Friday, November 20, 2009

The Veil That Separates, by F.B. Meyer

Have we cheapened grace so much that we don't see the thick curtain that hangs between God and us? Is the presence of the Holy Spirit merely a theoretical concept? Here is a very biblical explanation (not often heard today) for the spiritual numbness we may feel.
What is the veil that hangs between you and the presence of the Holy Spirit? It is probably some misunderstanding between yourself and another. What veils man from man also veils man from God. He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God who he has not seen. Perhaps you are unwilling to forgive someone who has wronged you; or you will not ask forgiveness from one whom you have wronged. Perhaps you owe restitution money on a debt or a theft of twenty years ago. The conviction that you ought to make it good forms a thickly-woven veil between your Lord and you. Or perhaps there is some duty, some obedience to a positive command that you ought to perform but that you have evaded and shirked. Any of these things is enough to curtain off the filling of the Holy Spirit and make it a dim uncertainty. 
Oh, let God reveal to you the cause of your shadowed experience! Then dare to obey Him at whatever cost. Make right what is wrong, repay what is owing, obey what is incumbent. Do it though it cost you an earthquake and a crucifixion. The peace of God will immediately settle upon you, and the light within will break forth speedily.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fountains of Water

Recently it seems like everywhere I turn I hear of people who have sought God and not found him. It makes me almost feel guilty that he has always been there so very real whenever I have needed him. I know what an undeserved gift that is. My heart really goes out to those people, and I've been praying for them a lot throughout the day today. And then I opened the Bible and came across this passage:

The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none,
And their tongue is parched with thirst;
I, the Lord, will answer them Myself,
As the God of Israel I will not forsake them.
I will open rivers on the bare heights 
And springs in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water
And the dry land fountains of water.

Isaiah 41:17-18

Such a beautiful picture of God's living water, available to all who thirst. I know that the reason why my heart goes out to them is because his heart goes out to them. And he's calling me to come before his throne in prayer on their behalf.

Who can understand the mystery of prayer? When God wills something, he calls us to pray. It is the means by which we lay hold of the victory of God in all earthly battles.

In prayer we can carry each others burdens when we are otherwise powerless to help. We can give immeasurable secret gifts that transcend time into eternity. We can make fountains of water available to the many afflicted and needy.

And, when we do, that living water satisfies our thirst as well.

Are We Brainwashed?

Those of you who read my last post might recall that an ex-Christian told me that Christianity is a "huge brainwashing operation," but he also said that he admired Christians like myself who take our faith seriously. I asked him why he admired those who were more fully brainwashed. Wouldn't it be healthier not to internalize it?

It might have occurred to you that there was an easy way for him to get out of that trap: Take back the compliment. And he did. He admitted that I'm brainwashed but wouldn't concede that "half-Christians" who just "go with the flow" are better off. They really make him mad.

But it seems to me that a fully brainwashed Scientologist like Tom Cruise is much worse off than someone like Katie Holmes who just married into it and seems basically anchored in reality. When . . . ahem . . . if they split up, I'm sure she'll go back to being Catholic or whatever she was before. Nothing against Tom Cruise (I'm sure he's a nice man), but I would never tell him that I admire his conviction. (His hair, maybe, but not his conviction.)

But you'll be pleased to know that I didn't press the issue with the ex-Christian, even though I'm confident that I could have succeeded in getting him to admit that I'm completely nuts.

Still, the issue of brainwashing is an interesting one. Is Christianity just mass brainwashing? The mere fact that it's the majority religion in our country doesn't prove that it isn't. Not even its Founder teaches that majority rules when it comes to truth. He says that the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it. (Matthew 7:14)

So what is brainwashing? Wikipedia gives the following definition:
Mind control (also referred to as brainwashing, coercive persuasion, and thought reform) refers to a broad range of psychological tactics thought to subvert an individual's control of his or her own thinking, behavior, emotions, or decision making. 
And the following definition appears in the body of the article:
Philip Zimbardo discusses mind control as "the process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral outcomes."
I think that there's definitely brainwashing in the church; however, true Christianity is the opposite of brainwashing, because we are called to freedom.

