Saturday, May 26, 2012

Training in Righteousness

I have been reading, slowly, a work written by William Wilberforce.  If you don't know who he is, he is most recognized for his untiring work to abolish slavery from England.  He was also a staunch Christian who influenced his time and culture through his commitment to Christianity.  In his work entitled A Practical View of Christianity, he says the following:

"Bountiful as is the hand of Providence, its gifts are not so bestowed as to seduce us into indolence, but to rouse us to exertion; and no one expects to attain to the height of learning, or arts, or power, or wealth, or military glory, without vigorous resolution, and strenuous diligence, and steady perseverance. Yet we expect to be Christians without labour, study, or inquiry."

For many Christians, their Christianity rests on little more than a conversion experience.  Perhaps no one has taken the time to disciple them.  Or other diverse entertainments pull more passionately on their emotions.  Or, as Wilberforce suggests, perhaps we do not apply the principle that hard work equals success to Christianity as we do to other efforts.

I have had several conversations with Christian friends recently in which the idea of Christianity as work has come up.  This has led me to an interesting series of questions: "Why does living as a Christian take work?  Couldn't God just make us Christlike automatically?  Why put us through the process of sanctification?"  In pondering the answer to this question, I identified a truth from Wilberforce's quote: Attaining to the height of learning, arts, power, wealth, etc. takes work.  So, I could generalize the question:  Why does the height of anything take work?

I think the answer can be found in God's gift of free will (I have addressed free will in another post here). If someone is given free will, then this means he has the ability to choose rightly or wrongly.  This also means that in his life, he will either choose to put effort into something or to leave it well enough alone.  For example, my brother is a music teacher.  He has chosen to put his effort into the study of music and has risen to the height of a band director.  I have not chosen to put effort into music.  I played the flute for a time in high school band, a little in a church orchestra during college.  But that has been the extent of my effort.  Thus, I have not risen to any heights at all in my flute playing.  Indeed, I have fallen back down to a beginner band level through lack of practice.  Thus, in making my choice, I chose not to pursue being a musician and lack musical skill.

Isn't it the same with all pursuits?  Whether mere hobbies or essential jobs, we rise and fall in congruency to our efforts.  We put our time and effort into that which we become good at.  Even when we have a natural aptitude, we still must put in effort to achieve.  Albert Einstein, Bill Gates and even Billy Graham put in effort to achieve their heights.  We probably all know someone with unreal IQ scores but an entire lack of effort who could achieve so much more if motivated to do so.

Thus, whether we achieve or not in this life (and what we achieve) is tied to our choices, our free will.  In giving us free will, God gives us the choice not only to accept or reject His gifts to us, but also the choice to be sanctified or not.  The benefits of sanctification are rewarded to those who choose to yield to God's Spirit working within them.

This answer then led me to another question: "How is this work of Christianity carried out?"  Without a doubt, if one desires to evaluate the status of a Christlike life, there is no greater list than the Fruit of the Spirit, a list of the Spirit's working in a Christian heart.  Yet when we talk about the Fruit of the Spirit, we often act like we simply pray and then God miraculously produces in us the fruit we desire.  We see ourselves as passive.  Yet Paul's command is to "walk by the Spirit."  We must do something: we must walk.  We must chose to walk if we will possess the Fruit of the Spirit.

The Bible is replete with the idea that Christianity takes effort: "A pupil is not above his teacher ; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher" (Luke 6:40).  "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever" (1 Cor. 9:25).  "...train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (1 Tim. 7b-8).  "But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil" (Heb. 5:14).  

If walking in a Christian way takes effort, takes training, then we must expect the Spirit to train us.  We will not reflect the Fruit of the Spirit in our lives unless we have been trained in it.  This means it takes practice just as becoming an accomplished musician, business man, or football player also takes practice.  What will this practice look like?  Consider the following:

You pray to be a person of love.  A friend back stabs you the next day.  Will you practice love?

You pray to be a person of joy.  Your kids wake up cranky and whiny that morning.  Will you practice joy?

