Satan by myself, so it helps me a great deal to know that Jesus could do it. I rely on him, because this story tells me he will win.

Jesus responded to Satan with all the force of his worldview:

  • Yes to suffering, even the cross
  • Me last – the least of all, the one who suffers for everyone else
  • Weakness – this is the appearance of weakness, such as hunger, even starvation, that covers inner strength and power. Jesus was willing to look weak, because he was not weak. Appearances do not matter.
  • Lose your life – Jesus risked losing his life in the wilderness by fasting so long. Later he risked his life and lost his life on the cross. But that loss set the stage for eternal gain for all people.
  • Conform to God’s values – When Satan tempted Jesus to leap off the temple, it was a temptation to do what would excite people. What a spectacle, what a self-serving use of God’s power in Jesus. Jesus stayed true to his mission
  • Stand out against oppressive tyranny – Most Jews resented Roman tyranny, which was huge and oppressive, but the real tyranny in their lives was the tyranny of the Pharisees, who tried to run every breath of their lives – what they could eat, when they could walk, what they could wear, what sort of work they could do, and so forth. Jesus spent three years relentlessly dismantling the Pharisaical tyranny in full view of his disciples, preparing them to persist in that rebellion
  • Serve others (servanthood) – Jesus never put himself first, not even the night before his crucifixion. A human being faced with such a prospect might want to be pampered. Instead Jesus served his disciples by washing their feet.
  • Give to others – Jesus had riches nobody could take away, but he was still God. He could take whatever he wanted. That is what human power does. Instead, he gave healing, loving touch, sight, forgiveness, speech, and life itself to all who came into his presence. He never asked anyone for anything. He was always giving. 

                Each of us faces ongoing, maybe daily, challenges to our willingness to serve God before self. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we simply cannot give up self. We cannot mature to a place where we always evaluate our options the way God does. If Jesus had failed to do that, all would be lost. We would have no means of cleansing, no way to be made righteous, no grace, no forgiveness. If Jesus had caved in to Satan’s worldview even once, even at the very last minute after living and teaching and suffering, if Jesus had given up God’s worldview and absorbed Satan’s worldview, he would have climbed down off that cross to screams and hallelujahs and fainting women. He would have been scooped up by the Pharisees and washed and combed and hauled out regularly for miracle shows till the day of his natural death. And if he had done that, we would have no hope, because Jesus failed to stand firm in God’s worldview.

                Each of us is called to adopt God’s worldview. That is what Jesus meant when he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” We all want to do it, or we think we do. Then comes the day when we lose a friend or lose a job or simply can’t learn to love an enemy. It is too hard. Satan has worn us down and we cannot go on. That is when we need to be able to call on Jesus, who lived by God’s worldview without fail. He will carry us past the failures and wipe our tears and hold us up when we feel too weak to go on, because he does not fail.

                I wish I could say that I live by God’s worldview. I can only say that I have promised. I keep trying to put self last and put Jesus first, but I am weak. I intend to bring my cross along every day, but sometimes I just don’t pick it up. I want to give and give, but I can’t quite get over the fear of doing without. I have a long way to go. Because Jesus went the whole distance faithfully to the cross and beyond, there is hope for me. There is hope for you, too.

                What would you say your worldview is?

A Hymn For Meditation

Take My Life and Let It Be          

Take my life, that I may be
Consecrated Lord, to thee.
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Take my hands and let them move
At the impulse of thy love;
Take my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for thee.

Take my voice and let me sing
Always, only, for my King.
Take my lips and let them be
Filled with messages from thee.

Take my love; my Lord, I pour
At thy feet its treasure store;
Take myself, and I will be
Ever, only, all for thee.

                   Frances Havergal

  • Life, time, body, talents, heart. What can we hold back from Jesus and use in a secular way?
  • We are busy people. How can we possibly let all our time be used to praise Christ?
  • The hardest possible thing is to speak only for Christ. What will you not say if you are speaking for Christ? When will you be silent, because of Christ, and when will you speak up, if Christ is behind all your words?
  • If you love Christ above all else, how does that change the way you spend your money? How does that change the way you rear your children? How does that change your attitude toward people who disagree with you?

A Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me.  Psalm 50:23 

 

The first time I read this verse, printed all by itself in my Daily Texts, I was taken aback. I have read the Bible through several times, but it is truly startling sometimes to be reminded that simply reading through the Bible does not imprint every word in my heart. I read these words as if I had never seen them before. Thanksgiving as a sacrifice. I wondered what it could mean.

When I try to teach others how to understand the Bible, I always emphasize that every verse has context, and that the context is the best place to look for guidance in understanding the verse. I read the context. Psalm 50 is not long, and this verse is the concluding verse, so it didn’t take much time to read the whole thing. Imagine my surprise when I read verse 14: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” There in the center of the psalm is this idea again, the idea of thanksgiving as a sacrifice.

I read the Psalm again. Over years of Bible study following any number of guides and methods, I have learned that the most important principle is to keep reading until the Holy Spirit teaches me something. In fact, the Holy Spirit has taught me that the way to the truth is often simply to hammer persistently at the words. Read them more than once.

I began to see a pattern to the psalm. I noticed that verse 5 included the word sacrifice, too. In this verse, God says that his faithful followers had made a covenant with him by sacrifice. In verse 8 God is complaining about Israel, however, and even though he says “Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you” he then proceeds to say that he doesn’t like their sacrifices. God is angry. He says, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you.” Of course, this statement refers to the image of a god eating the burnt offerings of worshipers, and there are many references in the Old Testament to the notion that a burnt offering created a fragrant or pleasing aroma for God to enjoy. However, in this psalm, God says he does not enjoy those offerings.

Then he explains. God is displeased, even angry to the point of retribution. By verse 22, any doubt about the level of God’s outrages is cleared up as he says, “I will tear you apart.” That statement is graphic.

After reading the psalm yet again, I realized that the problem lay in people’s notion that when they sacrificed a bull they were giving up something. They were not giving up something. All those bulls and everything else in the world already belonged to God. They were not giving up something; they didn’t own anything to give up. It was supreme ego for them to feel deprived when they sacrificed a bull or a lamb or any other offering.

The people were bringing their offerings to God because they thought it was something they were required to do. They thought God would be mad if they didn’t do what he said, and they resented every bit of it. In fact, everything in their lives testified to their complete disdain for God and for each other.

You hate discipline

You make friends with a thief

You slander your own mother’s child

You thought that I was one just like yourself

 

Every person who brought an offering to God was griping internally at the obligation. Every one of them fretted that he had lost something by giving up this animal, and for what? Every person who put something on the altar was inwardly consumed with anger that he had to give up something he wanted for himself. They all felt needy. They all felt like victims of religious tyranny. In this psalm, God expresses his outrage that they are all so busy worshiping themselves that they cannot worship him, and he says they can just quit bothering with it. God wants one thing from them: he wants them to stop worshiping themselves.

This is why he says he wants a “sacrifice of thanksgiving.” This is why he says that “those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me.” They are the people who recognize that “every wild animal of the forest is [God’s].” They are the people who know that they can’t give God anything; it all belongs to him already. They are the people who thank God for all his gifts and for his provision for their every need and for the animal that they put on the altar. The people who give thanks for the sacrificial animal also give thanks for God’s sovereignty. They don’t feel they have lost something when they give God what is his already.

Jesus talked about the same thing. Jesus, God in flesh, said that people who wanted to follow him had to deny self first. In other words, they had to stop worshiping themselves and feeling like victims every time there was some inconvenience or persecution or loss.

We all do it. It comes time to put money in the offering envelope, and it is hard to let go of that money, because the credit card bill is shockingly larger than expected this month. The church asks for volunteers to help serve food to homeless people on Saturday morning, and it seems like a great imposition on the only day you can sleep in. The youth director asks if you are willing to be a chaperone for the summer youth mission project, and you think, “But I only have two weeks of vacation a year. There goes one of them.” We all think we have rights, and we think we have ownership, and we think God asks too much.

