Monday, January 21, 2013

The Dangers of Censorship

Close your eyes, cover your ears, shut your mouth, and keep your hands in your pockets. This is the essence of Christian censorship. Logically, censorship seems to make perfect sense. It stands to reason that the best way to combat sin is to avoid all temptation. As a result, parents forbid their children from watching movies with a rating higher than "G;" teenagers are forbidden from dancing out of fear that this "debaucherous" activity will lead to wild promiscuity; and books like Every Man's Battle encourage men to not so much as glance at a beautiful woman.

How can we describe the outcome of censorship? In a word: failure. Contrary to what logic suggests, censorship accomplishes exactly the opposite of what it is intended to accomplish. The failure of censorship is so extreme that it has become comical. The rebellious nature of many pastors' kids, for example, has become so commonplace that they are now jokingly referred to as "PK"s. 

But why is censorship so unsuccessful? How can complete avoidance of what's wrong lead to a life completely filled with wrongdoing? In order to answer this question, we must first understand one foundational truth: it is impossible to accept that Christ has freed us (Gal. 5:1) and to be at peace when we place ourselves in self-made bondage. 

The old adage, "Curiosity killed the cat," doesn't apply to felines only. When people are entirely forbidden from something, they become obsessed with it. Look no further than the beginning of creation to find a perfect example of this fact. Adam and Eve were given permission to eat the fruit of every tree in the Garden of Eden except that of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They were given an endless array of choices which provided more than enough options to satisfy their needs, but they obsessed over the one tree that was deemed off-limits. Ultimately, their obsession led to disobedience of what should have been a simple rule and the entrance of death into the world! Logically, one would conclude that Adam and Eve should have easily been able to follow one simple rule when they were free to partake in so much else; but reality defied logic and the results were devastating.

David is another great biblical example of how forbiddance leads to obsession and wrongdoing. David's obsession with Bathsheba was due not only to her beauty, but to the fact that she already belonged to another man. Unlike David's existing wives and many of the other beautiful women in the kingdom, Bathsheba was off-limits. Obsessed with having what he couldn't have, David used his authority as king to ensure the death of Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, in battle. Like Adam and Eve, David should have been content with the endless supply of women God had given him, but his obsession with Bathsheba as an unattainable prize led him to commit murder!

In addition to biblical evidence, we see the outcome of strict prohibition in our daily lives. The beginning of each year is marked by resolutions to eat better, exercise more and lead a healthier lifestyle. Numerous studies have shown that the people who completely forbid themselves from eating their favorite foods tend to give up on their diets much earlier than those who limit their favorite foods but don't forbid them entirely. The woman who refuses to eat any chocolate becomes so obsessed with it that she gives up after a few days and eats an entire bag. On the other hand, her friend who commits to eating one small piece of chocolate a day remains content with her decreased allowance and sticks to her plan. When we commit to dieting, we immediately obsess over the foods we can't have, to the point where we can think of hardly anything else. Just thinking of the word "diet" induces panic. We sink into a state of perpetual worry and stress and soon realize that the only way to end our worry is to overindulge in what was previously not allowed.

When I was a teenager, two brothers from the church my family attended stayed the night at our home. The parents of these brothers were incredibly strict and forbid their sons from all forms of worldly pleasure which they deemed inappropriate. While watching a movie, a brief scene came on the screen in which a woman was dancing topless on a bar. The brothers (who were in their mid-teens at the time) said that the brief, three second clip was "the most they had ever seen." I will spare the reader the details, but suffice it to say, what happened next was shocking. Had these boys been taught to appreciate the beauty of the female form as God's crowning creative achievement, they would certainly not have responded to a brief movie scene in such an animalistic fashion. Their instinctive reaction was the inevitable result of being told their entire lives that sexuality and female beauty were evil and to be avoided.

Many Christian spouses - especially wives - have a very difficult time viewing marital sex as a God-given blessing that is to be enjoyed. After being told their entire lives that sex is dirty and evil, it is almost impossible for them to recognize that making love to their spouse is anything but wrong. As a result, a large percentage of divorces that occur in the first few years of marriage are due to sexual frustration.