You pray to be a person of peace.  There is an accident on the highway and you are going to be late for a morning meeting at work.  Do you practice peace?

You pray to be a person of kindness.  A woman cuts in front of you while in line at the post office.  Do you practice kindness?

You pray to be a person of goodness.  Your boss asks you to falsify a report.  Do you practice goodness?

You pray to be a person of faithfulness.  Your father contracts cancer.  Do you practice faithfulness to God?

You pray to be a person of gentleness.  Your toddler decorates the entire bathroom in toilet paper.  Do you practice gentleness?

You pray to be a person of self-control.  Your spouse has forgotten your anniversary producing anger in your heart.  Do you practice self-control?

It is my firm belief that if we plan to be godly Christians, then God will put us through a course of godliness.  We will be challenged on all fronts to practice the Fruit of the Spirit.  We will face test after test.  The more we pass the tests, the better we will reflect Christlikeness.

I'll be honest about this: I in no way display perfect Christlikeness.  Yet I am seeking to walk by the Spirit.  I pass the tests at times, at others I fail.  But I go back again, knowing that my choice to walk by the Spirit, to face the tests, will be the only way I gain the heights of godliness.  Practically, I suggest that every Christian make a list of the Fruit of the Spirit and then write below each fruit ways he tends to fail the test in each area.  Then, to write beside each failure a way to remedy the situation.  Consider this task like a Study Guide for a test.  You can't pass a test without preparing for it (perhaps you can if the teacher is too easy; I am not that kind of teacher :-)).  Perhaps if we put the effort in to prepare, we might act differently the next time.  If you do decide to go through with this task, let me know how it goes.  And I'll update, too, because I plan on taking myself through the Study Guide as well.

(As a side note, one commonality of all the great Christians of the past is their willingness to honestly evaluate themselves and to identify goals and ways to improve themselves.  In our society, we have sadly lost this practice.  In a world that tells us we are always right, always good and truth is relative, we do not improve morally because we never evaluate our incorrect morals). 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Believer, Do Not Fear the Final Judgment!

A couple posts ago, I clarified a commonly misunderstood verse.  This post will be in the same vein in that I want to clarify a concept that often gets passed around in Christian circles, or at least in the minds of many Christians.  It is a misunderstanding that causes heartache and worry for many Christians and it burdens me to see my brothers and sisters laboring under a false idea.  The ideas is this: That at the end of time, when God judges everyone, including Christians, God will display all my sins in front of everyone.  That means everyone will see all those secret things I did and I will be exposed.  My friend, if you are a Christian, that is not true.  You can relax and be excited for your judgment instead of dreading it.  And here's why...

The Bible describes three judgments that happen at the end of time.  Two of them are the judgment of Satan and the demons, which ends with them being thrown into the lack of fire, and the judgment of unbelievers, called The Great White Throne Judgment, which also ends with them being thrown into the lake of fire.  I don't want to concern myself with these two judgments in this post because I am focusing on the judgment that Christians face at the end of time.  The judgment that Christians face is one of rewards.

The judgment of Christians is called the Bema Judgment or the Judgment Seat of Christ.  At this judgment, the works of believers are judged, determining the actions they took for Christ will on earth.  God rewards Christians for those actions.  This is not a judgment determining if we get into heaven or not.  God already knows who gets in, i.e. he doesn't need to sit and think about that at a judgment.  Remember that there is a separate judgment for unbelievers, so God has already dealt with who gets in and who doesn't.

The main teaching on the Judgment Seat of Christ is found in 1 Corinthians 3.  Paul says this:

"According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straweach man's work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work. If any man's work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire" (v.10-15).

