Sunday, October 28, 2012

Lies About Lying

Have you ever lied to spare someone's feelings? Have you omitted details to avoid causing someone unnecessary worry? Have you exaggerated a compliment to boost someone's self-esteem?

If you have, then you are guilty of lying.  Any alteration of the whole truth is, by definition, a lie.  But when God commands us to not lie, what does He really mean?  Is all lying bad, regardless of the circumstance?

Interestingly, the commandment "Thou shalt not lie" does not exist among the Ten Commandments.  The ninth commandment, which prohibits bearing false witness against one's neighbor, certainly prohibits lying, but in the specific context, against one's neighbor.

On several occasions, we read of God intentionally deceiving people in the Bible. Exodus 4:21, 1 Kings 22:23, Jeremiah 4:10, Ezekiel 14:9, Romans 11:7-10, and 2 Thessalonians 2:11 are a few good examples.  This is a surprising fact, considering that Satan - God's opposition - is labeled the "father of liars" (John 8:44).  How is God's deception different from Satan's?  We will examine the answer to this question shortly.

Of course, no believer would argue that lying is an honorable practice.  On the contrary, lying is generally anything but honorable.  Lies spoken in betrayal force a lack of trust, which, in turn, causes bitterness, resentment, and a slew of other problems that violate love and tear apart relationships.

Other times, however, lying seems to accomplish the opposite.  On a near daily basis, we may find ourselves confronted with instances where not telling the whole truth would actually prevent the destructive effects lies often cause.  

For example, wives frequently ask their husbands how they look in an outfit.  They tend to be specific in their questioning, asking something like, "Honey, do you think this dress makes me look more chubby?"  If her husband thinks the dress does, in fact, make her look bigger, he would be a fool to answer her honestly.  By saying, "Well dear, I'm sorry, but honestly I do think it makes you look chubby," he will be causing far more harm to her than he would by lying about his true thoughts.  In this case (which is extremely common among married couples), honesty is not "the best policy."  A completely honest response by the husband would not only hurt his wife's feelings; it could potentially make her feel unattractive and undesirable for the rest of her marriage.  In all likelihood, the husband wouldn't be less attracted to his wife, even if he does think the dress makes her look heavier, and by lying out of love he saves her feelings and encourages her.

Likewise, if a husband feels sexually inadequate and asks his wife if his fears are valid, the wife would be cruel to confirm her husband's fears, even if they are founded.  The honesty of the wife would effectively emasculate the husband and cause irreparable damage. 

If an intruder broke into my house, held me at gunpoint, and asked if there was anyone else home, would it be wrong to lie and say "no" if my wife and children were hiding?  By telling the truth I would risk their lives, but by lying I may save them.

Countless examples like these exist, but they should be sufficient to make the point that all lying is not evil.  With so many temptations to tell "little white lies" on a near daily basis, how can we discern when to bend the truth and when to be completely honest?

The answer to this question (and many more like it regarding God's commandments) is found in the reality that the entire law is fulfilled in the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Gal. 5:14). God is love (1 John 4:8) and love is the greatest virtue (1 Co. 13:13).  

By filtering everything through love, we can easily discern the best course of action in any circumstance.  As a general rule we should avoid lying, but when the whole truth will violate love by causing harm to another, we find an exception to the rule.  If following the letter of the law violates love, we must do the opposite.  Ironically, in such cases, breaking the law actually upholds what's righteous.  Whether it's lying or any other issue, the right answer is always found in the law of love, not the written letter.

This is precisely how God managed deception in every historical instance.  Every time God deceived, it was for the purpose of fulfilling His plan and accomplishing the greater good.  God's deception was always done out of love.  On the contrary, Satan's many deceptions are all done in an effort to harm others and prevent God's plan.  

Recognizing the truth about lying is vital because if you hold to the philosophy that "honesty is always the best policy," you will likely violate the law of love on a fairly regular basis.  You may hurt someone's feelings, tear them down, or weaken their confidence all in the name of "truth," when withholding the complete truth would serve the greater purpose of upholding love and building them up.  When you understand that love fulfills the law and begin to filter everything through that standard, your motto will change to "honesty is the best policy except when it violates the greatest law of love."  

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Allowed vs. Expedient

A prevailing belief among Christians is that all forms of pleasure are wicked and must be avoided.  Scripture is loaded with seemingly strict regulations for believers.  The Law of Moses contains 613 mitzvot (commands) which seem to deny Israel of all pleasurable experiences.  Restrictions exist for food, clothing, time, appearance, rituals, sacrifices, and virtually every other area of life.  It's no wonder no one except Jesus could live up to every requirement of God's law.

