Category: Practical Christianity


Let Justice RollThe week started out so well. Monday was the Fourth of July. It was supposed to be a fun-filled holiday weekend of celebrating our freedom. But things went rapidly downhill from there. Just after midnight on Tuesday, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police responding to a call shot and killed Alton Sterling, an African-American man. Two different bystanders uploaded video footage of the event, and it went quickly went viral online, sparking outrage and grief as people saw for themselves what happened. Mr. Sterling was shot while officers held him pinned to the ground. Many observers saw it as a blatant miscarriage of justice and an abuse of police power.

But before we could wrap our minds around what had happened, before the investigation was even close to being completed, the very next day another African-American man, Philando Castile, was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. This time there was no video of the actual shooting. But Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, somehow had the presence of mind to take out her phone and start live-streaming the aftermath. As her boyfriend’s body slumped over in the car seat, bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds, you can hear her cry out, “Please don’t tell me this, Lord. Please, Jesus, don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please, officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.” Later on, in maybe the most heartbreaking scene of the video, Ms. Reynolds is sitting in a squad car along with her four-year-old daughter, who was there at the time of the shooting. She begins sobbing, “I can’t believe they did this,” and her daughter—her four-year-old child—comforts her, “It’s OK, I’m right here with you.”

This is gut-wrenching stuff. As I’ve watched the reactions unfold on Facebook over the last few days, I’ve been reminded how different life in America is for my black friends than it is for me. I saw my friends wondering, “Will I be next? Will my son be next?” I saw them talk about driving five miles under the speed limit in the right lane, praying that they won’t be next. I saw them grieving and mourning for two men that they never met, but felt a kinship with on a level I can’t really understand because I’ve never walked in their shoes, I’ve never lived in their skin. I enjoy privileges that they never have simply because, by accident of birth, my skin has less melanin than theirs. And I have to tell you, I’m angry. I’m heartbroken. I’m distraught, on their behalf. I stand in solidarity with them, wondering when our great nation will finally live up to its lofty ideals that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Because it’s not just these two shootings. It’s the cumulative effect of so many other shootings, the cumulative impact of a thousand different forms of inequality, the cumulative weight of injustice that our black brothers and sisters have borne ever since they first bore burdens for their slave masters. It’s the racism that is so deeply ingrained into our culture that many of us don’t even think about it, don’t even realize it’s there—unless we happen to be the victims of it.

 

“It’s… the cumulative weight of injustice that our black brothers and sisters have borne ever since they first bore burdens for their slave masters.”

 

Let me say it clearly, because it needs to be said: America is a great country; in fact, it may be the greatest country in the world. But it is far from perfect. In 2016, racism is still a reality. Injustice is still a reality. Now, maybe you’re skeptical about that. For many years I wasn’t even aware of these issues. I enjoyed the privilege of ignorance. I didn’t have to be aware of racism and injustice because they didn’t affect me. But many of my fellow citizens do not enjoy that privilege. Maybe some of us are still in the process of learning about these issues. Now is the time for listening to the experience of others—listen before you speak.

But as I was thinking about these things over the last few days, tragedy struck yet again, Thursday night in Dallas, Texas. There was a protest organized to call for justice for the two men who were killed by police in the previous days. The protest itself was peaceful. But as it was concluding, a gunman armed with a high-powered rifle opened fire on the police officers who were there escorting the protesters. And suddenly downtown Dallas turned into something that resembled a warzone. Dozens of officers were involved in an hours-long manhunt for the shooter. They exchanged gunfire with him for nearly an hour before finally detonating a remote-controlled bomb to neutralize him without further endangering the lives of the police.

The final tally was two civilians wounded, seven officers wounded, and five officers killed. (Some were from the Dallas police, others from the transit authority.) The shooter, who was himself a black man, was upset about the recent killings of black men by police. He said he wanted to kill white people and specifically white police officers. Sadly he succeeded. Police officers around the nation are reeling from this devastating attack. No doubt the fear for their lives and safety that they experience every time they don the uniform has dramatically increased in the wake of the deadliest day for police officers since 9/11.