At the Judgment Seat of Christ, what a Christian has built on the foundation of Christ is revealed.  Those actions that did not appropriately build on the foundation of Christ will be burned away.  The actions that remain are those that shined for Christ, that built up his church, and because of these, Christians are rewarded.  In other words, this judgment results in praise to God for all the actions we accomplished on his behalf.  This is not dealing with sin; the wood, hay and straw are not representative of sin.  This is clear from the context of the passage because Paul is discussing work for Christ as a man builds on the foundation of Christ.  He says to be careful how you build because we want our actions to count at the end of time, to be actions that built up the church.  Those actions I have taken that have been of godly quality will stand and I will receive a reward for them.

Thus, we see that at the judgment of Christians, there is no revealing of sin in front of everyone.  The Bible never says this.  So why do some Christians hold to this idea?  I want to tackle three passages that Christians quote who believe our sin will be exposed and show how these verses are misunderstood.

First, let's go back to the Romans passage above.  The end of the passage says, "If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire."  It is interesting what Christians put into this passage that isn't there.  Breaking down the verse, the man in this verse apparently has no works to show for Christ.  He did nothing on earth for his Lord.  So although he will be saved, he will receive no rewards.  The verse says he will "suffer loss."  What is this loss?  It is the loss of rewards as the context makes clear.  When I discuss this verse with believers, they often project onto this man the feeling of grief.  They are confused because they thought heaven was a place without grief.  Nowhere in the verse does it say that this man is ashamed or grieving.  "Suffer loss" does not refer to the man's emotions, but to the lack of rewards.  If anything, this man must be grateful--He made it into heaven even though he did nothing for Christ.  Thus, this man is not crying over his sins.  This judgment has nothing to do with sin.

The next verse that is sometimes quoted to support our sins exposed to all is found in Romans 14:12: "So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God."  On the surface, it sounds like we'll have to stand before God and give an account for our sin, right?  It may sound that way, but context reveals this is inaccurate.  The context of this passage is the discussion Paul has regarding weak and strong believers where he charges them not to pass judgment on one another over "disputable matters."  These matters are what we call "gray areas."  These are not areas of sin, but areas of conviction.  Looking at the context, Paul writes this:

"Who are you to judge the servant of another ? To his own master he stands or falls ; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand...But you, why do you judge your brother ? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt ? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of GodFor it is written, 'As I live, says the LORD, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.' So then each one of us will give an account of himself to GodTherefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this -not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother's way" (Ro. 14:4, 10-13).

In the context, Paul is saying, "Who are you to judge another Christian's conviction?  God is his master.  It is God that he has to give an account to, not you.  So leave the judging to God."  Since the context of the passage is not sin, but conviction, what does Paul mean that God will judge believers for their convictions?  We've already seen that the judgment on Christians is one of rewards.  At the Judgment Seat of Christ, God will look at the motives of our hearts in taking actions.  If we made decisions in gray areas in response to God's conviction, those will stand.  If we made decisions with a lack of faith, those will be burned up.  Once again, the context reveals that this has nothing to do with sin at all.  Paul makes this point all the clearer in another portion of scripture: "Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts; and then each man's praise will come to him from God" (1 Cor. 4:5).  Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4 that he is not concerned with being judged by men because God is the judge of if he has been "found trustworthy."  God knows the motives of his heart, not any man, and God will expose those motives at the end of time.  God isn't exposing sin, but the motives of a heart that worked for him.  Notice that at the end of 1 Corinthians 4:5, it only mentions praise from God, not exposure of sin.

The third passage I want to discuss is a touchy one.  It's the passage where Christ talks with the sheep and the goats.  The reason this passage is controversial is denominations differ as to when this passage takes place.  Some place it squarely at the beginning of the millennial reign of Christ; others place it at the end of time with the judgments discussed earlier.  Wherever this judgment falls, it is clear by the context that the sheep are being judged for works they did for God: "The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me'" (Matt. 25:30).  The actions these sheep have taken reveal their dedication to God.  This is once again not a judgment on sin for the sheep.

