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Friday, June 29, 2012

Back to the Unmovable Christian

The Gospel speaks of simple-sounding concepts, like truth, love, kindness, charity, and more, but this is where the simplicity ends.  When trying to hold to these concepts, we all find that they will require sacrifice and toil of a nature that takes us far outside our comfort zone.  They are, ultimately, a super-natural, and super-societal set of principles for our behavior.  When we keep to them, with the Holy Spirit giving us strength and guidance, we soon find that God is making us into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5: 17 NKJV).

What does the Bible mean by a new creation?  It certainly doesn't mean that we operate outside the natural laws (like gravity) and governments of this world.  It is just describing the fact that we hold to a set of higher principles that exist above and beyond the normal boundaries of this world. In essence, we are trying to be stricter with ourselves than others may be. Though others might exercise what they call "freedoms" that are acceptable within the laws of governments or possible within the laws of nature, we hold to tighter boundaries that God has drawn for us, and we see that they are good for us (Psalm 16: 6 NIV).

Though we take comfort in these guidelines, we still meet with challenges, especially when the world tells us that our viewpoint is wrong, or even sinful.  That's the new line of attack--if you say someone is wrong, or that you disagree with that person, or even if you merely say you hold yourself to a different standard, you are now told that you are being unkind, unchristian, condemning, and sinfully proud to hold such a belief.  The aim is to get you to back down completely and recant what you believe most strongly.

When I take a firm stance on something, I try to be kind and disagree pleasantly, struggling to be gentle against my own fleshly impulses to take my pound of flesh. I'm not saying it's easy, but this is the kind of treatment God requires of us--blessing our enemies and being gracious and kind, even to people who have hurt and used us (Luke 6: 27-30).  However, even in the midst of gentle words and reason, one thing is guaranteed: I will hold to what I know is right.  God has called me to stand firm, and He will answer for me (Matthew 10: 22; Luke 12: 11-12).  God has only required that I obey, and that I stay faithful, while He protects me and stands with me.

What answer can really be given when basic Christian beliefs are called unchristian? This only looks like an attempt to redefine what Christian means, according to a new, obviously more relaxed standard, in which Christianity is meek and mild to the point of being cowardly, non-confrontational, and weak towards sin.

Let me remind you that "Christian" was coined as a perhaps derogatory term to describe followers of Christ and His teachings (Acts 11: 26).  Christ is the original standard, which we still hold.  That standard has always been mocked and criticized.  The words and tactics might be different from generation to generation, but really nothing has changed!
Stand Firm. Resist the Winds of Opinion.

Some might be startled to see Christians, by their definition weak and non-confrontational, who take a sudden firm and apparently strident stand against the socially-acceptable standard.  However, it shouldn't be odd at all.  Jesus modeled this for Christians, and the prophets modeled it before Christ came for us all.  The way of the Lord, which has been described carefully in His Word, has continually pushed people to take a radical stand against the status quo, especially where sin and rebellion lies thick and heavy on everything.

The Gospel is correct, but not always politically correct.  Christianity is essentially peaceful, but it is often met with violence.  There are those who cloud these issues, but they are only trying to reshape the name of Christ for motives that should be clear to everyone.  So, I'm calling all Christians to take a firm stand with the Lord, being gentle but unshakeable in their faith when under attack, as Christ modeled for us. Let us go back to being the Unmovable Faithful, the Stubbornly Obedient, and the Persistent Follower of Christ.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Repentance Game, Part 2: The Plowman Who Looked Back

 Last time, I defined the godly form of repentance and spoke about the need for a Christian to be actively and willingly involved in the act of obedience, so that God can bring about the transformation of that individual.  That sounds good and everything, but it isn't the whole story.  If it was left up to our willpower alone to bring about obedience, we probably couldn't do it when the temptation got too strong for us. That's when we need special help.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Repentance Game, Part 1: Genuine Change vs. Playing the Game

There are many different wrong interpretations about the Christian concept of repentance after sin, but in my opinion, the worst of all is the idea that the concept is the same thing as merely saying you're sorry to God and having done with it. With such a noncommittal concept in mind, it can become easy to make excuses for continued sin, so long as each time sin is committed, we tell God that we are sorry for doing it.  This is a trap, and it has the potential to destroy us if we let it.

Repentance and Conversion

The word repentance itself means, in its most historical sense, to become penitent or to be filled with sorrow and regret.  So, in that sense, it is being correctly used to mean the feeling of being sorry, which causes us to apologize.  However, God has not called us to be continually sorry or ashamed about the sin in our life, to constantly apologize, or to constantly have something in our lives we need to apologize to Him for doing.  He doesn't want us to live a life of regret, feeling as if we have not quite "made up for what we did." God would rather we live a life of freedom, without the burden of shame.