And let’s be absolutely clear about this: no matter what happened on Tuesday, no matter what happened on Wednesday, nothing justifies the killing of innocent people, whether they wear a uniform or not. And just so there’s no doubt about this, our black brothers and sisters would agree. I’ve seen the same people who were mourning the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile also mourning the loss of these five officers: Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. These men had families, people who loved them. Those people are heartbroken right now; their lives have been shattered. And our entire nation has been rocked these tragedies.

I’m reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

As I’ve pondered what to say about these senseless and horrific acts of violence, I’ve been at a loss. What can you say? There are no words that make any of this better. There are no words that can make sense of madness. But if there’s one thing that these tragic events remind us of, it’s that this world does not operate according to God’s standard of justice and righteousness. This world is governed by sin and evil. And God rises up in judgment against it.

What should be our response, then, as His followers? We cannot sit idly by and say nothing. Silence in the face of great injustice is unacceptable. In the past God raised up prophets to speak to His people during times of distress. And while I don’t think that any of us personally claim the gift of prophecy, collectively as God’s church we must raise our prophetic voice and speak truth in our times.

 

“We cannot sit idly by and say nothing…. collectively as God’s church we must raise our prophetic voice and speak truth in our times.”

 

Perhaps the Old Testament prophets can serve as a guide for the message we might deliver to our troubled world. But in order to deliver the message, we must first hear it ourselves. The prophets spoke to God’s people. May they speak to God’s people even today.

The prophet Amos was called by God to carry a special message of warning to Israel: repent of your wicked ways, or judgment will come. It must have seemed a preposterous message to the people of Israel. At the time, the kingdom was powerful and prosperous. The people lived in self-indulgent luxury. They were certainly not thinking about calamity and destruction. Perhaps we might draw a parallel to our own times. Many people today live in blissful, comfortable ignorance, unaware of how quickly disaster can strike. But just as in Amos’ day, they need a prophetic voice to rouse them from their slumber.

Amos did not hesitate to call the sins of Israel by their right name.

This is what the Lord says: “For three sins of Judah, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his decrees, because they have been led astray by false gods, the gods their ancestors followed, I will send fire upon Judah that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem.” This is what the Lord says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name. They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge. In the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines.” (Amos 2:4-8)

Amos calls them to repent, to seek the Lord before it is too late.

Seek the Lord and live, or he will sweep through the house of Joseph like a fire; it will devour, and Bethel will have no one to quench it…. Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. (Amos 5:6, 14)

But then God has a stern warning message that, at first glance, might seem a bit strange to us.

Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness? (Amos 5:18-20)

Why is woe pronounced on those who long for the day of the Lord? Aren’t we supposed to look forward to that day? Don’t we long for it, especially when we’re faced with the suffering and evil of this world? Aren’t we encouraged by the thought that Jesus is coming back soon? So what’s the deal? The next few verses answer the question.

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

God is fed up with self-righteous religiosity that pretends to be pious while tolerating sin. If He were speaking today, He might say, “I can’t stand your church services. I don’t want your offerings. I do not accept your prayers. I’m not listening to your hymn-singing.” That is God’s rebuke to us when we take His name upon ourselves, calling ourselves Christians, but failing to uphold His standard of justice and righteousness. As Jesus once warned, the people who call Him “Lord, Lord,” but do not do what He says are in for a rude awakening on the day of the Lord, when they will hear God say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:21-23).

“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

You might recognize that verse. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted it in his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” In that same speech he proclaimed, “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

But freedom cannot ring until justice rolls. So let justice roll! And let God’s church be at the forefront of the movement proclaiming righteousness and justice for all those who do not yet have it. Why? Because our God is leading that movement—“The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed” (Psalm 103:6).

 

“But freedom cannot ring until justice rolls. So let justice roll!”

 

At this point some of you are thinking, “I’m not sure about all of this. I’m uncomfortable with getting involved in politics. That’s not the church’s place.” It is true that the church should never become a political organization. Bad things happen when it does, history shows. And yet we have no problem as Christians raising our voices in the public sphere to decry abortion, or to oppose the redefinition of marriage. Why is it acceptable to speak out on those issues, which we believe to be of great moral importance, and yet we cannot speak out about the racial divide in our country, about the tensions between law enforcement and the communities they are supposed to protect, about the injustices that disproportionately impact minority communities?

