Identity Politics Revisited

(previously published January 19, 2019)

I haven’t been watching a lot of news lately. I find it necessary and infinitely more beneficial to keep my focus on Scripture, worship, work, and what I sense the Spirit is saying each day.

Even so, none of us can escape the reality that the political and social landscape is not pretty. That’s an understatement. Referring to our eternal, reliable source of knowledge and wisdom leads us to understand how the cultural climate ought to affect us within our own spheres of influence.

There is a prevailing hostility and divisiveness in our culture. People are defining and aligning themselves with others according to some aspect of their identity—skin color, ethnicity, language, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, or some combination of the above. Their specialness is purported to entitle them to some distinct, ordained audience or influence upon social policy, without regard for how this impacts society as a whole.

I believe the pundits call this “identity politics.” It is “us-and-them-ism,” to coin a phrase. The Bible speaks of this social phenomenon in many places.

In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul lists the markers of his identity, his special-ness. He was:

circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Phil 3: 5-6).

For a Jew of his day, he had an outstanding pedigree. It set him apart from others who were not like him. But instead of boasting about or standing upon these markers of his status, Paul remarkably calls it all a big pile of dung, or garbage, or manure, or worthless trash, depending on what translation one is reading.

How can Paul proclaim this? For the answer, we can look at some turning points found in the Acts of the Apostles.

Before his conversion, Paul was called Saul. He was a zealous Pharisee, a self-righteous defender of the Law of Moses and rabbinic tradition, ruthlessly pursuing followers of the Way. He was determined to do his part to put a stop to a gospel message that seemed to be spreading like a virus throughout the Roman Empire.  Saul saw Christians as a threat to his own beliefs and way of living (sound familiar?), so he sought to snuff them out.

But something happened along the way. He encountered the risen Christ himself.

Saul heard the voice of Jesus calling to him. He was knocked off his horse and struck blind for three days. God sent a humble disciple to lay hands on Saul, restore his sight, and communicate his calling as an apostle of Christ.  After this, he got a new name and a new assignment.

Paul tore up his old resume. His Jewishness and religiosity didn’t count for a thing anymore. His training with the rabbis only mattered to the extent that he could cite Scriptures proving that Jesus Christ was the Messiah they had been waiting for.

As a missionary, Paul went first to the Jews because they were his people. When in a new town on his missionary journeys, he started his preaching in the synagogues. But he soon realized that God had commissioned him to bring the good news to the Gentiles. In Antioch of Pisidia he rebuked the unbelieving Jews, saying,

We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).

Before encountering Jesus, he wouldn’t have considered defiling himself by keeping company with Gentiles!

At around the same time, Peter was experiencing his own turning point. While lost in prayer on a rooftop, the Lord showed him a vision of all sorts of creatures considered unclean for Jews to eat.  He commanded Peter to kill and eat them.

Peter protested, defending his religious purity. (This seems a strange way to communicate, but the Lord can be as strange toward us as he likes). The revelation to Peter was, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15).

The application of the revelation was soon understood when messengers knocked on the door, summoning Peter to minister to a Gentile centurion and his household. When they readily received the word and the Spirit, Peter reported to his friends, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34).

There it is.  God does not show favoritism, or as the King James has it, he is “not a respecter of persons.

In the cultures of this world, all the things that make us appear different to one another are used to justify our hostility and defensiveness. But these attitudes are invalid in the kingdom of our Lord. God doesn’t play the game of identity politics. God is high above in his perfection, and as the preachers say, we all stand on the same level ground at the foot of the Cross.

To be imitators of our Lord and God, we mustn’t play favorites either. We must love without partiality, without hypocrisy (James 2:1-9; Rom. 12:9, 18) those who are like us, and those who are unlike us. It is only our love for our God that sets us apart as one family from every tongue, tribe and nation.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

(Gal 3:26-28).

arms bonding closeness daylight

Why are You Afraid?

This week my readings have led me to think a lot about fear. Rational fear, and irrational fear, and where Jesus is when we experience either kind.

The phrase “Do not be afraid” appears 81 times in the Bible, 63 times in the Old Testament, and 18 times in the New Testament.

The first occurrence is in Genesis 15:1, when God appears to Abram and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great.” This is one of several passages in Genesis that spells out God’s everlasting covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The message here, and throughout Scripture, is that God’s children should never fear, because he is always with us.

