Monday, March 30, 2009

The Older Brother Syndrome

In his book, The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller gives a fresh perspective on the story of the prodigal son. He says that people tend to focus on the younger brother and God's graciousness in forgiving him. But the parable is also about the older brother, who did everything "right" and yet had a hard and unforgiving heart.

Keller says that churches are typically filled with older brother types, who have always been responsible and hard-working. Going to church seems like the right thing to do to them, so they fill the pews. But the younger brothers (the rebellious, counter-culture types) often feel like they don't belong in church, partly because the older brothers don't make them feel welcome.

The Prodigal God is about God's love for both older and younger brothers and sisters. In fact, Keller points out that the word "prodigal" means "extravagant"--hence the title. God is indeed extravagant in his love for all of us.

I want to focus on the father's words to his angry oldest son, who complained that he had served his father his entire life, and had never been able to celebrate with his friends. The father replied, "Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours." (Luke 15:31) Everything the father had belonged to him, and yet he lived as a slave? He'd never had a party? Why?

This man didn't really understand the meaning of grace. The rebellious, extravagant, hard-living younger brother was a better Christian than he was for two reasons: First, when he came back to the father, he admitted his unworthiness and left his sins behind. Galatians 5:20-21 says that you can't be a real Christians and keep abusing drugs, engaging in promiscuous sex, etc., and I think we all agree on a visceral level. Maybe the younger brother did those things, but he left that lifestyle behind and came back to his father in humility.

But can you be a real Christian and never give up your jealousy, divisive attitude, and outbursts of anger? Oh, sure! Those are understandable sins, and we all struggle with them, right? Well, maybe we do, and that's why they are so insidious. But to God, they are just as serious. In fact, those sins are mentioned along with the younger brother's sins in Galations 5:20-21. But unlike the younger brother, the older brother was not willing to let them go. He didn't understand that grace means surrendering our sins. It doesn't mean overcoming them in our own strength--that's impossible--but letting God deal with them.

The second reason why the older brother didn't understand grace is because he thought it was all about outward service. He figured he deserved credit for his "responsible," "good" behavior. But he really wasn't so good, was he? His heart was corrupt, and as a result his life was joyless. Grace is about receiving what our extravagant Lord wants to give--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galations 5:22) He wants to forgive us, heal us, provide for us, answer our prayers, and allow us to reign eternally with him. In short, he wants to give us everything that is his. The younger brother was willing to humbly receive, even though he knew that he deserved nothing.

We so often hold on to our filthy rags--our own self-righteousness--that we effectively shut God out. We can never impress him with our own goodness. (Luke 18:9-14) Like the younger brother, we have to come to him as beggars, or not at all. And when we do, God will receive us with a celebration, like the father did in the parable.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Is the Bible Theologically Inconsistent?

Atheists often argue that the Bible contradicts itself. And I'm not talking about slight variations in the gospel accounts. That can be explained by the fact that eyewitness accounts often differ because our perceptions are fallible. I'm talking about actual theological inconsistencies. Is it true?

It's important not to dismiss the question by becoming defensive. There is an element of truth to it. The Bible appears to say one thing, and then it goes on to say almost exactly the opposite, sometimes in the same chapter of the same book. Take Romans 8, for example. Verses 38-39 say: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." That is one of the eternal security passages. Nothing can separate us from God's love. 

But wait--go back a few verses to 13-14. "If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God." Whoa! All of a sudden we are faced with a condition. Am I putting to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit? (I'll come clean and confess that there's a large empty bottle of Frappuccino next to me on the desk.) Whatever happened to eternal security? The same Paul who said those wonderful words of Romans 8:38-39 also penned 1 Corinthians 9:27: "I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified." Paul disqualified? 