There is often psychological pressure (blatant in some types of churches and subtle in others) to believe things that are not entirely true. We are supposed to be peacemakers, so we would much rather pat backs than challenge. Christian communities are often like cocktail parties, where a dissenting voice is like the person who jumps up on the table and does a little dance. I've been that person sometimes and felt the crushing hangover afterwards: "Oh, no, I disagreed. I'm so bad!"

During the first ten years after I became a Christian I never questioned anything. I would sit in the pews on Sunday mornings with my mouth hanging open while the pastor planted his ideas into my brain. If someone with the right credentials (read: a conservative evangelical) said something with an air of authority, I would be willing to fight to the death for it. When Rick and I met in college, he was more of a critical thinker, and I was somewhat disdainful of that: "Everybody knows this, Rick! I don't have to defend it!" I preferred osmosis.

But sixteen years ago during a multifaceted crisis, God taught me that osmosis is not the way to truth. If we believe everything we're taught by fallible Christian men and women, we will approach the Bible with preconceived notions that blind us to the plain meaning of the text. It's sort of like the telephone game where the message gets distorted a little each time. What a dangerous way to handle God's inspired word! You could say that my deprogramming began at that point.

According to Philip Zimbardo's definition of brainwashing (compromised freedom of choice), Christianity is the opposite because we are called to freedom from all encumbrances of the will. A mature Christian is neither slave to sin (Romans 6:6) nor to the law (Romans 7:6). He or she cannot be manipulated but does everything freely and without compulsion (2 Cor. 9:7). A Christian is to be truthful to the core (Psalm 51:6) and have an undivided heart (Psalm 86:11). All of this is a free gift from God through faith (Ephesians 2:8).

In true Christian churches, the dignity of the human will is respected. The less psychological pressure to do what everybody else is doing, the better. Pressure enslaves and therefore hinders the spiritual growth God desires. Love, on the other hand, liberates and ennobles.

As Christians, we can fall prone to legalism, something that is fatal to faith. Paul devoted the entire letter to the Galatians to warning them about the "false gospel" that had enslaved them. Is legalism so bad, if it keeps people behaving properly? Yes, it is so bad, because spiritual freedom is at the heart of our salvation. A Christian is called to echo the psalmist: "I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free." (Psalm 119:32)

So there may be brainwashing within the church, in the sense that we can be blinded to the truth or stripped of our freedom of choice, but that is not the true gospel. "Where the Spirit of God is, there is liberty." (2 Cor. 3:17)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Is It Real?

I've been in dialogue with an atheist this past week. He came from a Christian family and was a Christian himself until about ten years ago. He is very polite and honest but militantly against Christianity. He believes that no deity could possibly be more tyrannical than the biblical God, and he's convinced that all religion is brainwashing. Furthermore, Christians are guilty of cognitive dissonance.

During the course of the conversation, he told me that nobody in his family has seemed very concerned about his soul in the past few years, and although that didn't bother him, it was proof that it wasn't real to them. But he admired Christians like myself on the strength of our convictions. I asked him why, if he thought Christianity was brainwashing, he admired those who were more fully brainwashed. I reminded him that to him Christianity was not just a perspective he disagreed with but "a huge brainwashing operation." So presumably the less we internalize it, the better, right? Did I detect some "cognitive dissonance"?

My husband Rick questioned the wisdom of taking a compliment and using it against someone to win an argument, which got me thinking about whether theological debate ever wins any converts at all. Does any unbeliever ever say, "That's an excellent point. Thank you so much for pointing out the flaws in my reasoning. I believe now"? There's usually so much ego in those discussions that it seems virtually impossible to persuade.

Then it occurred to me that all my encounters with atheists in the past year had one common denominator: Even though they had rejected Christianity, they all had a very sensitive radar for whether it was real to someone who professed it. In fact, some of them were very honest about that, and when they determined that it was real, they actually asked questions.