The apostle Paul, speaking to Gentile believers not acquainted with the law, urged the nations to not concern themselves with many of the law's strict requirements.  Contrary to the Jews, Paul urged his Gentile friends, "Let no one, then, be judging you in food or in drink or in the particulars of a festival, or of a new moon, or of sabbaths, which are a shadow of those things which are impending" (Col. 2:16-17).  For members of Paul's evangel, "All is allowed...but not all is expedient" (1 Co. 10:23).

For Israel, however, the same could not be said.  Having been given the law and expected to follow it, the Jews could not claim that "all is allowed" them.  On the contrary, an awful lot was not allowed them.  As members of Paul's evangel, we bask in our freedom in Christ, thankful to not be held to the same strict standards as the Jews.

Yet a large portion of even Paul's epistles are dedicated to instructing Gentile believers on how to live righteously.  The majority of Paul's letters begin with a greeting, followed by a reminder of the greatness of his evangel, and then a virtual how-to guide for living.  Contrary to the opinion of many, Paul does not encourage debauchery when he reminds us that all is allowed.  He immediately follows that statement with the warning "but not all is expedient."  Our freedom, resulting from grace, frees us from the rigid requirements of the law, but Paul warns that we err when we act on that freedom in a way that is detrimental to our physical or spiritual health.  

Clearly, the biblical answer to our glorious freedom in Christ lies in the appropriate balance between what is allowed and what is expedient (or beneficial).  We are free to murder, but if we wrongfully kill someone we will likely endure misery, guilt, and a life-long sentence on death row.  We are free to be lazy at work, but we will likely end up losing the job which could lead to financial burdens, stress, and, in many cases, divorce.  We are free to act selfishly, but when we do we will face a life with few or no friends.  Discerning what is wise is an absolute necessity for every believer.

Fortunately, few true believers take their freedom in Christ to the extent of committing terrible crimes; but far too many believers live at the opposite end of the spectrum by forsaking their freedom and imposing strict requirements on themselves in an effort to "play it safe" and appease God.  In doing so, they tragically miss out on the many pleasures God has so graciously offered.  Often times, these self-imposed rules are not even biblical.

I've met countless Christians who believe food is for nourishment only and should not be enjoyed as a "sinful pleasure."  They, therefore, eat only foods they don't like too well and eat quickly in order to prevent themselves from enjoying their meals.  Likewise, they refuse to ever drink one drop of alcohol, viewing it as a cardinal sin.  Those same people view marital sex as an act meant only for procreation, so they limit their sex life to one position and don't engage in what they consider to be "inappropriate acts."  Women wear only dresses, often made of a weighty material, and endure extreme discomfort almost daily.  They do all of this in an effort to live up to a perceived code of conduct and to be "right with God."

Ironically, the attempt to "play it safe" is just as foolish as playing it too unsafe, if not more!  It denies the work of Christ in freeing us from the law and pridefully attempts to perfect oneself by personal means.  The married couple who inhibits their sex life should read Song of Solomon!  The woman who is concerned with her diet or clothing should read Matthew 6, in which Jesus Himself says to not be concerned with what one will eat, drink, or wear.  

Paul discouraged drunkenness, but encouraged Timothy to drink wine for optimal health (1 Ti. 5:23).  For Israel, the law of Moses prohibited certain foods but allowed a myriad of others for nourishment.  Song of Solomon depicts a wonderful sexual relationship between Solomon and one of his wives, but in several passages Paul warns against taking sexual desire to the extreme of sexual immorality.

In conclusion, the key in discerning what is allowed and expedient lies in the balance between the two.  Have a glass or two of wine or beer but not to the level of extreme intoxication.  Enjoy sex with your spouse, but don't allow your sexual desires to cause you to be immoral outside your marriage.  Eat what you like, but not so much that you become unhealthy.

While all believers recognize that freedom in Christ is not an approval of endless sin, many defy their freedom in equal foolishness.  As members of Paul's evangel, our mantra should be, "All is allowed me, but I will only partake in what is expedient!" 

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gospel Parenting

Within minutes after my first child was born, I knew that parenting would be one of the most challenging endeavors of my life.  I looked at my newborn daughter (and 17 months later, my son) and realized they knew nothing apart from the instinctive urge to feed.  My wife and I would be responsible for teaching them everything.  The sudden realization was overwhelming, to say the least.  No task could be as important (or difficult) as raising a child in a sinful world, and it is a task we parents simply can't afford to neglect.

Parenting has existed on earth since Adam and Eve, and one may expect to obtain valuable insight from examining their record.  When we do, the results are not as appealing as we might expect.  On the contrary, the first parents have a dismal record with one of their sons killing his own brother.  

But maybe the failure of the first parents is due to nothing more than their lack of experience.  Maybe humanity has discovered more effective ways to parent over the many centuries since Adam and Eve.  After all, this only seems logical. 