One of the most dramatic examples is the story of Jesus’ disciples struggling to keep their boat afloat while Jesus slept soundly in the back of the boat. The text includes these details: “Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat” (Matt. 8:24). They were about to get swamped, either to capsize or sink.

Pretend for a minute that you don’t know the end of the story, that Jesus “got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.” Don’t you think that the fear of the disciples was rational? They believed in that moment that they were going to die. They cried out, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” (v. 25). Jesus, his nap interrupted, asked them, “You of little faith, why, are you so afraid?” (v. 26).

Why are they afraid? Because drowning is a scary thing to think about. Most unpleasant. But this story tells us that even when to be afraid makes all the sense in the world, Jesus says not to, because he’s right there with us. He says, “Why are you afraid, I’m right here!”

Imagine a little kid who can’t swim jumping into the pool, into his father’s arms. That kid has learned to be afraid of the water, that on his own he sinks and drowns. Sensing his limitations in a dangerous environment, and making a choice based on the fear of harm or death is a sign of the emergence of rational thought.  

But all of that becomes moot as long as Dad is standing right there ready to catch him.

We can’t swim. We can’t survive the storm if the boat dumps us out. But Jesus can swim. Or rather, he doesn’t have to swim. He can rebuke the elements of fear in his presence. As long as he’s with us we are safe.

Sometimes our rational fear tells us that things are not OK. And we are quite right. But as I’ve heard John Eldredge say, and have quoted many times, “Everything is going to be OK in the end. If things are not OK, then it’s not the end.”

With Abram, the rational fear was leaving his home and making a long journey into the unknown. With Joshua, it was crossing over the Jordan into a Promised Land full of enemies. With Jacob, it was escaping famine to continue building his family in Egypt.

With Solomon, it was embarking on the gargantuan project to build a temple for the Lord. With Israel, it was exile to a foreign land. With Joseph, it was taking Mary to be his wife, in spite of the potential appearance of scandal. With the women at the empty tomb, it was understanding the possible implications of the absence of their Lord’s body.

No one would claim that these kinds of fears are not rational. But Jesus would claim that whether they are rational or irrational is irrelevant. He simply says, “Do not be afraid. I am right here, and will be with you always, even to the end of the world. I will never leave you or forsake you” (Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5).

So, whether it is traveling to an unknown land, or starting a project so big we can’t imagine finishing it,   or facing our enemies, or subjecting ourselves to persecution for obeying the gospel, we must incline our ear to the one who asks, “Why are you afraid?” His rhetorical question requires no answer, only the choice to trust him, even with our hearts still trembling and the boat still rocking.

What Measure Will You Use?

It never ceases to amaze me how the Holy Spirit leads me to supernatural convergences of biblical principles that turn into truth bombs in my brain. This week, as I pondered Proverbs 6 and Matthew 7 in my daily readings, one such bomb exploded.

Many of the admonishments of the book of Proverbs, including the verses that arrested my attention, have a parental tone. In fact, the author attributes them to mothers and fathers who give good instruction to their sons and daughters. The passage at hand goes further, attributing to the Lord, the ultimate parent, an inventory of things very displeasing to him:

There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him:
 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood,
 a heart that devises wicked schemes,
 feet that are quick to rush into evil,
 a false witness who pours out lies
 and a person who stirs up conflict in the community
. (Prov. 6:16-19)

New atheists like to argue that while the New Testament God is a pretty reasonable guy, the God of the Old Testament is a mean, immoral bully. I believe this passage from Proverbs reveals this God of Israel (the exact same God, by the way, who is worshiped by Christians), to be more than fair. Unlike the gods of the pagans, whom worshipers could never be certain they’d appeased, our God is quite clear about what pleases him. He is also abundantly clear about human attitudes and actions that bring judgment.

God’s judgment is aroused by falsehood, pride, murder, malicious conspiracies, and the sowing of strife. But how does the judgment come? And how do we make things right?

A few verses later, Proverbs states,

“For a command is a lamp, teaching is a light, and corrective discipline is the way to life.”

God’s teachings are a lamp that is never extinguished. Ongoing teaching should always accompany salvation because this brings us consistently into the light that the lamp of God radiates. This is called discipleship, and it never ends until we breathe our last.

Along the way, at whatever points God’s teaching brings conviction, discipline, and correction, we are assured that we are progressively gaining the way of life God prescribes. What is detestable to God becomes detestable to us as well.

