Tag Archive: God


Understanding Job

scotland-1645868I’ve been reading through the book of Job. It’s been awhile since I read it. I think I’ve avoided it because it seems hard to understand. It’s the kind of book whose meaning scholars debate endlessly. But after going through some of the most difficult years of my life, and trying to process the grief, pain, and loss, I found myself drawn to Job’s story. So I started reading.

What I’ve found is that Job really isn’t that hard to understand. I completely relate to him (even though I haven’t experienced quite the same level of suffering that he did). I get him. His response to suffering makes sense to me, because I’ve thought similar things myself. Why is this happening? God, where are You, and what are You doing? What have I done to deserve this? When will the pain stop?

I get Job’s friends, too. There’s a part of me that feels like every time something bad happens it must be my fault. I did something to deserve it. That’s essentially the message Job’s friends tell him. You brought this on yourself. God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked, so if you are suffering this badly—well, you do the math.

What I’ve realized is that I couldn’t really understand Job until I went through some major life crises of my own. Until you’ve walked through the fire and the flood you can’t relate to those who have. My wife was saying the other day that she feels like grief is its own sense. Trying to explain what it’s like to someone who hasn’t experienced it on a deep level is like trying to explain color to someone who can’t see. There’s just no way to communicate it. It must be felt.

Another thing I’ve noticed while reading through Job is that I keep wanting to get to the part where God answers Job. Quick, give me the answers so I can hurry up and finish the test! But that part doesn’t come until the very end. The book of Job is pretty long, and most of it is his anguished dialog with his friends while he is in the depths of pain and despair. That’s what the experience of suffering is like in real life. You can’t rush through it or skip to the end. It’s a long process of agonizing pain, doubt, and fear. There are no shortcuts through it or detours around it.

And some of us will never get a direct answer from God. If you read the end of Job’s story, even though God does speak to him out of the storm, He never actually answers Job’s questions about why he is suffering. He simply reminds Job that He is God, and Job is not. I know that scholars far more knowledgeable than me have offered complex interpretations of the meaning of Job’s suffering. But looking at his story from the perspective of someone who has gone through suffering, maybe the simplest meaning is that sometimes there isn’t a neat, tidy answer to all our questions. Sometimes we may never know, at least this side of heaven, why God allowed us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The point of Job’s story isn’t to give us a satisfactory answer for our suffering. It’s to remind us that God remains God even when we’re experiencing the deepest pain, even when we feel like He has abandoned us, and to give us hope that He has the solution to our suffering.

See, there’s a difference between an answer for our suffering and a solution to our suffering. I’m not sure that Job ever really got an answer. But he got a solution. In the end, God healed his sickness, restored his family and his fortune, and blessed his latter years even more than the former. Those of us who have experienced suffering in this life have the promise that one day, Jesus will come back to this earth to make things right. He can’t undo all the pain we have experienced—and we shouldn’t want Him to. That pain has shaped our characters and taught us to rely on God. But He promises to wipe away every tear from our eyes, to create a world where there will never again be death or mourning or crying or pain, and to give us life eternal in this new world, life with Him and with all those who love Him.

That sounds like a pretty good deal to me. I may not get an answer to all my questions about why I am suffering. But I will get a solution for every pain I’ve felt, every tear I’ve shed. And that’s enough for me to keep trusting Him.

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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.

 

 

 

Jesus ContemplativeFerguson, Missouri. A police officer shoots and kills an unarmed man. The city erupts in protests and riots. The police respond with surprising force and cruelty. The media breathlessly reports on every little twist and turn in the case. Opinions fly back and forth in a heated discussion across America. The investigation continues for several months. The grand jury finally reaches its decision, and then comes the announcement: no charges will be brought against Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown.

Some call it justice. Some call it injustice. Often it seems that people take sides based on which eyewitnesses they choose to believe are telling the truth. The facts are difficult to discern, and this side of heaven we will never see true justice delivered.

Ferguson should serve as a reminder for us that this world is broken, that we are broken, that justice here is often elusive and fleeting, and that nothing but the parousia of Jesus can set things right. It was promised of Him: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory” (Matt. 12:20).

Justice has not yet been led to victory. We, in our brokenness, have perverted justice. Many who took sides with Officer Wilson have acted as though the death of a young man is somehow a good thing. Many who took sides with Michael Brown have acted as though wanton destruction is somehow an acceptable response to the tragedy of his death.

