Dealing with God’s No Shows

This was a good week in many ways, but all three of our counseling appointments cancelled at the last minute or no showed without calling. As I reflected on this, it would be very easy to be discouraged. After all, I said no to all sorts of things to say yes to being available during those slots. I missed out on a date with my wife, time with my family, seeing friends or whatever else I would have done during those times.

If counseling was all about me, that’s where my thought life would rest. I would be stuck in a pattern of thinking how unfair it was to be robbed of these blessings. But counseling is not about me. Counseling, like every other part of our mission here, is about seeing the Kingdom of God become more fully realized than it was the day before. The reality is that while these counseling appointments didn’t happen, lots of other things that showed an expanding Kingdom of God did. As I fix my gaze on Jesus and what He is doing it is easy to forget any disappointments along the way because I know that many of this week’s blessings began as disappointments which God has redeemed for greater good.

More than that, if someone had told me “Mike, I’m going to let you give a clear gospel presentation to twelve people this year who have never heard the true gospel before, but you will have to endure 30 cancelled appointment,” I would have taken that deal in a heartbeat. This is actually the reality of our ministry here – people who have never heard the real truth of the beauty of Christ and the value of pursuing Him above all else have seen that for the first time, or been reminded of it in ways that resulted in Kingdom expansion. In little ways, we have been doing our part in the parables of the Kingdom we looked at in our evangelistic study of Mark 4 last night. What seems small at first is gradually growing in ways that are visible to regular people.

We will have more no shows. I am certain of it. It’s part of choosing the mission field we have chosen. The people we are trying to reach tend to be poorer, which means they have more demanding jobs and less predictable schedules. They are all in some kind of crisis that can result in last minute distractions and demands. They frequently are battling some kind of sin or suffering pattern that argues against getting help from God’s Spirit, His Word and His people. The key thing for me, and for all of us, is to keep Jesus’ expanding Kingdom at the center – even if that is His Kingdom growing from my own ability to push aside disappointments because my greatest treasure is abiding in Him.

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Review – Christian Zombie Killer’s Handbook

Kristen picked up this book for me at a used bookstore because I’ve been modestly into the zombie themed movies and TV shows over the years. The author clearly tried to be creative and capitalize on the cultural love for all things Living Dead in the book and I commend him for it.

On a side note, this is the first book I’ve read using my new reading glasses. Years ago the eye doctor told me these would reduce my eye strain when I’m reading a lot and it turns out he was right. Not sure why I waited this long. Three sets for $10 – can’t beat that with a stick. Buy on Amazon

The book is an interesting approach to the topic of living a Christian life victorious over sin by comparing indwelling sin and its power to a virus that turns people into zombies. He alternates chapters between a  fictional story about a family who tries to live a normal life in the midst of zombie attacks on civilization and the biblical points he’s trying  to make about the root cause of sin and how a Christian can see victory.

The doctrine is pretty good for a book about zombies and while I wouldn’t use it as a biblical counseling text it gets progressive sanctification mostly right IMHO. I do wish he’d have brought in the idea of affections and how sin blinds us from the utterly worthiness of Jesus earlier, but he does mention it toward the end of the book. It’s not heady at all and I think most high school students or even younger could digest the content easily enough.

While the story was fine and entertaining enough, I didn’t find the allegory to be very effective most of the time. Maybe he wasn’t really trying but I think the book would have been more effective if the points he was making in the doctrinal sections were more closely linked to the story chapter that immediately preceded it. I would have liked to see shadows of the next doctrinal point he was going to make in the story and most of the time I couldn’t, especially as I got further into the book.

At the end of the day, nobody should get treated too badly for not being C.S. Lewis or John Bunyan and I give the book four stars for strong readability, creativity and content.

 

Five Questions for Christians

Seems like every true Christian should be able to answer most of these questions…

  • What is the name of a hungry person you recently fed?
  • What is the name of a thirsty person you recently gave a drink?
  • What is the name of an outcast or stranger you recently welcomed?
  • What is the name of a sick person (not in your family) you recently tended?
  • What is the name of a prisoner you recently visited in jail?

Immediately many of my friends who love to study the bible and learn the Greek root words of things will be outraged that I have set this as the standard for true Christianity rather than adherence to some doctrinal position like the “good church” they are a part of. The problem is, I didn’t set this standard, Jesus did. Let’s read what He says in Matthew 25 without explaining it away. What is the simple sense of this simple text?

