Wednesday, April 29, 2009

An Accurate Map

Years ago I had a conversation with another mom who told me, "I think it's really healthy for kids to grow up believing in Santa Claus and God and stuff." She probably wasn't an Evangelical Christian (we would never utter the words "God" and "Santa Claus" in the same breath), but we can easily fall prey to the same attitude--that faith is good in and of itself, whether or not we have faith in something real. But God's word purports to be the truth. It is the ultimate reality--a rock under our feet. And when the fog that fills our minds in this life finally lifts, that truth will be as real to us as the natural laws that govern now.

Do you believe that? That God's word is like a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in our hearts? (2 Peter 1:19) If so, how well do you know--not just know, but understand--the Bible? Would a lawyer go to trial without knowing the facts, the law, the arguments on the other side, and how it all fits together? Of course not. So why, if we believe in eternal life, are we less prepared for it than that?

In Luke 16:1-10, a rich man found out that his manager had been squandering his possessions, and he fired him. The manager said to himself, "I'm too weak to dig, and I'm ashamed to beg! What should I do?" He finally decided to contact all of his master's debtors and write off part of their debt, hoping that one of them would hire him or help him out. How did the master react to that? Luke 16: 8 tells us: "And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light." Huh? Was Jesus checking to see if his listeners were still awake?

What Jesus is saying is this: "Stop thinking about conduct as good or bad for a moment. Think of it as wise or unwise." He wants the children of light to act as shrewdly with eternal treasure as the "sons of this age" do with worldly wealth. Why invest most of our time and money improving our lot in this world if we believe that we'll spend eternity in God's kingdom? That may be well and good for unbelievers, but it's foolish for us. If we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, "a lamp shining in a dark place," wouldn't it be wise to know it intimately and live accordingly? 

But in addition to knowing God's word, we have to understand it. Proverbs 3:5, says: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding." This is a wonderful, oft-quoted verse. But it only means that we shouldn't lean on our understanding, not that it offends God when we use the gray matter. I checked my concordance to see how many times the book of Proverbs tells us to acquire understanding. After counting to twenty, I lost count, and I was only about halfway down the list. Not once does Jesus tell his disciples to stop asking questions, but he repeatedly laments their lack of understanding. Taking in God's word without understanding it is like trying to swallow without chewing. And if we don't take it in, it doesn't have the power to save us. Our faith becomes a hollow creed. 

Yes, it's true that we'll never fully understand God's ways, but does that mean it's arrogant to try? Proverbs 25:2 says: "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter." He invites us to come and learn about him. If you have questions or doubts, don't pretend that you believe. Bring them into the light. Asking questions means you have faith enough to believe that there's a spiritual reality out there to be explored, and it means you care. 

Having said all that, there's a risk of thinking so much about theology that we neglect coming to Christ continually for abundant life. Good theology is at best an accurate map. Let's not be so distracted by the map that we forget to walk. 

But at the same time, we'll never get to our destination without the map.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Giving People the Right to Judge

The noted Swedish diplomat, Dag Hammersköld, says: "He who has placed himself in God's hand stands free vis-a-vis men: he is entirely at his ease with them, because he has granted them the right to judge." What a liberating thought! And from a diplomat, whose job it is to . . . well, be diplomatic. I wonder if his insight grew out of years of worrying about saying the right thing, and finally seeing the futility of trying to please everyone.

Why do we work so hard to make sure people judge us positively? I'm not talking about just being kind to others and doing the right thing, but seeing to it that everyone has a good image of us. Why is it so devastating when that image shatters? There are at least two reasons: First, we think that people have the power to shape our circumstances, and second, we look to them for ego gratification.

Hammerskjöld says that we can yield ourselves so fully to God that nobody has the power to harm us apart from his will. Bosses, customers, editors, or readers may seem powerful to us--people we need to please, but if our lives belong to Christ, he uses them to further his purposes in our lives (and vice versa). Their power is an illusion we must shatter by faith. God is all-powerful in our lives when we surrender to him. Several times, I've seen God bless a difficult act of faith and obedience in spectacular ways, even when the outcome required an unlikely decision by powerful people. So if we are wise, we will seek to please God above all else, remembering that he is our ultimate judge and provider.