God sees it differently. “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Gen. 6:5, 6). None of what happened in Ferguson makes God happy. The evil in this world, in men’s hearts, fills His heart with sorrow.

When Jesus lived on earth, He experienced the sting of death when His friend Lazarus died. He responded by weeping (John 11:35). I can’t imagine that His response is any different today when He sees the suffering and death that His children experience all around the world, every single day. How His heart must break for the horrible consequences of sin.

Jesus weeps for Ferguson. He weeps with the family of a young man whose life was cut short by needless violence. He weeps with another family whose lives have also been forever changed by the choices that were made on that fateful day in August. He weeps over the blind rage, hatred, and senseless destruction that have followed in the wake of the shooting, instigated by angry protesters, exacerbated by overzealous police officers, and fomented nationwide by ideologues on both sides looking to score political points. And he weeps over each one of us who allows this story to water the root of bitterness in our hearts till it springs up into hatred toward our fellow man.

Jesus is not celebrating the triumph of justice today, because there is no triumph of justice. There will be no triumph of justice until death itself has been defeated. Until that day let us join together and do all within our power to work for peace, justice, and mercy. Let us resist the forces of anger, hatred, and violence. And let us also mourn the pain and suffering that death causes, for as followers of Jesus we ought to weep just as He wept (1 John 2:6).

DeceptionAheadThere seems to be a fair number of Christians who are hooked on conspiracy theories. The secret government plot behind 9/11. The Jesuit conspiracy to pervert modern Bible translations. The mass mind control techniques being used by pop stars in their concerts and music videos. A multitude of excellent blogs have already been written on this subject. Like this one, for example, that analyzes why conspiracy theories don’t hold up to careful scrutiny in the light of history (it’s actually a two-part series). Or this one, which is an impassioned appeal from a fellow young pastor to stop focusing on fearful speculation and instead focus on Jesus. Or this one, which emphasizes that our job as Christians is to shine light into the darkness, not to delve into the darkness trying to ferret out all its secrets. I highly recommend reading all of these pieces; they’re not that long. It will take less time to read these blogs than it will to research a new conspiracy theory.

This is a somewhat dangerous subject to blog on. Some people may be defensive about it. Also, I may risk repeating what someone else has already said more eloquently. But I humbly undertake this risk to highlight a very grave end-time threat that I see in conspiracy theories.

End-Time Deception

Remember the warning Jesus gave to His disciples: “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible” (Matt. 24:24). Jesus was talking about the events that led up to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and also the final events that will precede the second coming. His disciples certainly saw this fulfilled in their day. Numerous false teachers and false messiahs arose and led many Jews astray. Not only that, they led people into rebellion against the Roman authorities, and thus to their deaths.

The deception in the last days will be even more deadly. Satan, the enemy of God and His people, will try to lead people astray from God’s truth and thus to their eternal destruction. In Revelation we find that Satan (the dragon) works through earthly powers (the beasts) to deceive the whole world (Rev. 13:14). Everyone who does not follow God ends up following the beast—and the beast ends up in the lake of fire (Rev. 13:8; 19:20). Clearly it is extremely important to be aware of the last-day deception and to avoid it.

And actually, that’s the reason why some Christians are so interested in conspiracy theories. Uncovering the enemy’s schemes is a way to defend ourselves against them. It gives us confidence that we will not be deceived. If we know what the deception is, we won’t fall for it!

Truth, Deception, and the Elect of God

But notice again what Jesus warned: “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible.” Jesus didn’t say that only the unenlightened “sheeple” of the world would be at risk. He specifically warned that the elect, those who know and follow the truth, would be deceived if it were possible. In other words, the deception will be so overwhelming that even godly people are at risk of falling for it.

How can this be? Deception is, by definition, tricking people into believing something is true when it really isn’t. If you knew that you were being deceived, you wouldn’t be deceived! That’s redundant, but I’m trying to make a point: In order for the elect to be at risk of being deceived, the deception must come in a form that they are likely to believe.

Let me give a couple examples of things that would not deceive the elect. If a crude and profane rapper boasts of being like God, you’re not going to think he’s spiritually uplifting and start listening to his music. If a popular movie tells a well-known Bible story, but conveys a very different version of the story than what’s actually in the Bible, you’re not going to fall for it. These are not things that seem true to the elect.

