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Monday, November 26, 2012

Staying Grateful in the Consumerism Season

I recently read one of those "Snark Jokes" that circulate on Facebook and Pinterest, which read, "Only in America do people knock each other down to get the latest gadget just one day after giving thanks for what they already own." It makes you think, doesn't it?  In contrast, the Bible says, "But godliness with contentment is great gain," (1Timothy 6: 6 NIV). 

I was praying this weekend and felt God reminding me to stay grateful this season.  It's so easy to fall victim to "want-itis" and to feel bad about budget constraints these days.  Even if we've learned to be satisfied with less this year, the commercials, sales circulars, automated emails, and web ads (especially this weekend) can drive that peace far from us. It's important that we don't lose sight of the important things in the middle of "Consumerism Season."

God's History of Faithfulness

The Bible instructs us, "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you,'" (Hebrews 13: 5 NIV). We don't have to worry about where things are coming from, because God is going to take care of us--and that is a much better guarantee than a large bank account or a great storehouse of gold or even food.

If we've known God for awhile, we have seen this pattern over and over again in our lives.  In those moments when we feel as if our dreams of the perfect Christmas are far from happening (or beyond our means) it is important to stop and remember how God has been faithful through the years, daily providing for us and sustaining us, and not just during the holidays.

See God's Provision

It's also a good exercise to look for God's provision in our lives today.  What do you already have that is clearly a blessing from God?  I'm not just talking about the latest iPhone, and I might not even be talking about friends and family members.  There are tons of little things God blesses us with every day, even right now, from a nice view to indoor heating, plus, He provides our daily needs, which Jesus called "our daily bread."

I don't mean to be trite, but before we let retailers or our peers make us feel bad for not owning the "latest thing" we should count our blessings. After all, the latest thing is always going away, but God's provision in the present is constant.  The Bible says, " I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread," (Psalm 37: 25 NIV).

Give Thanks in the Midst of Current Needs

The last thing we ought to do to stay grateful this season is also the hardest: praise God, even in the face of current needs.  The Bible reminds us again and again that God is faithful, but when we are facing dire needs, such as serious financial struggles, it can be difficult to keep things in their proper perspective.  That is where praise helps us.

I heard a sermon this weekend that touched upon this. The pastor spoke about the "garment of praise" in Isaiah 61: 3, contrasting the symbolism of fresh garments with the ancient Hebrew custom of tearing the outer garment at the neck to express extreme anguish or grief. The pastor noted that praising God brings healing in our spirit, symbolically replacing the "torn garment" of despair. Praise heals us from feelings of despair and grief at our current circumstances by focusing our eyes beyond that, on the God who is powerful enough to overcome obstacles, who is infinitely trustworthy, and who has brought us hope through His Son, Jesus Christ.

God was there before the current circumstances (like holiday stress) arose, and He will still be there when they are gone.  He intends to carry us through it all, as long as we stand with Him.  Isn't that an awesome thought?

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Brief Word on Authority...

I tried to write a longer blog post for today, but after I wrote it, I felt it was too long and involved.  It seemed to belong in a scholarly journal somewhere, not this blog. I might revise it and bring it out later, but for now, I needed to get back to the basics.

Stepping back from it all, I realized that the biggest point I was trying to make is that the basis of all authority comes from God, who in His very nature established a dividing line between sin and righteousness, truth and lie.  This is not changed or dimmed by the authority He has given to earthly kings, lawmakers, teachers, parents, etc.  Here's the text I'm studying (Romans 13: 1-5) :
 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
When the Bible says that Christians are to submit to the governing authorities that God has established, it is not saying that those authorities should replace God as the final authority in our lives. It is also not suggesting that we respect the governing authorities to the extent that we reject God's authority.  Rather, by continuing to do right, even if those in authority do what is wrong and allow others to do what is wrong, we hold ourselves to a higher standard of respect for authority--respecting the highest authority, which is God. In essence, we go beyond what is required by lesser authorities and stay well within the boundaries of their laws.