God doesn’t ask much at all. All he really asks is integrity. Honesty. He wearies of never hearing a “Thank you” when every good gift we have in life is a gift from him.

The sacrifice of thanksgiving is not a barely audible “Thank you” choked out through clenched lips by a pouting child. We give the sacrifice of thanksgiving when we pray as we are taught by Christ, the one who sacrificed himself for us on the cross, “Thy will be done.”

What do I deny if I deny self?

Sunday’s readings:  Genesis 7:1-7, 15-16     Psalm 22:23-31     Romans 4:13-25     Mark 8:31-38

Today’s Gospel sounds very stark if we pay close attention. Imagine that someone you love told you that he or she was truly destined to be executed by the people in power in your country. That would be very hard to take. That is why Peter looked at Jesus and said, “No! Can’t be! We can’t let this happen!”

It sounds harsh when Jesus replies to Peter by saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” Why did he reply to Peter that way? One commentator explained it well. Satan did not want Jesus to go to the cross, because Satan knew that the cross was his Waterloo. On the cross, looking like a defeated warrior, Christ would finally and permanently defeat Satan. In the worldview from God’s throne in eternity and infinity, Satan would be finished if Jesus went to the cross. Jesus saw that when Peter spoke so protectively, he became the unwitting dupe of Satan’s wish to prevent the cross and the resurrection. Jesus wasn’t insulting Peter. Jesus was speaking to the real motivator behind Peter’s words. That moment might almost be called an exorcism, because in that moment Satan almost had Peter in his grasp.

It only gets worse. It was bad news for the disciples to hear that their beloved teacher was doomed to die a miserable death. It had to be even worse news to hear they if they followed him, the same fate was in store for them.

It is common to hear Christian people say that they have some cross to bear. They will speak of arthritis as a cross to bear. Or maybe after the death of a loved one, a Christian will speak of that pain as a cross. Jesus was not teaching that we would all need to endure the normal problems of life on earth. When he said we must deny self, he did not mean that we would be stronger Christians if we gave up candy.

Jesus meant that in order to follow him, we need to stop worshiping self.

That is a huge demand. Every time we acquire a labor-saving device, we do it to make life easier for self. Does Jesus mean that we should refuse to use technology and the things that make life easier for us? If we have the income to acquire beautiful things like framed art and well-constructed furniture and a comfortable, attractive home, should we refuse to acquire such things? Does Jesus want us all to embrace poverty? Some Christian teachers have endorsed exactly that attitude. Is there some point in time when the state of the culture and the technology was more conducive to piety than all other times? Amish Christians seem to believe that.

The truth is that it is much easier to decide to give up candy or technology or riches than it is to give up self. Sad to say, but Satan can appeal to the self in a very pious and impoverished human being. Satan can whisper in the ears of that person’s heart and say, “You should be so proud of yourself. Look at all these heathens around you. Go tell them what you think of their wickedness.” That kind of satanic work inspired things like the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials.

The hard work of following Christ is to topple self off the throne of our hearts and keep self off that throne. God himself, in the person of the indwelling Holy Spirit, wants to sit on the throne of our hearts. When we deny self that throne, then we are available to serve Christ and to serve people as God intended. We can only experience our greatest fulfillment when we can let go of our need to praise our own spirituality. We need to turn our hearts completely over to Christ.

It isn’t easy to deny self the throne. Satan has an infinite bag of tricks to make us feel good about ourselves when we do anything obedient to Christ. When he starts making us feel that we have done something good, that is the moment he is picking up self and propping self up on the throne of our hearts, pushing the Holy Spirit aside. The cross we bear is the necessity to do what Jesus did – put God’s plan ahead of all our own plans.

What comes of doing this? Jesus said that if we do this, we get a real life. We don’t go through life wishing we had done something else. We don’t come to the end of life full of regret that we never really became what we were created to be. If we put Christ ahead of self we get life now and life everlasting. That is a promise worth living by.