But you know what might seem true to the elect?  The idea that there is a small, secretive group of people behind popular movies and music who are trying to brainwash the general population and control their minds. The reason that seems true is because there is an element of truth to it. Ultimately Satan is working behind the scenes to deceive people, and he will use any means available to promote error, even music and movies. But is he working through a secretive cabal of world leaders who are bent on coalescing the reprogrammed masses into a New World Order? That’s what some conspiracy theorists would have you believe. Despite a lack of tangible evidence, they pull together tantalizing clues to weave a tangled web of associations to support their theory. And some Christians believe it’s all true.

The Danger of Conspiracy Theories

If the last-day deception will come in a form that the elect are likely to believe, then conspiracy theories are a good example of how that deception will work. I’m not saying that conspiracy theories are the last-day deception, only that they work on similar principles, and they could potentially lead to last-day deception.

One of the most disturbing aspects of conspiracy theories is that even when they are based on demonstrably false information, Christians will still believe the overall theory because the conclusion fits with their worldview. It seems that the specific details don’t matter if they like the big picture. It’s the opposite of missing the forest for the trees; they can’t see that the trees are fake because they’re too busy admiring the picture-perfect landscape. An example of this is the conspiracy theory that the translators of the NIV intentionally removed verses from the Bible in order to undermine vital theological truths, like the deity of Christ. Walter Veith, a prominent conspiracy theorist in the Adventist church, makes the outlandish claim that “up to 60,000” words have been removed from the NIV. The New Testament has about 180,000 words. One could easily compare the NIV with the KJV and quickly confirm that the NIV is not, in fact, missing the equivalent of one-third of the New Testament.

Another claim Veith makes is that all references to Jesus as Lord have been removed from the NIV. That’s a serious charge, and if true would be a grave threat to the very foundation of Christianity. But even a cursory examination of the New Testament will prove this to be false. There are plenty of references in the NIV to Jesus being Lord. It took me a few seconds of searching my computer Bible program to locate one of the most obvious: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

My purpose here is not to belittle Walter Veith. Many people say he is a wonderful man, and I’ve heard that his work on creation is outstanding. However, the conspiracy theories he promotes are not only fallacious, but spiritually dangerous. If a theory is based on numerous “facts” that can easily be disproved, it’s not much of a theory. And if this theory claims to give people spiritual enlightenment but is based on myths and rumors, those who believe it are at risk of actually going deeper into darkness. Why should we trust the conclusion to be true if the premise is false?

But many people do trust the conclusion, and this is why I believe that conspiracy theories are so dangerous. They seem to cause us to momentarily turn off the critical reasoning powers of our brains and believe that something is true when it isn’t. Maybe we want to believe it because it makes us feel like we’ve outwitted the devil. We know there will be deceptions in the last days. Is it that far-fetched to imagine that Satan might try to deceive people with a faulty Bible translation? No, not really. But if such a deception were a reality, we should be able to establish it by verified evidence and sound reasoning instead of demonstrably false claims and preposterous leaps of logic.

Loving the Truth

The apostle Paul wrote: “Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2, emphasis supplied). The way to promote the truth is—are you ready for this—to simply tell the truth. I know, what a novel concept! But sadly it has become a novel concept for many people. They have become so caught up in the twisted world of conspiracy theories that they can no longer discern truth from fiction. Some of these people could have been described as the elect at one time. They are deeply religious people who love God’s truth and are zealous to defend it. But somehow they got off track. They followed the siren song of conspiracy theories, and little by little it has led them away from the safety and security found in God’s Word toward a dangerous combination of speculation, deceit, and rumor-mongering.

If we can’t tell truth from fiction when it comes to conspiracy theories, how will we be able to discern the last great deception that will threaten even the elect? Will we actually be among the elect if we don’t cultivate a love for the truth? Paul warns that the last-day deception ends in destruction specifically because those who are deceived refuse to love the truth and so be saved (1 Thess. 2:9-12). In other words, they become deceived through their own choice; they choose error instead of truth. It’s especially important to cultivate a love for the truth now, while it is relatively easy to distinguish truth from error. If instead we are cultivating a love of conspiracy theories that are based even partially on error, we are placing ourselves in serious jeopardy of falling for the last-day deception.