I will stop for a moment to address those who say that the Bible is inconsistent. Ironically, the apparent inconsistencies are within the books. You'll find remarkable consistency between them if you dig deep enough, and the whole Bible is one cohesive story. It starts with the fall--when the human race was cut off from God and the life he gives. Then we see God trying to govern his wayward children with the Law, while prophets forecast something better. The climax of the story is when God himself becomes one of us and takes all of our guilt upon himself on the cross. The story ends with his gracious invitation: "Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost." (Revelation 22:17)

But moving back to the inconsistencies; as Christians it's important that we not gloss over them. They are called paradoxes and they're not there by accident. They exist because God's word is living and dynamic. You can think of it as a 3-D movie that you need special glasses to enjoy. Those glasses are the Holy Spirit. He alone brings the word of God to life for us and makes sense of it. 

If we are led by the Spirit, He will reveal to us that salvation can be a free gift as well as something that requires a response from us. Jesus opened the way into the Holy of Holies for us when he died on the cross. But what if we prefer not to enter in? What if we have made peace with our sins and would rather not give them up? Then we reject the gift, just as surely as it is possible for us to live in poverty after finding out that we have inherited millions of dollars. We may insist that we believe the money exists, and we may gaze at the bank statements and follow our investments. But if the money sits untouched, we might as well not have inherited it.

I remember watching our kids learn to swim and thinking how similar it is to walking in faith. If we don't learn to swim, we will drown in deep water. However, learning to swim requires relaxation as well as effort. First we have to trust that the water won't hurt us. Then we have to discipline ourselves to learn the different strokes and become more proficient at them. But all along we have to keep a healthy respect for water. 

It is very important to understand about God's great love for us, and how he will never forsake us. But at the same time, we as a culture need to relearn the fear of the Lord--or a healthy respect for him. Otherwise we become like children who jump into a deep pool and die. As C.S. Lewis says in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe--Aslan is not a safe lion, but he is good.

It may seem like we need a doctorate in theology to understand these paradoxes, but our religion is actually very simple. Jesus tells us to come to him and receive the abundant life he has to give. If we do that, everything else falls into place. God's presence is the eye of the storm.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Whatever Happened to Repentance?

Years ago, when we lived in Chicago, I attended a women's Bible study, and we studied the book of Hebrews. One day the leader, a bright, multi-talented woman, spoke on Hebrews 10:26: "For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries." 

Can these words be more clear? Apparently they didn't fit with the speaker's worldview, because she explained that this verse applies to unbelievers who hear the gospel and refuse to accept Christ. Really? The author of Hebrews is addressing Hebrew believers, and he uses the pronoun "we." The entire book of Hebrews exhorts believers to stay spiritually alert and walk in faith. 

This woman stood up in front of a group of about 300 people and essentially told them: "Don't worry; this doesn't apply to you since most of you ladies have probably recited the 'sinner's prayer' at some point in your lives. You go right ahead and sin with impunity (as long as you stick with socially acceptable sins, of course)." 

Now don't get me wrong--I find her worldview far more palatable than what the Bible actually teaches on the subject. I want her to be right, and I've spent over fifteen years trying to convince myself that what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace" in The Cost of Discipleship is enough. But there are just too many Bible passages that flatly contradict such a notion. That Bible study teacher's theology is a version of the worldly attitude mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:32: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." The "Christianized" worldly attitude is: "Let us eat and drink [i.e., live however we want], because we have a ticket to heaven."

Whatever happened to "repent and believe"? Now it's "believe and join the culture war." We are no longer taught to see sin as a serious problem. How can we seek the cure when we're not aware of any disease. Statistics say that Christians are indistinguishable from the rest of the population, and I'd venture a guess it's because we feel no need to seek deliverance from sin. Our religion often changes nothing in our lives except, perhaps, where we spend our Sunday mornings and how we vote.  

Last week a noticed an interesting thread on the religion forum on Amazon, and I was procrastinating on doing taxes and other things, so I decided to join in. I found out that at least one of the atheists knew the Bible really well and had stopped believing because Christianity didn't seem to "work." Very rarely did he see the miracle of regeneration. Most of the atheists on the thread seemed very responsive to the things I said, even though I tried not to downplay the "cost of discipleship." Ironically, it was the watered-down version of Christianity they objected to.

How very sad to think that we may be turning others away from the truth by not fully embracing it ourselves! There is a dying world out there that desperately needs hope, and people look to us to see if the gospel has the power to do what it purports to do. I want to pause here and say that I'm preaching to myself more than anyone (which is appropriate, since I'm probably the only one reading this).

God loves us far too much to leave us in our sins. Philippians 2:12-13 says, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." This doesn't mean that we are to be afraid of God, nor does it mean that we are to save ourselves. "Fear and trembling" means: "This is important, people! Take it seriously." We must be persistent in our surrender to the Holy Spirit's work in our lives. There is no room for complacency in the life of a believer. Even if the prevailing attitude is that sanctification is optional, Matthew 7:13 tells us that there's no safety in numbers. But the good news is that Jesus did not come to judge us, but to save us.

We will never be perfect in this life, but we have to keep growing. As Brother Lawrence says: "Not to advance in the spiritual life is to go back. But those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep." 

Sunday, March 15, 2009

In Defense of Little Faith

We hear a lot about the champions of faith in the Bible. Jesus praises faith more than any other characteristic. The Book of Hebrews talks about the "cloud of witnesses"--men and women who overcame the world by their great faith. Whether they laid hold of a miracle or faced persecution or martyrdom, they did it by the power of God. 

Faith is so important because it is the means to the most important end: God. Hebrews 11:6 says: "Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him." As discussed earlier, the overarching command is to come to God--we have nothing to offer him except ourselves, and that requires faith. In God's economy, faith is the only currency.

But I don't want to talk about those great heroes of faith right now. They already get enough air time. I want to mention a few people with little faith, because most of us can probably relate to them more.

Here's our Lord's own defense of little faith: "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you." (Matthew 17:20) So even faith that small--if it's real faith--is powerful.

Three people in the Bible demonstrate how little faith can accomplish great things: two widows in the Old Testament and the father who brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus. The widows each had a little oil, which is symbolic of the Holy Spirit. Or we can think of it as faith, because faith is what opens us up to the work of the Holy Spirit. 

The widow in 1 Kings 17 was destitute, and the prophet Elijah asked her for some bread. She told him that all she had was some flour and a little oil. She and her son were on the verge of starvation. But Elijah told her not to be afraid. "Make me a little bread cake from it first and bring it out to me, and afterward you may make one for yourself and for you son. For thus says the Lord of Israel, 'The bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall the jar of oil be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain on the face of the earth.'" She did as he said, and her food supply never ran out.

This widow had a little faith (she was no Elijah), but she acted on it in obedience, even though to do so was probably frightening. God often tests our faith like this, where the consequences of obedience can be devastating if God doesn't come through. But these are the times when little faith can grow into great faith. This is not to say that we should put God to the test by acting recklessly and expecting him to deliver us. Instead, it's a simple act of obedience that acknowledges God's existence and his power to control the outcome.

The second widow, in 2 Kings 4, came to Elisha and asked for help, because her husband had died and left her in debt. Elisha asked her what she had in the house, and she replied that she only had a jar of oil. Elisha told her to go borrow as many vessels as possible from all her neighbors. She kept pouring oil until all the vessels were full. Then the oil stopped. She was able to pay off the creditors and live on the rest.

This woman is like someone with little faith who asks others to pray. She has enough faith to know the power of prayer, but perhaps not enough to lay hold of a miracle on her own. When a lot of believers pray, there is more power than when only one person prays. Everybody is putting out his or her vessel in faith, and the oil is only limited by the availability of vessels.

Finally, the father of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9 approached Jesus with little faith. He said, "If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!" Jesus reminded him that all things are possible to him who believes, and the man cried out, "I do believe; help my unbelief." Jesus responded by delivering the boy of the spirit.

This man had enough faith to know that his faith was insufficient, so he cried out to Jesus for more. And this is perhaps the greatest characteristic of true faith, even if it is small: it will always grow. It is like the mustard seed, which is "smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches." (Matthew 13:32)  

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Do Miracles Defy Logic?

