Friday, February 28, 2014

Treating Persons as Persons

I have one Global Media Outreach contact I get really excited about, every time I see a message from her in my mailbox. I can't use her real name, but let's call her Charity. The reason I get excited is she always asks such smart and perceptive questions. It's obvious she spends a lot of time reading and reflecting on the Word of God.

And in order to answer her questions, I am forced to go back into the Word and dig for nuggets of pure gold to share. It's a process (and an outcome!) that I love, because mining the Bible for truth is one occupation that is incredibly, incredibly fruitful. (Sort of like living near Seattle and hoping to see a little rain occasionally!)

Recently Charity asked: "How do we treat a person as a person?" At first I thought, "Well, that's a silly question!" However, the more I reflected on her question (and I spent several days doing so), the more I realized how profound it really was.

So, here is how I finally responded ...

Dear Charity,

That's a profound question indeed, and I hope you don't mind that I've taken a few days to think about it.

There are two perspectives from which to answer this question, and I think they are very similar.

The first perspective results from a consideration of what we call "The Golden Rule," represented by Christ's teaching in Matt. 7:12 -- "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." As human beings. as persons, I think first and foremost we want to be treated with dignity and respect, granted the freedom that God created us to experience. And, we all want to love and to be loved.

The second perspective comes when we reframe the question: How does God (the First Person) treat us as persons? Shouldn't we "go thou and do likewise?"

And the answers here aren't so much different than those expressed by the Golden Rule. Yes, God loves us ... so much so that He sacrificed Himself for our sake. He gives us amazing dignity and respect as persons.* He always treats us "like adults" and allows us to make our own decisions about good and evil, and to experience the consequences of those decisions.

If we trust Him, he provides for our needs, protects us, and associates Himself with us. The very word for the most significant event in human history (the Incarnation), indicates that God became one of us. "God with us."

God always tells us the truth ... even when it's difficult to hear. He is gracious and merciful, forgiving ("seventy times seven times") those who are willing to accept it. And he wishes for us the peace and joy that He has in Himself.

When it comes to us treating others that way (as persons), it's a tall order. It requires us to "seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God." I don't think any of us (as fallen sinners) can do this, without God's help.

Please let me know what you think.

God bless!

- Larry

*I've always been perplexed by the degree of dignity and respect with which God treats even Satan, his arch-enemy, in Job 1 and 2. But when you think about it, it really says something about God. He created all of us (yes, even Satan) as persons worthy of dignity and respect. Yes, God will ultimately boot the devil and his angels into the Lake of Fire, based on their ultimate commitment to hate and oppose His will. But only our Holy Judge could do such a thing with perfect justice, dignity and respect.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Guardian Angels

Recently one of my Global Media Outreach (GMO) contacts, an elderly gentleman in India who is in a Hindu context but is very interested in Christianity and the Bible, asked me about a biblical perspective on "guardian angels" and whether or not we should seek to commune with them (specifically, if we should seek healing from them). I thought my blog readers might be interested in my response, which follows.

Dear Anish*,

It's very good to hear from you again. (It feels like it has been a long time, indeed.) But, I am sorry to hear that you are not feeling well.

My perspective on angels (and guardian angels), and our relationship with them, is formed entirely from Scripture (the Bible). I do believe that angels surround us and do the bidding of God on earth. See 2 Kings 6, for example. (One of the Hebrew names for God in Scripture is Elohie Tseva'ot, which is roughly translated "God of Hosts" or "God of the Angel Armies.") And the fact that some angels are assigned to watch over us — and children, in particular — is also clear from Matthew 18:10.