Truth is not merely a set of facts. It is not a collection of special, secret knowledge that only those with insight into the inner workings of the devil’s schemes are privileged to understand. Such a view is actually unbiblical. It is a new form of an ancient heresy called gnosticism (my friend David Hamstra calls it “occult epistemology”). The Bible teaches that truth is a Person. Jesus declared, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). If we want to be a part of God’s elect people who avoid the end-time deception, then we need to stay close to Jesus. Spend more time getting to know Him, and less time researching conspiracy theories. I promise you there is infinitely more value in being with Jesus than in trying to discern the next great deception. If you know the Truth, then you won’t fall for the deception.

So here’s my challenge to you. The next time you encounter a conspiracy theory and are tempted to follow it down the rabbit hole, stop and pray. Then pick up your Bible and read the promises of Jesus: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27, 28). No one can deceive you if  you are following Jesus. Listen to His voice, not to speculative and untrustworthy conspiracy theories. Let Jesus worry about thwarting the devil’s deceptions. Make sure you know and are following the truth, and you will be eternally safe.

 

 

Matthew With Kieran

Matthew Shallenberger pastors in the Georgia-Cumberland Conference. He and his wife have two little boys and two hyper dogs. Matthew believes that tin foil is best used for cooking purposes, not hat-making.




The views expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the Georgia-Cumberland Conference or the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

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.

Christ Is Risen!

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

This past weekend we celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the most important event in earth’s history. Jesus made it possible for us to be saved from sin and death through His own sacrificial death. Often when we talk about salvation, we focus on the cross. That is a very important part of the plan of salvation. But the resurrection is equally important. Without it the entire Christian religion is meaningless. Check out what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Some people like to say that if there was no resurrection, no heaven, no eternal reward for following Jesus, they would still be Christians because it’s still worth it. Christianity has made their lives better, so even if it all turns out to be a fairy tale, they wouldn’t change a thing. The temporary benefits of Christianity are enough.

Nonsense. If there is no resurrection, no heaven, no eternity with Jesus, then Christianity is worthless. Actually, it’s worse than worthless, because it gives us a false hope for a better future that will never come. It tells us to believe in a God who is powerless to defeat sin and death. What kind of faith is that? How does false hope make life better? It’s a pitiful way to live. We might as well pursue what little enjoyment we can get out of this life, because this is it. Later in the chapter Paul says, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Cor. 15:32).

The only reason that Christianity has any meaning or power to make our lives better is because Jesus is alive! “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:20-22).

Christ is risen! He has defeated sin and death! And the same power that brought Him forth from the grave is the same power that works in our lives to break the chains of sin and to give us hope for a better future when death will finally be destroyed forever.

Jesus’ power is still the same today; it has not diminished in the slightest. We can claim His promise and receive that power in our lives. This isn’t just a once-a-year commitment that we make after we’ve experienced a stirring Easter church service or witnessed a powerful Passion Play. The real challenge is to live every day in the resurrection power of Jesus. Jesus really is alive. Are you?

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.

When Jesus Offends Us, Part 2

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Last week we looked at a different side of Jesus than we usually consider. There were times when He was blunt and outright offensive to the religious sensibilities of the people in His day. Jesus’ bold teachings still confront us today, and it’s actually good for us that they do. Here’s the question we considered at the end of last week’s blog: What was Jesus’ purpose in coming to this earth, and how do His blunt, offensive teachings serve that purpose?

Jesus expressed His purpose in John 3:16, 17—probably the most loved and well-known of all Bible passages: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” He did this by giving “his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). He also said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). Jesus came to this earth to save sinners by sacrificing His life for them and calling them to repent of their sinful ways and to believe in Him as Savior and Lord.

So how do Jesus’ offensive teachings serve that purpose? First, consider what Jesus’ death tells us about God: He will go to any lengths to save us. He will sacrifice His very life to redeem us. Such a God will not let anything stand in the way of His rescue mission, not even the self-righteousness and pride of self-proclaimed “good” religious people.

Jesus loved the Pharisees. He wanted to save even them! If we read His blunt conversations with them and think that He’s simply giving them a slap on the wrist for their holier-than-thou attitudes, we would miss the point. This is the same Jesus who wept over the city of Jerusalem, knowing that their rejection of Him would lead to a terrible end (see Luke 19:41-44). This is the Jesus who, even after pronouncing woe upon woe against the Pharisees, cried out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37).