If we do not speak out about the moral issues facing our society, we have lost our prophetic voice. “Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 58:1).

The church need not become entangled with partisan politics in order to be a prophetic voice to our society. We need only stand for what is right and true, upholding our standard, our only rule of faith and practice—the Bible. And the Bible tells us—“let justice roll!”

 

“The church need not become entangled with partisan politics in order to be a prophetic voice to our society.”

 

We could go to so many other passages of Scripture with this same message, this same call to uphold justice and righteousness. Psalm 89:14 says that these are the very foundation of God’s throne. We could spend many fruitful hours plumbing the depths of God’s Word learning what those concepts of justice and righteousness mean—doing what is right, doing what is in accordance with the character of God. If you’re looking for a topic for personal Bible study, that would be a good one.

But let us not end with proclamations and studies. Let us be motivated into action. Justice must roll on like a mighty river; righteousness must flow like a never-failing stream. That’s an action, not merely a sentiment. A river doesn’t just sit there waiting for something to happen; it rolls on, the power of its current carrying along all that falls into its path. And so it must be with us.

I’d like to suggest some concrete action steps that we can take in the wake of these deadly shootings. These are ways that we can raise our prophetic voice in this time of need. But first I want to clarify two issues that our society is facing right now.

First, we need to own up to the fact that there is racial injustice on a systemic level in our nation. Consider these statistics: black Americans are two and half times more likely than white Americans to be fatally shot by the police. Even more alarming, unarmed black Americans are five times more likely than white Americans to be fatally shot by police. (And despite what you may have heard, no, we cannot pin these disparities on crime rate. Read this article for more details.)

Second, we also need to recognize that blaming all police officers for the actions of a few is irresponsible. We don’t want to inadvertently send a message of hatred for law enforcement. They risk and sometimes even sacrifice their lives to protect others. If we want to effectively address the problem of police brutality, then we should support police officers who are doing their jobs well.

So understand this: we should support police, and we should also support victims of police injustice. These are not mutually exclusive ideas. Currently in our country some are advancing a narrative that says if you support protest movements against police brutality, you are therefore anti-police and are actually contributing to violence against police. This is a false narrative and should be firmly rejected. We should also reject any narrative that suggests supporting the police means one condones police injustice. Again, support for the police and support for victims of injustice are not mutually exclusive ideas. With that in mind, here are some action steps to take.

 

“We should support police, and we should also support victims of police injustice. These are not mutually exclusive ideas.”

 

First (and right now I’m speaking primarily to my fellow white Christians), now is the time to join together in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters. Let them know that you care about them, that the issues which matter to them matter to you, that when they mourn you mourn. Let us join together in unity to stand for justice, to stand against violence—all violence, whether it is unnecessary violence against black Americans, or unjustifiable violence against police officers.

Second, consider writing a letter of encouragement to your local police department. Right now they’re most likely on edge from the events in Dallas. They need to know that we support them—that we’re pro-justice, not anti-police. Write them a letter or send them an email and tell them that. Tell them you’re praying for them, that you’re asking God to protect them as they serve your community. They have a hard job, and right now they’re feeling like they’re under attack. The need our support now more than ever.

You might even consider asking to meet with your local police chief to talk about these issues. Here are two questions you might ask (I’m indebted to my friends, and fellow pastors, Jeremiah Sepolen and David Hamstra, for these suggestions). Ask your local authorities what you can do to help build a positive relationship between police and the people in the communities they serve. And ask what they are doing to prevent unnecessary officer-involved shootings of persons of color.

Lastly, use your influence to work for positive change. You may not think you have much influence. But everyone has family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. We can all start a positive dialog about these issues. Let’s not bury our heads in the sand and pretend that if we don’t talk about the problem it doesn’t exist. Let’s have an open and honest dialog about the problems our society is facing, and how we might remedy them. Change starts with us.