This is not legalism. It is the kind of judgment we ought to welcome, because it comes from the Father heart of God via the Holy Spirit, and it is sent to restore us.

In Matthew 7, we find Jesus teaching about judgment in a different context. (*sound of pages turning*). The first verse is,

               Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.”

This verse is thrown around completely out of context these days by believers and unbelievers alike. It comes out of the box when someone is perceived to be questioning or condemning a particular attitude or behavior in another. The verse is a handy tool to shore up moral relativism and shoot an accusation. The accusation is, “Doesn’t the Bible say that you’re not supposed to judge? How dare you sit in judgment of how I live my life?”

Let’s look at what comes next, shall we?

“For you will be judged by the same standard with which you judge others, and you will be measured by the same measure you use.Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a beam of wood in your own eye? Hypocrite! First take the beam of wood out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.

One understanding of this is that we are not to judge others without examining ourselves first. If we are caught up in our own unacknowledged, unconfessed, unrepented sin, we bring judgment upon ourselves when we judge others. We all know that old lesson about the one finger pointed out at someone while the other three fingers point back at ourselves.

There are many illustrations of this. People involved in adultery or perversion dare not judge homosexuals for their lifestyle. People who predominately use race as their way of classifying and identifying people as a means to their own political ends dare not go around accusing others of racism.

Those who routinely lie to hide their faults and weaknesses ought not call other people liars. Those who have no objection to the deaths of many millions of pre-born babies lose all credibility when they stridently claim that each human life matters, whatever amount of melanin in the skin of that human.

It is not hypocrisy to judge sin and injustice when we see it. Sometimes we must, because to represent God’s righteousness it means that we hate sin. But it is hypocrisy to call out the sin of others when we ourselves are engaging in the same sin, or a similar sin called by a different name.

Nothing is hidden from the light and judgment of God. He cares about “integrity in the inner self” (Psalm 51: 6), and he can see right through the outer shell. Because we are all works in progress, and fallible, most of the time we need to check ourselves carefully and hold our tongues.

Another understanding of Jesus’ teaching brings us back to Proverbs. The same measure we use to judge others will be used by others—and God—to judge us. For those of us who humbly love and fear God, the only proper, righteous, accurate measure of right and wrong is the commandments he has given us.

Coming into the light of his righteous, eternal command puts us back together again, and renews our fellowship with him. This brings life and peace. Denial or ignorance of God’s will is not going to be a valid excuse when we stand before the throne.

We need to examine ourselves and remove our logs before we go around scrutinizing someone else’s splinters. Jesus said this, so as his disciples, we can take it as a command. The command is our lamp. His teaching has brought it to the light. Every time we stumble into this potential error, we have the opportunity to turn and conform more closely to a Jesus way of life.

 What is the measure of judgment? Obedience to God and walking in his grace and righteousness. Jesus did this perfectly, so he is entitled to use this measure to judge those whose lives demonstrate contempt for God after he has offered them his grace.

We don’t use an unreliable, changeable, temporal measuring stick provided by a debased culture. The measure we use is Scripture. When we witness in ourselves or others something God detests, we must judge it by that measure. Otherwise we quench the light of God’s truth in our own lives. But let’s make sure that we deal first deal with those logs in our own eyes.

Wholehearted

Recently one of our guilty pleasures at my house has been watching America’s Got Talent. The production design of the show is criminally noisy and garish, a great example of sensory overload for the viewer.

But we enjoy watching people who have invested tremendous time and effort pursuing their talents. Any one of them could be a poster child for wholehearted pursuit of big goals. Their stories are inspiring.

Whether it is dance, song, sport, magic, or danger, each person really wants to be recognized for having achieved a level of excellence by working very hard at their given talent. I really enjoy watching people aim for their best and get rewarded for it.

Wholeheartedness goes beyond physical effort. It occupies the entire soul. It drives us beyond normalcy, mediocrity, or acceptance of limitations. Wholehearted people aren’t apt to make excuses. They take responsibility for their own path, whether it leads to success or failure.

Wholeheartedness goes way beyond the performing arts. Wholehearted people are found in business, education, ministry, and even politics (sometimes). Everywhere.

Please don’t misunderstand me, especially you Brené Brown fans—I’m a fan too. I’m not talking about perfectionism, or obsession, or a lack of self-worth that drives people to seek significance based only on their performance in life.