So in scripture, there is no support for the idea that God will stand believers up in front of everyone and display their sin for all to see.  Beyond no scriptural support for this idea, there is no logical support for this idea.  Psalm 103:12 says, "As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us."  1 John 1:9 states, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."  If God has removed our transgression, if he has forgiven us and cleansed us from all sin, then why would he show everyone our sin at the end of time?  And even more compelling, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 declares, "Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliationnamely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation."  Because of Christ's sacrifice, our sins are not counted against us.  It makes no sense for God to come to the end of time and say, "I know I said your sins were forgiven, that I'd removed them, that Christ paid for them, but I need to get in one more dig at you and show everyone your sin."

Dear Christian, your sin is forgiven!  There is no need to fear judgment at the end of time.  You will not stand ashamed in front of everyone.  You will stand with your deeds rewarded bringing glory to God through your acts on earth.  That is the truth! 

"Then I heard something like the voice of a great multitude 
and like the sound of many waters 
and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying,
'Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.'
It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean;
for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints."
Revelation 19:6-8

Monday, May 14, 2012

What a Woman's Skin Says

I saw this comic on Facebook and was quite struck by it.  The artist catches us with the irony and in the process makes such a good point: While women here are eyeing women in Arabic countries and thinking how sad it is that they are treated by men like objects, the women here are actually being treated as objects themselves.

This summer, women will flood the beaches dressed exactly like the woman in the picture.  They'll give you a plethora of reasons why it is okay to dress that way.  And if you happen to say, "You know, when you dress that way, men will simply ogle you and see you as an object," they'll respond, "Well, that's their problem."  This is one of the excuses I hate the most.  I hate it because as a Christian, I hold to Romans 14:13: "Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister."  What a Christian woman is saying with the previous statement is that she really doesn't care if she makes men stumble.

Now, the popular retort, even from Christians, will be, "Who are you to judge?"  Indeed, if you look at Romans 14, the passage I took the previous verse from, you will see that in that passage Paul is discussing the gray areas in the lives of believers (in his day, specifically eating meat offered to idols) and he says this, "Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another" (Romans 14:13).  So, maybe in an applicational way Paul is saying that men do need to get over themselves and let women do what they want.  But, not quite.

You see, Paul goes on to say this: "If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died...Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall" (Romans 14:15, 19-21).  Taking an applicational view of Paul's point in regards to the current discussion, Paul is saying, "Yes, you are fine with your body.  Fine.  God is fine with your body, too.  But, if your body and the display of it is causing a brother to stumble, cover it up.  When you do not, you are not showing love to your brother.  In fact, you are leading your brother to a fall."

From Paul's passage, I take that I cannot run around passing judgment on others in gray areas.  In other words, you aren't going to find me down at the beaches this summer using my Bible to hammer the heads of Christian girls in immodest clothing.  But I also take from Paul's passage that Christian girls who flaunt themselves in front of men and could care less that they are causing them to stumble have made a wrongful choice.

So, what does a woman's skin say in immodest clothing?  I don't care about my brothers in Christ.  I don't want to act in love.  I just want to be free to show off what I want to.  (And often, cause I want the attention guys throw my way).

Christian women, you do not need that kind of attention!  God has not made you an object to be ogled by men!  "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight" (1 Peter 3:3-4).  Perhaps if Peter had lived now, he would have added in, "or the lack of clothing," because his point is that women should find their beauty in their spirits, not in the displaying of themselves to men.

"Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised" (Prov. 31:30).  Christian women, you will not always have your beauty.  Inevitably, no matter how many youth remedies you try, you will become a wrinkled old woman with white or gray hair.  If you have placed your worth in your looks, you will face an identity crisis.  If you have married a man for whom your looks were a primary factor, you will face discontent in marriage.  It is not worth it to put your value in your looks.  It is not worth it to sit on the beach and attract guys who care only about your body.  As a child of God, your body should be valued.  It should be valued by a man who really loves it because he loves all of you, and most of all, the inner you.  This man is the man you should seek to attract.  He will love you even in a one piece because he will see the fear of the Lord expressed in your soul.