[31] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. [32] Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. [33] And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. [34] Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. [35] For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, [36] I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ [37] Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? [38] And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? [39] And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ [40] And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ [41] “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. [42] For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, [43] I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and  you did not visit me.’ [44] Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ [45] Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ [46] And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46 ESV)

You don’t need to go to seminary to understand what Jesus is saying. He is saying that 100% of the righteous people he will joyfully invite into the eternal kingdom of blessing will have done these things in His name.  Matthew Henry puts it this way “Good works done for God’s sake, through Jesus Christ, are here noticed as marking the character of believers made holy by the Spirit of Christ, and as the effects of grace bestowed on those who do them.”

It’s easy to debate the main and clear point Jesus is making by arguing over who the “these” are or how many of the five things are necessary to meet Jesus’ standard. If your first inclination is to do this then I would be very concerned for the state of your soul. I don’t say that in a mean way, I’m just reading verses 45-46.

Genuine Christianity gave us orphanages, an end to the slave trade, disaster relief and mass care, medical care for the poor, workplace safety and all sorts of other kindness to the materially poor and socially outcast. Jesus Himself set this example showing earthly kindness to people who He knew would never believe on Him. These five questions, taken literally from the standard Jesus says He will use at the final judgment, are a great diagnostic for whether your theology is made worthwhile by getting to your hands and feet.

Christianity and “Torture” – Part 3

In the prior two posts we looked at whether or not there is a “Christian” position on war and how that impacts our ideas on torture. We concluded that while the believer in the Prince of Peace should never long for or relish war, some wars are necessary and good if they are a means of last resort to prevent greater suffering.

That leaves us with the big question that my friend asked – theories are fine but how should an individual Christian trying to live a life centered on Jesus respond when these reports of Americans torturing detainees come out? I offer the following thoughts which I hope are helpful despite being incomplete.

Consider how Proverbs 18 instructs us. Verses 13, 15 and 17 are very important when considering this topic. To summarize them, the Christian should be very slow to make judgments based on one side of the story regardless of who is telling it. In the political world that is especially true – whether you are someone who leans left or right does not matter. Politicians, by and large, are interested in promoting their political agenda and narrative even when it does not match the truth. In the case of the torture report that came out recently, it was nothing more than a brazen attempt by the party losing power in the US Senate to get their point of view out before losing their bully pulpit.

The facts here revealed a much different story than was presented by the report and generally by the media. Enhanced interrogations were used on a tiny fraction (less than 1%) of detainees in the war on terror. There was a formal process used to determine whether enhanced interrogation would be permitted and there must have been a greater good to be gained. Social and medical scientists did a significant amount of research to ensure that methods did not create any lasting harm. These are the facts.

It is possible to say that using these methods on seven of the more than 2000 possible subjects is still too many, but it is not possible to say that somehow this was a widespread problem led by an out of control spy force seeking to abuse terrorists or find revenge.

Personal response is different than national response. Think about your personal responsibility to love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you. Even though the government does have the freedom and even responsibility to use the sword to stop greater suffering, individual Christians should always pursue mercy where we can because we were pursued with mercy.

Remember that things could be worse than we’d like to believe. It’s important in our love for country to not pretend that no American could cross a line when dealing with terrorists. It is possible that sinners in a sinful world sinned against terrorists they were questioning. It is possible that those guilty of these actions would try to deceive investigators to prevent the real truth from getting out. The facts we currently know don’t support this narrative, but Christians who know that each one of us is so bad it took the death of the King of Glory to save us from our sin should know this is possible.

Read and apply Romans 5:5 – 10. Pray for terrorists, especially those who warrant this kind of enhanced interrogation. The reality is that before God we are all Osama bin Laden. We are vile, evil rebels with no thought of His kingdom except as a place we want to destroy. We must adopt the posture of Jesus who left home and holiness to engage angry rebels with a message of hope and reconciliation. We are much more like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who planned the 9/11 attacks than we are like God, and God’s grace is sufficient to save even the most horrible terrorist.