However, when we look at parenting over the entire course of history, we discover that it has not improved overall and, if anything, has only gotten worse.  The parenting problem is so widespread that even the world has attempted to solve it.  Countless studies have been done to determine the most effective ways to raise respectful, law-abiding children who will contribute to society as adults.  As with every issue, the world claims to have all the answers when it comes to parenting; but the world's answers are continually proven wrong when the results leave much to be desired.

So what is the answer?  How can believing parents fulfill the weighty obligation of raising their children in godliness in the midst of so much sin and worldly pressure?  

The answer:  We can begin in the Bible.

In John 1:14-17, John refers to Jesus as "the Word" Who "became flesh...full of grace and truth."  He goes on to say that "the law through Moses was given; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."

Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the epitome of grace and truth.  John contrasts the strict requirements of the law of Moses with the grace provided through Christ.  In short, the New Covenant made possible by Christ, has brought a radical transformation.  For us now, everything can be examined through the lens of grace and truth, and God's Spirit equips us with both the ability to decipher the truth and the power to act upon it.

While parenting is never easy, the ability to filter our parenting decisions through the standards of grace and truth as the foundations of our evangel arms us with a priceless advantage.  There is no dilemma for which we cannot find an answer in God's Word.  Even when the Bible doesn't seem to provide a crystal clear answer, we can generally arrive at the solution by looking at the world's answer and doing the opposite.  

When a child is bullied, the world's answer is, "Don't you ever start a fight son, but if someone else starts it you be sure to finish it!"  The gospel answer, based in grace and truth, is, "Love your enemies and turn the other cheek."  When a child is a victim of theft, the world's answer is, "Steal it back because it's rightfully yours!"  The gospel answer is "give them more."  When a child is severely wronged, the world's answer is, "You don't need to love that person if he hates you."  The gospel answer is, "Don't claim credit if you only love those who love you in return."  When a child doesn't fit in with the popular crowd, the world's answer is, "Let's change your image with new clothes and hair so you'll be accepted."  The gospel answer is, "Find your identity in Christ, not the world."

Of course, even when raising our children in grace and truth, they will inevitably require discipline.  Sadly, one of the biggest mistakes parents make is neglecting to discipline their children.  Parents fear that their children will become rebellious or view them as mean if they correct them when they "miss the mark."  In reality, there is no greater mistake a parent can make.  God - the perfect Father - frequently disciplines His children and He doesn't do it to be cruel.  Rather, He disciplines us all in order to train us in righteousness (Heb. 12:11).  The key with discipline is to act out of love instead of frustration.  Paul instructs us to not vex our children (Eph. 6:4) because when they feel unloved they will not respond with openness and trust to our guidance.  

Parenting is never easy, but the perfect Father has provided us with an invaluable tool to greatly simplify the process.  By filtering every decision in raising our children through the standards of grace and truth, opposing the world's ways, and lovingly disciplining our children when necessary, we can be confident as parents.  Commit to gospel parenting and rest assured that your children will grow up following God rather than the world.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

True Contentment

In the fourth chapter of Philippians, Paul pens some words of wisdom we should all take to heart.  He writes: "I learned to be content in that in which I am.  I am aware what it is to be humbled as well as aware what it is to be super-abounding.  In everything and among all am I initiated, to be satisfied as well as to be hungering, to be super-abounding as well as to be in want.  For all am I strong in Him Who is invigorating me - Christ!"

The thrust of Paul's message is the essence of what it means to be content as a believer as a sojourner in a sinful world.  Paul endured more hardship than anyone could imagine, and his contentment was undoubtedly shaken countless times after being commissioned by Christ.  Paul endured prison, betrayal, persecution, harsh weather and living conditions, and an array of other sufferings most of us can't even fathom, all for the sake of his evangel.  None of our trials can even compare to those of Paul or the One who commissioned him.

How is it possible that Paul found contentment when nothing about his life should have produced contentment?  His words to the Philippians provide us with the answer.

When Paul says he has learned to be content in that in which he is, he provides us with two crucial insights.  First, becoming content is a learned process, not a natural one.  Paul didn't possess an innate ability to be content, even after the risen Lord appeared to Him.  As a man, no different than any of us, Paul's instinctive reaction to hardship was not abounding joy.  He had to train himself over time to be content as a follower of Christ.  Even Christ struggled to find contentment in the midst of suffering and pleaded with the Father to remove the cup from Him in the Garden of Gethsemane.  If the perfect Son of God cannot turn off the effects of misery, there is no way we humans possess the ability.

Second, we learn that Paul was content in who he was - in who God created him to be.  Paul likely wished at times that God would have created him with more strengths and fewer weaknesses, but he learned to accept himself as God created him rather than focusing on fruitless "if only..." wishes.

How often do we waste time wishing God had created us differently?  "If only my hair wasn't so thin;"   "if only I was a better communicator;" "if only I was more attractive;" "if only I had more talents;" "if only I were smarter;" "if only I had a nicer house;" "if only I had more friends;" "if only I were taller..."

