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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Is God Fair?

"But that's not fair!" I've heard this protest often in my life, and been the one protesting on more than one occasion. Recently, however, I've heard this charge in response to how the Bible presents God's dealings with us sinners. No matter your views on predestination, election, and God's sovereignty in regards to salvation, the Bible is unequivocally clear that some will go to heaven and others to hell. However, all three of those themes (predestination, election, and sovereignty) are present by name in the Bible, and every fair biblical scholar must have room for them in his or her theology.

So let me give you a definitive answer right now, God is not fair. Erase that category for God in your mind. Fairness is never an attribute that the Bible gives to God. This may surprise a lot of people, but it isn't in there.

However, before you jump to any conclusions, let me clarify something. When I say that God is not fair, I am simply saying that God does not act equally and identically towards all people. It is not the same as saying God is not just or not right in His actions. I am simply saying that God acts differently towards different people.

This is not to say that God acts wrongly. All of us, as fallen and rebellious human beings, deserve God's justice and condemnation to hell. God would be perfectly just in saving no one. This would be the end of every single person if not for the grace and mercy of God. But due to this grace and mercy, God exercised His justice and condemnation upon Jesus on behalf of all those called as saints. In this way, God's justice is not ignored or denied, but rather fully satisfied.

Thus we see that God acts out His justice and judgement on some, and He acts out His grace and mercy on others. However, in both these actions, God does not act unjustly on anyone. Of course, this is where the protest comes into play, "That's not fair!" And I must ask "Who told you God must be fair?" To say that God must be merciful and gracious to everyone equally it to nullify mercy. Mercy is never something that is obligatory, mercy is something that God does freely and voluntarily. Mercy by definition is something that God doesn't have to do. As soon as you say God "owes" us mercy, you aren't talking about mercy anymore.

So we have two categories of humanity, those who receive mercy and those who receive justice. But (and here is my point) nobody receives injustice. No one has ever received injustice at the hands of God. So while God is not fair, it really works in our favor as we receive grace and mercy rather than the justice we have earned. Thus, God is not fair and I thank God for it.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Merry Cliche' Christmas

I don't know about you, but Christmas has always been an exciting season for me. From an early age we are conditioned to equate Christmas with presents, breaks from school and work, good food and lots of it. And in recent years, the holiday also brings the annual battle between the secular and religious entities that some choose to fight to "Keep Christ in Christmas". For myself, that is not a hill I am willing to die on. However, another tag line that has been so often used as to become cliche' is the subject of my blog today. I would like to challenge your response when you are encouraged to "Remember the Reason for the Season".

When I heard this incitement in the past, my thought process was as follows: "Jesus is the reason for the season and I know that. I know that He became a baby and lived a life so that he could die for me and save me from my sins. So remembering the reason for the season means that I should think of the sacrifice He made for me and celebrate the life I have in Him."

Did you notice what I did there? Yes, perhaps I hit a part of the "reason for the season", but it was only the part that revolved around me. If I could come up with the most selfish version of Christmas, that was it. If I may be so blunt and honest, I almost turned such a message into just another present, no different from the rest under the tree. Notice that my thought process did not call me to any change of behavior. Instead, I turned it into an item to enjoy for a bit then put in the closet for a rainy day. I boiled the Nativity down to mere sentiment that just gave me "warm fuzzies" and required nothing of me.

But the Gospel and His advent were for the poor, the needy, the broken, the orphan, the widow, and the outcast. He was born among shepherds, He lived among tax collectors and prostitutes, and He died between thieves. He came for the broken, for "it is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick".

So, yes, Jesus came for me, but He also came for my insufferable, alcoholic neighbor. He came for you, but He also came for those like the boy who took nine lives in my sister's mall last week. He came for the panhandler holding a sign on the street corner. He came for my boss who fears the future. If I may be so bold, Christmas is much more about saving the lost and helping the needy than it is about patting Christians on the back. Don't turn the advent of Christ and Christmas day into just another sentimental thought. Don't turn it into just another superficial
"gift" that you receive and feel "warm fuzzies". Don't be cliche', but rather let the season change how you look at the people around you and how you think about Christmas.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tragedy Close To Home

Yesterday a young man opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle from the third floor of the Von Maur where my little sister works. He killed eight and wounded five in the Westroads Mall in Omaha before shooting himself as well. This massacre is the worst of its kind in Nebraska history and my sister was there, under the shooter, corralling customers into the backroom of the shoe department. She talked live over the phone with CNN's Wolf Blitzer that afternoon, and appeared on ABC's Good Morning America this morning. People talk about the "six degrees of separation" that exist between any individual and every other person or event in the world, but this is much closer today.

So how do I think about all that's taken place? How should we as a society think about it? Most of the people I have talked to have responded in grief (understandably) but also in anger. My reaction is not anger but a breaking heart at the thought that this was his best escape and way to "go out". People are saying, "I can't believe it happened here", but, frankly, I can. Every community has individuals who are loners, either of their own volition or by the exclusion and negligence of the people around them. A suicide speaks of a life likely void of hope, love, or joy. But murder suggests anger and hatred, and such random victims suggests these violent emotions were directed at society and humanity in general. I heard someone say once, "When a person has no hope, consequences mean nothing".