Christianity and “Torture” – Part 2

From our last post we saw that while all war should make the Christian grieve, not all war is to be avoided. There are certain cases in the Bible and in history when government must act with force to stop evil, but it should always proceed cautiously and attempt to minimize rather than maximize the suffering caused by war. From a Christian perspective, this goal of minimizing suffering while seeking justice must extend to both enemy combatants and non-combatants. For example, when an enemy soldier surrenders the victorious side should treat the enemy humanely with a view toward future reconciliation since we serve a reconciling God who seeks reconciliation with His enemies (namely us). This means that enemies captured in the course of war are not fodder to do with as we wish but humans made in the image of God. That does not mean that governments should do nothing but give a YMCA club card to enemy prisoners of war – it is perfectly acceptable to attempt to secure information that would lead to a shortening of war and the misery it brings. Everyone would agree that something like physical mutilation, rape or murder would constitute torture. The pointless degradation imposed by some military police in the Abu Gareb prison was well over the line and those responsible were criminally prosecuted as they should have been. The question posed to the American public and especially Christians is whether things the military calls “enhanced interrogation techniques” are in fact torture. This is where things get more political than scientific, and we need a moral standard outside of ourselves to evaluate where the line might be. The challenge for the Christian is that the Bible never specifically talks about torture. It doesn’t provide a definition. In fact, much of the Old Testament conquest of the Promised Land would meet the definitions we just shared. These instructions to Israel as a government highlight the Biblical principle that government and the church have different spheres of responsibility and accountability. As we consider how God would define and view “torture” by governments, it seems important to establish some principles from the Scriptures. There as several contradictory definitions of torture that should each be considered as we look at this topic: Merriam Webster: the act of causing severe physical pain as a form of punishment or as a way to force someone to do or say something 18 U.S. Code § 2340: an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT):  the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering by or with the consent of the state authorities for a specific purpose. These definitions are not exhaustive and do not seem to limit some groups from describing as torture actions that clearly do not rise to the formal definitions of torture. For example, the International Committee for the Red Cross has charged that interrogations at Guantánamo Bay, which included solitary confinement and exposing prisoners to temperature extremes and loud music, were “tantamount to torture,” and the IRCT whose definition is above said that things like solitary confinement would be torture. How would God frame the limits of “torture”? Even though Jesus Himself saw the sphere of government and the Kingdom of God were separate entities (Matt 20:21),  God expects all people to be held in high regard as His image bearers and Christians should use available means to compel government to this view. Some implications would include:

  • God prescribes something similar to proportionate response. Even the famous “eye for an eye” passage is designed to limit retaliation, not endorse it. Measures should increase in severity with the opportunity to mitigate suffering.
  • God does recognize that evil ought to be dealt with as such. He ordains killing he wicked, and promises that the way of the wicked will perish (Ps 1:6, Ps 34:16), so he does not require mercy to be extended in every situation where it might be.
  • God’s ordinary practice with His own children is to escalate pressure until we reveal our sin that He knows we have not confessed.
  • God is watching when governments cross the line and He promises to avenge the innocent. This is most clearly seen in the Prophets but also in wisdom literature.

With these caveats, I will offer some clarifying of the term before I spell out in the next post how individual and groups of Christians ought to think about torture/enhanced interrogation and the Senate’s release of this report specifically. Something is most likely NOT torture if:

  • The same technique is used in regular training its own military or police forces
  • The outcome is simply short term disorientation rather than physical pain, disability or permanent psychological trauma
  • The act is not sanctioned by a ruling and custodial authority for the purposes of advancing its political or military agenda
  • Serious physical or psychological harm only arise during the course of otherwise acceptable military operations against combatants
  • If the captive voluntarily submits to the questioning and can freely leave at any point
  • It the technique is routinely used by closely monitored penal systems such as exists in the United States and Europe

I quickly admit that these standards are born from more common sense than the Bible, but I think they reflect the idea of people who are both fallen and made in the image of God. If these are basically right, then the vast majority of instances where US operatives have been accused of torture are not actually torture at all. Waterboarding is performed on most US SEALs and other special forces during their training, and in fact some SEAL training is much more physically and psychologically “torturous” than waterboarding. Isolation and solitary confinement for definite periods of time that maintain the subject’s due process rights is not torture. Feeding food that the subject would not prefer, requiring the subject to stand about as long as a typical retail clerk or depriving a subject of sleep in a manner that is not worse than the mom of a newborn is not torture. The major caveat on the other side is that from a Christian perspective even these kinds of advanced interrogation techniques can only be performed when there is a reasonable chance that the information gathered will mitigate future evil greater than these methods. While governments may act to restrain evil, they must have some basis in fact before doing so and their actions should be taken as a last resort.

Fifty shades of perspective

If you do not know something about 50 Shades of Grey, you might just be living in a cave. I know very little about it except that it seems to be a romance story including extramarital sex that would be non-standard for most people. What is more prevalent to me is the Christian outrage over the movie and how it cheapens the sexual relationship God intended between a husband and wife. I actually have a problem with the outrage and I’ll give several reasons why.

Inequity

I’m sure the book and movie cheapen the sexual relationship God intended but does it really do that any more than the bazillions of other movies coming out in the recent past? Is it that the movie challenges God’s standards or our standards? Hint: every movie with anything less than sacrificially loving sex between a husband and wife following Jesus together challenges God’s standards but there are not 50 million Christian blog posts about them. If you should determine it’s more about offending your standard than God’s standard then that’s the definition of self-righteousness.

Let me give you an example. We watched the 2008 movie Iron Man the other night. Almost at the beginning of the movie the main character hooks up with a reporter, abandons her at his home and leaves his assistant to get rid of her (which she describes as “taking out the trash”). Is that more honoring marriage and keeping the marriage bed undefiled (Heb 13:4) than 50 Shades?

Inequity Part 2

How about movies and books that celebrate kids rebelling against their parents or something like The Blindside that was praised in Christian circles but showed Sandra Bullock as the controlling wife and mom clearly leading her family more than her husband? Where are the 50 million blog posts opposing envy and strife and jealousy? According to Galatians 5, these seem to offend God just as much as sexual immorality and impurity.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19 – 21 ESV)

Proof of Cultural Disengagement?

After the obligatory nod to the number of immoral movies available, one popular Christian blogger wrote “I believe that 50 Shades of Grey can serve as a kind of cultural barometer that alerts us to the colossal changes that have been occurring in recent years, and to the consequences they bring.”

Sometimes I wonder how much contact with unbelievers most evangelical Christians have. Outside the evangelical subculture the “phenomenon” of 50 shades is just not that big of a deal, any more than the phenomenon of Harry Potter increased the practice of witchcraft. Yes, it’s true that pushing sexual boundaries is more available than turning beetles into dragons, but it’s fiction written for an audience the author expected would like it. If people had not already turned their hearts against God’s standard for sex this book would have never gotten past the initial editor.

Here’s the reality: Back in 2011 Forbes reported that 13% of all internet searches were for porn. That’s not 50%, but it’s clearly sufficient to demonstrate that 50 Shades is nothing shocking or special. It’s the logical and predictable extension of where the culture has been going for a long time.

More than that, America is not the most sexualized culture in history. In Paul’s day, sex was part of their formal religion. If a movie rather than a shrine filled with temple prostitutes, is the cultural barometer then we should not be making this seem like somehow it’s proof that world is so bad the rapture must be right around the corner.

Which Leads Us To…

What did we expect? Are we so insulated from the world that we are shocked by when it acts like the Bible says it’s supposed to act? Are we so ready to be offended when sin is around us that we choose to further distance ourselves from the sinners who desperately need us to compassionately love them and show them the Rescuer of their souls and the real source of abundant life?

Yes it is sad that people we see every day have chosen to drink water from broken cisterns they have created rather than run to the River of Life (Jer 2:13), but outrage is not the proper response. Love is. Next time I write I’ll share some thoughts about how this book and movie actually helps the Kingdom of God.

How to Pray for Your Wife

I didn’t plan to pick up this book at a book table hosted by our church but over a few hours of thinking about it I did and am very grateful.

The premise of the book is very simple. It looks at various statements made about a godly woman in Proverbs 31 and after discussing them, turns them into ways you can pray for your wife. The verses are broken up so that there are 31 different entries. Each entry is only 2 – 3 pages and includes a spot for you to jot down specific prayers for your wife related to the topic and record how God has answered your prayers. I have already been blessed by it in seeing new but wholly Biblical ways to pray for my wife. The second part of the book includes some helpful thoughts on effective marriage but it’s only a small fraction of the total content.

Most of the Christian men I know want to be more systematic about praying for their wives but have trouble figuring out how. This book does just that. It also has greatly helped me appreciate Proverbs 31 in a way I hadn’t before. This is not a chapter only women should be meditating on! It’s helped me to guide my wife and my daughters into the kind of women our Lord wants them to be.

It is a book I will keep in my office to remember to pray for my wife (the bright red cover will help with that!)