Posts Tagged religion

False Profits

Deuteronomy 13 gives us a pretty clear warning,

If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’—which you have not known—‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Understand, this is not some normal, everyday person.  We are being warned about one who is considered a prophet, a man who performs miracles, someone able to work “signs and wonders.”  I think if some guy showed up and performed a miracle, most of us would believe that he must be speaking with God’s blessing.  I know if I saw some prophet work a supernatural sign, I would tend to believe what he says.

Yet this scripture tells us that even the one who works miracles is a false prophet if he entices us away from serving the Lord and obeying His commands.

We live in a pragmatic world.

The church today is often ruled by the mentality of “if it works, it must be right.”  Have thousands of people attending your church?  You must be on the right track.  Getting attention from the world around you?  You must be saying the right thing.  Getting the desired results?  You must be doing God’s work.

We have been told we can expect financial prosperity as though Jesus didn’t spend a great deal of His ministry warning those who are rich.  We have been told we can expect happiness and fulfillment, as though the gospel were some sort of self-help technique.  We have been told it’s okay to engage in the materialism around us when half the world’s population lives in poverty.  And because those who have told us these things are considered “Christian leaders” with successful ministries, we have believed them without question.

But no matter how good they sound, they are false prophets.

Scripture is full of stories of those who were called by God, yet suffered lack and defeat.   Prophets were murdered.  Even Jesus was forsaken by all but a few.  Modern day saints endure torture and persecution for the sake of Christ.  Others live in extreme poverty.  Others get sick and die.  Things do not always work out the way we want them to.  Christians are not always healthy, wealthy, and wise.

That’s not what the gospel is about.  In fact, the gospel is the polar opposite of those things.  The gospel that Jesus brought is about releasing us from the need for riches and success.  It is about being content.  It is about putting the needs of others before ourselves.  It is about suffering so that others may be blessed.

So how do we know who to believe?

How do we know who is truly speaking the words of God?  Here are 3 suggestions:

1. Get into God’s word for yourself.  Read and study and find out what God’s plan is.  When I started reading my Bible faithfully, I couldn’t believe how far modern Christianity is from what I saw in scripture.

2.  Pray.  Not just a little bit, either.  Pray a lot.  Put down your entertainment, lay aside the things that take up your time and attention and earnestly seek God.  Press through the ADD and wandering mind and get down to business with God.  He will speak to you, He wants to speak to you.  In the process you will find that you need the words of man less and less.

3.  Judge their words based on the truth of what you hear from God and read in His word.  Don’t just take the words of man at face value, even if that man (or woman) is a respected and well known Christian leader.

Even if they run a big church.  Even if they are on television or wrote a book.  Even if they have the title Dr. or Rev. in front of their name.  Even if they work a miracle, if they entice you away from the simplicity of the gospel, do not listen.

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Legally Blind

In Luke 13 Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  He noticed a woman in the room who was bent over and could not straighten herself up, an ailment from which she had suffered for eighteen years.  Jesus immediately had compassion on this precious woman, laid hands on her and said, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.”  In an instant, her crippled and broken body became whole.

A great miracle, right?

But instead of rejoicing, the ruler of the synagogue became indignant, because Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath.  He said to the crowd that had gathered, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.”   His words reeked with cold-hearted judgment.  Can’t you just feel his condescension and arrogance?  This leader of the synagogue cared more about the technicalities of his legalistic system than he did about a woman who had suffered for eighteen years.

This is but one confrontation of many Jesus had with the Pharisees regarding healing the sick on the Sabbath.  And to me, this is the essence of what it means to be a Pharisee.  The leader looked right past a woman who had spent almost two decades in pain, blinded by his need to be right.

How often do we do the same?

Just like the Pharisee that day, the church has allowed our need to uphold the law to leave us indifferent to the needs of people. How often have we focused on the sin, instead of the person?  How often have we been so concerned with our own sense of right and wrong that we have ignored the suffering of an individual?  How often have we also been blinded by our need to be right and our need to win?

The Pharisee saw a Sabbath, Jesus saw a precious woman who needed to be released from her pain. The Pharisee saw a law that was broken, Jesus saw a woman who was broken.  The Pharisee saw the letter of the law, Jesus saw its heart.

It’s a matter of focus

All too often we focus on the sin and forget the person behind it.  We condemn the abominable act and ignore the person who has struggled with feelings they cannot just ignore.   We are indignant against the addiction and look past the suffering of a precious soul locked in a prison he cannot escape.  We judge the behavior of the poor, never stopping to examine the dehumanizing effects of poverty.

Are we so blinded by our need to condemn sin that we forget who we are condemning?  We are condemning people.  It’s easy to pass judgment on a group.  We can dismissively write people off when they are part of the faceless “them.”  But what about individual people with hearts and feelings? We have fought political battles and drawn lines in the sand.  We have created a culture of “us” against “them.”  We have polarized ourselves into groups and separated ourselves from the ones who need His mercy the most.

Jesus didn’t see groups, He saw people.  He didn’t condemn “adulterers,” instead He showed mercy to a woman who had been caught in the act.  He didn’t dismiss “Sabbath violators,” he simply healed a woman who had suffered for eighteen years.  He didn’t ignore a thief on the cross, but even in death had compassion on a repentant soul.

We are called to love

I think many feel to simply love another without judgment somehow makes them guilty of approving of the person’s sin.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The fact is, they are sinning against God, not us.  And He is more than able to hold them accountable for their actions.  When they stand before their maker, they will have no excuse.  Besides, Jesus was accused of being easy on sin as well.

We seem to feel the need to confront evil.  So did Jesus.  He confronted the evil of arrogant, hypocritical condemnation and judgment.  He confronted the Pharisees and the evil of their adherence to law at the expense of mercy.  He regularly confronted those who placed their own need to be right ahead of the needs of others to be healed.

Jesus called us, by His words and actions, to love the sinner and have compassion on the outcast. There were no qualifications.  There were no conditions. Mercy trumps judgment.  Grace overcomes condemnation.  Jesus heals, no matter what the law says.

The Pharisee sees sinners in need of judgment.  Jesus sees sinners in need of redemption.

What do we see?

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The Religious Wrong?

They didn’t get it.

They thought they knew the scripture.  After all, they were experts in the scripture; why wouldn’t they understand what it said about the Messiah?  Yet for all their expertise, all their knowledge of the Jewish Bible, they missed it.  The words were right there in front of them.  In fact, they probably knew them by heart, and yet they did not understand.

He was born in a way they did not expect.  He lived in a way they could not understand.  He even died at their own hands, the hands of those who should have seen and heralded His coming.  Their dogma let them down.  Their certainty became their blinders.

There is a word for those who think they have God all figured out.

Pharisee.

The great weakness of the Pharisees was their arrogance.  They were convinced they knew exactly what the scripture promised.  They doggedly held on to their preconceptions, doctrines and dogmas even in the face of the miracles Jesus performed.  They saw what He did and heard what He said, but could not make the connection between the prophecies and their fulfillment.

They thought they had God all figured out.  They thought they had the Master of the Universe in a box.  They thought they had an intellectual and spiritual handle on the God who Himself claimed “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts, and My ways are higher than your ways.”

Perhaps we are not as smart as we think we are.

We all seem so certain of our doctrine.  We have divided off into groups, sure of our own take on the truth.  We have argued and fought with those who disagree with us.  We justify the mistreatment of those we don’t understand, just like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day oversaw the elimination of the One who wouldn’t play by their rules.  Our rules and doctrines have, just like 2,000 years ago, become more important than people.

But what if our understanding of the scripture is clouded by our own preconceptions?  What if, like the Pharisees, we are so settled in our arrogant self-assurance that we cannot see the simple truth in front of our faces?

It’s not that complicated.

Jesus didn’t spend much of His time on doctrine.  I believe this was intentional.  Those around Him, the religious leaders of the day, seemed to have a corner on that market.  Jesus doctrine was pretty simple.  In fact, I believe it can be focused down to one word: love.  “A new commandment I give to you,” He told His disciples, “that you love one another, as I have loved you.”  Simple.  No complicated system of theology.  Just love others in the way He loved us.

So how did He love us?

He loved us before we loved Him.  His love extended to those who didn’t agree with Him, didn’t believe in Him, even those who nailed Him to the cross.  He loved those who fought against Him and tried to eliminate Him.  He loves regardless of whether His love is returned.

He loved us unconditionally.  There were no requirements to be met before we could experience His grace.  He offers it freely to anyone, regardless of what they do, where they are, or where they have been.  There are no prerequisites, no demands, no qualifications on His love.

He loved us lavishly.  “How great a love has the Father bestowed on us, that we should be called His sons?”  He did more than forgive.  He did more than forget.  He restored us, cleaned us up, and adopted us as His very children.

I could go on.  The list could fill this whole blog of ways that Christ has loved us.  How do we measure up?  Do we love sinners mercifully, unconditionally and freely?  He did not say the world would know we are His disciples by our correct position on the nature of the sacraments or our eschatology. He said they would know we are his followers by how we love.  Perhaps that’s why the world doesn’t really feel they need Christianity any longer.

There is truth.

This is not some postmodern rant against absolute truth.  This is not an attack on doctrine.  The truth of scripture can be known as it is revealed to us by the Holy Spirit.  But that truth should be held delicately.  Our understanding of the truth must be tempered by humility and an understanding of our own frailty.  Otherwise, truth turns into a weapon.  Christians in the middle ages thought they were justified in burning witches at the stake.  Christians in the 50’s thought the Bible condoned burning crosses on the lawns of black men.

What don’t we understand?

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How much is enough?

In 2 Timothy 4, Paul gave Timothy a warning about the church,

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers”

You don’t have to look very far to see that happening these days.  Everywhere you look there is another book, another sermon, another song or message or article.  We have become a people who are addicted to encouragement.  In our fast paced society of the immediate, we become quickly bored with the familiar and are in constant search for something new and different.  It’s like we are constantly hitting “check mail” on our spiritual inbox, hoping for the next big thing to hit and excite us.

A recent study by the World Health Organization revealed that those from the richer countries were more likely to suffer depression.  Maybe our wealth and comfort have made us depressed, so we go searching for the next bit of good news, hoping it will lift our spirits.

The promise of “more” – more stuff, more money and more comfort – has left us with less.

We have less time, less connection, less happiness than ever.  One of the things that hits me hardest when I visit developing nations is their joy.  In spite of extreme poverty, they overflow with joy and love and generosity.  I believe this is because they know what is important.

In our pursuit of more we have forsaken our time with God.  We don’t pray that much and don’t study His word that much.  We have lost communication with Him and with one another.  And instead of getting our priorities straight  and reordering our lives, we have simply let others do the work.  We let the pastor study God’s word and bring the message on Sunday.  “Just give me my 3 points to a better life.”  We are just like the Israelites who saw the mountain burning and felt the earth tremble at the voice of Yahweh.  “Moses, you go hear from God and come back and tell us what He says,” was their response.

Look, I’m not bashing anyone.  I know life is hard and we all need help.  And I’m not saying we don’t need pastors and encouragement.  But the answers are not just around the corner in some new teaching.  The answers to life’s problems are where they have always been found.  They are in a deeper connection with Jesus and with each other.

You want 3 points?  Here they are:

1.  Spend whatever time with God you must.  Reorder your life.  Give some things up.  Your idols have promised you happiness and left you empty.  Only He can satisfy.  So take the time to drink deeply of His water and let it quench your thirst.  Other things will grow strangely dissatisfying when you taste of His goodness.  Like the late missionary Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

2.  Live in community with others.  Our modern church culture has made it possible for us to show up on Sunday morning, do our duty, and never have to make ourselves vulnerable to others.  Find a small community of believers and live life together.  Depression can be the only alternative when we are cut off from others and left to fend for ourselves.  You must be joined with others who know you, love you, challenge you, and accept you unconditionally.  It’s out there. Don’t give up until you find it.

3.  Stop searching for more.  I think this is a big reason Christians in poverty seem to have so much joy in spite of their situation.  They don’t expect more all the time.  They have learned to be content, even in extreme poverty.  They are thankful for what they have instead of always reaching for the “elusive next.”  Be content.  Be thankful.  Rejoice in what God has already done in your life, and submit the rest to Him.  He knows what is best, and your steps are ordered by Him.

These are just 3 points.  They are not the only 3 points.  They do not replace hearing directly from God about your life and your direction.  I’m not bringing the stone tablets down from the mountain here.  That’s your job.  That’s the whole point.  God wants to deal directly with you.  You don’t have to go through a preacher, an author or any other middleman.

Are you willing to listen?

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Death to Jesus

Jesus met a man on the Sabbath who needed healing.  The Pharisees gathered around Him to see if He would dare violate their rules in order to have mercy on a poor, suffering soul.  He looked with sadness at the hardness of their hearts, then healed the man.  He dared.

“Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him.” Mark 3:6

There are two institutions that are directly opposed to the work of Jesus and His kingdom: Religion and government.  The kingdom of God is the most subversive movement in the history of mankind, because it stands as a threat to both.  

Most of us know the Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.  These leaders were so immersed in their own religion, so intoxicated by their own power over others, that Jesus’ work was viewed by them as a direct threat.  Why?  Because He operated outside of the neat little box in which they had placed God.  THEY were the experts in who God was and how He worked.  THEY were the voice of right and wrong, based on their own interpretation of the rules.  Jesus didn’t operate with deference to their authority.  He healed on the Sabbath, spoke words of mercy to the sinners, and had the audacity to forgive sins.