That makes sense to me. When it comes right down to it, only a few questions really matter to them in those discussions: Does the biblical God exist? Is he good? And does he have the power to save souls in a way that is noticeable to the world? The most compelling evidence for God is his love in a human heart because it answers all those questions affirmatively, at least as a starting point. But when the discussion turns into debate, people immediately classify it as two egos wrangling over words, and it's over. Few things are more human, and less divine, than that.

I think that when this man talked about the "strength of my convictions," he really meant that my faith looked real to him. That would have been a good time to leave it alone and declare a small victory, instead of proving to him with my arguments that I was no different from anyone else.

I should have taken the words of 2 Timothy 2:23-25 more seriously: "But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition."

It is so easy to take the words of life and use them as a dagger, doing more harm than good. All we have to do is look at the Inquisition and other less-than-glorious moments of church history to see that this is one of Satan's most powerful weapons.

We may think we're immune to that, but those words turn into a weapon whenever the ego takes over. One of the pastors at our church said that the opposite of love is not hate but Self, and I think he's right. The ego is always a barrier to God's love working through us. And every human soul bears the imprint of its Creator and therefore recognizes his love.

What a difference it would make if we always remembered that.

Friday, November 6, 2009

God's Sovereignty and Human Freedom

What does it mean to talk about God's sovereignty? How does human choice fit into the picture? Christians have debated this issue for centuries and will undoubtedly continue until the Second Coming. The reason why we disagree on this subject is because the Bible seems ambiguous, and it's a lot easier to take apart somebody else's worldview than to formulate a biblically and logically consistent one of our own. So accept this as it's offered: a point in the journey of a finite mind to make some sense of the profound mysteries of God. As always, I welcome your honest thoughts.

God is sovereign, but his sovereignty in this world is not the same as it will be on the New Earth, where God will work in and through every person for his perfect glory. As long as evil exists, God's highest will is thwarted. (But as I will discuss later, even now he has defeated evil on the cross, and he has the power to overcome it.) The kingdom of God is in our midst (Luke 17:21), but it has not yet been established like it will be when Jesus comes in glory with his angels (Matthew 16:27).

In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus tells us to pray: "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." That means that God's will should direct and motivate all our prayers, but it also implies that his will doesn't necessarily happen by default. And that would make sense, because he has given us prayer as a means of laying hold of his will. Why else would we pray? To change God's mind? Personally, I trust his judgment more than my own. But I'm still told to pray fervently, because changing the status quo is not necessarily changing God's mind. Jesus was always fighting against the status quo during the three years of his ministry.

Although God's overall purposes for his creation will stand, we can't look at every past event and unequivocally say that God willed it. For example, does he will that millions starve to death or die of AIDS in Africa or that children be brutally raped and murdered? To me, it seems blasphemous to suggest it, especially since we know that Jesus "went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil" (Acts 10:38). As ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), let's make sure we don't unwittingly defame him.

I thought that my views about this would be controversial in our modern religious climate, where a lot of people believe that God controls everything and therefore every atrocity is ultimately his will. But it turns out I actually have a Calvinist in my corner: John MacArthur. In his sermon, The Plan of Prayer, he says:
Now this may sound heretical but in this context, people, [tragedy] is not God’s will. That is the kind of stuff that Jesus came into the world to stop. Because "God is not willing that any should perish." And believe me--there are people perishing all over the place. God will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, and not all men do. God’s will is done in heaven, but it isn’t always done on earth.
Certainly God can work in those atrocities for good, and he will bring suffering into the lives of his people so he can perform spiritual surgery. I can testify to that. But there's much evil in the world that serves no good purpose at all. It is not according to God's will. It simply happens because of human will to do evil. (Note that I did not say "free" will. Our will is not free until God frees it.)

And that human will is pivotal in this discussion. God, in his sovereignty, made creatures that actually have the power to rebel against him. When I work on my novel, the characters do and say exactly what I want them to. Some novelists say that their characters almost come alive and shape the book. That takes more creativity than I have. But it's still nothing compared to God's creative genius. These four children that Rick and I have brought into the world actually have wills of their own. Although I don't often appreciate that as much as maybe I should, right now as I'm sitting at my desk writing (and they're in school), I consider it the greatest miracle of creation.