Ultimately, the dangers of censorship are rooted in a lack of knowledge. While Adam and David serve as good models for how forbiddance leads to obsession and sin, these men were not prohibited from understanding the consequences of their actions. When parents prohibit their children from even knowing about the things they view as harmful, their children will experience obsession to a much greater degree when they become acquainted with those things down the road. This is why children who are strictly sheltered tend to be very rebellious when they get older. The best parenting model, therefore, is one that exposes a child to all things but teaches him what is expedient versus harmful.

It is a shame that most Christians miss out entirely on the many blessings God provides. Christ died to free us, not to keep us in bondage. The effort to avoid sin through censorship may seem logical, but in reality it only causes us to obsess over what we view as forbidden and to increase the likelihood that we will do the opposite of what we should. If you don't want your husband to obsess over other women, allow him to admire the beauty of other women. If you want to lose weight, allow yourself to occasionally eat your favorite foods. If you don't want your children reacting wildly to a three-second movie scene or to have marital problems in the future, teach them about sexuality.

Knowledge of all things is necessary for righteous living. Censorship, which prevents knowledge of what is supposedly wrong, accomplishes the exact opposite of what its adherents hope it will. Forsake censorship and commit, instead, to knowing all things so that you may determine what is expedient and what is detrimental.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Virtual Veil

A friend of mine recently announced that he was deleting his Facebook account. Among the reasons he cited was a desire to avoid continual arguments (often with complete strangers). I commend him for his wise and mature decision. If you participate in Facebook and similar forms of social media, you have most likely been engaged in several heated debates, and many may have turned rather ugly. The protection provided by the virtual world allows us to act very differently online than we ever would in person. The country music artist, Brad Paisley, sings a song titled "Online" that pokes fun at the ridiculous false identities people often attempt to live out on the internet. The song is intended to be comical, but its accuracy makes it more scary than humorous.

I joined Facebook almost entirely for the purpose of participating in faith related groups. It is simply the easiest way in our modern age to quickly communicate with like-minded believers and to participate in discussions with people from around the world in an effort to mutually grow. Yet, if you have participated in these groups, you know that quarreling is nearly as commonplace (if not more so at times) than the edifying growth we seek. This is undoubtedly due to the effects of the virtual realm, which shields us from direct confrontation. 

I am confident that when believers debate online, most do not initially intend to stir up a heated fight. On the contrary, the goal is to defend the truth and to help others who disagree come to a realization of it. Almost inevitably, however, the debates evolve into accusations, name calling and other petty insults. Many are even accused of not being believers for stating their disagreement, and I know people who have left groups altogether because of how they were treated.

If you are reading this article, there is a good chance that you have written things online that you came to later regret. I am certainly no exception. In order to combat the virtual veil, we must keep Scripture close to heart and commit to acting no differently online than we would face to face. 

Speaking to Timothy, Paul advised, "Now stupid and crude questionings refuse, being aware that they are generating fightings. Now a salve of the Lord must not be fighting, but be gentle toward all, apt to teach, bearing with evil, with meekness training those who are antagonizing" (2 Tim. 2:23-24). Likewise, Paul told the Romans to pursue "that which makes for peace and that which is for the edification of one another" (Rom. 14:19) and "to no one render evil for evil" (Rom. 12:17). 

Several passages, in addition to those of Paul's letters, reinforce the great importance of avoiding quarrel and taming our tongues. Proverbs 29:22 states, "An angry man stirs up strife, and a furious man abounds in transgression." Writing to the Jews, James reminded that "the wisdom from above is first, indeed, pure, thereupon peaceable, lenient, compliant, bulging with mercy and good fruits, undiscriminating, unfeigned" (James 3:17).

Make no mistake that our written words are every bit as powerful as our spoken words. Granted, written words do not carry inflection of the voice and other elements that may intensify their spoken delivery, but the affects on the recipient are every bit as significant. In fact, on several occasions I've found out after speaking with people that I interpreted their written words more harshly than they intended. 

Ideally, we would be able to speak with one another in person at all times; but since this is unfortunately not possible, we are left with learning to appropriately deal with one another in less personal forms. How, then, can we accomplish this important goal?