But this works both ways, of course. God sees everything I do and knows the motive behind every act. By now I've learned that God doesn't let me get away with anything. I remember one time when a drama camp coach had treated my son harshly, and he was very upset. We live in a great community where teachers and coaches really value the kids, so this kind of thing hardly ever happens. I stayed calm and explained to him that not all people are easy to deal with, and I encouraged him to determine what part was his fault, while not letting her tirade get to him. He accepted my lesson and went on his merry way.

But I hadn't put the matter behind me. I sat down at the computer, having morphed into Mama Bear With a Keyboard. I wouldn't complain to her boss, just express "concern." I would be gracious, reasonable, understanding . . . while driving in the dagger with deadly precision. Nobody would even think I had done anything wrong.

Nobody, that is, except the Person who was watching over my shoulder, daring me: "You go right ahead and send that email, Anette. See if it'll be worth it." I sighed and realized once again that God doesn't just disappear when his existence is inconvenient. He protects us from others, but more than that, he protects us from ourselves.

In addition to worrying that others have power over us, we care about people's opinions because they affect our image of ourselves. But when we look to others for ego gratification, they become like a mirror. So we're just gazing back at ourselves. No wonder it's possible to be lonely in a crowd. We start thinking of other people this way in early childhood. All elementary school students know exactly where they fall in the social hierarchy. High school is cutthroat, and social competition can lead kids to do despicable things to each other. When we grow up and social convention dictate that we act politely, we often do that out of pride as well.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says: "Without Christ we would not know our brother, nor could we come to him. The way is blocked by our own ego." If we're honest with ourselves, we know what he's talking about. It's hard to really know someone else if we're busy thinking about ourselves and how we come across. But I think most of us want to relate to others without competition, and without worrying about this, that, and the other thing. We want the blockage to be completely gone.

1 John 1:7 says. "If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another." It's only through Christ, by walking in his light, that we have true fellowship. He alone is the prism through which we can see our brothers and sisters and not our own ego.

People have less power over us than we think, and the ego is meant to be shattered. Once we realize that, we will be able to please our true Judge first, and let the other judgments fall where they may.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Needle's Eye

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." So says Jesus in Luke 6:20. James tells us that God chose "the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him." (James 2:5)

Does God hate rich people? Mark 10:21 gives us the answer. A rich young ruler approached Jesus and asked what he should do to inherit the kingdom of God. First Jesus reminded  him of some of the commandments, and the young man replied that he had kept them from his youth up. "Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him." So God does not hate rich people. That's a relief, because we are a wealthy nation, even in this economy.

But the story doesn't end there. Jesus told him to sell everything and give to the poor, and then follow him. The man knew he couldn't do that and walked away grieving. He was a good person who came to Jesus to learn how to inherit the kingdom of God, but he left empty-handed. Jesus didn't turn him away or stop loving him. When faced with a choice between God and money, the man simply assessed the cost and made his decision.

Why was it so difficult for him? Jesus illustrates: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Mark 10:25) In other words, a rich man or woman is often too full of self to enter in. William James was one of the earliest writers on the subject of the self-esteem, and he recognized that "everything added to the ego is a burden as well as a pride." We add wealth, beauty, success, goodness, popularity, etc. to the ego, and it all becomes part of our identity. The self becomes bloated, and dying to self becomes exceedingly difficult. The larger the ego, the more it enslaves us, and the more God's peace and joy will elude us.

Sixteen years ago, I learned something about that proverbial needle's eye. Rick and I had just graduated from law school at a time when the legal market had collapsed, and neither of us had jobs. Our five-month-old daughter, Ingrid, started having severe seizures, and our medical bills were mounting while we tried unsuccessfully to get them under control. Our health insurance cost over $1000 a month. We had to move in with Rick's parents. We could afford nothing--only clothing for the kids that we bought at rummage sales. I remember really wanting to buy the book, What to Expect the Toddler Years, but I couldn't justify the $10.

After three months of constant hospitalization, Ingrid was discharged from a hospital that was at the cutting edge in epilepsy care, with nowhere else to go. She had twenty-two seizures while I held her and waited for the discharge papers. I hadn't allowed myself to cry before because I thought that would express lack of faith. But I cried the whole time I waited and all the way home from the hospital.