Do I believe that human choice is absolute? No. We are all born in bondage to sin (Romans 7:14), but we are called to freedom (Galatians 5:13). "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (2 Cor. 3:17) By his grace, God enables us to receive him, but he respects even the most wretched, rebellious will in order to nurture it the point where it's fully surrendered to him. That's why Jesus stands at the door and knocks (Revelation 3:20), instead of just kicking it down. He wants to meet us where we are and enable us to surrender, and the more we do so, the more we experience his sovereign grace in our lives, in the sense that everything we do and say is by his power. But he has also called us to perfect freedom, so even though he wants us to let him be everything in our lives, he doesn't force his way in.

I've seen in my own life how much God respects my will. He will spend years trying to get me to surrender in a particular area, using experiences, other people, Bible teachings, directs insights--and by the time I do, I submit willingly. Why doesn't he save himself the trouble and just overpower my will? Because I am called to freedom. Christ wants to be "all, and in all" (Colossians 3:11), but he wants friends, not slaves (John 15:15). The crowning glory of his creation is creatures who will someday reach the pinnacle of perfect freedom and complete surrender to his will. Only God can make such a thing possible, but it's not easy even for him, because he has chosen not to pull all the strings. So not everyone will share in that glory.

In this country, most of us don't question the importance of freedom, hence the song that goes, "I'm glad to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And I'm thankful for the men who died and gave that right to me." Something in us recognizes that freedom is worth dying for. Since we are created in the image of God, is it such a stretch to say that he values freedom just as highly and that he's willing to make great sacrifices for it? If God had been content with puppets, evil would never had entered the world, and he would not have had to send his Son to die on the cross.

But having said all that, I also believe that God in his sovereignty can override a person's will. For example, when I pray for God to protect my children, I trust him to be a shield about them to protect them from evil people as well. God's hands are not tied because he respects the evil person's choice. In John 7:30, the authorities tried to seize Jesus but they couldn't because "his hour had not yet come." Nobody had the power to harm Jesus apart from the will of the Father.

Also, prayer for somebody else can be so powerful that it may bring a person to the point where he or she is unlikely to resist God's grace. Times of great revival were usually precipitated by fervent prayer. Prayer will light a spark of life and stir up a hunger where there was none, but it doesn't overpower someone's will. It is perhaps the most profound way in which we can be fellow workers with God, because we tap into the power that raised Jesus from the dead.

Through the cross, God's sovereignty in this world is equal to his sovereignty on the New Earth. Jesus fully disarmed all the spiritual forces of evil (Colossians 2:15), and "by his stripes we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5). This is an objective, historical and spiritual reality. Through Christ, we have complete victory (1 Cor. 15:57) and access to the throne of grace, where we find mercy and grace in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

Why is this world such a mess if evil was defeated on the cross? Because it is through faith we lay hold of this victory. "This is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith." (1 John 5:4) Faith is as powerful as Christ's victory on the cross, because it is his victory.

Hebrews 11:1 says: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (KJV) The word "substance" is key here, because the Greek word hypostasis means "reality, essence, substantial nature, assurance." So faith is far more than positive thinking--it is the reality or essence of the victory of Christ on the cross. In other words, it is the thing itself. I explain this further in The Substance of Things Hoped For.

This is very important to understand, because it shows why faith is so important. It is the means by which we receive the free gift, or as Charles Spurgeon said, "Faith is the hand that grasps." So faith, then, is our measure of an objective reality: Christ and everything he accomplished on the cross. In other words, if we want to lay hold of God's will, we have to look to the cross.

How do we get faith? Three ways: By hearing the word of God, by surrender to God, and by abiding in Christ like a branch on a vine. Romans 10:7 says: "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God." In order to have faith, we have to hear the gospel message. That is the seed of faith. Of course there's no way to believe if we've never heard the word of life. But even if we have been born again by the Spirit, we have to keep hearing the word in order to grow in our faith.