The list is endless.  We can waste a lot of time wishing we were different, but in the end we can't change a single thing God has created in us.  Wishing we were different is literally a complete waste of time and only causes us unnecessary grief.  The first step in the race to contentment is recognizing you can't change what God has created you to be.  The Potter has formed you, the clay, for a unique and particular purpose.  What you view as loss, He sees as gain.

We might more easily understand the word "contentment" as "being at peace."  When we are content with the clay God has molded us to be, we find an overwhelming sense of peace rooted in trust for our Maker.  In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul reminds us that we are all part of the body of Christ and that the members who seem insignificant are, in fact, the most precious.  He writes, "Yet now there are, indeed, many members, yet one body.  Yet the eye can not say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' or, again, the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'  Nay, much rather, those members of the body supposed to be inherently weaker are necessary, and which we suppose to be a more dishonored part of the body, these we are investing with more exceeding respectability.  Now our respectable members have no need, but God blends the body together, giving to that which is deficient more exceeding honor" (1 Cor. 12:20-25).

The divine design places the first last and the last first.  How awesome are God's ways!  When you feel useless and deem yourself unworthy to play a role in God's plan, pause to remember this miraculous truth.  Don't waste your time wishing God had created you differently; rather, be thankful for the strengths and weaknesses your Creator has given to you and understand that the characteristics you see as weaknesses, He sees as vital parts of the whole.

In the Philippians passage, Paul recognizes that his ability to be content comes, in large part, from his experience with contrast.  God caused Paul to know both hardship and joy, hunger and nourishment, friendship and persecution.  We often feel that we would be far happier if God would not include the negative side of experience in our lives.  In our flawed human logic, we reason that we could be just as mature and content without any hardship as we are with it.  But our wisdom is foolishness to the One who is perfect and knows every truth (1 Cor. 3:19), and our Father has given us contrast to make the truth more apparent.

Why do we appreciate the vacations we rarely get to take from work?  The contrast of the relaxing vacation, juxtaposed against the burden of work, causes us to appreciate the vacation to a greater degree.  Without the contrast of a hard job, the vacation wouldn't seem special at all.  In fact, we wouldn't even label it a "vacation" as to us it would be normal.

Paul concludes the contentment portion of his letter by declaring that his strength ultimately lies in Christ as the One who is "invigorating" him.  What, exactly, does he mean, though?  How does Christ "invigorate" Paul (and other believers)?  Paul was not physically stronger for his faith, nor was his life made easier to aid him in his ministry.  On the contrary, God allowed Paul to endure immense suffering, making it harder for him to fulfill his task.  On several occasions, Paul prayed for God to remove a splinter that was causing him pain and preventing him from being as mobile as he wanted to be.  What, then, does Paul mean when he says his strength is rooted in Christ?

For one, Paul knew that every step he took was divinely orchestrated by God.  Knowing God cannot fail, he ultimately had no reason to fear anything.  In addition, Paul recognized that while he could plant the seed, only God could cause it to grow (1 Cor. 3:6).

Stop wasting precious time wishing God had created you differently.  Accept yourself as you are - just as the Maker molded you.  Understand that the qualities about yourself that you view as weaknesses, God views as strengths.  Stop re-hashing the "only if"s and be content with who God has made you to be.  Only then will you be truly at peace like Paul.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Truth About Judging

We've all said it a hundred times.  The most common response when someone rebukes us is "don't judge me!"  This short, yet pointed defense works well in guarding our flaws and excusing our actions when we neglect to live in accord with Paul's evangel.  When we criticize others for "judging" us, we not only shield ourselves from correction; we effectively turn the tables by reminding those correcting us of their own sins.  In three short words, we communicate the essence of a few notable passages.  We act as Jesus instructing our accusers to cast the first stone if they are without sin.  We remind them to remove the plank in their own eye before making us aware of the speck in ours.  We label them hypocrites who dare to point out our shortcomings while they are guilty of so many themselves.

Often times it is right to discourage judgment in light of these passages, but Jesus' command to not judge is often misconstrued.  The most popular passage on judgment is Matthew 7:1-2, in which Jesus warns, "Do not judge, lest you may be judged, for with what judgment you are judging, shall you be judged, and with what measure you are measuring, shall it be measured to you."

Many Christians interpret this passage to mean that we should never rebuke others for any reason since we all sin and are wanting of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).  But if this is true, Jesus and Paul would have a lot of explaining to do.  

Fourteen chapters after Jesus' warning, we read of Him overturning the money tables in the temple and fiercely rebuking the Jews for turning the house of prayer into a "burglars' cave."  Can you imagine what this moment must have actually been like?  Jesus' rebuke was so intense that He bypassed the verbal stage of correction altogether and went straight to physical confrontation.  His divine judgment rang loud and clear to all those who witnessed His dramatic reaction to the unholy corruption they had endorsed.  If Jesus' warning means never making others aware of wrongdoing, His actions in the temple are shocking, to say the least!  