I would like to think that an event like this will cause us all to be a little less self-absorbed and start looking out a little better for the depressed, angry, and hopeless in our society. I hope that now we'll grow a little introspective and consider who in our own lives needs some love and attention to show that their lives have value. However, this is not the first time something like this has happened, and everyone seems to find a way to get back into rat race without too much life change. Honestly, my expectations are not high.

But for myself and all Christians, I have higher expectations and hopes. How are we any different from the rest of the world if all we say is "When it's your time, it's your time, make sure you're ready"? Frankly, that response is selfish and lazy. Selfish because Jesus calls us to much more than a passive assent of His sovereignty and providence spoken in an air of superiority. Lazy because it requires no change or reaction from the Christian to be more like Christ.

I hope we are daily looking for the outcasts, the depressed, the needy, and the hopeless. I hope we are ready with a caring word, a helping hand, and a saving grace. I expect much more from the Christian lot just as Christ requires much more. Christ came for people such as this, and the Good News of the life and hope in Him can truly change hearts and lives. We have a choice. We can react in mindless anger and hatred and go back to our daily lives in bitterness, or we can allow our hearts to be broken and perhaps prevent the next shooting by giving hope and loving those who need it most.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Top 5 Books of My Life So Far

As you may have noticed, I've suffered from a combination of a lack of time due to the holidays and a simple case of writer's block. So I approach this Top 5 list well aware that it may be the least interesting thing I've posted to date. However, if it inspires one person to read a book that has been so pivotal to me in my life, I will consider it worthwhile. Additionally, I am always looking for new reading material, so if my list suggests I would like something you would like to recommend, drop me a line.

  1. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis) - This book tops my list (as it does many lists of this sort), not because all of the theology was so pivotal, but because it made me hungry to read and study about God. Prior to this book, my reading time was largely consumed by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (each of which got multiple readings). However, the wisdom, wit, and accessibility with which C.S. Lewis approached the logic and practicality of Christianity started a passion in me for all things theology, philosophy, and apologetics.

  2. Desiring God (John Piper) - In contrast to the previous book, this book more than any other has been pivotal to my theology. The supremacy of God's glory, holiness, and sovereignty were made clear (and precious) to me. With a slow pace that worked out the finer points in every facet of life, John Piper showed how God's ultimate glory and our ultimate happiness are satisfied in the same way.

  3. Disappointment With God (Philip Yancey) - I must admit, it was hard to pick just one Philip Yancey book. Other close contenders include What's So Amazing About Grace? and The Jesus I Never Knew, but this book in particular answered some poignant questions for me and is a constant resource now for answering others. With honesty and transparancy, Yancey deals with our doubts and shortcomings about a God that doesn't always interact with us the way we want (but always the way we need).

  4. Wild At Heart (John Eldredge) - This book possibly has more hilighting ink in it than any of the others in my collection. While not heavy in theology, this book lit a strong fire in me to be a man (and husband) of God. Drawing on iconic imagery from childhood, Eldredge shows how the adventures and battles that we act out as kids are set in our hearts from God. A beautifully written book that made me want to get out and be a man.

  5. Your God Is Too Safe (Mark Buchanan) - Perhaps the least well-known of the five titles, this book may contend with Wild At Heart for the title of "most hilighted". With incredible insights throughout, Mark talks passionately about how to move away from a comfortable life believing in a safe god who is little more than fire insurance.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Hijacking of Christianity

Recently I was listening to a popular radio personality who called the Muslim community to speak out against the the acts of terrorism that are being done in their name. He suggested that the Islamic extremists have "hijacked" the public's image of Islam and that, if the Muslim community feels this doesn't represent mainline Islam, they need to publicly denounce these terroristic acts. Of course, we have not seen much of this, and the implication was that these acts are passively endorsed by the rest of the community.

This caused me to consider the community I claim to be a part of and the public image of Christianity. Are we permitting Christianity to be "hijacked" by those who commit their own acts of hatred under the guise of Christianity? The military funeral protesters, two-faced televangelists, gay bashers, and their ilk continue to dominate any news regarding Christianity and color it with their hatred. The abortion clinic bomber is commonly cited as Christianity's version of a terrorist, though there hasn't been one in almost ten years. Are we passively endorsing their behavior by not speaking out against them and not living in a way that is a loud and clear contrast? Who can we point to who is living a life that is full of peace and forgiveness to counter-balance the damage that group of people is doing to the image of Christianity? Is there anyone being that outspoken for Christianity in a way that is drawing people to Christ rather than driving them away?

As I have said before, one should never judge a worldview by it's abuses. One must instead judge a worldview by what it asserts and the founder who asserts it (in other words, deal with the ideas themselves). However, this argument by itself will not win a skeptical public to Christ. In fact, while this argument is sound and logical, it seldom will ever change the way someone feels about Christianity.