The heart of God breaks for lost sinners and yearns to save them, even those who reject Him and refuse the grace He extends to them. If He needs to bluntly offend us in order to get through to us, He will. Jesus will not let anyone slip easily into hell. He will meet our false sense of self-righteous security with a truthful smack upside the head. Apart from violating our free will and His own loving character, Jesus will do anything to wake us out of our sinful stupor.

Which brings us to a second reason why Jesus was so forceful with the Pharisees: they were actually preventing others from receiving the salvation that He came to offer. In rebuking the Pharisees, Jesus told them:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Matt. 23:13, 15).

The Pharisees were misleading the people, and worse, hindering them from entering the kingdom of God. Their stubborn refusal to consider the possibility that their perfectly tuned system of religion might be mistaken blinded them to the reality of God Himself present in their midst. Not only did they deny Jesus as their Messiah, they used their influence to oppose Him and to prevent people from following Him. No doubt Jesus was including the Pharisees when He said:

“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” (Matt. 18:6, 7)

Both of these reasons—Jesus’ desire to save even the stubbornly self-righteous, and the tendency of the self-righteous to inhibit the salvation of others—are still applicable today. The attitude of the Pharisees is alive and well, sometimes within our own hearts. Those of us who have been religious for much or all of our lives are especially susceptible to Pharisaical pride. And like the Pharisees, we do not see ourselves as prideful, but rather as good, moral, religious folks.

In next week’s blog we’ll look at some practical implications of Jesus’ offensive teachings. We’ll end this week’s blog with another question: If Jesus was gentle and compassionate with wayward sinners, but blunt and offensive with the respected religious leaders of His day, how might He relate to 21st century well-churched Christians? What would He say to us?

When Jesus Offends Us, Part 1

Image credit: FreeBiblePictures.org

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.

– Charles Welsey

 

So goes the first verse of the old hymn. It reminds us of the little children who Jesus welcomed with open arms (Luke 18:16). The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus’ kindness and gentleness. Jesus showed the woman caught in adultery forgiveness instead of condemnation (John 8). He treated the Samaritan woman at the well with dignity, even though He knew about her sordid personal life (John 4). When He saw the multitudes He had compassion on them because He realized “they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).

But there are also stories that reveal a different aspect of His character. While interacting with faltering, failing sinners He was tender and compassionate. But when dealing with the religious leaders of His day, the “good” people, the “moral” people, He could be quite blunt. In fact, if we really took His words to heart we would probably find them offensive, as did the religious, “churchy” people of His day.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, could also be righteously angry Jesus, upending the tables of the moneychangers and driving those shameless swindlers out of the temple with a whip (John 2). He could also be sharply rebuking Jesus, who called the religious leaders of His day hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, blind guides, snakes, and sons of hell (Matt. 23).

To deepen the impact of some of Jesus’ offensive statements, let’s bring them into the 21st century. Imagine that Jesus walked into your church one day and declared, “The homosexuals and the Muslims are getting into heaven ahead of you Christians” (see Matt. 21:28-32). Or imagine that He told a story about two men who came to prayer meeting one night: one a good, upstanding church elder and the other a divorced, jobless, hopeless alcoholic (see Luke 18:9-14). The twist in His story is that the alcoholic, rather than the church elder, went home forgiven and accepted by God.

How would you respond? How do you think most Christians would respond? I live in the Bible Belt, not far from Chattanooga, which was recently named the most Bible-minded city in America. I can tell you how most people here would take it: not well. But that’s very similar to how offensive Jesus’ actual words were when He told the Pharisees that the worst sinners of all, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, were entering the kingdom of God ahead of them, and were justified by God instead of them. It’s no wonder why they plotted to kill Him. He called them out publicly and deeply offended their religious sensibilities—and their pride.

I believe Jesus’ offensive teachings still confront us today. Like a thorn stuck in our shoe, they make us uncomfortably aware of our true condition and they refuse to let us ignore it. That’s actually a good thing. We’ll discuss why next week in Part 2 of this blog. For now, reflect on this: What was Jesus’ purpose in coming to this earth, and how do His blunt, offensive teachings serve that purpose? I believe the answer to that question tells us something wonderful about the love of Jesus. Stay tuned…

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.