Yet, Jesus' warning was directed to those in Israel.  It would behoove us to look at Paul's letters to see what, if anything, we can learn.  Interestingly enough, when we consult Paul we discover that he followed in Christ's footsteps when rebuking others.  Just as Jesus publicly confronted the Jews in the temple, Paul publicly rebuked Peter at Antioch for hypocritically disassociating himself with the Gentile believers in the presence of the Jews.  In Galatians 2:11, Paul writes, "Now when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, for he was self-censured."

Did Paul make Peter aware of his sin?  He most certainly did, and not in private, but publicly!  Clearly, not passing judgment does not mean never correcting others.

As with any topic, it is crucial to narrowly define terms as we examine judgment in the Bible.  Webster's defines the verb "judge" as "to form an opinion."  Judging, by definition, then, is often rooted in assumption.  We may base our assumptions on evidence, but without concrete fact we can never be sure the opinions we form are accurate.  If we are careful to base our judgments on facts, our judgments will be right and will ultimately help others.

So, judging others is wrong when our judgment is based on assumption rather than fact.  Likewise, it is wrong when we hypocritically pass judgment on others for committing the same sins we commit ourselves.  

Today, we might most easily identify improper judgements as stereotypes.  We might assume that someone is a criminal because he is covered in tattoos.  We may judge someone as ignorant because they don't have a degree or high school diploma.  We may form the opinion that a wealthy man is arrogant because of his career success.  When we form opinions about others based on stereotypes and assumptions, we do exactly what Christ and Paul warned against.  This habit is especially harmful because it creates a self-righteous streak within us in that we feel superior to those we judge.  This form of judging is clearly wrong, but judging rightly is a necessary practice in the life of every believer.  In fact, Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:15 that "he who is spiritual is, indeed, examining all."  The purpose of examining all is to uncover truth.  We form opinions about all things by judging them in light of God's standards.

Paul strongly encourages right judgment and correction of fellow believers in several passages.  He instructed Timothy to "herald the word.  Stand by it, opportunely, inopportunely, expose, rebuke, entreat, with all patience and teaching" (2 Tim. 4:2).  In Titus 1:13, Paul writes, "Be exposing them severely, that they may be sound in the faith" and in chapter 2, verse 15, to "entreat and expose with every injunction."  1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, "Now we are entreating you, brethren; admonish the disorderly, comfort the faint-hearted, uphold the infirm, be patient toward all."  Verse 21, then, declares, "Yet be testing all, retaining the ideal." Likewise, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Is there not among you one wise man who will be able to adjudicate (judge) amidst his brethren" (1 Cor. 6:5)?

To the Jews, Jesus said, "If your brother should be sinning, rebuke him, and if he should ever indeed repent, forgive him" (Lu. 17:3).  Jesus' words in John 7:24 settle the issue in plain terms:  "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment."

If we witness the tattooed man I mentioned earlier committing a crime, it is not a wrongful judgment to label him a criminal.  If he commits a crime, he is, by definition, a criminal.  Likewise, if we witness the wealthy man bragging about his success, it is not wrongfully judging him to say he is being arrogant.  Right judgment is based on fact, not assumption.  Jesus was justified in passing judgment in the temple because He personally witnessed the crime.  Paul was right in confronting Peter because he witnessed his hypocrisy first-hand.  Neither assumed anything in their judgment and neither accused their recipients of anything of which they themselves were guilty.  

When we examine judgement in proper biblical context, we discover what it really means to judge as a believer.  Contrary to popular belief, we are to examine and judge all things in light of the truth. Hypocritical judgements and those based on assumption are what Christ and Paul warned against.  Judgement based in fact and done for the purpose of edification, however, is a necessary act in the life of every believer because it encourages fellow believers to be sound in faith.  We must also remember that we may find ourselves on the receiving end of a rebuke at times, and in such cases we need to eagerly heed the loving correction of our brethren.

Be bold but loving as Paul was with Peter.  Be confident as Jesus was in the temple.  Be eager to listen to the correction of others instead of becoming defensive.  But be careful to never be hypocritical or to assume anything when judging others.  

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Evangelism: The Pauline Model

Being free of all, I enslave myself to all, that I should be gaining the more.  And I became to the Jews as a Jew, that I should be gaining Jews; to those under law as under law (not being myself under law), that I should be gaining those under law; to those without law as without law (not being without God's law, but legally Christ's), that I should be gaining those without law.  I became as weak to the weak, that I should be gaining the weak.  To all have I become all, that I should undoubtedly be saving some."  -The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:19-22

Several years ago, a friend of mine told me of an encounter he had with a Jehovah's Witness.  At the time, my friend believed in an eternal torturous hell, and the Witness (who didn't) challenged his evangelistic efforts.  With one remark, the Witness left my friend literally speechless.  His challenging question was this:  "If you Baptists truly believe in an eternal hell of literal fire, why are we the ones out knocking on people's doors?"