For starters, we can commit to not repaying evil with evil. If someone online calls us a name, we should not repay him by calling him a name also. Rather, we should be patient and gentle, refusing to involve ourselves in an argument that will be fruitless. We would do well to follow Paul's advice to completely avoid stupid questions, knowing they only lead to harm. In reality, we have no need to defend ourselves against personal attacks. Our defense should always center around God alone! This is why Paul told the Corinthians that it was "the least trifle" that he may be examined by men.

Second, we must understand that, contrary to popular belief, defense of the truth does not require an aggressive approach. It does require aggressiveness in terms of conviction, but not in terms of antagonism. Paul advises us to be bold, but meek; strong, but gentle. We must recognize that each and every person is not the way they are - misled or not - out of choice. They are in exactly the place God wants them to be at that particular time and according to His purpose. Others are not "stupid" because they don't understand certain truths. They are merely ignorant at the time by God's design. 

After spending enough time in discussion forums, it is apparent that many people have come to actually love debate. They ignite a fight with an antagonistic comment and attempt to beat their opponent at all costs. This mindset is most often rooted in pride and a desire to prove their knowledge, not a pure desire to uphold the truth. For such people, toning down the harsh rhetoric is all but easy. The love of debate is intoxicating and online discussion forums are like a drug of which they yearn to get their daily dose. Do you think these people would act anywhere near the way they do online if they were to debate with others in person?

If you struggle with acting differently on the internet than you would in person, commit to altering your approach. Be gentle, patient and kind toward others, and ask yourself if what you are about to write is something you would say to the person while looking him or her in the eye. Refuse to respond to foolish questions and antagonizing comments, knowing your response will only lead to an argument from which neither party will benefit. Remember that those who disagree with us at times are not our enemies, but our brothers and sisters in Christ. If after attempting to alter your habits you are unsuccessful, consider deleting your online account. It is better to remove the temptation to argue than to fight a losing battle. For, a servant of the Lord must not be fighting, but be gentle toward all, bearing with evil those who are antagonizing.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Resurrection: God's Harvest

For even as, in Adam, all are dying, thus also, in Christ, shall all be vivified. Yet each in his own class: the Firstfruit, Christ; thereupon those who are Christ's in His presence; thereafter the consummation whenever He may be giving up the kingdom to His God and Father, whenever He should be nullifying all sovereignty and all authority and power.    -1 Corinthians 15:22-24

Here, the apostle Paul reveals some insight that would startle nearly every modern churchgoer who would take the time to carefully read his words. These short two verses disprove several orthodox doctrines that are accepted without question by nearly all Christians. The first sentence proves the salvation of all, and the second disproves the orthodox view of death as well as the trinity. Each of these topics could easily be discussed at great length on its own, but in this article I will focus exclusively on one topic of this passage: the order of resurrection.

The order Paul gives of resurrection is as follows: the Firstfruit, Christ, then those who are Christ's in His presence, and, finally, those who remain at the consummation. In order to understand this order, it helps to understand several other key truths. First, we must understand what resurrection is. The common definition of resurrection is "being brought back to life," but Christ was, in fact, not the first person to have ever been brought back to life. In fact, the Bible recounts several people who were raised from the dead prior to Jesus. Elijah raised the son of Zarephath's widow (1 Kings 17), Elisha raised Shunamite's son (2 Kings 4), an unnamed man was brought back to life after his body touched Elisha's corpse, and Jesus Himself raised Jairus's daughter (Mark 5), the son of Nain's widow (Luke 7), and Lazarus (John 11).

For Christ to be the first in the resurrection order, the definition of resurrection has to consist of more than being brought back to life alone. What, then, sets Jesus apart as the first to be truly resurrected? The answer: each other person who was raised from the dead died yet again and is still dead. Resurrection, therefore, involves being raised from the dead and being made immortal. Indeed, all who remain at the consummation will be held accountable at the Great White Throne judgment and cast into the Lake of Fire as the "second death" (Rev. 20:14); but they too will eventually enjoy immortality as death is destroyed as the last enemy (1 Cor. 15:26) and God reconciles all things in creation back to Himself (1 Cor. 15:28).