Back in college, when Rick and I were dating, we got talking about miracles one day. I had no trouble believing in them, but Rick said, "Why would God break his own rules?" I thought that was pretty ridiculous, and told him so. God could do anything he wanted. If he wanted to break his own rules, why not?

Then, when our oldest daughter Chelsea was fourteen, she asked me exactly the same question. (Is it genetic?)  But this time it didn't seem so ridiculous. We've been praying for a miracle on behalf of our daughter Ingrid since she was five months old and had her first seizure. It turned out to be far more than a simple seizure disorder that could be controlled with medication. Sixteen years later, she is severely disabled and has almost daily breakthrough seizures. We've seen improvement as a direct result of prayer, but obviously we have not seen a miracle.

I fully believe that God is both willing and able to do miracles in the world today. With every disappointment, I become more and more convinced of that. Miracles are logical to me. Then why has God not healed Ingrid after all these years of prayer?

I believe the answer lies in the question posed by college-aged Rick and Chelsea: God doesn't break his own rules. I'm not suggesting that healing violates the laws of nature. On the contrary, divine healing restores fallen nature. Healing is perfectly consistent with God's plan to save us--spirit, soul, and body--through Christ. Isaiah 53:5 says: "By His scourging we are healed," and Jesus did, in fact, heal during his earthly ministry. It's not like turning a stone into bread, which would break the laws of nature. God did not intend for a stone to become food, but he did intend for our bodies to be healthy. So I'm still not troubled by their objection.

But in addition to natural laws, there are spiritual laws, and these are clearly spelled out in the Bible. For example, Jesus said that it shall be done to us according to our faith. In fact, he talks a lot about the importance of faith. We don't like to talk about faith much, because unscrupulous "faith healers" have used the accusation of lack of faith to blame vulnerable people. But what if faith really is necessary? What if it is the channel through which God's supernatural power flows? The Bible seems to suggest that. Mark 6:5 says that Jesus couldn't do any miracles in his hometown because of their unbelief. When the disciples couldn't cast out a demon, Jesus simply stated that it was because of the littleness of their faith (Matthew 17:20), and in the same vein he said that faith can move mountains. It seems we may be dealing with a spiritual law here. Faith opens us up to all of God's power, but without it, we can do nothing.

When Ingrid was a baby I used to do all sorts of mental gymnastics to make myself believe, hoping that would satisfy God. It didn't work. Then one day I saw a cartoon of a little man sitting on a large hand, trying to move the thumb. The man was breaking into a sweat, but the thumb stayed put. I think God was telling me something.

And he wasn't telling me that his will was not to heal; instead, he was telling me that faith is something very different. The dynamic of faith is demonstrated in John 15, where we are told to abide in Christ like a branch on a vine. We are to rest in him, letting him work through us, just like sap flows through to the branch. This is another spiritual law: if we abide in Christ, we can ask anything we wish and it shall be done for us. (John 15:7) Of course, we won't ask for a more prestigious job or a lot of money. God changes our hearts when we abide in him, so we'll ask according to his will. (1 John 5:14)

But as I mentioned yesterday, God's will isn't just the status quo. Ephesians 3:20 says that God is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask for or think, according to the power that works within us. So how much of his power works within me? Nowhere near as much as God wants, because I'm very distractible. Augustine says: "God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full . . . there's nowhere for him to put it." Opening up our hands to release all that junk is the great challenge of walking with God in faith.

Friday, March 13, 2009

God's Will

Why is it that we always think of God's will as something unpleasant? In the face of some inexplicable evil, like the death of a child or a young parent, we are most likely to talk about God's will. An "act of God" is some unforeseen disaster, not an unexpected blessing. We often think of God's will with Stoic resignation, as if God is just waiting for us to submit to him so he can make us miserable. 