In one short sentence, the Witness left my friend defenseless and without excuse.  My friend's beliefs and lack of effort in spite of them proved his immense hypocrisy and self-righteousness.  Sadly, this trend pervades the majority of Christendom.  A study of professing Christians was done years ago which found that when anonymously polled, over eighty-seven percent of churchgoers admitted to never witnessing to an unbeliever!  

While many of these people may neglect to share their faith because of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, many others neglect to witness out of fear.  They recognize that the "turn or burn" message is completely ineffective and they know how ridiculous they will sound to those they engage.  In the end, they justify their lack of action by reasoning that since God is in control, He will fulfill His plan whether they share their faith or sit at home.

While God is in complete control, He never allows us to use that excuse to justify a lack of action.  Paul's example to the Corinthians is the perfect example of this.  Rather than do nothing in light of God's sovereignty, Paul evangelized with every breath.  As members of Paul's evangel, we are to imitate him and do the same (1 Cor. 11:1, Phil. 3:17), recognizing that as God's elect we are charged with the vital duty of drawing others in the redemptive process.

Ironically, the Jehovah's Witness who challenged my friend doesn't have much to brag about either.  He may be fearless in his approach, but his results are statistically no better.  His fault, though different from my friend's, is no less detrimental.  My friend may have lacked effort, but the Witness lacked the proper approach.  I've been visited by Jehovah's Witnesses many times and have always invited them in for a discussion.  Each time, they have been eager to share their beliefs but completely unwilling to consider mine.  Needless to say, I was never eager to return their dismissiveness with openness.  In the end, neither the Witness nor my friend were effective because neither imitated Paul.

So what is the Pauline model we should follow when evangelizing?  Fortunately, we don't have to go far to find the answer to this question.  In fact, you need not go farther than the top of this article.  Paul spells out his strategy in a few short verses to the Corinthians.  Paul's method is simply this:  becoming all to all to undoubtedly save some.

One of the most striking words in this verse is "undoubtedly."  Paul is completely confident that his method will produce guaranteed results and will never be entirely fruitless.  We know from Scripture and history that Paul is the greatest evangelist the world has ever known, so his tactics speak for themselves.

What does it mean, then, to "become all to all" when sharing the evangel?  Well, fortunately Paul provides some detailed examples so we don't have to do a lot of guess-work.  To the Jew he becomes as a Jew; to the one with law, as one with law; to the one without law, as one without law, etc.  In short, Paul met people at their level.  He showed no superiority and never displayed traits with which his recipients would not identify.

So how can we follow Paul's example in modern America?  How, exactly, can we "become all to all" in these trying times?  

The thought of always meeting people at their level seems to imply an inevitable violation of faith.  You may want to share the evangel with a coworker who is profane and belittles others but can't find a way to possibly relate to him without doing those things yourself.  

In this case (and every one like it), there are plenty of ways to relate to the coworker without violating your conscience.  Simply by starting a conversation, you can quickly uncover a lot about the person's past and the experiences that shaped him.  You will likely be able to relate to many of those experiences from your own life, and the smallest bit of common ground can lay a strong foundation on which to build.  

One of the most frequent complaints among unbelievers regarding Christians is that they are arrogant and judgmental.  By admitting our own flaws and exhibiting a truly caring nature to others, we will earn their respect and, more importantly in terms of the evangel, their attention.  

When you commit to relating to others and meeting them at their level, your evangelistic efforts will quickly flourish.  By following Paul's example and resisting the common Christian habit of appearing superior and judgmental, you will be properly armed with 1) the necessary effort, and 2) the right approach.  Follow Paul's model, and you will be confident approaching unbelievers.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Lessons from Esau

Pursue peace with all, and holiness, apart from which no one shall be seeing the Lord; supervising, that no one be wanting of the grace of God...and through this the majority may be defiled, nor any paramour, or profane person, as Esau, who for one feeding, gave up his own birthright. For you are aware that afterwards also, wanting to enjoy the allotment blessing, he is rejected, for he did not find a place of repentance, even seeking it out with tears.   -Hebrews 12:14-17

When we read this passage from Hebrews, Esau's foolishness seems downright absurd.  Who on earth would give up his own birthright for one short meal?  Esau's stupidity is so extreme that even a toddler would laugh at it.  No one in his right mind would give up so much for so little...or so we assume.

Watch the news, visit a friend, or talk with a neighbor, and you will quickly discover that there are more "Esau"s in the world than you may think.  Esau's ignorance was not rooted as much in his love for food as it was in his love for short-term gratification.  He was well aware of what giving up his birthright entailed, but he ignored the consequences in order to satisfy a temporary craving.  The intense appeal of the "here and now" overpowered the array of future blessings his birthright would have afforded in the long-term.