I know Christianity will not always be popular in the public eye (Jesus' ministry and teaching make this clear), but we must be sure that when we are unpopular, it is for the right reasons. This will require Christians who are aggressive with the grace and hope of Christianity. This will take Christians who are biblically informed and know how to handle the Word and those who are not living by it. I know those who are building the Church will not always be given as big a platform as those defaming it, but neither can we sit by passively and let such people form the public's entire picture of Christianity.

So it begins with you and it begins with me. Living a biblically saturated lifestyle out loud and in a winsome fashion on what ever platform we're given. Even if it's only with class mates, co-workers, friends and family. It requires an ear for which "Christians" are making the news and a finger on the public pulse. It requires the biblical literacy to know those who are and aren't living in accordance with the teachings of Christ and the ability to articulate the difference. But, most importantly, it takes a life that is full of Christ and empty of hypocrisy that will win the skeptics with an aggressive hope, peace, and grace that is out loud.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Genetic Fallacy and Political Issues

When discussing political issues, it seems that the Christian is often at a disadvantage from the outset. The question "Why do you impose your Christianity on everybody?" is sometimes used as a sort of misdirection to throw a Christian's argument off track. However, this charge bears no weight, not because Christians are innocent, but because every single person is guilty. Plainly, whether proposing, voting on, or challenging a law, everyone acts in accord with their own religion and/or worldview.

Every law imposes someone's convictions upon the rest of society. Speed limits exist because someone said "It is my conviction that placing restrictions on driving speeds is the best way to promote safety on the road". A law was proposed and a majority voted in favor (meaning that such a law coincided with the majority's viewpoint as well). In the same fashion, every law (once passed) imposes one's position on a certain issue upon everyone else. Essentially, law means "We impose upon you that you [do this thing or don't do this, you fill in the blank]."

Additionally, every position grows out of one's worldview. Every view is drawn out of an individual thinking "I believe the world operates in such a way, and these certain things are valuable, so my position on this issue is that . . . ". Thus a law like a speed limit is passed and enforced because an individual felt that human life was valuable and worth saving, and the majority of that individual's culture agreed.

Mind you, this does not excuse a responsible Christian from understanding and being able to defend a position beyond "The Bible says so". However, to discount a position just because it grows out of a Christian worldview is committing a genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is committed when an idea is either accepted or rejected because of its source, rather than its merit. Again, the Christian must be knowledgeable about the merit of the position and ready to defend it, otherwise they are being just as lazy about their argumentation as the skeptic.

Thus, every law imposes somebody's convictions on everyone in that culture and all convictions come from somebody's worldview. So, while understanding this will not give your argument any additional credence, it can at least prevent your argument from being disregarded off-hand.

Note: This does not mean that we should try to make illegal everything that is a sin under Christian teaching (can you imagine a society where gluttony and lying are illegal?). Nor does this give us permission to judge the world by the same set of moral tenets and standards that we judge ourselves by inside the Christian community (Paul strictly prohibited this).

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Christians and Our Martyr Complex

A poll taken earlier this year gives us a new perspective on the attitude towards Christians in the community of higher learning. This poll was designed and conducted by a Jewish group to gauge feelings of anti-Semitism in American universities, but what they found was far from their expected results. 53 percent of its sample of 1,200 college and university faculty members said they have "unfavorable" feelings toward evangelical Christians.

Said chief pollster Gary Tobin, "If a majority of faculty said they did not feel warmly about Muslims or Jews . . . there would be an outcry. No one would attempt to justify or explain those feelings." As Dr. Jim Eckman observed, "since higher education is training the next generation of leaders and is instilling them with a worldview, that worldview is biased against biblical Christianity".

I don't doubt, if polled, we would see a similar bais against Christianity mirrored in many other circles (politics, media, the sciences, etc.) as well. This results in a double standard when it comes to the public response to conflicts surrounding Christianity. Case in point: Kathy Griffin's "Suck it, Jesus" comment during this year's Emmys. I am fairly certain there would have been a much larger outcry had she degraded any other religion and their deity/s. However, I am inclined to point the finger at Christianity before I point it at others.

One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing Christians cry "martyr" the moment we feel slighted. We instantly play the "persecution" card and chalk it up as suffering for Jesus to avoid any self-evaluation about how we are presenting (and representing) Christ and the Gospel. Bypassing introspection, we charge on bull-headed in behavior that we think honors God simply because non-Christians react negatively to it. While Christ promised His followers they would receive hostile responses just as He did, such a response is not an instant endorsement that you are conducting yourself in a Christ-like manner. We must make certain that the tension rises out of the pure Gospel and not as result of an attitude that is abusive, ignorant, or self-righteous.

We should be constantly striving for a Christianity that is graceful and winsome rather than judgemental and overbearing. We should be studying to be intelligent and articulate in our presentation of Christ and the Christian worldview rather than close-minded and shallow. From religious issues (God, sin, etc.) to scientific issues (Intelligent Design, stem cell research, etc.) to social issues (homosexuality, abortion, etc.), we need to be prepared to give a more satisfying answer than "The Bible says so". The Gospel is offensive enough on its own, there is no need for us to add more offense to it. Instead, we should be administering a constant gut & heart check to make sure that the "persecution" we receive is brought on by the Gospel and not our own foolishness.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Why is there pain?

This question grows out of one of my previous posts entitled The Victims of Tyranny and Tragedy. The question arises: why must the fallen world be so painful? The answer is similar to my previous blog in that it is rooted in the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man (neither of which do we grasp the depth and severity of). However, these are only two of the factors and a third may surprise you. One of the main reasons this world is so painful is because of God's great love and compassion for us.

I know, this sounds ridiculous and contradictory but let me explain. As children, we learn what our bodies were not made for through pain (our hands were not made for the stove, etc.). In a similar way, God is trying to teach us as spiritual children that we were not made for this world. More precisely, we were not made primarily for any desire in this world but rather were made to desire God above all else.

This, in fact, is how the whole pain thing started. In the garden, man and woman rejected God as their supreme desire and chose the desire for autonomy and freedom from God (in the form of choosing the forbidden fruit) instead. Through this act, not only did man sin and become fallen, but the world was subjected to bondage to corruption and futility. Because of this, creation has not functioned in the perfect harmony that it was intended for.

Why? Why did God do this to the world? Why so many children with heart-wrenching disabilities? Why natural disasters that take so many lives? Why famines and diseases? As John Piper puts it, God put the world under a curse so that the physical horror we see around us would become a vivid picture of how horrible sin is. In other words, natural evil is a signpost to the unspeakable wickedness of moral evil. God allowed the disorder of the natural world to match the disorder of the moral and spiritual world. Diseases and deformities are God's portraits of what sin is like in the spiritual realm and that is true even though some of the most Godly people bear the most horrible deformities.

Yet we don't feel it! In our present, fallen condition our hearts are so numb and so blinded we seldom feel the gravity of our sin. Almost no one feels the abhorrence that sin is or feels repulsed or nauseated at how they scorn the glory of God. We should feel as deeply about sin as we do about a friend's disability. We should feel as intense and bad about our immorality as we do about starvation. O, that we could feel how offensive and repugnant and abominable it is to prefer anything to your Maker! To plagiarize John Piper once more, the natural world is shot through with horrors that aim to wake us up from the dream world of thinking demeaning God is no big deal.

Thus, if there were not the pain that there now is, it would be far too easy to forget God and how we have spurned Him. It would be far too easy to prefer all the temporary pleasures that this world offers rather than prefer the eternal joy in Christ. To quote C.S. Lewis, "We are half-hearted creatures like an ignorant child wants to go making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the beach. We are far too easily pleased."

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Charges Against Christians

There are many names thrown at modern-day Christians but there are a select few that seem to be more common than the rest and seem to stick unusually well. Unfortunately, I have to admit that we have all too often earned them.

"Majorities of young people in America describe modern-day Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical and anti-gay" says David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and author of UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. He continues, "What's more, many Christians don't even want to call themselves 'Christians' because of the baggage that accompanies the label." So let me address these charges from former to latter.

Of being anti-gay, I believe the church has sorely mishandled this issue. I have never understood why we treat homosexuality (inside or outside the church) as any different than any other sexual sin (adultery, premarital sex, etc.). They are all the same in the eyes of God. As Paul said, "For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church?" Yet we have flipped them around, trying to change the lifestyle (of an outsider) before changing the heart (and bringing them within the church). Up until that point, we need to love them and witness to them in word and deed (just like every other lost person). If and when a conversion takes place, then the issue of homosexuality can be approached in a sensitive but uncompromising biblical approach with the assistance of the Holy Spirit working in their lives. Public policy is another matter and one I have addressed in a previous blog (see below).

To the charge of being hypocritical, I think most people use this word quite poorly. A hypocrite is one who professes beliefs of one sort but privately (or not so privately) practices the opposite without any attempt at change. For instance, no one would call a recovering alcoholic who disapproves of (and discourages others away from) alcoholism a hypocrite for having a momentary relapse. In the same way, Christians who discourage others away from and disapprove of a vice or sin but slip up and fall in that area don't quite fit the definition of hypocrite. The key is in the fight, the struggle, the effort to overcome. When the sin or vice becomes habitual, accepted or even celebrated then one crosses into hypocrisy. Unfortunately, there have been some very high-profile Christians who have been guilty of just that.

Addressing judgmentalism, I feel I've already said a bit. To the Christians, why are we judging those outside the church? To the rest, are we really guilty of as much hypocrisy as we're accused of? If we as Christians are to come under fire and garner a negative image , it should at least be for the right (and righteous) reasons. As Jesus said, "No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also." This is not golden ticket to interpret every bit of "persecution" as a sign you are doing the will of Jesus, only a proper understanding of Scripture will prove that in the end. Instead, too often we see a superficial "religion" in the guise of Christianity used to promote a person's bigotry, hatred, and self-righteousness. I don't expect John and Jane Doe to know the Bible well enough to see the duplicitousness of these individuals, so the burden falls on the true believers to live in a way that is lovingly and gracefully biblical and thereby reveal the disparity between the two. Only then will we be able to wear the label of "Christian" without being afraid of the stigma attached and knuckleheads who brought it upon us.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

What is the unborn?