I agree with Brené when she defines wholeheartedness as cultivating courage, compassion, and connection, and in our vulnerability and imperfection, “daring greatly.”

Wholeheartedness, or having a whole heart, is also recognized in Scripture as a way of being and living that is commendable and honorable. It most often refers to a courageous commitment to following the righteous paths marked out by God, whatever the risks or costs.

The first people in God’s story described as wholehearted were Caleb and Joshua, two of the ten spies sent by Moses on a reconnaissance mission into the Promised Land. It was called the Promised Land because the land was promised to Abraham’s descendants as part of God’s covenant with him. Joshua and Caleb were the only spies whose hearts were allied with the God who made that promise. All of the rest trembled in fear and cowardice.

Joshua and Caleb were the only members of their generation who lived to experience the first steps into that land forty years later. Both were granted this moment of victory because they had “followed the Lord wholeheartedly” (Deut. 1:36, Josh. 14:8). God had given them a mission, and they were wholehearted enough to take it on.

Joshua became the leader of Israel after the death of Moses. Caleb, a mighty warrior into his old age, was granted a large parcel of land in Judea after the land was conquered.

Here’s another illustration. When David was planning and providing for his son Solomon to build a temple to the Lord in Jerusalem, the people of Israel responded so generously that David had to tell them to stop giving! There was no more room to store the riches coming in, “for they had given freely and wholeheartedly to the Lord” (1 Chron. 29:9). David rejoiced. What leader wouldn’t rejoice at that kind of response to a building fund drive? These worshipers were all in on creating a sacred space to honor God.

Before his death, this was part of David’s instruction to Solomon:

“And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever. Consider now, for the Lord has chosen you to build a house as the sanctuary. Be strong and do the work” (1 Chron. 28:8-10).

Later, at the dedication of the completed temple, Solomon cried out,

Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.(1 Kings 8:23).

Solomon knew that the key to the kingdom is wholehearted devotion to the God who makes impossible things possible.

 What is true of kings is also true of servants. And who are we? I can’t answer for you, but I am pleased to see myself as a servant. And “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15).

Interestingly, in Ephesians 6, Paul refers to wholeheartedness when addressing those who serve earthly masters. He exhorted them to serve with “respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Then, to amplify this idea, he pleaded,

Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do…” (Eph. 6:5-8).

Everything we do, we dedicate to him. We don’t do it only to receive a reward, but it helps to know that we will be rewarded for our efforts if we do not quit.

It seems that wholeheartedness has everything to do with work! But it is not limited to certain types of work. It is applicable to:

Building…cleaning…designing…caring…feeding…managing…leading…painting…sweeping…selling…giving…counseling…writing…studying…teaching…mentoring…praying…

Other___________________________ What do you write here?

These thoughts and Scriptures about wholehearted living challenge me with the questions,

Are you willing to do your work until the end? Will you put your hand to the plow and not look back? (Luke 9:62)

This is not about salvation. Salvation is a redemptive work of God’s grace in the heart of anyone who puts faith and trust in the Savior. It is about allowing the Lord to inspire wholehearted feats of strength, courage, and sacrifice in his name.

It is about reaching for the prize, like those contestants on AGT. But our prize is so much better than a million dollars and the applause of people. It is union with the fiery, passionate heart of the God of the universe, and hearing the applause of heaven.

Consider now, for the Lord has chosen you…Be strong and do the work” (1 Chron. 28:10).

Servant Intercessors

The wise preacher Oswald Chambers understood the place that intercession plays in the life of the church and the individual believer. He claimed that it is one of the purest acts of service that believers can exercise, not prone to contamination by pride or selfishness.

 When we intercede with God for others, we are “brought into contact with his mind about the ones for whom we pray.” But it is more than prayer, it is a “sustained spiritual sympathy with God” in behalf of others.”[1] This kind of pure sympathy with God is much needed in the church and in the world.

There are also times when we speak for God, interceding with people on his behalf. Paul points to this when he refers to the ministry of reconciliation. We beseech people who are still separated from God, “Be reconciled!” (2 Cor. 5:20)

This type of intercession is beautifully illustrated by the servants in the familiar parable of the return of the prodigal son.The parable, found in Luke 15, was created by Jesus and told to a very mixed audience of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and scribes. The supposedly unrighteous mixed in with the supposedly righteous.

Jesus tells of a son who demands his inheritance early and leaves his father and brother to pursue a season of “riotous living.” We can imagine the types of activities he engaged in to waste his inheritance; they are undoubtedly some form of the same activities that entangle people today—sexual perversion, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling.

Eventually the son “hits bottom” and comes to his senses while feeding pigs in a strange land. This was a new low for a Hebrew man from a good family.

This desperate son recalls how well his father always provided for his needs and the needs of his servants. He determines to return home and beg to be hired as a servant, no longer worthy to be called a son.

As the young man approaches, the father runs out to greet him joyously. What is often ignored is that his household servants are part of the welcoming committee.

It is the servants who put the robe on his back and the ring on his finger, who kill the fattened calf and host the homecoming celebration. To these servants the father exclaims, “This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Lk 15:24). All is forgiven, restored, reconciled. The presence of the servants amplifies the grace, love, and joy of the father.

But this is not the end of the story, nor the end of the servants’ role. The older brother, hearing sounds of celebration, asks the servants what the noise is about. One replies, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound” (15:27).

The self-righteous brother is disgruntled about the fuss being made over the return of his errant brother. He is angry that he has gotten no recognition for remaining faithfully at his father’s side. He hardens his heart.

It is the servants who directly confront his hard heart, reminding him of the love and goodness of his father.

Why am I calling the servants in the story intercessors? Because they were given the honor of representing the father with two types of sinners, one repentant and returning to the safety of the household, and one soured by self-righteousness and unforgiveness.

Servants rejoice with their Father and the angels of God when those, like the prodigal, come to their senses and return home to the embrace of God and his people. Simultaneously, when those like the older brother refuse to rejoice at the rescuing, redeeming grace of God, servants remind them of God’s abundant mercy.

The Father cherishes both those who have stayed close to home and those who have departed and returned. He also cherishes those called as servants in his household, those who bring unity and clarity, proclaiming the tender heart of the Father to one and all. Servants intercede for the lost and for the found.

When we come to the end of the parable, Jesus does not tell us what happens to either brother. The servants have intervened with each in the father’s behalf, but we don’t know what happens next. We don’t know if the prodigal stays home and maintains a godly life, or heads back out onto his prodigal road. We don’t know if the older brother changes his attitude and becomes more gracious or continues to stew in his arrogance.

These characters are so real to us that we forget that it’s merely a parable Jesus utilized to teach some lessons about the Father’s love and kindness. Don’t you wonder how the sinners and the religious folks felt as they each began to recognize themselves in the story?

We all know a family in which a child who has strayed comes back into the fold, only to relapse into addiction and rebellion. And don’t we also know someone who struggles, like the older brother, with legalism, resentment, and unforgiveness? Maybe it is we ourselves who strongly identify with one or both of these brothers.

If we take on the role of servant-intercessors, we will follow and support the will of the Master we serve. We pursue his just and merciful purposes. We are to continually watch with him for those children who are turning toward home, and continually encourage kindheartedness in those who have remained safely in his care.


[1] Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest

Sobriety

“Sobriety” is a word so beautiful when spoken by recovering alcoholics or addicts celebrating freedom from controlling addictions. My big brother is one of them. He calls me now and then and reports to me, “I’m still sober,” and I give joyful thanks and praise to God every time I hear it.

If you ask those who have gotten sober, they will tell you that there is a lot more to it than merely abstaining from a particular mind-and-body-altering substance or behavior. Sobriety encompasses a comprehensive life change–in thinking, behavior, emotional regulation, relationship, purpose, and value system.

The founders of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous understood this well. Though AA has been adapted to be applicable to a diversity of worldviews, its founders were Christians, and the Steps started and ended with God, their “higher power.”

The program starts with confessing helplessness to manage our own lives and surrendering our unmanageable lives to God. We ask him to restore us to sanity. We accept conviction over our harmful behavior, seek to make amends, and commit to following a more honest, morally clean life. The pièce de ré​sis​tance is Step 12:

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Sobriety turns out to be a spiritual awakening, to be shared with others who long to be awakened. It sounds a lot like repentance to me, and receiving one of the fruits of repentance, a sober mind. A sober mind allows us to live a principled, righteous life. A sober mind gives us a capacity to overcome self-obsession and begin serving others.