In the Hebrews passage, Esau is termed a "profane person," and this rendering provides an interesting insight.  The Greek here is bebelos and, according to Strong's, means "profane because of improper entrance" or someone "unfit to access God because of approaching Him apart from faith."  Bebelos is derived from baino, meaning "go," and belos, meaning "a threshold to enter a building."  The general meaning, then, is "improper entrance."

Knowing this, we see that Esau's error stemmed from the fact that he approached God apart from faith.  His lack of faith, in turn, caused a lack of wisdom.  

How often do we act just like Esau?  I used to be a financial advisor, and it never ceased to amaze me that the majority of retirees I advised purchased large, brand new homes and started all over with a new thirty-year mortgage right after paying off their previous home.  When they could have (and should have) been living debt free and enjoying their twilight years, they opted instead to burden themselves with a massive and unnecessary debt.  They reasoned that they had "earned" it from all their years of hard work.  Not surprisingly, all of them regretted it within a month after the first mortgage bill arrived.

Like Esau, their foolish decision resulted in a long-term, permanent consequence.  They too wanted to "enjoy the...blessing," but were "rejected...even seeking it out with tears" (v.17).  Even if they sold the new home, they would make nothing on it and certainly not enough to pay in full for another house as they had with the home they paid off over so many years.  Their foolish decision resulted in very real and irreversible consequences.  It was too late to go back and correct their mistake.

Likewise, many of the younger clients I advised refused to save any money for their retirement because they wanted to use the money right away on things that brought them immediate pleasure.  Excluding any unforeseen inheritances or lottery winnings, every one of them will be forced to work far longer than they would prefer when they reach the standard retirement age.  The concept of retirement is not a biblical one, but saving is no less important considering how physically limited we become in older age.  In any case, the naive decision of younger people to focus on the present instead of the future results in undesirable, permanent consequences.

Foolishness like Esau's extends far beyond money, though.  The majority of marriages end, in large part, because people value the short-term qualities of a mate more than the long-term qualities.  They become infatuated with physical appearance and find excuses to justify the many less desirable traits.  Instead of looking for a wife who is faithful, hard-working, and generous as described in Proverbs 31, a man takes only physical beauty into account (which the Proverbs passage reminds us is "fleeting").  As the couple ages and his wife's physical beauty diminishes, the lack of other qualities suddenly becomes more significant.  

We can learn a lot from Esau - especially that faithlessness leads to foolishness while faithfulness leads to wisdom.  Living in the moment and basing our decisions on the temporary gratification of the here and now is a recipe for disaster.  Contrary to Esau, we need to walk by faith in order to obtain wisdom and live with the long-term always in primary focus.  A key ingredient of wisdom is patience, and when we patiently wait as God works in our lives we will avoid the tragic consequences of feeding our immediate desires.

When you encounter those frequent urges to dismiss future blessings in favor of immediate gratification, consider the example of Esau.  Realize that your current craving is like the short meal Esau gave into while the future reward is like the birthright.  If you are searching for a mate, look for a woman or man who possesses maturity and biblical qualities above physical beauty alone.  If you get a tax return, save it instead of blowing it on a new big screen.  If you have paid off your house, enjoy a more debt-free life instead of committing to a new thirty-year loan on an unnecessary mansion.  Walk by faith and act wisely, willing to wait patiently for Father's plan for your life to unfold.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

Monday, October 1, 2012

Forsaking Tradition

And gathering to Him are the Pharisees and some of the scribes coming from Jerusalem.  And perceiving some of His disciples, that with contaminated (that is, unwashed) hands they eat bread (for the Pharisees and all the Jews, if ever they should not be washing the hands with the fist, are not eating, holding the tradition of the elders; and from the market, except they should be sprinkled, they are not eating; and many other things are there which they accepted to hold, the baptizing of cups and ewers and copper vessels and of couches), the Pharisees also, and the scribes are inquiring of Him, "Wherefore are not your disciples walking according to the tradition of the elders, but with unwashed hands are eating bread?"  Yet He, answering, said to them that "Ideally prophesies Isaiah concerning you hypocrites, as it is written, that This people with their lips is honoring Me, yet their heart is away at a distance from me.  Yet in vain are they revering Me, teaching for teachings the directions of men.  For, leaving the precept of God, you are holding the tradition of men of the baptism of ewers and cups.  And many such like things you are doing."  And He said to them, "Ideally are you repudiating the precept of God, that you should be keeping your tradition."   -Mark 7:1-9 (CLNT)

In this passage, Mark recounts one of many instances in which the Pharisees challenged Jesus for violating the Law and Jesus' less than cordial response to their accusation.  The charge pertains to the ceremonial washing of hands prior to eating, which the disciples neglected to do.  The tradition of hand washing had been passed down through generations of the Jewish people and was so commonplace that the Pharisees (who were the most well versed of all Israel in the Law of Moses) could no longer even recognize this tradition as distinctly separate from the Law.