Christian women, this summer, as you make choices on how to dress, remember the following two points: 1) Don't let yourself become a stumbling block that trips up your brothers and 2) Do yourself a favor and find your beauty where it really is: in your godly soul.  This may be a life change, but trust me, it is a good one.  I speak from experience because I am married to a man who loves me just the way I am, body and soul.  I know that even as my body changes, it doesn't affect his love for me.  I also know that I don't want any man but my husband seeing my exposed skim because I know he's loving it in a godly way.  I can't guarantee that anyone but him is doing that if I am flaunting my skin in front of other men.  For me, this love of my husband gives me safety and comfort knowing I'm not an object to please, but a woman to be loved truly and deeply.

Friday, May 4, 2012

God DOES Give Us More Than We Can Handle

There are certain ideas that get passed around in Christian circles that are just straight up un-biblical.  This is one of them: God won't give me anything I can't handle.  The Bible never says this.  Now, before someone throws out the scripture where this idea "comes from," I'm going to deal with that scripture right now.

The idea that God won't give us anything we can't handle comes from this verse: "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (1 Cor. 10:13).  This verse is misinterpreted.  People who quote this verse haven't considered the context of this verse, but the context provides essential clarity.

The context of this verse is Paul discussing Israel's history as a warning to believers.  Specifically, he refers to the Israelites who came out of Egypt.  He states that they saw all God's miracles and yet God still brought judgment on them.  Why did he bring this judgment?  Because they practiced moral evil:

"Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: 'The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.' We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did--and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did--and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did--and were killed by the destroying angel.  These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come" (1 Cor. 10:6-11).

Paul says that the experiences of the Israelites, when they were punished for moral evil, were written down for us to learn from.  Thus, the context of 1 Corinthians 10:13 is people who commit moral evil.  Thus, Paul goes on to say, "So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry" (1 Cor. 10:11-14).

I Corinthians 10:13 does not say God will not give Christians circumstances they cannot handle.  What it says is that God will always provide a way out from temptation.  In other words, Paul is saying you cannot make the excuse for your sin, "Oh, I just couldn't help it," because God will give you a way out.  It is true that in Greek the term translated "temptation" in this verse can also be translated "trial."  This means you must look at the context to understand how the term is to be taken.  It is clear that since Paul is talking about the sin of the Israelites, the term here means "temptation," not trial.

You see, the misinterpretation of this text causes many Christians grief.  When circumstances overwhelm them, they don't get why they are "being given more than they can handle."  Isn't it true God won't do that to me?  And what is wrong with me that I can't handle this since scripture says I should be able to?  If you are struggling in this way, let me assure you that there is nothing wrong with you.  There are times in our lives that we can't handle our circumstances.

So, that sounds depressing.  But I don't think it is.  Throughout the Bible we have examples of godly people being given what they can't handle...and finding God in an intimate personal way in the midst of it.  A prime example is Elijah.  He flees Jezebel, knowing she wants to kill him and he bottoms out crying out to God, "I am the only prophet left and they are trying to kill me, too!"  It is at this point in his life that Elijah hears God's voice and receives comfort.  Hagar flees into the desert because Sarah is mistreating her and she's pregnant with Abraham's child.  In her despair, she meets God and declares, "He is the one that sees me."  In 2 Timothy 4, Paul is in prison and lonely.  He asks that Timothy send Mark to him as a comfort.  Even Jesus found himself crying out to his father in the Garden, overwhelmed with future events, yet this crying out led to his ability to submit to God's will in his life.

Could it be God gives us what we can't handle to make us turn to him?  Could it be God gives us what we can't handle to speak to us in an intimate way?  Could it be that we need to seek God all the more in our difficult circumstances rather than agonizing over how we can't handle what we should be able to handle?  Yes!  God will allow circumstances you can't handle to come into your life.  At those moments, we turn to God, just as Habakkuk does.  He cries out to God, not understanding and confused and yet, declares in the end that no matter what happens, he will trust the Lord:

"I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. 
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.
 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. 
The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to go on the heights."

Habakkuk 3:16-19