There is one question that makes or breaks the entire abortion issue for both sides. What kind of being is it? The answer one gives is pivotal, the deciding element that trumps all other considerations. All arguments are either made irrelevant (if it is not a human person) or insufficient (if it is a human person). All the arguments reduce to this issue and either find their grounding or their nullification here. This argument was brought to my attention through a podcast that I cannot recommend highly enough (link below).

"Let me put the issue plainly. If the unborn is not a human person, no justification for abortion is necessary. However, if the unborn is a human person, no justification for abortion is adequate."
- Greg Koukl, founder of Stand To Reason Ministries

This argument may seem too simplistic to some, but I would suggest that it seems this way because we have made the issue too complicated. Arguments are presented regarding the health of the fetus, the relationship between the parents (i.e. rape, incest) and the rights of the mother. However, while these arguments do have issues that must be dealt with, they are secondary if the fetus in question is a person.

Every person's response should be obvious. No matter what side of the argument you fall on, there seems to be a clear burden on every person to answer this question. Any one who votes, who has any impact on public policy, should feel obligated to research enough to know whether or not a fetus is a human being.

Who's forcing their views on whom?

I write this blog with more than a little trepidation of being mistaken as a bigot. So let me instead address the Christian community first. We have shot ourselves in the foot when it comes to the gay and lesbian community. We have largely remained silent about the love and forgiveness and life change available through Christ. Instead, we've blown homosexuality out of proportion and consider it somehow worse than the other sexual sins of premarital sex, adultery and pornography (sins occurring within the church). When we pick on homosexuality and turn a blind eye to these other sexual sins in the church, we are hypocrites. Unfortunately, the most vocal ones are the extremists who do not represent the majority of Christianity but form much of the public's opinion of Christianity. They are decidedly unbiblical in their bigoted thought and hateful speech and give no evidence of the grace and life change that a genuine conversion brings. My suspicion is that they are not part of the true body of Christ at all.

However, the homosexual community is committing one of the same errors that we as Christians tend to make. We seem to expect them to live by the same set of morals and values that we do without accepting our source for those values. In other words, we expect them to live up to Christian community standards without accepting Christ. We are guilty of trying to force them to live as if they accept our beliefs.

Yet they are doing the same thing, and on a much greater scale. The homosexual political lobby has exerted all it's strength to force it's view on the rest of society. They seek to pass laws or have judgements made in courts to force other people who have conscience concerns to the contrary to live as if they thought that same sex unions are exactly the same (naturally, socially, morally) as heterosexual unions. The majority of the people in this country do not adhere to such a stance, so to enforce something like same sex marriage statutes is to enforce such that is contrary to the public will.

It is not the religious side forcing it's views on gay community in this conflict, the Christian response has been largely on the defensive. The religious right would not be reacting if the homosexual lobbyists were not pressing to change laws to force people to accept their beliefs. Notice, there are no laws against homosexual relationships or unions, but there are also no allowances or exemptions for it. No rights are being infringed, but neither are any provisions being made. It seems to me that it's not the Christians who are forcing their views on the homosexual community, but rather the opposite.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Victims of Tyranny and Tragedy

Living in a fallen, sinful world, it is easy to start thinking of one's self only in degrees of comparison to others. When we compare our own lives and behavior to those of the criminals and devils we see on the news and in history, the tendency is to begin to feel pretty good about ourselves. However, this sort of grading on a scale is dangerous and misleading and can have eternal consequences.

No matter what your position is on the state of man's sinfulness and the degree to which we are in bondage to it, only a liar can claim to be sinless and perfect (don't miss the irony in that). Indeed, every human being is guilty before God, every human being owes a debt. Consider these verses, then, to be a litmus test of your perception of the extent of man's guilt and God's holiness. If Jesus' response in this passage shocks you as much as it did me, please give new reflection not only to how high you esteem God as holy and just but also how low you esteem us as sinful and guilty.

Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who lived in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." Luke 13:1-5

Are you not shocked at the response of Jesus? He is informed that a group of Galileans (biblical historians estimate there were nearly 6,000 of them) were murdered in cold blood by the resident Roman thug. This act had cultural significance as well: not only were the Galileans killed but their remains were desecrated by the mixing of their blood with a pagan sacrifice. We expect Jesus to say they didn't deserve this, that they will be rewarded for enduring such a heinous crime. Or we expect Jesus to tell us that they were all actually exceptional sinners and earned this above and beyond other sinners. Either way, we expect Jesus to either defend or "excuse" God in allowing this to occur.

The last thing we expect is the response that Jesus gives. In fact, Jesus doesn't even stop at the retelling of such tyranny, He goes a step further and brings up His own example. He recounts another event that has no villain, an event that was simply a tragedy. If the crowd blamed Pilate for the first event, who could the crowd blame but God for the falling of a tower? If the crowd felt God needed vindication in their eyes in the first case, He certainly (and doubly) needed vindication in the second case. Undoubtedly Jesus would seek to absolve and exonerate God in the peoples' minds. Yet Jesus responds to both accounts of tyranny and tragedy with an identical answer.

"Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

Jesus' response is quite the opposite from what we anticipate. God needs no justification to anyone in allowing these things, and others deserve no less if they do not repent. This didn't happen because the departed were greater sinners, and others were not spared because they were lesser sinners. However, just because these victims could claim innocence in these situations did not mean they were innocent altogether. Both events were rooted in this fallen world and happened to sinful man. The crux of the situation was not the amount of sin in the lives of the victims, but rather the sinfulness of both victims and hearers alike. Again, if this surprises you or strikes you as harsh, consider if what I've said seems true to the text, then consider your own presuppositions on man's sinfulness and God's holiness.

I know there are probably contemporary parallels that come to your mind that mirror the two situations Jesus addresses. I know there are several I've thought of. Tyranny and tragedy still occur on a daily basis. They fill our newspapers. If my words sound harsh, please do not mistake it for taking lightly the lives lost. No, it is not that the lives should be taken lightly, but that the glory and holiness and righteousness of God should be taken seriously.

I don't believe it is a stretching of the text to say that if any of us today don't repent, we will all likewise perish. Of course, I don't mean that we will all be slaughtered or crushed by a falling tower, but what things are true of all the unrepentant, both in Jesus' day and ours? Death is a permanent, final loss that is permitted(and therefore ordained) by God as an end of one's time given to either seek God and repentance or live in rebellion to Him.

Our response should be the same Jesus called his hearers to, repent! Find the forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. For not only is God perfectly holy and just, He is perfectly merciful and gracious as well. For those who feel that God, rather than Pilate, is the tyrant in this account, God's response is the offering up of His Son. Much like the Galileans, Jesus' blood was shed in a pagan ritual and His blood was desecrated, but it was done to pay our debt to God. For God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. The true tyranny of any life is denying Christ, the true tragedy is rejecting His grace.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

God's Warriors . . . but which God?

CNN has just finished airing a three-day television event highlighting the religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity (including the most militant factions of each). Of course, this has been a hot topic ever since the events of 9/11 when the Islamic worldview was thrust to center stage in the American mind. In true postmodernist fashion, Christiane Amanpour presented these religions as three sides of the same coin (gotta love those three-sided coins), three equally valid worldviews that have more similarities than differences.

Before I go on, let me make one caution: be careful you do not judge a worldview or a religion by its abuses. This is a form of guilt by association and is a logical fallacy. I myself have been guilty of this in the past, decrying Islam on the basis of the terrorists and suicide bombers acting in the name of Allah. In the same way, I felt many of the quotes used during the segment on Christianity were taken out of context or simply not in keeping with biblical Christianity. Instead, one must judge a worldview by what it asserts and the founder who asserts it (in other words, deal with the ideas themselves). There is nothing left to believe if we rule out every worldview that is held (or twisted to fit an ulterior motive) by a murderer, a bigot or a moron. So I must resist my knee-jerk reaction, the same reaction of most Americans, to discount Islam based simply on what we've seen these past few years.

CNN and Christiane Amanpour went out of their way to present these religions as compatible worldviews that sympathetic characters use for discipline, humility, and self-betterment and that extremists use for hate, violence, and fear. This is not uncommon. Many people think that all religions are different only on the surface, but at the core are all the same. They cite the moral codes as proof, that they're all about "loving your neighbor".

In fact, quite the opposite is true! We should not be surprised that such similar moral codes appear in so many world religions. This moral code has been "written in their hearts" by our Creator, and it is here that the similarities end. In reality, the world religions are similar only on the surface, but at the core are vastly different. When the big questions are asked, questions of origin, meaning, morality and destiny, the differences quickly come to the surface. Where did everything come from? What is man's purpose? How do we determine right and wrong? Where do we go when I die?

One line of questioning that is immediately relevant to the three religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity concerns Jesus. Who is/was He? Did He rise from the dead? What do we believe about His teachings? Through Jesus alone and by grace alone, Christianity guarantees eternal life, while Islam and Judaism deny salvation through Christ and can only offer the hope of salvation only through a strict adherence to a moral code. While this may seem exclusive (but isn't truth itself exclusive?*), the teachings of these religions stand in direct contrast of each other. It is clear, as you take a closer look, that all religions are not as similar or compatible as pop culture and CNN would have us believe.

*To assert that anything is true is to assert that the inverse is not true at the same time in the same relationship. For example, to say "I am here at the computer" is a true statement is to imply at the same time and in the same relationship that "I am not here at the computer" is a false statement. So to believe that anything is true is by default to believe that some things are not true, and this is the exclusivity I am speaking of.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Unforgiveness of Mr. Wiesenthal

Simon Wiesenthal, a Jew who lived through the atrocities of World War II, wrote a compelling book called The Sunflower, addressing the human struggle with guilt. In it he recounts how he had once been taken from a death camp to a makeshift Nazi hospital and brought to the bedside of a Nazi officer who had been mortally wounded and would soon die. The officer, in a pained whisper, told Wiesenthal that he had ordered an entire Jewish village to be burned to the ground with all its inhabitants still trapped inside its structures. The screams of the men, women and children who died at his command now haunted him in his waking moments and hung heavy on his conscience.

The officer then confessed to Wiesenthal that he had asked for a Jew to be brought to his bedside because he longed to seek forgiveness from one whose people he had killed. However, despite repeated and heart-felt pleas for pardon, Wiesenthal could not bring himself to say the words. He had himself lost 89 of his own relatives at the hands of the Nazis, and he would eventually walk away from the officer's side without offering any words of forgiveness.

My heart breaks at hearing this story. The pain of guilt and loss is so poignant in its telling that I can't help but feel pity for both men. To my knowledge, both men lived out the remainder of their lives (one much shorter than the other) in relatively unchanged positions of unforgiveness and without Christ. How I long for the story to end instead with Wiesenthal declaring to the man, "You are right to ask forgiveness, but I am not the Jew you should be asking it of!"

However, at the very moment that I begin feeling fit to pass judgement about how the story "should" have ended, my sense of introspection kicks into high gear. How can I condemn the officer when I am in the same state of sinfulness and guilt until the forgiveness of Christ takes over? How can I vilify Wiesenthal when I (a new creation in Christ) am so often unforgiving? As Jesus illustrated in his parable, shouldn't we who have been forgiven so great a debt of guilt in turn forgive those indebted to us? Let the breaking of our hearts at this story be the impetus to drive us to an unnatural forgiveness, one that can pardon anything because we have been forgiven everything!

Matthew 18:23-35

Thursday, August 2, 2007

American Idol and the Trophy Generation

A new term has been coined for Generation Y, those currently college age and younger. They are now being called the Trophy Generation by some, a term that reflects the trend in competitive sports (as well as many other aspects of life) where "no one loses" and everyone gets a "Thanks for Participating" trophy. This generation, more than any before them, are characterized by a heightened sense of entitlement, of comfort, and of rights and privileges.

No longer do they have to deal with a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place trophy while everyone else loses. No longer do they have to worry about not making the team. In an effort to build self-esteem, the preceding generations have only fed into these tendencies. Just look at the number and nature of lawsuits in the news every year. Just look at the dumbing down of our public school's curriculum under the guise of "no child left behind". When compared with their peers from other countries, American students' scores continue to drop but their feedback on how well they think they did remains higher than any other country. It seems it's becoming "every child left behind and okay with it".

I was struck recently with how perfectly this explains the American Idol phenomenon (as all eligible contestants are part of the Trophy Generation). My favorite part of the show every year is the auditions where we see some of the most ridiculous attempts at singing, and every year I am shocked at the abundance of these awkward attempts. Yet they continue to come out of the woodwork: contestants who can see others fail (for six seasons now) and, with little or no sense of objective self-evaluation, think they are so much better. And instead of being honest with them, instead of encouraging on to excellence, we pander them with half-truths and flat-out lies.

However, the Trophy Generation remains unfazed by American Idol, many of them storming through life saying "I have to make it", "I don't need them, I'm going to be famous anyway", "They don't know anything, I've always known I was going to be a star someday". The reaction is defensive, accusing their judges of ignorance and ineptitude rather than considering the fact that they just might not be that good.

Here's why I bring all this up: this is the generation that many of us are attempting to reach with the Gospel. Yet the same approaches that worked yesterday may not always work ("Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" may not have the same impact it did 200 years ago). This generation's sense of entitlement is often suppressing their sense of need, their need for a Savior, their need for forgiveness. People will always have need, but each generation is getting more skilled at masking it, covering it up, or escaping from it. We need to be aware of the fact that our language and communication of the Gospel will need to shift with the culture. We need to be ready to meet them where they are. Of course, this is not a new strategy as Paul was doing this in the days of the early church. Perhaps it means we appeal to truth. Perhaps it means being ready to dig a little bit to reveal the need (or a suppressed sense of guilt) in each life. Or perhaps it means simply loving them, being available, and being there when the mask comes off and their world comes down.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

From the library of Jared Barclay Totten

Hello. If you've found this page through a search, you may have come across one of my books with my seal in it. If this is the case, feel free to contact me through this blog or my e-mail. I will arrange to get my book back or just say "enjoy the book" as the case may be. If you've found this page for any other reason, this must be awkward for you.

From the library of Jared Barclay Totten


From the library of JBT Jared Barclay Totten

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Fate of Angels and Humans

Recently I was challenged by a fellow believer (and, at the time, fellow camper) on the meaning of my band's name and the biblical accuracy of it. Here's a couple of my thoughts on the differences between humans and angels and the "mystery" of salvation.

Heb. 2:16 "For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham".