"Tradition" is defined as an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or social custom).  Traditions are, indeed, some of the most powerful forces of human experience.  Not all traditions are inherently evil, but the vast majority, if left unchecked, produce devastating results.  These traditions are like cockroaches - sneaky, resilient, and prone to damaging everything in their path.

The "cons" list of tradition is nearly endless, but we will take a look at a few of the most significant problems traditions cause and discuss how to combat their negative effects in our lives.  The plague of tradition has been one of the most powerful tools of the adversary since the beginning, and we must arm ourselves with knowledge of how it functions to effectively fight against it.

We all hold to a variety of traditions - some related to family customs, others to certain days or events, and many others especially related to religious practices.  Often, these traditions serve a valuable purpose of reminding us of something meaningful, but more often than not our traditions hold us hostage in a number of ways.

We could spend hours listing traditions, but for our purposes we will examine some of the traditions surrounding only one subject - prayer.  If I asked you to list some prayer traditions, chances are your list would include things like praying before meals and bed, closed eyes and folded hands, kneeling, being sure to say "In Jesus' name" before "Amen," and poem prayers like "Now I lay me down to sleep" and "God is great, God is good..."

At first glance these traditions may seem harmless (and even good), but when we consider them in more detail we discover that they are actually detrimental to spiritual growth.  This is the immense power of tradition.  On the surface it appears beneficial, but in reality it is anything but helpful.

In Mark 7, Jesus contrasts tradition with the "precept of God."  In other words, the Pharisees put the letter of the law above the heart of the law.  In holding to their tradition, they missed the boat completely.  

This is exactly what happens in the case of nearly all religious traditions like those involving prayer.  When we make it a habit of praying before every meal and at bedtime, the initial goal is to make prayer a habit so we won't forget to do it.  What happens in reality is that the prayer becomes so routine that we forget what we're even praying.  We say the same prayer, word for word, before every meal ("God is great, God is good") and before long we don't even realize what we just prayed.  Even if the prayer is varied, the habit of routine leads to complacency and we end up only praying at certain designated times as opposed to praying "without ceasing" as Paul advises.  The tradition of praying at designated times, then, produces two of the major pitfalls of tradition - complacency (laziness) and mindlessness.

Likewise, when we hold to the tradition of always closing our eyes during prayer, we inevitably run into problems.  For some, closing their eyes during prayer is an effective way to block out distractions and get a better mental image of their prayers, but for those who view closing their eyes as a requirement during prayer, their focus produces negative feelings toward prayer altogether.  The feelings of guilt and bondage from having to close their eyes produces feelings of resentment.  For these people, prayer is nothing more than another work that must be followed in order for God to listen to their prayers.  The tradition of closing eyes is a good example of how traditions often cause feelings of guilt and bondage.

Many Christians believe they must include "In Jesus' name" before they conclude their prayers in order for God to even hear them.  While praying to our Father in His Son's (and our Lord's) name is certainly not a bad thing, it is ridiculous to believe that the Almighty Creator of the universe is incapable of hearing our prayers if we omit a three-word phrase.  This prayer tradition is a breeding ground for foolishness among Christians.

Most importantly of all, the many traditions surrounding prayer produce an unhealthy level of pride and arrogance.  When we adhere to ironclad prayer traditions and uphold them as requirements, we inevitably judge all those who don't adhere to the same traditions.  We self-righteously accuse them of not being heard if they don't say "In Jesus' name," and we view them as heathens if they don't pray before meals or close their eyes.  Contrarily, we view ourselves as righteous and don't hesitate to point out the flaws of those who don't hold to the commonly accepted traditions of prayer.  Pride and arrogance were the dominant sins of the Pharisees in Mark 7.  They held a tradition in such high esteem and viewed themselves so righteous for keeping it, that they condemned the disciples for not observing what they had come to view as a practice equal with the rest of God's Law.

Prayer traditions serve as a model for the devastating effects of religious traditions in general.  Whether it's traditions of prayer as in this article, or hand washing as in Mark 7, or nearly any other religious tradition, the results will always be the same.  Among many other problems, adherence to tradition produces (at the very least) complacency, mindlessness, guilt, bondage, foolishness, pride and arrogance.

If after examining your own life you discover that you are plagued by tradition, commit to forsaking those traditions which hinder your spiritual growth.  If your prayer life is routine, stop praying before meals and bedtime and pray instead at various times throughout the day.  If you close your eyes during prayer out of a sense of obligation, pray with your eyes open.  As a general rule, view tradition as the opposite of grace.  Take a long, hard look at the traditions in your life and commit to doing the opposite of those traditions you realize are more damaging than helpful.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill