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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

An Honorable Soldier

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people--Proverbs 14: 34 NIV

Not to say there's anything wrong with a day of grilling by the lake (a stereotypical Memorial Day weekend, according to sales circulars in my Sunday paper), but Memorial Day always gets me thinking about those who have/are currently serving in the Armed Forces.

When my family and I went to put flowers on my grandfather's grave Monday, I was happy to see that the majority of the graves were heavily decorated. I was also glad to see that most of the war veterans interred there had small American flags posted on their graves, in honor of their service.

After we had spent some time at my grandfather's grave, my family swung by to check on my great-grandparents' graves, as well as one of my great uncles, who died in a hospital in Normandy during World War II. It jogged my memory of a visit to this same cemetery many years ago, when I was still loosing teeth and wearing hot-pink sweaters. My parents were putting flowers on my great-grandparents' graves, and I wandered around a bit, reading interesting headstones nearby. As I remember it, I found two, within a couple of feet of each other, both marked as having died sometime early in WWII. As a small child who was already very obsessed with WWII stories, I remember wondering how they had died, and where they had served. I also remember, more vividly, that neither grave had a single decoration on it.

My sister and I had brought a couple of cheap plastic American flags which we had planned to put on our great uncle's grave (even though others in the family had probably already put a flag or two on it). However, after we saw these, we asked our parents if it would be alright if we put them on these graves, instead. It seemed like the right thing to do, since it looked as if nobody else had remembered them.

Were they good and honorable men? Had they represented their country well? I can't know. I'm certain that many men have died in war and been lionized afterward, even though they might not have deserved the treatment. I don't fool myself into believing that all soldiers are good men, but I must recognize the level of bravery it takes to put your life on the line for the safety of others. This deserves respect.

I suppose that is one reason why WWII stories, more than any other war era, have always peaked my interest. The enemy was clearly defined on the battlefield, lacked any of the chivalry we had known in earlier wars, and, most importantly, lacked any trace of traditional Christianity in it's worldview and actions. It was clearly an evil worth resisting--despite what any historical revisionist might have to say about it.

In contrast, though American culture still had a lot to learn at the time of the war, the majority of soldiers were very young and at least morally conservative, if not devout, praying Christians. Most of the true stories I've heard about that era were tales of people sincerely trying to do what is right and oppose what is wrong. Imperfect though they were, they deserve honor for their honorable conduct.

An Honorable Soldier

What is an honorable soldier to me? Well, in my mind, there are good soldiers, and there are good men. Some men can be good at doing their jobs, but they are not honorable unless they do what is morally right.

It brings dishonor on all soldiers, if not an entire nation, if some soldiers do what is morally objectionable in the fulfillment of their jobs. This includes things like raping, pillaging, or torturing civilians; showing disregard for the feelings and suffering of others; or abusing fellow soldiers or civilians who are complying with the armed forces. I see no need to go further in listing grievances. The news media reminds us, almost daily, of any such abuse that is known. This kind of news seems to be turning a section of the population against the armed forces. This should not be! It just proves the Bible right again:

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people--Proverbs 14: 34 NIV

As Americans, we should remember the sacrifice that has been made in securing our freedoms, and we should teach our children not to take their freedoms for granted. After all, if our children forget what they have, it will be lost, and more wars will have to be fought in order to win it back again. This is the value, in my opinion, of decorating the graves of those who have gone before us. This is more important than a day at the lake or a backyard grilling party.

Over the last few years, I've heard a lot of deprecatory talk about the armed forces, especially in the news and on college campuses. It seems that America is beginning to forget the need for them. I wish that the military was not necessary, but I've never known mankind to settle down and stop trying to hurt or cheat their neighbors. As long as mankind is following their own desires, instead of following God, wars will occur. We should personally encourage and thank those soldiers that we know, who have behaved honorably and have proudly served their country. They need our encouragement and our moral leadership, not rejection and hatred.

You see, I have more connections to the military than just the great uncle who died in the war. I can also include (and this is just a partial list) three other great uncles, my grandfather, two uncles, and one second cousin. Not all of them have served in wars or even overseas, but I felt their service deserves recognition.

I'd love to hear your stories, either about your own military service, or that of your family members, if you'd like to leave a comment on this post.

Have you hugged a soldier today?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

My Vision isn't Blurry...

And no, I'm not talking about glasses prescriptions.

I turned the tv off last night, and felt dazed by the sheer number of assaults on my senses, all attempts to get me to blur the line I've drawn between good and evil, sin and righteousness. Nearly every television show, advertisement, and news story had a political or moral agenda that opposed my conservative Christian worldview. Even the magazine I was paging through was clamoring for my attention and begging me to blur the line.

No wonder so many Christians today have a hard time doing what is right. There is a constant barrage of images that tell us it's okay to cheat on our spouses, to engage in perverse lifestyles, to be alcoholics or drug abusers, and so forth. There is always an excuse or a gloss of heroism or hurt feelings that covers over a world of wrongs. It is no longer culturally acceptable to tell someone he or she is wrong or is hurting others. At the same time, it is still not culturally acceptable to hurt people or feel bad about anything....And we wonder why we're so messed up?

I don't mean to give my fellow Christians too many excuses. The Bible doesn't say anywhere that we are controlled by our environment. It actually says, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12: 21 NIV). In other words, we can help it when we feel ourselves being pulled in.

The Disease

I think when Christians give in, they don't give in suddenly. We listen to the barrage of sexual images and other shocking and offensive things, until we become desensitized to the acid potency of the messages. We can hear things that would have once made us sick to our stomachs or turned our faces red with shame, and turn around and go about our daily lives without batting an eyelash. Before we know it, we've begun to rationalize and excuse behavior that is just plain wrong--and when that has happened, we begin to be enticed by things we'd never thought we would be interested in doing.

Entering a hermitage is not an option for us. Christians cannot withdraw from the world, because the world needs what we have. We would be stingy if we didn't share with them the truth about Christ. He is the only one who can help them--as He has been the only one who has helped us. But how do we live in the world without being "overcome by evil"?

The Antidote

I think we should be watching for the first signs that evil is threatening to take us down. Christians should be constantly on guard about what they are overlooking in their own lives, because it is through those "chinks" in the armor that we can be pulled in. Even though God has put us out there as a sort of messenger envoy to the whole world, He did not put us here to be tempted by evil. He has given us a first line of defense, and that is vigilance.

I can think of two passages that apply to this situation. The first was written by James, the son of Joseph and Mary, who grew up in the same household with Jesus:
When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (James 1: 13-19 NIV)
What is James saying here? I can see a lot of implications. God cannot be tempted by evil, because He sees that evil leads only to death. God also does not tempt us, because He knows that evil leads us to death. Evil enters our lives through a process of rationalization and legitimization, until we have entertained a thought long enough to carry it out. Once we have done the sin, we are doomed to death as long as we continue to be deceived and have not repented of it. So what's our defense? Seeing evil for what it is, and refusing to be deceived in the first place. Christians must be able to see sin the same way that God does, and that can only be overcome by changing our focus.

James shifts the focus to God in the next part of the passage. God gives us things that lead to life--they are good and perfect, coming from above, and leading to better and better things. How different life is, when we've focused on God, and not what "seems right" or "looks good" to us. As long as we are focused on the here-and-now, our own lives, our own desires, and our own sense of right and wrong, we will be deceived. If we want to "overcome evil with good" we have to start by putting our foot down when that first thought tries to make an inroad into our lives.

The second passage I have in mind is in a letter from the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth, in Greece:
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. (1 Corinthians 10:13 NIV)

We have the power to overcome the evil in the world, and not be overcome by it. We can't do this by vigilance alone, however. We are still fallible human beings. Christians have been given a secret weapon, beyond common sense. We have God to warn us, to guide us, and to give us a way out. Nothing can make us do wrong. There is always a way out. We are not controlled by our environment!

I'm talking to myself, here, as well. After I turned off the television last night and felt an instant sense of relief, I wondered why I had allowed myself to endure the barrage in the first place. Don't I have power over my own remote control? No wonder I felt worn-out, and a little guilty for allowing all of that junk--definitely not "good and perfect thing[s]"--into my mind.

It's time for me to be a little more "prudish" in the eyes of the world. After all, they aren't looking out for me in the end. Their eyes are too focused on their own desires to look out for my good. God is looking out for me, and He has warned me. Now it's my turn to heed the warning and take the escape route.

My vision isn't blurry. I know what I'm looking at, and I know what the Bible says about it. I need to keep God's truth ever foremost in my mind, letting Him test what I see to see if it's "good," and letting Him lead me away from the bad that might destroy my life.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

To Obey Is Better than Sacrifice

I found a website (well, it popped up in my ad banner and I decided to type in the address and investigate it) about a week ago. It was a beautiful site with attractive pictures of women and children running through fields of flowers, and so on. Beautiful as it seemed on the surface, I'll admit I smelled death there.

The site touted that being "saved" as a "Christian" meant living well and doing good. It insisted that it was "almost impossible" to go to Hell, because everyone was "predestined" to go to Heaven. The way to Heaven, according to them, was doing good, according to the teachings of Jesus, Buddha, and others. The way to Hell was an outright rejection of doing good of any kind. By extension, I take it that means that if you do any good at all, you're guaranteed a place in Heaven.

These are broad and heretical claims, but I'm worried that some Christians out there are not truly equipped to dissect and discard such claims.

A Sense of Fairness

I read the stuff about how to get into Heaven on this website, and if I didn't know any better, I would feel cheated. Don't all people do some good in their lifetimes? We try to portray historical figures like Hitler in all-black terms, but surely they too were capable of loving their own mothers or doing other such "good" things. According to the teachings of this site I found, even Hitler was "predestined" for Heaven, and despite his bad deeds, he found it hard to go to Hell.

This irks my personal sense of fairness, though. If I did more "good" than Hitler did, and he never even said he was sorry about anything, why would he get the same reward as I should, in the end? Is there no punishment for mass murder, theft, and other criminal excesses? Beyond that, is there no punishment for little hurtful things done in secret, even if no one ever found out? Doesn't God see, and punish? Isn't God just?

I mean, even Moses taught that God is just. As he passed the cloak of leadership to Joshua, Moses is quoted as singing,
I will proclaim the name of the LORD. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he. They have acted corruptly toward him; to their shame they are no longer his children, but a warped and crooked generation. (Deuteronomy 32: 3-5 NIV)
God is by nature just, and as we see in the last part of this passage, He is quite willing to disown "a warped and crooked generation." God doesn't do that to be cruel; He does that to be just. Any other response would discredit Him and everything He's ever taught us to believe about Him, because it would be unequal treatment of one person over another. When we are wicked, we should expect some sort of equally-enforced consequence...or is that a concept beyond even the smallest child's understanding?

The Necessity of Sacrifice

Justice is only the beginning of the story. We all instinctively know that evil deserves some sort of punishment, even if it means that we also deserve that punishment. We also long for a way, especially an easy way, to obliterate the evils of the past so we can have a "clean slate" and no future punishment to worry about.

As children we hid our transgressions, and hated tattle-tales. We knew what wrong is, but rather than "fess up" and face the consequences, we were more than willing to do more harm to cover up what we'd already done. Eventually, when we were more mature, we developed a sense that doing more evil to cover up the past evil was only making it worse. It looked better to us to distance ourselves from past evil by doing good, such as confessing to our parents that we broke the vase--rather than framing a brother, who would have gotten angry and turned us in, anyway. We almost had the right idea.

Doing good after evil might smooth over other people's memory of the past, but it does not in fact erase the past. Even as children, we knew that once the bat which broke the vase was used in the house, there was no un-using it. Not even confession and a lot of glue put the vase back the way it was. What can truly erase what can't be undone? Can we ever do enough good to undo a wrong?

So many of the world's religions deal with this very question. Islam teaches that followers of Allah should do good, so at the final judgment their good deeds can outweigh the bad in the scales of judgment. In this way, a Muslim can pass judgment and enter Heaven. Hindus teach that we should do good, so that we can be reincarnated into a higher form of life, and eventually so that we can reach nirvana, their idea of the afterlife. Buddhists teach that good works and self-discipline will allow a person to reach enlightenment (a concept very similar to the Hindu nirvana). Unfortunately, none of them can truly assure followers that their good works will be great enough to overcome their bad works (however, note: they all have a concept of evil, and that it must be overcome, not tolerated). Followers of these religions must always wonder and fear that they haven't been "good enough" and that they will be forced to suffer consequences for their evil deeds, even if those deeds were very far in the past. Christianity is unique, in that it answers the "good enough" question. Bluntly.

God says that no amount of good deeds can undo the evil of the past. We all have such a past, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3: 23 NIV), and that past, which has made us "fall short" has also separated us from the presence of God:
Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things." (Isaiah 59: 1-3 NIV)
We cannot expect God, who by nature is just, to overlook evil, and reward us for behaving badly. Our sins are an indelible mark against us, and unless something changes, the Bible says that they will always come between us and Heaven. We are not universally "predestined" for Heaven. If anything, our actions predestine us for Hell.

The Bible, unlike other religious texts, proposes a different kind of fix for sin--the idea of substitutionary atonement. Here's how it works. God, as our Creator, gives life. No one except God has the power to impart life. So when we sin, we are in essence rejecting both the very nature of God and life. The punishment for this is death, as the Bible says, "For the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23a NIV).

The universal penalty of death can be paid early, through the symbolic dedication of the blood of some other living thing. Shed blood, the universal symbol of life, acts as a covering before God, turning away His anger at our disobedience and rejection. This has been the penalty for sin since Adam and Eve first sinned, when God killed an animal to use its skin as a covering for them (Genesis 3: 21). Later, God established animal sacrifice as a legal ordinance among the Israelites for the symbolic atonement of sin.

The Centrality of Obedience

When God insisted that an animal must be killed to atone for every evil, He wasn't doing it to order needless mass-slaughter of animals. This penalty was meant to drive home the gravity of the situation--it was meant to be a deterrent for evil. The prophet Samuel put it into succinct words when he told a rebellious King Saul,
Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15: 22 NIV)
God would rather we not commit sin. He would rather that substitutionary atonement not be necessary.

Let there be no misunderstanding--the penalty for sin is banishment from God's presence, which is the same thing as death, or eternity in Hell. Since we all sin, we all have Hell in our futures. That is, if we sin and do not have someone else to pay our penalty.

The Way to Heaven

The problem with animal sacrifices, which made them insufficient, is that people took the whole practice for granted. It became an outward practice, but did not lead to obedience. After all, there is no easier way than to let an animal take the fall for something we did. People had arrived at the point where killing an animal was so meaningless that they could go and do that, and turn around and commit the sin, without feeling any fear or conviction over their sinful behavior. It had become a works kind of salvation, without real obedience to God, or any attempt to please Him. How, then, was this religious practice different from any of the other works type salvation messages being taught elsewhere in the world?

This is why God sent His son, Jesus Christ, as the ultimate sacrifice for the atonement of sins. He was God; therefore, He was innocent of sin. Jesus was unjustly sentenced to death, though He was as innocent of wrongdoing as any sacrificial lamb. Because of this, God raised Him from the dead, and because of this sacrifice, we can call on Him to cover our sins with His atonement. No animal sacrifice is necessary any longer, because we have Christ.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8: 1-4 NIV)
Therefore, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12 NIV).

As I explained, earlier, we can now see that all people know, from a very young age, that sin brings a penalty that must be paid. While many other religions tell us that we can pay it by doing generous amounts of good, they cannot offer absolute security from that penalty. Why? Because the penalty is too great to repay by our own power, and it cannot be escaped. We have no other choice but to fall on the mercy of God. We can be thankful that God is good and infinitely merciful, as well as just. He gave us a way out from under our penalty, through the sacrifice that Jesus Christ gives us, to fulfill the just and universal requirements that He has imposed on us all.

Returning to what that website promised, I hope you can now see what a complex lie it really is offering. By saying that we don't have to follow Jesus alone, but can also follow people like Buddha, it places us back in jeopardy of Hell by condemning us to spend a lifetime of "doing good and living rightly," trying to pay back our penalty. Through Christ, real Christians are free from a works salvation of this type.

Does this mean that nothing more is required of us? Certainly not! We must still obey God. Remember that sacrifice is not what God most desires of us--that's why He willingly paid that price, so that we no longer must. God has always desired our obedience, and that desire has not gone away since Christ's death and resurrection. Animal sacrifice is no longer necessary, therefore we are free to get on with the business of obeying God.

Being "saved" as a Christian is not to be sanctified by good works; rather, it is to be sanctified through Christ's sacrifice. Now, with Christ's help, we can not only enter Heaven, but also can walk away from further sinning. Unless we surrender our lives in obedience to God, we are just turning Christ's sacrifice into another works salvation--and that can easily blended with other religions, on pretty-looking websites.