When we came home to Illinois, I started to question God's existence. What if we were in this nightmare all alone? The burden became so great that I started having panic attacks. Every day I feared that I would lose my mind in addition to everything else.

That's when I was finally ready to receive what God wanted to give. I had to lean completely on the God whose existence I questioned, every moment of every day. I let God fill my thoughts, and he led me in very practical ways: I needed to exercise, cut out caffeine, and fill my mind with gratitude even though there was little to be thankful for. He taught me to take my mind off myself and trust in him. All of this took place within about two weeks. The panic attacks ceased and never came back.

Instead, God filled me with a joy and victory over myself that I had never thought possible. For the first time in my life, God's presence was the only thing I desired. He took everything away, and in doing so, he taught me that only he truly satisfies. Habakkuk 3:17 became very real to me: "Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior." (NIV) But this was not because I was particularly virtuous--God had just stripped me of everything that hindered and opened my eyes to his truth. He knew that as long as I had something to prioritize before him, I would.

Which brings me back to the rich, young ruler. Note that when Jesus listed the commandments, he omitted the first one: "You shall have no gods before me." The man could not truthfully have said that he kept that commandment, because his wealth was his god. He knew it, and so did Jesus. If he had kept that one, everything else would have fallen into place. But since he didn't, that good, law-abiding man walked away sad, not able to receive what he sought.

So are the rich in wealth, intelligence, beauty, or success doomed? No. Jesus says: "With people it is impossible [to enter the kingdom of God], but not with God; for all things are possible with God." (Mark 10:27) And Matthew 5:3 quotes Jesus as saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." (Italics added) Just like a poor person can be full of self, a rich person can be poor in spirit. It's just much harder, because our hearts are where our treasure is. (Luke 12:54)

I want to end with an example of someone who had everything, and yet valued humility above all else: C.S. Lewis. He would have been rich if he hadn't donated most of his money to charity; he was brilliant and creative, personable, witty, and he is still the most popular Christian author forty-five years after his death. But in The Apologist's Evening Prayer he bared his soul, a helpless sinner before God, like every one of us, stripped of all his finery: "Lord of the narrow gate and the needle's eye, take from me all my trumpery lest I die."

Saturday, April 11, 2009


I wrote my last post at around four in the morning (caffeine-related insomnia), and just realized how obnoxious and judgmental it sounds in my current state of consciousness.

So I will put everything in perspective by sharing Dwight Moody's response to a Christian who criticized his evangelistic methods: "I like the way I do it better than the way you don't do it."


Fools for Christ?

How important are good reasoning skills for a Christian? On the one hand, there's nothing more cringeworthy than watching Christians run combatively into the arena with atheists, holding high the 1 Corinthians 4:10 banner: "Fool for Christ!" It makes me desperately wish that a friend would take them aside and suggest that apologetics may not be their calling. Intellectual slaughter is not the kind of martyrdom that glorifies God the most.

On the other hand, Paul did say that "knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies (1 Corinthians 8:1)," "For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power (1 Corinthians 4:20)," "Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 1 Corinthians 1:20)" and "When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)."

So is ignorance the key to spiritual power then? No, but an awareness of the limitations of knowledge, eloquence, and persuasiveness is. One act of divine love in a human heart has more power to break down walls than the most masterful apologetics.

Paul is not downplaying knowledge and education--he's just putting it in perspective. Keep in mind that Paul was the greatest theologian of all time, and he wrote the above verses to the divisive Corinthian church, who had been "enriched in [Christ], in all speech and all knowledge." (1 Corinthians 1:5) So they weren't dummies either. They just trusted too much in their wisdom.

It is sobering to read the Amazon reviews of C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, considered to be the greatest work of apologetics of all time. Most of the Christians loved it, but the atheists gave it one-star reviews. As the back of his books so aptly says: "He is the ideal persuader of the half-convinced." But logic and eloquent rhetoric has no power to reach those who have set their minds against Christianity. It just doesn't work that way. "For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe." (1 Corinthians 1:21) Can it be more clear?