However, that said, I do not believe it is wise to seek to identify and communicate with angels. I have several scriptural reasons for holding to this position.
  1. Nowhere in Scripture are we admonished to seek angels or to pray to them. To the contrary, we are to seek God Himself, directly. 1 Timothy 2:5 says: "For there is one God and one mediator between God and man: the man Christ Jesus." Jesus has the angels under His control: He commands them as He wills ... and He is our go-to.
  2. To the contrary, Scripture indicates that in some cases seeking or listening to angels can be very dangerous, if their message contradicts the message given to us by Christ in the Gospel. See Galatians 1:8 and Colossians 2:18. Paul even said the devil himself masquerades as "an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14). The bitter truth is that many cults and false sects such as Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others, have come about because "angels" supposedly delivered a "new gospel" to these sects' founders. But, that Gospel was in each of those cases in direct contradiction to the Gospel of Jesus Christ presented in the Bible.
So, if we are not to look to angels for healing, who should we look to? One Scripture I think is very clear on this count is James 5:14 ...
"Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord."
An "elder" is a volunteer position of leadership in Christian churches. I have served as an elder in my church. When people in our church have fallen ill, we have encouraged them to let us know, and then we elders gather around them, anoint them with oil and pray directly to God for their healing. They aren't always healed miraculously; but it's clear that if God wills it, they can be healed by this act of faith, and many times they are. I could write many pages to tell you stories about people healed from very serious illnesses, just in our small church alone.

So, telling you the honest truth, my brother, I would encourage you not to seek after "angels" for your deliverance (especially if you are not seeking them through the words and wisdom of Holy Scripture). I would encourage you instead to submit yourself for prayer to the elders of a church nearby you ... and see what happens.

I am praying for healing for you, as well, my friend. Please let me know how it goes.

- Larry

*Not his real name.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Oh, Hell.

Okay, time for some gut-wrenching honesty. I really struggle with the whole concept of hell.

And that's interesting, because hell is the first (though not the best, certainly) reason I am a Christian. What I mean by that is, when I was a young child, attending Sunday School at a Baptist Church, the fear of hell was put into me by well-meaning Sunday School teachers. (And what child in his or her right mind wouldn't be terrified by talk of eternal torment in a burning lake of fire?)

I DIDN'T want to go there, that was for sure. So, when I was 8, I received Christ as my personal Savior. I was assured that His forgiveness of my sins would allow me to live with Him forever and save me from eternal torment and remorse in hell.

I realized much later, of course, that that was not the ideal motivation for becoming a Christian. The truth is, the reason I remain a Christian today, is out of love, obedience and gratitude for what God has done in sending his one and only Son to redeem me from my sin (at terrible cost to Himself). Who couldn't love a God like that? He created me and loves me so unfathomably that He would go to such great lengths to have me. So, submitting myself to His Lordship is a natural response.

But, the concept of hell now gives me a lot of pause. This is mostly true when people depict the Scriptural position for hell as: "God is just. He loves people, but if they won't accept His sacrifice for their sin, because of His justice He must punish them eternally, by torturing them in a lake of fire."

This whole concept of the God I know who loves me so deeply, actually and actively torturing people for all eternity in a lake of fire, is one I really have a hard time swallowing. It seems to run contrary to everything I know to be true about God. How could a loving God live with Himself as the eternal torturer? That sounds more like Satan to me.

I realize I'm not the only one who has trouble with this. My favorite author, that brilliant Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, depicts hell (in The Great Divorce and many of his other writings) quite differently than I described above.

He admits that there are many who will reject God's grace and therefore will not submit to live in obedience to God for all of eternity. The only logical choice, therefore (since our souls are eternal) will be for them to live in a state separated from God. And any place where God's presence is not, will be a dismal, drab, and dull place, filled with all kinds of self-important sinfulness, dread, loathing, boredom, etc.

In the Great Divorce, this (admitted metaphorical) town increases always in size, as people (who in reality all hate each other, since the absence of God is the absence of true love) keep "spreading out" in an effort to get further and further away from each other. So it is an incredibly lonely and desolate state of being. C. S. Lewis would probably hold that the "eternal burning" of consuming hellfire was a metaphor for the smallness of self apart from God, continually collapsing in upon itself and becoming continually less and less relevant to the "real" universe ruled by its Creator.