Many of us may not know the Herodians.  Little is know of this group, other than the fact that they were a religious sect and political party.  It is thought that they used support of Herod as a means to usher in theocracy.  Some scholars think they even presented Herod as the Messiah in order to establish his political power.  Jesus’ pure teaching about the Kingdom of God would have stood in direct opposition to their political aspirations.

The Kingdom, it turns out, is a threat to just about everyone.

Those who operate in the Kingdom seek humility and not power.  Those who live in the kingdom serve the poor instead of sucking up to the rich.  Those who live in the Kingdom experience the freedom of the Spirit instead of the rules of religion.  Those whose hearts are consumed by Jesus seek His glory and not their own.  The Sermon on the Mount is the most religiously and politically revolutionary teaching in history because it places the Kingdom of God directly in my heart, and outside the influence of religion or political authority.

Both religion and politics are threatened by Christ’s teaching.  But there is nothing more dangerous to the Kingdom than when the two combine together.  There can only be one end to the mixing of politics and religion, and that is death to Jesus.  Entanglement with religion, politics, or both simply chokes out the true work of Christ.  And just like the Pharisees and Herodians, those who choose His Kingdom choose to operate outside the scope of either, and dissidents must be eliminated. In the early days of the church, these two groups joined forces to kill the followers of Jesus, just like they did Him.  Jesus’ warning, “They hated Me and they will hate you too” turned out to be deadly accurate.

And so it is today.  

Those who choose not to submit to religion are deemed troublemakers.  Those who choose to ignore the political climate of the day are labeled as liberals.  Those who seek the Kingdom instead of earthly power or wealth are viewed as irresponsible.

The problem with the world today will not be fixed by more religion or more law.  It won’t be fixed by a political or Herodian messiah. And it certainly won’t be fixed by a mixture of the two.  The problems that surround us will only be repaired when those who follow Christ understand that the Kingdom He established transcends religion, government, and any other contrivance of man.  His Kingdom on earth is not established at His return.  It was established at His resurrection, then turned over to His body the church to fill the whole earth. 

How could a Kingdom whose sole commandment was to love on another become so filled with condemnation and judgment? How could a Kingdom whose sole duty is care for the poor so abdicate our calling?  It is because we have forsaken that Kingdom for our own.

Until His people abandon the ways of religion and government in favor of the personal, simple, revolutionary life of the Kingdom, we’ll just see more of the same.  And the church of Jesus Christ will continue its slide into irrelevance and contempt in the world around us.


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I’m going AWOL

In case you hadn’t heard, there is a culture war raging around us these days.  Orthodox vs. Secular.  Conservative vs. Progressive.  Call it what you will, we see two distinct world views battling it out in the court of public opinion.  And this culture war has tainted almost every area of our society: our news media, politics and, yes, Christianity.

There are certainly elements of the Christian world who feel it is their God-ordained duty to fight the culture war.  They see America abandoning the “Christian values” they believe have guided our nation since its inception, and are committed to fighting to preserve those values.  They organize and protest, criticize and argue with those whom they feel are leading the nation astray.  I say these words with great care, because for most of my life I have belonged to this group.

On the other side of the table are Christians who equally love God, yet equally fight the culture war in a different way.  They too have a list of morals and ideals they see as eroding, and they blame the “religious right” for leading America down a path of destruction.  Again, I say this with caution and respect, because I have good friends who fall into this group.

Sure, my descriptions are over-simplified and excessively broad.  But they are sufficient for me to make my point.  Actually, it’s more of a question (or series of questions.)

When did God ever call us to fight a culture war?

When did He ever ask us to defend Him to the world around us?  When did God tell us to argue and protest and defend our position?  When did He tell us to marginalize and demonize those with whom we disagree?

Even if we think they are ruining our culture and even if we are convinced the other side is destroying America, where did we ever get the idea that we were to engage in a culture war to defend our beliefs, morals, and traditions?  Have we become so engulfed in politics that we cannot separate them from our faith in Christ?

And since when was Christianity ever intended to become a culture in the first place?  It seems to me it happened about the same time the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion.  Since that day Christianity has enjoyed a place of cultural and political power that has been relatively unchallenged. And even when questioned, it wielded enough influence to quickly eliminate its detractors.  This marriage of politics and religion has been a long time in the making.

So here we are.  The gospel of our Lord Jesus has been reduced to a series of rules and regulations.  The good news of God’s grace on sinful man has been tarnished by our lack of grace for one another.  The One who spent His whole life on earth criticizing religion has become the foundation of yet another religion.  We fight and argue, criticize and divide.  And we do it all in the name of the One who said, “they will know you are my disciples by your love.”