We should think of knowledge in the same way as goodness, in the sense that it is only when we try our very best to be good--and fail--that we are ready to understand and appreciate the saving power of faith. Likewise, after we apply ourselves to understand the things of God, sharpening our minds and preparing ourselves in every way, we have to learn that it's a worthless tool out of the Master's hand. He alone can save souls and build up his kingdom. We have to see the limits to both our own goodness and our knowledge before we can share in God's power.

The thing is, some of the people who enter the fray with unbelievers come with neither eloquence and wisdom or power and love. I've seen them mock atheists while making a mockery of Christ. We all make mistakes in our choice of words (some of mine are immortalized on the Internet for all the world to see), so I don't want to come down too hard on anyone. But why be relentless in our efforts to strengthen someone else's atheism? The Physician's Creed can be equally well applied to us: "First do no harm."

I want to end with a quote from Charles Spurgeon that I already used in my previous post, but it's worth repeating: "What a barrister can do in advocating the cause of his client, you and I should surely be able to do in the cause of God. The bar must not be allowed to excel the pulpit. We will be as expert in intellectual arms as any man [or woman], be they who they may, God helping us." With God's help, why should any argument put forth by an unbeliever intimidate us?

But if we are intimidated, we can serve God in some other capacity. Spurgeon also said: "A certain preacher, whose sermons converted men by scores, received a revelation from heaven that not one of the conversions was owing to his talents or eloquence, but all to the prayers of an illiterate lay brother, who sat on the pulpit steps, pleading all the time for the success of the sermon." Let's never underestimate the power of prayer.

I realize that I'm preaching to the choir here (or maybe I'm just venting), but let's not take Paul's words about being "fools for Christ" too literally. We do have God's glory to uphold.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Paradise Regained: Reflections on the Cross

I write these words in the lobby of a Waikiki Beach hotel, with a lush tropical garden to my left and Hawaiian music playing over the loudspeaker. It's our first time in a vacation paradise, and tomorrow we'll embark on our first cruise. The trip followed a writers' conference at Mount Hermon, the first trip Rick and I have taken without the kids since we started having them eighteen years ago.

In other words, we've had a lot of great "firsts" this month.

But since it's Good Friday, I took a walk through the drizzling rain (now I know why Hawaii is so green compared to California) and reflected on the cross. What does it mean? Why did God have to become man and die? Was it just an act of heroism that we are supposed to remember and appreciate? What should our response be to the cross?

It was, of course, the ultimate act of heroism. Jesus didn't just die for us--he took upon himself the wrath of God and went to hell for us between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. He was separated from the Father for the first time. When he said, "O God, why have you forsaken me?" he was speaking the literal truth (except that his exclamation was an act of anguish, not a question--he knew exactly why God had forsaken him). God had turned his face away from his Son and left him with the forces of evil. And he did this for us, his rebellious children.

It was also the ultimate act of humility. Jesus was rich, but he became poor for our sake. The Son of God emptied himself of all his heavenly glory and lived a life of poverty. He died the death of a criminal at the age of thirty-three, rejected by the religious elite.

But why was it all necessary? Why couldn't God just forgive us without the cross? Because in a spiritual sense we owed a great debt that someone had to pay. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they separated themselves from God and incurred his wrath. They and their descendants became like a cut flower that would bloom for a short while and then wither. And with that act, Satan took the throne as prince of this world, holding the entire human race captive. Our first parents forfeited the paradise for which we were created.

If we open our minds and eyes, it's not hard to believe that we live in a beautiful world where something has gone terribly wrong. We are creatures of high ideals, but we never live up to them. Just look at our society's obsession with food and beauty--we long to lose weight in order to gratify the ego, but we're enslaved by rich food, so we're like hamsters on a wheel, eating, dieting, exercising, without the power to stop the wheel. In this world, people do the very things they despise. We know what we should do, but we can't.

So what happened on the cross? The power of sin and death was broken. In the spiritual realm, Satan has been deposed, and paradise has been regained. With his death, Jesus offered to us complete restoration, and his victory over death makes it possible for us to be planted by streams of living water.

How do we lay hold of that victory? By faith. Faith is the sixth sense that makes objective spiritual truths real to us. Colors are real, but in the dark they seem to disappear. When we allow Jesus to lead us out of darkness into the light, everything he wrought on that cross becomes real to us.