Other writers take a different tack. Right now I am reading Pastor Rob Bell's much-criticized book, "Love Wins," trying to determine whether the accusations of him taking a "universalist" position (which says that in the end, every knee will bow and all will submit themselves to the Lordship of Christ) are accurate, or not. But his belief that the all-consuming love of Christ will win out over the consuming fires of hell, in some manner, is already clear.

Scripturally I have some trouble with the universalist position (as romantic as it sounds), primarily because I agree with both John Bunyan and C. S. Lewis that our trajectory as we go through life is either to grow closer to God, or to draw further away from Him; and I don't see any reason to believe this principle will change in the "next life." Scripture does seem to indicate that there are sheep and there are goats, those who will be separated (or separate themselves) from the love of God, by their own choice, through all eternity. To state otherwise really is a challenge to freedom of human will.

It's also interesting to note that even those who question the concept of Hell have less trouble with the idea when it comes to certain people (or angelic beings, such as Satan and demons) who are truly and thoroughly "evil," mean or destructive, and therefore seemingly deserving. How many people (other than Rob Bell, perhaps) are comfortable with the idea that Adolf Hitler or Idi Amin or Joseph Kony or Josef Stalin will be roaming the halls of heaven? This idea is predicated on the assumption that when it comes to sinful beings, some people (or angels) are significantly "worse off" than others (e.g., me!).

But of course there is significant scriptural teaching to argue against this line of thinking. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome. "There is none righteous. No, not one!" From a biblical perspective, we have all chosen our own way. Perhaps because of the personal gifts and circumstances surrounding Adolf Hitler's life and rise to power, the effects of his depravity are more far-reaching than the effects of my depravity. But, we are both depraved (and an argument could be made for saying we were "equally depraved") and in need of a Savior.

By this logic, if Adolf Hitler deserves to burn eternally in hell, then so do I. I am not God's standard of goodness, after all. Jesus is.

"So," you are probably thinking about now, "What are you saying? Where do you land on all this?"

And you should know that I'm not really going to answer your questions ... at least not yet. I am processing. The first thing that I need to do is sit at the feet of God and really study what He has to say on the topic of Hell. Christ spoke a lot about Hell. I'm certainly not comfortable with everything that I know He's said, but I recognize that my comfort is not the issue, and I think I need to dig in a little bit more and really get the full perspective of a Scriptural view of Hell. After all, God's ways are not our ways. He is incomprehensibly holy and far above my understanding. Before rendering judgment I feel I really need to become better (and more objectively) acquainted with the truth that Scripture reveals on the topic of hell.

My second step really aligns with the first: In order to more effectively align my thinking with Christ's, I need to spend a lot of time in prayer over this. I need to be absolutely sure I'm reflecting the mind of Christ and not the mind of my culture.

So I would like to finish reading Bell's book (so many have jumped all over him without even reading the book itself, I do wonder whether he's getting a fair hearing). And of course walk through the discipline of aligning its message with the pages of Scripture. (The same holds true for anything C. S. Lewis has written.) My theology says there are no modern-day biblical scribes writing down the words of God. Instead what we have is a lot of people giving their opinions — hopefully well-informed, but their opinions nonetheless.

And, I don't want to be just one more of those!

One final note: I don't anticipate that any of this thinking will change anything, practically speaking. The right reason for aligning oneself with God's will for your life is clearly not fear of hell, but the glory of God and the beauty of being in His presence eternally. If you know anything at all about sin (and it's clear God knows more about it than we do), then you are aware that it has to be defeated, cleansed, purged. And if Hell is the only way to do that, then so be it.

Regardless of what hell is, or whether or not it even exists as more than a metaphor, I know one thing for sure: God created us as eternal beings, and I want to spend my eternity living as close to Him as possible!

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

A Kingdom Cycle of Blessing

I think I've told my readers about a volunteer "online evangelism" ministry I do with Global Media Outreach. They have a series of websites designed to attract people who are seeking to know God, and when someone is investigating the Gospel and asks for more information, I am able to start a conversation with them online. Also, there are many new Christians I chat with on a daily basis, who are seeking more about basic principles of Christian living.

So far, over the past half-decade I've been doing this ministry, I've been blessed to be able to correspond with several thousand people, from dozens of countries all over the globe. Most have expressed a commitment to follow Jesus and grow in their Christian faith. This has (obviously!) been a huge blessing in my life.

One of the reasons it's a blessing, is because they often ask very intelligent questions, which help clarify priorities in my own life. Sometimes I feel so compelled by the question, and the biblical answer which it calls for, that I feel I should share the answer God has given with more than just the person who has asked.

Which is why I have a blog, right?

So, today a young man (from a northern African nation) asked me about tithing. Kombula (I'm changing his name to protect his privacy) asked,
"The tithe ... is it for us today? The tithe was given specifically to the Israelites and was a law. Jesus came to set us free from the law. He taketh away the first that he may establish the second. Are we still under the law?"
Great question, right? My response:

You're right, Kombula, the tithe is a specific ordinance established under the Law. And we as New Testament believers are no longer under the Law, we are under Grace.

However, as with all Old Testament ordinances, we need to look to the underlying principle. And the principle here is pretty clear. The principle is: God is the owner of all that we have, and He has lent it to us. The parable of the talents shows that we are stewards of His resources. Jesus taught that if we "invest" what He has given us into His kingdom, then the Kingdom will be blessed, and we will be blessed in turn. Our investment proves that we are good stewards, and able to handle bigger and better blessings if He decides to pour them out on us.

While the tithe (10% of everything, right off the top) was an Old Testament principle, given to the Hebrews, the New Testament principle is: "God loves a cheerful giver," and "Give as God has prospered you." So, the question I ask New Testament Christians is, "Has God blessed you more, or less, than the average Old Testament Hebrew? If the answer is "more," can you give back to God at least 10% of what He has given you ... cheerfully?"

These are very convicting questions, particularly to those of us who live in affluence here in America. Of course He has! So we should consider the tithe (10%) as a minimum standard. But unfortunately, the average churchgoing Christian here in America only gives about 3%. And our country is struggling, walking away from its Christian heritage, in part I believe because of our sin of affluence and our ingratitude as Christians in America.

My wife and I try to practice this. We are not affluent, per se, at least by American standards. I work for a nonprofit organization and my wife works for a school. We are an "average" family, with two children. But we try to give a significant portion (well over 10%, probably at least double or triple that) of our money, our time, our volunteer energy, etc. to the Kingdom. (Which is why I'm talking to you now ... I don't get paid to do this!)

Since we have been practicing this, these past 20 or 30 years, we have been incredibly blessed. We certainly have everything we need, and God continues to pour out more that we can invest into the lives of others. It's the opposite of a "vicious cycle" (maybe call it a "Kingdom cycle of blessing?"): As we try to be faithful with what He has lent us, He entrusts us with more that we can invest.

I don't know what this looks like in other countries and cultural contexts, exactly, but I do believe the principle is the same everywhere. It's Scriptural. Whatever God has given you, invest it. Dedicate a "tithe" (whatever you can do cheerfully), right off the top — the best of your energy, finances, time, etc., back to God. If you prove yourself trustworthy in these "little things," He will bless you with more to be trustworthy with.

Let me be clear that this is not a guaranteed path to wealth, or anything like that. Wealth does not equal blessing. Blessing takes many forms.

Does that make sense? I pray that God will bless you abundantly as you trust in Him!


In upcoming blogs, I'm going to feature responses to some other great questions asked by this young man and others recently ... so stay tuned! And, as always, please let me know what you think.