When this passage calls governing authorities "agents of [God's] wrath," it is not to say that the governing authorities always share God's feelings about sin; however, they are sometimes used by God to bring punishment on those who reject authority and law.  This is not to say that lawmakers go around randomly punishing people without even knowing why they are doing it. We are talking about natural consequences, when doing things "our own way" eventually puts us at odds with those in authority over us.  There is a reason why God called certain things wrong in the first place, and even the most lenient of lawmakers agree with God's ideas at some point along the line.

Do you have more to add?  I'd love to hear your insights in the comments section.

Monday, November 12, 2012

An Argument for Limited Freedom and the Authority of Law

A short time ago, I saw some postings on a social media site concerning freedom and rights in the United States, and it deeply alarmed me.  Since today is Veteran's Day (observed) in this country, it seemed like a good time to talk about this. It also furthers my mission with this blog to sort out bad arguments for the edification of others.

So, to begin, I'll summarize what was said. This individual postulated that freedom meant that no one had a right to tell him what to do, and that he should have a right to do whatever he wanted, especially with his own body.  When another individual attempted to argue with him, he added that the law was, in effect, trying to impose another person's Christian values on him, which he didn't think was fair.  (I would have given you a direct quote, but this seemed like a clearer and cleaner way to present what was said, without naming names or publishing profanity.)

So, this argument boils down to three main points of contention, if I understand correctly: (1) Does political freedom mean that we have a right to do whatever we want? (2) Are there circumstances where the law should not apply to us because the decision arguably does not affect others? and (3) Do law making bodies, have a right, in all fairness, to impose their values upon others under the law?

I will try to answer each of these subjects carefully and reasonably, although I cannot be unbiased.  I welcome you to keep reading, even if you don't fully agree with me, and hope you will leave me a comment if I missed something important.

Freedom: Limited or Unlimited?

Is is true that freedom really means that we have a right to do whatever we want?

The Christian perspective says that God, being the Creator and Ruler of the Universe, has the right to demand an answer for everything we do.  He also has a right to impose punishment on us when we do what He doesn't approve, and we do not have a choice but to accept this punishment (Psalm 11:4-7).  That doesn't imply unlimited freedom on our part; it is only freedom within the boundaries He has set (Psalm 16:5,6).

God is the only one with the possibility of unlimited freedom, and yet He has imposed limits on Himself, the first being His decision to give each one of us free will.  Although God could take over our bodies and force us to do things His way, He chose not to allow that as a possibility.  Other similar limits include His rule against allowing unredeemed sin in His presence (Psalm 15), and accepting anything less serious than blood as atonement for sin (Genesis 4: 3-7).  He takes these rules pretty seriously, because His strict adherence to them ultimately sent His Son to the cross as atonement for sin (Philippians 2: 6-8).

From the secular perspective, I could argue that one person's freedom cannot supersede or take away from the freedoms enjoyed by others, and thus the general population's freedom limits the freedoms of the individual.  Thus, it should not be legal for one person to pilfer another person's belongings at will, because this infringes on the other individual's freedom to own and enjoy personal property (this definition creates a need for anti-theft laws).  Similarly, one individual's enjoyment of personal property should not prevent another individual's enjoyment of his or her personal property (thus creating a need for zoning laws, noise ordinances, waste disposal and human burial laws, etc.).  These situations tend to require a whole lot of specifics to close loopholes, however, which can weaken this argument over time.

To summarize, this point, I would have to say that the open-ended claim that freedom is unlimited is false and unsupportable.  It must be limited, or it will lead to anarchy and the destruction of general freedom while allowing only a few individuals to experience something like freedom.  How it is handled (from a Christian or secular perspective) may determine who winds up on top or how many enjoy this limited freedom.

Unlimited Freedom Where Others Are Not Affected

The next step in the argument is that sometimes, unlimited freedom does not affect others, and in those cases, the law should not intrude.  I can answer this one from both the Biblical and the secular perspectives as well.