In order to understand Jesus' title as the "Firstfruit," we must refer to the law in the Old Testament. The law established seven annual feasts, which the nation of Israel was required to follow every year. Each of these feasts pointed to and celebrated the future glory of Christ. The third of these feasts, which took place shortly after Passover, was Firstfruits. Leviticus 23:9-10 provides the instructions for this feast: "And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, 'Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When Ye be come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring a sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest unto the priest: And he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted for you.'" Further instruction is set forth in Leviticus 19:9-10 where we read, "And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not reap wholly the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest... thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger."

The feast of Firstfruits contained three phases for harvesting. A single sheaf (bundle) was gathered just before the barley was fully ready to be harvested and was then given to the priest who would offer it to God on behalf of the people. Next, the good crop was harvested, and, finally, the outer corners of the field were left for those in need to be harvested at a later date. These three phases, then, coincide with the order of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Christ, as the "Firstfruit" is resurrected before the rest of the crop (believers and unbelievers) are ready to be harvested (resurrected), followed by the faithful (main crop), and lastly the unfaithful (outer corners).

In Matthew 13, Jesus likens the kingdom of the heavens unto a man who went forth to sow seeds for harvest, and in Luke 10 He references evangelism as a type of harvest. The agricultural process begins with the planting of the seeds for a crop. The second phase involves great care as the crop grows to maturity. Once ready, the crop is harvested and used for its ultimate purpose. Thus, the comparison of resurrection to a harvest is a perfect analogy. God begins with creation (planting), then lovingly shapes us as we grow to maturity, and finally harvests (resurrects) us to be used for our ultimate purpose.

If Jesus is the first in the order and unbelievers are the last, then believers clearly make up the second phase. Paul refers to believers as "those who are Christ's in His presence." These believers consist of members of the Body of Christ as well as the faithful of Israel. Members of the Body are resurrected first (1 Thess. 4:16), followed by the faithful of Israel at the former resurrection (Rev. 20:5). The second phase of resurrection, therefore, contains two phases itself: one for the Body and another for the saints of Israel.

Many who recognize Paul's comparison of resurrection to the Feast of Firstfruits understand the third phase of outer corners to consist of the faithful of Israel. They believe that Christ is the Firstfruit, the members of the Body make up the second, and the faithful of Israel make up the third. This chronology conveniently allows for the distinction between the resurrection of the Body members and the later resurrection of the saints of Israel. This understanding prohibits the eventual resurrection of unbelievers and, thus, fits their flawed theology. We need go no further than Paul's words in the passage to recognize that the third and final group consists of the unfaithful, not the faithful of Israel as many assume. When describing the timing of the third phase, Paul explicitly states, "Thereafter the consummation." The resurrection of the saints of Israel (the "former resurrection") occurs long before the consummation, leaving unbelievers as the only possible group to which Paul can be referring.

Unlike the phases of the Firstfruits feast, the phases of resurrection take a great deal of time. Days or weeks separated the feast phases, but the resurrection phases are separated by thousands of years. Just as the time from Christ's resurrection to the resurrection of believers will at least be over 2,000 years, so too the resurrection of unbelievers will not take place until long after the saints have been resurrected. The unfaithful will not be resurrected until after the saints have enjoyed their allotment of eonian life in the coming eons.

A key distinction between the first two harvests and the third (last) is that the first two belonged exclusively to Israel while the third belonged to strangers. Ultimately, the third group was harvested as well, but not in the peak season and not for the same purpose as the first two. In the same way, unbelievers of the last resurrection are not part of the faithful who will enjoy their allotment in the peak season. Rather, they will be harvested (resurrected) after the peak season (eonian life) is complete.

When we understand the order of resurrection, we understand the beauty of God's resurrection plan. He is the great Cultivator Who plants us all, the Caretaker Who nourishes our growth, and the Harvester Who gathers us at completion. The great Harvester has already gathered His Son, Christ, as the Firstfruit of the harvest and the acceptable offering on behalf of all creation. He will soon gather His faithful for the main harvest in the peak season. Ultimately, He will complete His work by harvesting the outer corners of His crop when He resurrects the unfaithful. Once the harvest is complete, He will become All in all, and all will experience the inevitable result of their resurrection - immortality.

© 2013 by Stephen Hill