And all of us have the power of our vote. Now, I’m not going to tell you who or what to vote for, because that is up to your conscience. But I will encourage you to consider the issue of civil rights when you vote. Vote for leaders who are going to help make our communities, our states, and our country a better place, leaders who will lead positive change.

In all of these actions, we must constantly be in prayer. As Christians we believe that prayer is essential. Pray for all those who have recently lost loved ones. Pray for the victims of injustice. Pray for police officers and their families. In and of itself, though, prayer is not a concrete action; that’s why I didn’t list it as an action step. Sometimes we use prayer as an excuse not to do anything. We hear about terrible tragedies, and we say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” Let’s do more than just think and pray. Let’s act, with the gumption of the Holy Spirit.

Friends, now is the time to stand up with all of the courage and conviction our Christian faith gives us. Stand up for what is right. Stand up for what is true. Stand up for the oppressed. Let us not grow weary in doing good. Stand up, and let justice roll!

 

 

This blog is an adaptation of a sermon I preached on July 9, 2016. You can view a video of it on my sermon page.

 

 

 

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SwordI have a confession. Often when I am reading the Bible and I come across a particularly powerful passage, I immediately think of the people I know who need to read it. In fact, I suspect that sometimes I find a passage so compelling because it reminds me of other people’s problems, their wrong attitudes and actions. Now, I don’t intentionally read the Bible looking for ammunition against others. But it’s easy for me to see the relevance of certain passages to real-life problems.

But I’m not ashamed to make that confession for two reasons. First, I know that most of you do the same thing when you read the Bible, so I have plenty of company. And second, it’s not always wrong to read a passage of Scripture and apply it to someone else’s situation. Sometimes that’s a necessary and helpful response. But we’ll get to that later. Right now I want to focus on the first reason.

Be honest—you do this, too. You read the Bible and think of all the people who need to hear what you’ve just read. Maybe you even think of passive-aggressive ways you could covertly tell them—say, a Facebook status update. This method even has its own term: vaguebooking, posting an ambiguous status update designed to elicit sympathetic response from friends but also conceal the real reason behind the post. That way if the person you’re directing it at confronts you, you can claim it wasn’t about them personally. It’s a digital deniable op.

The problem with reading the Bible this way is that it short-circuits the true purpose of God’s word. Scripture was not given to us so we could use it to bludgeon others when they screw up. It was given to convict us personally of our sin so that we can right our own wrongs first. Jesus was dealing with this very issue in Matthew 7 when He taught us not to judge others. Before I go picking at the speck in my brother’s eye, I first must remove the plank in my own eye. The Spirit who inspired the Scriptures is the one who convicts us of sin, and conviction is always personal.

Paul called the word of God the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17). But he didn’t mean we should use it to cut each other. He meant we should use it to fend off Satan when he attacks us. It’s not nearly as fun to apply Scripture to my own sins as it is to point fingers at someone else. I don’t usually like feeling convicted. It’s an uncomfortable feeling because it calls me to change, and none of us really like change. Not personally, anyway; I’m more than happy to point out where others need to change. Perhaps that’s why we turn the sword against each other. When we feel the cut, we shrink back from the discomfort and attempt to direct it toward others. Have you ever noticed that the faults we most often criticize in others are the ones with which we struggle the most?

In Hebrews, the author describes the sword this way: “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The Bible must always first and foremost convict me personally—my thoughts, my attitudes, my heart. Only after it has cut me to the heart can I understand what it means and then apply it to others. If I don’t let it cut me first, I have no right to cut others with it. There is a time and a place to use Scripture to encourage, comfort, and even rebuke others. But I cannot rightly do that unless I have applied the Bible to myself first. The next time you read a verse and start thinking about who needs to hear it, listen to it yourself. You may be surprised by how relevant it is to your life.

Before you read Part 4 of this series, it’s really important to understand the context for what I’m about to say. If you haven’t read the entire series, at least read Part 3 first (I promise it’s short).