Christians do not limit the definition of sin to only things which affect others.  Ultimately, sin is a personal transgression against laws that stand between the individual and God Himself (Psalm 51:4).  That means that personal decisions, such as the decision to deny the Lordship of Christ (Psalm 2), are also defined as sins, which God can judge.  By extension, the political viewpoint of Christianity says that individual sins are just as prosecutable as sins in public, through a purity of law that applies to the individual just as much as it does to the general public.

The secular arguments here draw upon circumstantial proofs, attempting to establish generalizable absolutes from these specific situations.  It could be argued from the secular perspective that no decision affects only one individual, and therefore there will always be ramifications and changes in the course of history that will determine whether a thing should be allowed by law.  Unfortunately, a lot of those proofs are conjecture and sometimes don't apply to all instances.  There is also the argument that sometimes the law has the right to protect individuals from themselves.  An example of this is the legal process of getting power of attorney over a very ill patient, such as an individual with Alzheimer's Disease.  This would legally prevent a person from leaving a building, rejecting medication, or doing physical injury to himself or herself, even though these decisions would have affected only this one individual's body.

The Christian argument, in summary, is basically saying that the moral law imposed by God over all people individually and collectively is a model for political law, which should also see no boundaries or differences between prosecuting in macrocosm and prosecuting  in microcosm. Meanwhile, the secular argument, which presumes there is no absolute standard, attempts to support its legal authority with anecdotes.  Attempts to apply a judgement in microcosm to a general population this way requires many caveats and leaves loopholes, which can eventually erode the power of the law.

Law's Imposition of Values on Others

This leads to the third and final argument concerning freedom.  Do lawmaking bodies have a right to impose their values on others through law?  This is a tricky question.  Any law is based on the preexisting assumption that there is a right and a wrong side of a thing, but the line between the two is different between Christian and secular thinkers.

The Christian teaching on this says that the authority of a government is given to it by God to enforce law and maintain order (Romans 13: 1-8), and it should be obeyed.  In other words, the lawmaking bodies have a right to impose their values on the disobedient through the power vested in them by God,  the ultimate and final judge.  Furthermore, the definition of "disobedient" tends to closely parallel the definitions God has made.

Meanwhile, the secular argument draws legal authority to govern from "the people," that is the general or collective opinion of active voters or participants. This is often a shifting target, as population demographics change, and the needs and the beliefs of the public change with them.  It boils down to the law speaking for either the loudest, the biggest, or the strongest at any given moment.  It might even draw authority from one or a few individuals, especially those who control the resources.  The law's authority to impose its beliefs can also be drawn from historical precedent, or pragmatic statements such as "the greatest good for the greatest number."  All of these leave open the possibility that one population will be overlooked or wronged by another.

In summary, the authority of government can come from either absolute and unchanging sources (such as God and moral law), or from shifting or situational sources, such as popular opinion or majority rule.  Either way, it is true that one group is opposing another group of individuals, and the winning side is imposing its will on the other.

Wrap Up: How Should We Define Freedom?

In essence, the difference between the two sides of this argument on every point all look back to the existence of God.  The Christian position on freedom says that God limits freedom, and every limitation on freedom is a line He drew first.  Meanwhile, the secular argument assumes there is no God, and that the highest authority is humankind;  they write the rules, and can always change them if something new comes up.

I can go farther to say that where freedom is concerned, God has always been careful about drawing lines, but human beings tend to be much more impulsive and short-sighted.  We cannot see far into the future, as God can, and so our laws tend to be as limited as we are, based on only a partial grasp of the big picture.  If we remove God from the equation, freedom may seem freer at first, but it eventually leads to trouble in the long run.  God, on the other hand, set out rules to protect freedom for all time, drawing lines that never cross each other, no matter how long we follow along them.

Talking about freedom in light of today's situation on the moral and political fronts, I see the necessity to call everyone to prayer and serious personal reflection.  Without a revival, without a general as well as individual acceptance of God's authority, freedom is only a transient thing, and it may not last much longer in the United States. This comment in a forum was warning enough for me!  As we celebrate the sacrifices of those who have died protecting freedom here in America, we should pray that their hard-won gift to us can continue.  I think Twila Paris summed it up better than I can, in her song "What Did He Die For?"  I'm including it here, at the end of my message.

Monday, November 5, 2012

No Earthly King

Tomorrow is the long-awaited official election day in the US, where the nation will decide who will be president for the next 4 years, as well as settling the same question concerning the balance of power in quite a few Senate and House of Representative races.  This is a big event, and it is pivotal in the history of the world, however it goes.

I say it is big, but that doesn't mean it's the end of the world.  I want to remind everyone that we aren't electing a Christ, but rather, an earthly king of sorts.  Whoever gets into office will be imperfect, and prone to sin.  That person, no matter how qualified, is capable of leading the entire nation farther astray if he moves in his own power and doesn't follow the urging of God. 

I say farther astray because I believe the nation has already strayed far from the principles of godliness outlined in the Bible.  I believe this is even reflected in the reputations and beliefs of the candidates we have to choose from.  That's why we should be prayerful about who we vote for, and keep praying for whoever wins (even if we didn't vote for that person) after election day is over.  However it goes, God is still in control, and that's what I want to talk about today.

An Earthly King: What It Means

The ancient Israelites once lived without a visible, central government and single leader, in the period of the Judges. During this time, they were held together loosely by their tribal affiliation and more tightly by the religious customs and laws God had established through the Law of Moses.  In fact, God ruled them as their King, occasionally sending Judges to do His will among them through all of those years.

However, their hearts strayed from God, and they ceased to acknowledge Him as their high King and ruler. They wanted a visible government, complete with a king and officials, which they saw as preferable to the leadership of an invisible God. They were looking for someone who looked "kingly," (1 Samuel 9:2) and they put great stock in the strength of their warriors and in the cleverness of this individual, who would lead them all to victory.  This pride in their warriors and faith in their king would make them just like everybody else (1 Samuel 8: 10-22).

This decision to follow an earthly king reflected a lack of faith in God. They didn't want Him to lead them and direct them any more, though He had proven Himself many times. They would rather trust in human strength, cleverness, and foresight, rather than trust in God's power. It was rebellion.

A Greater King

I have seen people in despair over this election.  Some seem to follow candidates with an almost religious devotion and fear the worst if their votes do not prevail.  I've heard multiple reports of voting fraud already, due to the new early voting option.  I've even heard reports of people threatening to riot if they don't get their way (which is unheard of in the US, for those who don't live here).  I can't say that the worst won't happen.  I will admit that it looks pretty grim.
However, I'm not ready to despair.  I follow a greater King, who I believe is going to take care of me if everything else falls apart.  He will not be dethroned in any election.  He wasn't dethroned in the ancient "election" that chose the first king for Israel.  Even though they had an earthly king, he and all of his court were still answerable to God.

In fact, God is in control of this election, though many strive to control it.  God already knows the outcome, and can do as He pleases about it.  As Isaiah described God:
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers.  He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.  He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.  No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff. (Isaiah 40: 22-24)
If we have been foolish, as the ancient Israelites were, and have put all our hope in the strength of an earthly king, we may get what we asked for, as they did.  That was its own punishment, as Samuel warned them (1 Samuel 8: 11-18), outlining a loss of property and personal freedom, leading to oppression.  Their earthly kings began by taking their sons to war and ultimately led the whole nation into shame and exile.

We can learn from their hard lesson, and not hang all of our hopes on people.  It is better to trust in God, and do our best as Christians to support a government that submits to God and maintains law and order (Romans 13: 1-5),  "not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience" as Paul explained.  All those in authority are put there by God, and answerable to His authority, so take heart!

See you at the polls! Don't forget to pray.