God starts with people who are filled with regret, but He wants us to become victors over this sin and free from its shameful bonds.  I believe the word that historically conveys this information with the most accuracy is the word conversion.  It literally means "to turn around" on the path, a person who has gone through a "transformation or significant change."  In other words, God wants us to repent, but more than that, He wants us to become a new creature, with a new set of goals, having abandoned the old life and turned our backs on it.  After such a transformation, there is no longer any shame for an old sin that is no longer a part of us.  With our gaze fixed on the Lord, we can begin to live in His happiness and freedom, putting all those regrettable things behind our backs and out of our sight.

Genuine Change vs. Playing the Game

Beyond those who repent in the true sense of regretting and apologizing, there are plenty of people out there who know how to effectively simulate repentance, perhaps even beginning to deceive themselves about it.  They can appear to be genuinely sorry, to be filled with genuine regret, but really they are only producing the emotions that will get the other person to stop being angry, or to stop making demands of them so they can return to doing what they want to do.  Perhaps such people are briefly touched by feelings of regret, but the strongest drive they feel is the desire to stop the immediate, present pain of being in trouble, which is a pain to themselves.  This regret without empathy overlooks the pain of others, and fails to acknowledge God's sense of injustice, and His need to defend both Himself and others who were wronged.

Perhaps this game of repentance works with human beings, but God is not so easily deceived.  He looks at the heart, and not merely the facial expression, and the thoughts and not merely the behavior (1 Samuel 16: 7).  God knows the difference between those who say they are sorry, even to Him, and those who genuinely feel regret.  The repentance God requires is motivated, not by a sorrow over getting in trouble, but rather by a sorrow over transgressing His law and harming Him and others in the process. As it is written, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death," (2 Corinthians 7: 10 NIV).

This godly sorrow and repentance allows God to bring about the rest of the work--the transformation, the conversion, of the person (Please note, here, that I am not talking about salvation, but rather the change that is seen in the life, attitudes, hopes, habits and behavior of a person who has reached out to God and asked that Christ's salvation cover his life).

 Without sorrow and regret motivated by a desire to keep God's law, there is no will in the person to turn aside from the sins that continue to tempt and destroy.  There needs to be a desire to turn away from the old life and a pursuit of the new life that God brings.  As the Bible goes on to say, "See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter," (2 Corinthians 7: 11 NIV).  Without the will of the individual desiring and actively pursuing righteousness, God cannot work, because He has chosen not to take away our free will.  He will not make us obey Him, but He will help those who wish to obey Him, so that they can learn to obey Him more.

In short, in order for us to be transformed and freed from the shame of sin (and the endless cycle of the repentance game), we must first learn to loathe and regret what transgresses against God's law and nature, and then we must actively desire to obey God. There is still one more ingredient necessary in this transformation process, and that is the active participation of God in our lives, through the action of the Holy Spirit and our conscience.  I will write in-depth about that next time.

Meanwhile, mull over what I have written and feel free to leave me a comment about your thoughts so far.  Thanks for reading! 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Heavenly Reward from a Child's Perspective

When my sister and I were children, we used to correct each other with a "Christian" hand signal we had developed, which baffled adults around us. It was a prying motion, usually coupled with a deep frown.  Do you fail to see the Christian connection?  I don't blame you.  It had a convoluted origin that will take me awhile to explain, but bear with me. It's worth it.

The hand signal literally meant that the corrected person had just done something that displeased God, and said person needed to stop it, quickly.  But the prying motion, even more literally, meant that God was prying jewels out of the misbehaving person's crown in Heaven (the crown referenced in this verse, for instance: 1 Corinthians 9:25).

"Yeah, I guess I shouldn'ta done it..."
I don't know where we got this idea.  I suspect it was from the Wonder Works production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which I seem to remember Edmund Peevensie receives a plainer crown than his siblings, perhaps because he had been so rotten.  It could also be that we conjectured (from Sunday school lessons about treasures in Heaven) that blessings from God are like piles of jewels; therefore, disapproval from God is like jewels withdrawn from our stores (Matthew 6: 19-21).

Now, the Bible doesn't talk about God demoting people in Heaven in retribution every time they steal their sister's toy or say something hateful, or even when they graduate to worse crimes. However, the hand signal my sister and I used was a useful thing because it kept God's wrath in the forefronts of our youthful minds.  The fact is, God might not do something like removing jewels from our crowns when we continue in rebellion after meeting Him, but do we ever think about what God might do instead?