Jesus Cleansing the Temple 4

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

There’s another application of these ideas that might hit a little closer to home for some of us. Please understand that I don’t write this in a critical or condemnatory spirit. Rather, I write from a pastor’s heart. I long to see Jesus’ church reclaim His mission—seeking and saving the lost.

But I worry that the modern church has reversed Jesus’ methodology. We are gentle and accommodating to well-churched people, and we worry tremendously about offending them. (If you’ve ever been on a church board or nominating committee you know what I’m talking about.) But we seem to give little thought to how we might be offending those who are not so firmly established in the church. When new people come to our churches, many of them feel immediately that they are not good enough to meet our standards. They don’t look like us, smell like us, talk like us, and they certainly don’t live like us. And sadly our attitude toward them communicates that until they do become like us, they won’t be accepted.

One especially egregious example is our treatment of young people, even young people already in the church, unfortunately. They come to church dressed “inappropriately,” and some self-appointed church guardian scolds them (anonymous letters seem to be a popular tactic). They sing special music and the beat is a little too strong, so they’re reminded to be more “reverent” next time (as if they’re going to want to sing again after being shamed the first time). When they speak up and share their ideas, we often ignore them. If we bother to listen at all we may tell them that they lack the wisdom and experience to comment intelligently on the important matters of the church—not necessarily in those words, but the message is clear: “leave it to the adults, kids.”

The well-churched folks who do this kind of thing may be well-meaning, but good intentions are not enough. Sadly they are misrepresenting the gospel. No one is good enough for God’s grace, not even church folks. You may be a tithe-paying, Sabbath-keeping, vegan-eating Seventh-day Adventist, but none of that qualifies you to receive God’s grace. But like the Pharisees, when spiritual pride creeps in we imagine ourselves better than others. We may not say it openly, but our self-righteousness is obvious to others.

Please don’t think I’m being judgmental of judgmental people. I’m not any better than they are. I’m just as bad as they are, and I need Jesus just as much as they do. But part of being the body of Christ means that we hold each other accountable. There are times when we must take a stand and say enough is enough. We need to stop letting spiritual pride hinder others from coming to Jesus.

Now, I know someone may be thinking: “But what about our standards? Who will uphold them? Who will guard the church from creeping compromise?” The answer is simple—Jesus. He’s the one who protects His bride, the church. What are we so afraid of? Are we worried that if we let our guard down, we’ll come to church some morning to find that the sinners outnumber the saints? If that happens, praise the Lord! Our mission on this earth is not to preserve a holy country club where only platinum-level church members are allowed. Our mission is to join with Jesus in seeking and saving the lost. It’s messy business that requires a lot of patience and gentleness in dealing with very imperfect people. Remember how Jesus showed you gentleness, then go and do thou likewise.

It takes a lot of wisdom and guidance from the Holy Spirit to know when to be gentle, and when to firmly rebuke. The example Jesus gave us is a great place to start. Be gentle with the wandering soul looking for hope, love, and salvation. Be firm with the self-righteous saint hindering others from finding those things. This blog series is not intended to be a manual on who to offend and who not to offend. I don’t pretend to know the answer for every situation. But I think it’s high time the church had a conversation about all of this. Share your thoughts in the comments.

The Truth Shall Make You Free“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Eph. 4:15).

What does it mean to speak the truth in love? How do we confront people with the convicting testimony of God’s Word while remaining compassionate and caring? Is it a matter of somehow balancing truth and love (as if they’re competing concepts)? Is it a matter of presenting truth in the most loving way possible? Are there times we hold back the truth in order to be loving?

Some will insist that the most loving thing to do is to tell the “straight testimony” without pulling any punches. If people have a desire to know and follow the truth, then it won’t matter if our presentation is a little rough around the edges. We shouldn’t be concerned with pleasing the masses. Truth confronts and convicts, so just let ‘em have it, and let the chips fall where they may.

Truth does indeed confront and convict; there’s no doubt about that. But there’s a question that has been nagging in my mind for a little while now. It comes from putting together a couple of fundamental biblical principles. The first is found in John 14:6: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” Truth is actually a Person—Jesus Christ—and not merely a set of facts. So if I really want to tell people the truth, I have to introduce them to Jesus.

The second biblical principle comes from 1 John 4:8: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Not only is Jesus the truth, He is also love. So here’s the question: If I speak the truth, but not in love, is it still the truth? In other words, if my presentation of the truth fails to convey the love of Jesus, then I’ve left out a fundamental aspect of God’s character. And if I’ve misrepresented God’s character, then have I really communicated the truth, since Jesus, and not mere facts, is the truth?

Now, the “straight testimony” folks would probably argue that we could take this love thing to an extreme and never really confront sin because we’re too busy trying not to offend. They have a point—but only because we humans have a hard time understanding what love really means. Loving someone does not mean enabling them to continue doing what’s wrong. We don’t need to counterbalance love with truth, or vice versa; rather, we need a right understanding of God’s love.

So the question remains. My belief right now is that if I merely present a set of facts but I don’t demonstrate the love of Jesus, then I haven’t actually spoken the truth at all. I’ve only misrepresented the truth, because I’ve reduced it to mere propositions. Those things don’t cease to be true if I don’t speak them in love. But I haven’t actually spoken the whole truth if I don’t speak it in love.

Believing in facts will not save us; believing in Jesus will. I challenge you to consider how you speak the truth to others. Are you presenting truth the Person, or truth the proposition? Look at the last part of Ephesians 4:15, the verse I quoted in the beginning. It says that the goal of speaking the truth in love is for all of us together to mature into the body of Christ. We will become like Jesus! Let’s imitate His example. That’s the best way to ensure that we’re always speaking the truth in love.

We’re over halfway through the first month of 2014. How are your New Year’s resolutions going? Still staying true to them? I’m not big on making New Year’s resolutions. I just think it’s unhelpful to put so much pressure on yourself at the beginning of a year, as if that’s the only time to accomplish anything meaningful. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticizing people who set goals and strive to improve themselves. I believe in setting goals; I just prefer to do it throughout the year.

If I did make New Year’s resolutions for self-improvement, like many people do, I’d have a wide variety of options to choose from. I’m sure there are many failures and flaws of which I am blissfully ignorant, but the ones I do know about really bother me. I want to improve. I want to do what is right and good, and stop doing what is wrong and bad. I’m sure most of us have that desire. That’s a good thing, right? Those of us who are Christians should be especially concerned about doing good and shunning evil.

But I wonder sometimes: Is that what Christianity is really about? Is this just a religion of self-improvement that helps me overcome my annoying flaws so I can feel a bit more self-satisfied? Is this all that Jesus came to do, to enable me to make New Year’s resolutions and set goals for being a better, nicer, fitter, smarter me?

Maybe there’s more to it than that. The Jesus I read about in the Bible is not concerned with correcting a few character flaws so that people can live reasonably at peace with themselves. He is deeply interested in bringing about total life transformation—a complete paradigm shift that changes the very core of our being. What’s more, He wants a deep personal relationship with us. He wants to be more than a life coach that we visit every now and then when we need a pep talk. He wants to be our best friend, someone we talk to all the time.

So now I’m thinking about my life, my desire to do what’s right, and my relationship with Jesus. I’m a perfectionist by nature, so this is a serious issue. Am I focused on correcting my flaws, instead of pursuing Jesus? What would satisfy me more: to know that I have ridded myself of one more annoying bad habit, or to know that I am daily living in the presence of a friend who loves me despite all of my flaws?

What if the secret to bettering ourselves is not found in trying harder and harder every year to be “good?” What if instead the secret is pursuing a deep friendship with a Man called God-with-us, and by beholding His perfection we ourselves become changed, and not just into the better version of ourselves that we envisioned, but into a perfect representation of His flawless character? Think about it. If you’re a perfectionist like me, would you rather be good, or be perfect?

Is it possible that sometimes we hate sin more than we love Jesus? That maybe for us Christianity is more about overcoming the bad habits that bother us than it is about a love relationship with Jesus? Maybe we appreciate Jesus as Savior because He promises to set us free from our enslavement to evil. But we struggle with Jesus as Lord because, honestly, we’d like to be set free to do our own thing—good things instead of bad things, yes, but still our own agenda, not His.