Maybe this is because we have a tendency to look at past events and think that because they happened, they must have been God's will. But is it really true that his will happens by default in this fallen world? God's Word is our number one authority on his will, and it's filled with extravagant promises and assurances that God has our very best interests in mind.

The Lord's Prayer says: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." So we are to pray for God's will to be done, which implies that it doesn't happen by accident. Further, if God's will was done, this world would be like heaven on earth. 

Cancer is not from God; he is the author of life, not death. Starvation, crime, divorce, illness--these are symptoms of a world ravaged by the curse of original sin: death. But through it all, we have the victory in Jesus Christ, who came to give us life, and give it abundantly.

God can take something evil and turn it around for our good. It's not our circumstances that determine happiness--it's the condition of our souls. So God may have to allow suffering to heal our souls. That's not pleasant, of course, but it's the only way we can experience the full joy of his salvation.

God's ultimate plan for us is to walk more closely with him, so when hard times come, we shouldn't just resign ourselves to them. We should pray fervently and commit ourselves more fully to God. It's easy to confuse complacency with true surrender to God. Complacency is giving up the fight, while surrender is to seek God's will diligently, opening ourselves up to the work of his Holy Spirit. It means trying to be thankful when circumstances go against us, because we trust that God has everything under control. It's the only way to live in the center of his will, and to "prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:2) 

Thursday, March 12, 2009

More on the Treasure

Eternal life is far more than "pie in the sky by and by when I die." It should be very real to us now, in this life. Eternal life is something we have in us, and not even physical death can sever it. 

Are you struggling with anxiety, depression, or besetting sins? Is your life out of control? Have you lost a job or are you shouldering the workload of those who have? Well, then listen to the words of Jesus: "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) The one overarching command in the Bible, which is also a wonderful invitation, is to come. We come to Jesus so that his life will fill us and give us rest.

None of us like to read the parts of the Bible that talk about the wrath of God. But why is he angry? Yes, he is angered by our sins, but he also knows that left to ourselves we will act according to our nature as sinners. It's inevitable. Only his Spirit can transform us in a way that pleases him. But first we have to come to him. God grieves most over the fact that his people ignore him. "Does a maiden forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments? Yet My people have forgotten Me days without number." (Jeremiah 2:32) His children wander aimlessly, seeking contentment everywhere except the one place they will find it.

The god of Mammon has retreated for now. By no means do I want to downplay the suffering and fear that many are experiencing, but let's make sure it's not wasted. As C.S. Lewis says, pain is God's megaphone. Let the pain wake us up from our spiritual slumber, so that we may seek real, lasting treasure. 

Jesus came that we "may have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:10) Let's resolve to accept the gift, day by day, moment by moment, not starving when we hold in our hands an invitation to the King's banquet.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Eternal Treasure

Our oldest daughter is starting college in the fall, and about a week ago I worked up the courage to check our investments. I stared at the numbers in almost morbid fascination and kicked myself for not selling after the initial drop. 

But a week later, I feel a strange peace, because I needed to be reminded not to store up treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where the thief breaks in and steals. (And where the stock market crashes.) I needed to see the transient nature of all worldly goods. To let that truth really penetrate. Money provides no true security at all, as many people can attest to these days.

The Bible often compares heavenly and worldly treasure. Money is God's number one competitor for our hearts. It brings pleasure, a sense of security, ego gratification, educational opportunities for our children, and leisure. It provides a number of good things. But for that reason, money can blind us to real treasure. 

"But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves." (2 Corinthians 4:7) As Christians, we carry within us an eternal treasure that nothing can destroy. It is the Holy Spirit of God--the essence and power of God himself. That treasure is the abundant life that Jesus came to give. 

George MacDonald says: "Let us in all the troubles of life remember--that our one lack is life--that what we need is more life--more of the life-making presence in us making us more, and more largely, alive." The more closely we walk with God, the more his life fills us, satisfying our deepest needs like money never could. And when we learn to put the most important thing first, we will also find that "all these [other things that we need] will be added to [us]." (Matthew 6:33)