It's also important to point out that it wasn't the spiritual, invisible crown that was the important thing; it was the jewels contained in that crown.  The prying out of those jewels was not as threatening as the threat of God's disapproval connected to such an act.  In an imaginative, childlike way, we tried to put a tangible measure on God's approval rating of our behavior.  You can ignore the symbolism if you wish, but the thought behind it is crucial to faith at any age.  The signal meant that we cared what God thought, and His imagined frown of disapproval brought shame and even fear.  Frequently, the prying signal was all that was necessary to get our behavior back on track.

What if God did act immediately to punish our willful disregard for His rules? (Sometimes He does.)  What would He do?  If that thought is not troubling enough, what about our great reward in Heaven? It is preposterous to believe, if we are Christians, that our actions today only affect this present life, and do not touch eternity as well.

By the way, there does seem to be some sketchy evidence in the Bible that there are ranks or levels of positions in Heaven.  Christ explains this to His disciples, who argued about their position in the kingdom of Heaven.  According to Christ, if you want to be highest in the rankings, you must be the least, and the servant of all, especially God (Mark 9: 33-35; Luke 14: 7-11).  To make it clear, the rankings are determined by works, but salvation is not earned in this way.

So, to summarize things, God's approval of what we do is something we as Christians should desperately seek after, first to avoid His wrath, and secondly to earn a greater reward in Heaven than anything we can enjoy on earth.  If it takes a child's example to learn this, we should be ready to accept the challenge.  One thing I can't answer from Scripture is the question of how many jewels are placed in your crown in Heaven for doing good deeds.  I suppose we will just have to figure that out later on.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Suffering With Christ

"To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps" (1 Peter 2: 21 NIV).

I finished reading In His Steps last night.  While I can see how the text is a bit dated and some of the subject matter is focused on the big issues of the time, I still would recommend it to modern readers.  The central theme of the whole book is this verse in 1 Peter, which draws a straightforward connection between suffering quietly under unjust treatment and following Christ.  In fact, the author postulates that a Church that is not willing to suffer for Christ is a Church that has strayed too far from its purpose.

This is a very important point to make, and a frequently-sidestepped one in churches both then and now.  It is basically human to desire a life free from suffering.  Most frequently, sin comes as a shortcut to try to avoid discomfort or discipline of some kind.  Then, when our sins have caused us suffering, we come to Christ to find help.  We want freedom from the doom of sin, and in Christ we can find that.  He can help us hate sin, as we grow to love Him more and more, and He can give us the strength to walk away from the old wicked habits as well.

Eventually we find that being a Christian doesn't mean that suddenly everything is peachy keen.  Perhaps unexpectedly, we discover that we must also suffer for Christ, and that realization can create a crisis in our spiritual walk.  What is the payback?  What is the use of following Christ if it hurts so much?  What makes being a Christian preferable to being a non-Christian when both suffer?

These are deep, probing questions that every generation, and probably every individual Christian has asked at one point or another.  I can answer from personal experience with this, since that day when I pledged to let WWJD speak over my entire life.  Here's the simple reason why we insist on following the pattern Christ set for us, even if it's painful: It is right, and God rewards what is right.

I know that seems overly simplistic, but it is the pure and simple truth of the matter.

The problem we have with suffering for Christ is our sense of injustice over the whole thing.  If we aren't careful, we can begin to feel as if we have been cheated out of something of value, particularly that illusive thing called "living the full life."  It can appear to be easier to live as a non-Christian.  They seem to be able to do whatever enters their mind, often without visible consequences.  It is enough sometimes to make our hearts say, "Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence.  All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments" (Psalm 73: 13, 14 NIV).

Well, so they seem.  The problem with feeling this way is that we are looking only at the present time, rather than sighting far enough into the future that we see the punishment coming to them.  When we were children, it was easier to take a blow from a sibling when we knew that Mom or Dad was nearby, and watching, because we were confident that justice was certain, and not long in coming.  It can be hard to endure day after day with apparently no justice from God, but it is just as certainly coming.  He has promised and He has been faithful in all of His promises (Deuteronomy 32: 35; 2 Peter 3: 9).

The psalmist who wrote Psalm 73 discussed all of this, and found hope in the promised end of the wicked.  God has allowed such people to feel they are prospering for a time, but their end is sudden ruin (Psalm 73: 18-23).  It is much better to be one of the ones who is still standing, strong and unafraid, when such people get their just punishment.  Why?  Because God will be standing with us.

I'm not saying it's easy.  It hurts.  It does.  I've joined in with Asaph a few times and cried out to the Lord for justice.  I don't want you to think that I'm minimizing your suffering for the cross of Christ.  I'm just saying hang in there, and you'll see.  It is worth the cost!  The burden is not too heavy to bear, because Christ bears it with us.
"Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 29-30 NIV).