What we need are not more New Year’s resolutions to do bigger and better things. What we need is a New Year’s revolution: a complete transformation of our entire life that radically restructures our priorities. Jesus comes first, not me. Improving myself is not what’s most important; following Jesus is. And guess what: the great thing about following Jesus is that you will improve. In fact, you’ll have much more success than if you focus on making yourself better. The thing about sin is that it’s like a hydra: chop off one problem and three more grow out of it. We can waste an entire lifetime futilely chopping away at our sin problem, or we can spend a lifetime following Jesus and let Him kill the heart of the beast within us. It’s our choice.

My choice is to have a New Year’s revolution, not just in January, but in every month, week, day, hour, minute, and second of the year. I may not always be completely true to this goal, but thankfully I know Jesus will still love me anyway. That’s why I want to follow Him. I love Him because He first loved me. And as I follow Him, He will show me the way—not to accomplish my own agenda, but to fulfill His will.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

I recently came across this video which puts some rather shocking statistics about wealth inequality in America into visual format. It’s disturbing to say the least. Watch the video below (it’s only about six minutes long), and then we’ll pick up a bit of commentary afterwards.

So, what did you think? Pretty heavy stuff, right? Now, before we go any further I just want to emphasize that this is a religion blog, not a political blog. I’m not endorsing any particular political solution to the problem of wealth inequality. However, I am deeply interested in how Christians should respond to this problem. First of all, do we believe that income inequality is a problem? Why or why not? If it is a problem (and I believe it is, for many reasons), should Christians be concerned about it and take action to address it? Why or why not? If we should be concerned and take action (and again, I believe we should, for many reasons), what action should we take?

In my series on a biblical theology of wealth, which regrettably I haven’t added to in awhile, I have stated several times that I believe we’re more influenced by our culture than we are by the Bible when it comes to our view of wealth. Wealth inequality is one example of our culturally-induced blindness; it’s an area Christians need to address biblically. To ignore the suffering of millions of people who lack the basic necessities of life places us squarely in the camp of the goats (see Matt. 25:31-46). At the judgment, when Jesus confronts their indifference, they reply in shock, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” In reply Jesus reminds them, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Of course, on the flip side, Jesus affirms the sheep, those who do feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. Interestingly, though, this group also does not realize that when they did these things they were doing it to Jesus. The powerful lesson that Jesus teaches us is that whenever we care for those who are less fortunate than ourselves, it’s as if we are caring for Jesus Himself. That is how closely He identifies with the poor, the oppressed, and the suffering.

One last thought: this video only deals with wealth inequality in America. Imagine how much greater the inequality would be if we included the entire world. Imagine if we compared the wealth of the world’s richest to the poverty of the world’s poorest. It’s an almost unfathomable gap. Let’s never forget that God loves every person on this planet, no matter what economic bracket they’re in, no matter what country they are from. As followers of Jesus we should be just as concerned as He is with the plight of the poor and oppressed in every part of the world, for all bear His image, and all have been purchased by His blood.

So, how should Christians respond to all of this? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

A Church Divided

Angry Political FightUnless you’ve been purposefully avoiding the news, you know that the U.S. government is currently in shutdown mode following a stalemate between Democrats and Republicans over the budget. The big storyline of the shutdown is the thousands of federal employees currently not working and not getting paid. Congress is still getting paid, however, which naturally draws the ire of many citizens. How is it that the people responsible for thousands of others losing their income are themselves still getting a paycheck?

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the mess we’re in. And everywhere you turn you can find someone eager to place blame, whether it’s pundits in the news media or your politically-minded friends on Facebook. (This is yet another of those occasions when suddenly everyone becomes an expert on Constitutional law, and economic and domestic policy.)

And here’s where I, as a pastor, become greatly disturbed by what I see happening. American political discourse has become increasingly rancorous and partisan. Angry accusations are hurled by each side at the other. Each side presents itself as the champions of truth and justice who are justifiably—even righteously—angry at the malfeasance of the other side. And Christians are right in the thick of it. Despite the fact that we claim to follow a King who unequivocally declared, “My kingdom is not of this world,” we seem to get awfully caught up in what the kingdoms of this world are doing, so much so that we, too, take sides and get into the mudslinging with the best (worst?) of them.

I see three big reasons why this Christian partisanship is problematic. The first is that it divides us from each other and even pits us against each other. You may be a hardcore political conservative who can’t stand Democrats, but guess what: sitting next to you in the pew may be a diehard Democrat. When you start blaming the Democrats for what’s wrong in Washington, how well does it go over with your Democratic brothers and sisters in Christ? How well does it go over with you when you find out that they’re Democrats? (“In my church? Unconscionable!”) Are you able to maintain Christian unity with those on the other side of the political spectrum? Are you more likely to be singing “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” or “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” followed swiftly by “The Battle Hymn of the Republic?”

The second reason why Christian partisanship is problematic is that it distracts us from our mission. The Great Commission tells us that the invitation to join God’s kingdom extends to every nation (Matt. 28:18-20). The kingdom transcends nationality, race, culture, language, and political affiliation (Rev. 5:9). Can you embrace your political opponents as members of the same family of God to which you belong? Or do your political convictions lead you to exclude those whose convictions are different? If those of us in the church can’t get along because of political disagreements, how will we ever make disciples all over the world? Who is going to take us seriously if we’re divided amongst ourselves over matters which only have temporal importance? After all, Jesus said that all people will know we are His disciples if we love one another (John 13:35). If we’re lacking in love, we’re telling the world that we’re not really His disciples.

The third reason why Christian partisanship is problematic is that causes us to sacrifice our Christian values. I have observed that there is an inverse correlation between the party which one blames the most for our current political disorder and the party which he or she supports the most. That might seem obvious; of course we’re going to criticize the other side more. But Christians should have a higher standard of morality than which political party we happen to like better. Let’s suppose, for example, that you tend to side with the Democrats. Your natural tendency might be to blame the Republicans for the nation’s woes. But would you be willing to hold your own party accountable? Would you be willing to stand up and call out injustice, greed, pride, and selfishness no matter who has perpetrated it? It’s all too easy to turn a blind eye to our preferred party’s faults and instead focus on the wrongdoing of the other party.

Far too many Christians seem blindly loyal to their political ideology, and far too few Christians display a sold out, no holds barred loyalty to God’s kingdom that supersedes every earthly loyalty. The first words in the Great Commission establish that Jesus has all the authority in heaven and on earth. No political loyalty should surpass our loyalty to Jesus and to the principles He taught. Can you love your political enemies like Jesus does? Do you have to sacrifice Christian values, like humility, graciousness, mercy, and peacemaking, in order to fight your political foes? Ask yourself this: how would Jesus relate to our current political climate? Can you imagine Him in the thick of political debates blaming, accusing, and deriding the opposition? Can you honestly imagine Him taking a side at all? If you can, I would strongly encourage you to take a closer look at Jesus’ values and compare them with the values of your preferred political ideology. The glaring discrepancies should answer any lingering questions about which party Jesus would support.

The gospel is for everyone: Democrats and Republicans, liberals and libertarians, progressives and conservatives. And the gospel unites everyone under the same banner of God’s eternal kingdom. But when we allow politics to divide and distract us, we deny the power of the gospel and the all-inclusive nature of God’s kingdom. We become a church divided against itself which cannot stand. Make no mistake: troublous times are coming, when the kingdoms of this world will array themselves against the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. But how can the church withstand the onslaught if we’re too busy bickering over which earthly kingdom is greatest (or which is the lesser evil)? I challenge you, my Christian friends, to put your loyalty to God’s kingdom above all other loyalties. Do not let anything undermine your allegiance to Jesus and your unity with your fellow kingdom citizens. Let the words of Paul in Ephesians 4 characterize your life, even in the arena of politics:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:1-6)

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph. 4:29-32)

 

 

My friend Nelson Fernandez, who pastors on South Carolina, has also written an excellent blog along similar lines.