Surrender means that we yield our will, and that goes back to what I said about Jesus not kicking down the door. He has called us to freedom, right? So he will only fill us with his Spirit if we surrender to him. But you might have noticed that complete surrender is not that easy because it involves admitting defeat, and we would rather stake our little flag of self-sufficiency in the ground and die. And we actually do have to admit defeat. We have to realize that we're spiritually bankrupt, needy, weak--without God we're unable to do anything about the evil in our own hearts, let alone the evil in the world.

So what do we do if we intellectually recognize the need to surrender, but we can't do it? We take a step back and ask God to give us the desire to surrender. Let's say you don't buy a thing I've said, but if it's true, you would like it to be real in your life. Then you can take a step back even further and ask God to work in your mind, to bring intellectual faith. Maybe you hate religion altogether, but you're not completely settled in your atheism or agnosticism. You're not sure if it's Jesus you hate, or just the behavior of some of his so-called followers. Then tell God that. Wherever the barrier, he will meet us there. In the end, all the sons and daughters who are brought to glory will only be there by the power of God, and the smaller and more helpless we are in our own minds, the greater he is in our lives, because we will have exorcised the greatest enemy of all: Self.

The third way to have faith is to abide in Christ. That is, we have to spend time with him, and allow him to work through us like sap flows through a vine to the branches. John 15:7 goes so far as to say, "If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." But there's a catch here--if we abide in Christ we won't want a larger home or a more prestigious job. God will change our hearts so that we want his will. So we come full circle back to the Lord's Prayer: If we abide in Christ, we will have the power to lay hold of God's will, to make this world more like heaven. We will have the victory that overcomes the world: faith. (1 John 5:4)

So a person who lives by faith in Christ will surrender more and more fully to God's perfect sovereignty, while growing in freedom. The two are far from mutually exclusive; they are inexorably linked.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Is God's Word Internally Consistent?

Somehow I've managed to get myself into a lot of dead-end discussions with Christians about God's sovereignty recently. What I mean by "dead-end" is that they are about questions that have no answer discernible to finite minds. And even though I started out enjoying them, right now I feel like these issues have deadened my spirit. Bible verses that make God seem hard and irrational sit like bricks in my soul.

But God's answer seems clear: He has never revealed himself to us fully in his word, but he has fully revealed everything we need to know. How could his infinite mind possibly be contained in the pages of a book to be read by finite beings. When God appeared to Manoah, Samson's father, Manoah asked him his name. God replied: "Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?" (Judges 13:18) Why do we waste so much time trying to define God's nature when he has made known to us everything we need to know? He told Moses, "I am who I am." And if we draw near to him we'll know that he is wonderful. If we need more evidence of that in human terms, all we have to do is read through the Gospels. Jesus is God's nature in human form.

I marvel at the brilliance of God's word, and its consistency about everything important to our salvation. I just finished reading Future Grace by John Piper, a Calvinist. It is essentially a practical book about living by faith in God's grace, and it adeptly incorporates the hard passages that are often ignored because Christians don't understand how to square them with salvation by faith alone. But (except for one chapter) it doesn't delve into questions about the nature of God's sovereignty and how exactly he saves us--the issues that divide Arminians and Calvinists.

Although I'm not a Calvinist, I had independently reached almost exactly the same conclusions. The word of God is very clear about the practical aspect of salvation. If we dig deep enough, we will find that every book of the New Testament says the same thing about what it means to live by faith and how that translates into good works. And Christians who are led by the Holy Spirit, regardless of denomination, will arrive at the same truth. For example, Brother Lawrence was a Catholic, but he says essentially the same thing in The Practice of the Presence of God.

1 Corinthians 1:19 says: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." From God's standpoint, the intelligent have no advantage. In fact, if they devote themselves to speculating about things that God has not revealed, they will be frustrated. And it will lead to division among believers.

So God's word is amazing because he answers to no one except his own nature--he will decide what we need to know about him. He will not be forced into a box by those who demand that he justify himself. But he will teach us everything we need to know to walk with him in faith and obedience. And his word is remarkably consistent from that standpoint.