Understanding this very straight forward verse, the following passage largely forms my theology on this issue:

1 Pet. 1:10-12 "As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven - things into which angels long to look." (bold lettering my emphasis)

Now, applying the fact stated in the first verse, that salvific help is given to the descendants of Abraham and not to angels, then the portions of 1 Peter highlighted are all things that the verse suggests (as do I) angels do not understand fully and long to look into. It seems clear to me (and I think the rest of Scripture would agree) that angels have limited or no personal, experiential knowledge of salvation, grace, the glories following Christ's sufferings, or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. At the very least, their experience with such things greatly differs from that of mankind. They have no firsthand experience of sin and the fall (they must be untainted by sin to remain in God's presence) and thus have never felt a separation from God, a need for redemption, or the glories of Christ in their lives following such redemption. Of course fallen angels have experienced sin and the fall, but to them there is no offer of redemption through the death of Christ.

As I briefly mentioned before, I think the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is something that the Bible delineates as solely for those in the Body of Christ. Thus, we have firsthand relational knowledge of the third person of the Trinity that the angels will ever only long to know. Thus, there is clearly a sense that we as God's chosen children have a firsthand experience and deeper knowledge of these things, and that it is the fate of angels ever to long to look into such things.

Ergo (I've always wanted to use that word!) we as a band suggest that it is the fate of angels to constantly be looking into the lives of believers and seeing the grace, redemption, and indwelling of the Holy Spirit that they will never understand as we do. So how dare we, as humans and the objects of God's loving grace, ever take for granted these manifold blessings that we have in Christ and through Him?! How dare we who are not subject to the fate of angels cheapen or take lightly our adoption as sons and daughters, our glorification as saints, and our high position as joint heirs with Christ?!! The name Fate of Angels is, for us, a constant reminder to live in a manner worthy of all this.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Guilt and the Long Arm of the Law

How many times has this happened to you? You're talking to someone (or someone is talking to you) about Jesus and faith and one of you says something like "I'm mostly a good person, I've never killed anybody" or "Well, I try to be a good person, and I just hope that when I stand before God that my good deeds will outweigh my bad deeds". How does one continue in the conversation without making God out to be a spiteful and vengeful God who expects the impossible from all of us? I used the following analogy with a co-worker and it really seemed to hit home with him:

Imagine I am out driving one day and I decide to have a little fun. I run every stop light I come to, break the speed limit by a good 20 MPH, cause several accidents, and just generally ignore the traffic laws. Before long a police officer pulls me over and tells me he's been following me and saw the whole thing.

Do you think he would let me off the hook if I said "Well officer, I'm mostly a good driver, I've never killed anybody"? Do you think he'd be at all impressed if I said "When I stand before the judge I just hope all my good driving outweighs my bad driving and he'll let me off"? I doubt it (especially if he and the judge know every single driving violation I've ever committed).

It only takes one violation to be guilty of breaking the rules of the road, only one violation to give grounds for a ticket or a court appearance. If we are guilty, we either must pay the penalty or seek the pardon (grace) of the judge through the terms he has set.

It's often a hard pill for one to swallow when someone tries to tell them that just one sin makes them guilty, but this every day situation brings the concept down to earth. Understand, I am not saying you wouldn't hope for grace from the judge (and, indeed, that is what we have in Christ). My point is that we wouldn't consider the judge unjust for finding us guilty of the crimes we've committed. It is often too easy for many people to minimize the sin they have committed, and I've found this analogy really puts our guilt in terms that everyone can understand.

Note: An analogy cannot prove anything, only illustrate. If you find this analogy helpful, you still must argue for and support the position. If you find this a poor analogy (or disagree with the position) you still must construct an argument against it. A good analogy does not prove the validity of an argument or the truthfulness of a statement, just as a poor analogy does not prove an argument as flawed or a statement as false.

Choice and the Fetal Homicide Laws

According to an article in the July 9th edition of the USA Today, a majority of U.S. States now have fetal homicide laws (only 14 do not). Again I am shocked and saddened at how our obsession with autonomy and choice have blinded us to the tragedy taking place daily here in the United States. Don't get me wrong, I am thrilled about the fetal homicide laws, but I am awed that so many people miss the double standard. To enforce a fetal homicide law is to say that a viable fetus has a right to life . . . that is, unless the mother decides otherwise!

Doesn't the choice of the mother seem a far too subjective standard to determine if the elimination of her fetus is considered a murder or a service? If she doesn't want the baby, the process is legal and even lauded by many as "an exercise of her rights". But if she wants the child, the same procedure (or any other action ending the life of the child) is a criminal offense.

Using such a definition, there is no objective value and no objective grounding for the life of the unborn. By such logic, if the mother vacillates between wanting to keep the baby and not, the status of the baby volleys between a valued life and a worthless blob of tissue.

Entertain with me for a moment a couple of scenarios. If a woman goes to a clinic to receive an abortion and changes her mind on the table, is the doctor guilty of murder if he goes through with the procedure? If woman intends to get an abortion but is physically assaulted by a man before she can have it done and as a result the fetus dies, is he guilty only of the assault or of fetal homicide as well (or did he do her a service by saving her the time and cost of the abortion clinic)? These are simply illustrations to point out the moral ambiguity surrounding the whole issue of abortion.

Have we really come to a point where individual autonomy and choice now trump the value of innocent human life? Do we really hold our freedoms so high and tight that we willingly blind ourselves to the infanticide taking place around us? I hope I am not the only person sensing a dire need for an objective standard for the value of all human life.