If there is any culture at all to Christianity, it is love.

If there is any moral ethic which we should strive to uphold, it is love.  Mercy, grace, forgiveness…all can be summed up in that one word, love.  Yet our culture war is the antithesis of love. It’s hard to love someone when you are telling them they are ruining the world.  It’s hard to love someone when you constantly criticize their deeply held values.  It’s hard for them to feel loved when they are always wrong and you are always right.

What have we gained?  Have we really changed anything?  It seems to me all we have accomplished is driving a wedge between God and those we think need Him most.  Most people probably wouldn’t have a problem with Jesus if they didn’t feel so beaten down by His followers.

So I quit. I’m going AWOL.  I’m resigning my post in the culture war.  I will no longer fight against flesh and blood, doing battle with those who are not my enemies.  If there is warfare to be waged, I will fight it in prayer.  And I will love those with whom I disagree. I will be merciful to those who I think have gone astray.  I will leave the culture up to the one who transcends nationality, creed, culture and tradition.

He is big enough to defend Himself anyway.

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Who is calling the shots?

There is a principle in the U.S. legal system called “precedent.”  It’s a rule of law where a court defines a set of principles in deciding a case that can be referred to by other courts in deciding similar cases in the future.  Its official name is the Latin phrase stare decisis et non quieta movere – “to stand by and adhere to decisions and not disturb what is settled.”

I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me to be a bit of a legal shortcut. Jurists standing on the work of others instead of thinking things through for themselves.  And I’m not the only one.  Justice McHugh of the High Court of Australia once remarked about precedence, “That is the way of the common law, the judges preferring to go from case to case, like the ancient Mediterranean mariners, hugging the coast from point to point, and avoiding the dangers of the open sea of system or science.”

My question is this: What if the precedent, the original decision, is wrong?  What if subsequent courts are basing decisions based on erroneous reasoning?  I wondering how many courts upheld the legality of slavery simply based on the principle of precedent?

I wonder also, how much of the faith we call Christianity is based on precedent? How much of what we practice has little or no basis in scripture, but instead in “how it’s always been done?”

Christianity is not like the court system. Precedence doesn’t exist. Just because something has been practiced for centuries doesn’t make it right, permanent or holy.  Just because you’ve been told something is a certain way for your whole life doesn’t make it so.

The only precedent that is absolutely essential to the follower of Christ is Scripture.  The Bible.  The words of God’s prophets.  The doctrine of the Jesus and His Apostles.  And that Scripture is clear: the Holy Spirit is able to lead YOU into all truth.  You don’t need centuries of popes and preachers telling you what the Bible says.  You only need the Bible and a willingness to hear the voice of God for yourself.  There is only one head of the church, and that is Jesus.  He said, “My sheep hear MY voice, and they know me.”

Let me be clear.  I am not telling you that everything you have ever been taught is wrong.  I am not telling you that all the doctrine of the church is wrong.  Tradition and doctrine are an important part of our faith.  But they are meant to guide us, not dominate us.  They are meant to provide a blueprint, not a mandate.  Doctrine is not the end, it’s the means.  All too often doctrine has been used as a club to beat people into submission or eliminate those who disagree.

Too many of us are like those ancient mariners, clinging to the coast, hopping from port to port, too afraid to launch out to the danger of the open sea.  It has been easier to let others tell us what to believe than to search the scriptures for ourselves.  It has been easier to allow traditions, rules and dogmas dominate us than to strike out into uncharted territory, following the words of Jesus as heard by our own ears and not by the ears of others.  Religion doesn’t like rebels.  It prefers those who are willing to accept the box into which God has been neatly placed.

But the Bible is full of examples of men and women who broke with tradition to follow God:  Abraham leaving his father’s house, Gideon tearing down and burning his father’s idols, the prophets who spoke against corruption in the house of God.  All were called to abandon the safety of the status quo in favor of a new thing God wanted to do through them.  There are many heroes of church history, like Martin Luther, Jan Hus and George Fox, who were willing to break off from the pack in favor of God’s truth.  Our Lord Himself is our greatest example of one who had the courage to stand against tradition when it was immoral, arrogant and destructive.

Do we have the fortitude to follow their example?

In these days, God is looking for a people who are willing to strike out with boldness for His kingdom. He is looking for those with the courage to reject the selfishness and materialism that has gripped so much of modern Christianity.  He is looking for men and women who are willing to follow His lead and show mercy instead of judgment, love instead of hatred, grace instead of condemnation.

There’s a vast ocean out there, but you have to be willing to leave the shore to explore it.

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