Did you know that the Bible speaks in many places about the need to be sober, or sober-minded? It is one of the benefits of the new birth, as well as a characteristic of a maturing disciple. One of the most familiar passages is this:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

Sobriety means we aren’t asleep at the switch, or under the influence of any worldly power. If we are to avoid the plans the enemy has for us, we must be sober and watchful.

 The same writer, Peter, also tells us that when our minds are “alert and fully sober,” they become more hopeful also, joyfully watching for the return of Jesus Christ. We are empowered not to conform to our former desires, but to live in obedience to God, continual prayer, and a love for others that “covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 1:13-14; 4:7-8). Don’t we want to grab onto that way of living and not let go?

The Apostle Paul, after exhorting disciples to become living sacrifices, as their “reasonable service,” admonishes them,

“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Rom. 12:1-3).

This expresses another important aspect of having a sober, sound mind–that we have a realistic, honest appraisal of our own strengths and weaknesses. In my encounters with recovering addicts, this is one of the most refreshing aspects of their awakening. They are able to admit their faults, and at the same time, discover the ways that God has gifted them with strengths and talents. They—and all of us—need to understand how God wants to use us, even in our weaknesses, as he has uniquely fashioned us.

Some passages in the New Testament are more literal in their use of the two Greek words translated “sober.” In the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus, sober mindedness is a way of life expected of elders, deacons, older men, older women, young men, and young women. No one is left out. We are all responsible for the way we represent the name of Christ in the world.

This doesn’t just mean that we aren’t to be drunk and disorderly. Other words used in connection to this picture of sobriety are discipline, dignity, self-control, faith, love, patient endurance, solid faith, purity, love, devotion, hospitality, nobility, integrity, wholesomeness (Titus 2:1-7, TPT). As I said, comprehensive life transformation comes with a sound mind. It’s a whole package.

There is a sense in which every compulsive, sinful behavior can be characterized as lust—an inordinate, illicit craving for something to satisfy our fleshly desires. When we begin to live our lives in God, the flesh still lusts against the Spirit. But the good news is that the Spirit fights back. If we commit our time, energy, attention, and wills into the keeping of the Holy Spirit, he will help us. He will show us the way to keeping our hearts and minds pure.   

I’ll finish with Paul’s wonderful exhortation to the Thessalonians. It applies to all who put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and want to please him in every way:

You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober.For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night.But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet (1 Thess. 5:5-8).

We don’t need alcohol, drugs, or any other life-controlling compulsion if we can embrace this joyful path of sobriety in the Lord. Let us put on the mighty armor he has provided and live as those who belong to the light.

What Cannot Be Shaken

Those acquainted with Bible prophecy can’t help wondering if we are coming into the fulfillment of “end time” events. Clearly there is a great shaking throughout the earth, in every domain—meteorology, tectonics, politics, economics, health care, religion, communication, international relations, social connection. You can fill in anything I may have left out.

Our world has changed dramatically in just a few short months. But what feels sudden to most of us is the result of pressure that has been building up gradually for a long time. Apply whatever metaphor suits you—the balloon has popped, the trigger was pulled, the iceberg was struck, the pin was pulled from the grenade.

We wonder if all the (relatively) small explosions will culminate in the scenario Jesus describes:

“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:25-27).

Even the planets, the sun and the stars will be in uproar as we move toward Christ’s appearing. We are not given to know the timing of his return, but we recognize the signs that it is coming closer.

The writer to the Hebrews reminded the first century believers of God’s shaking Mount Sinai as he revealed his power and his Law to Moses. He declared, “This is the same God who now speaks from heaven.” There was no place to run and hide from his majestic and powerful voice on that mountain, “so what chance is there for us to escape if we turn our backs on God and refuse to hear his warnings as he speaks from heaven?” (Heb. 12:25).

The writer continues with this reference to the prophet Haggai, “Once and for all I will not only shake the systems of the world, but also the unseen powers in the heavenly realm!” (v. 26). It is clear that the Spirit is not just referring to nations, tectonic plates or hurricanes, but to every worldly, human-centered system and structure that demons employ to intimidate and manipulate people in opposition to the Lord.

His shaking will topple all of the spiritual principalities behind these systems. He will destroy both the puppets and the puppeteers.

The passage concludes with, “This phrase ‘once and for all’ clearly indicates the final removal of things that are shaking, that is, the old order, so only what is unshakable will remain” (Heb. 12:27).

Do you see that? Only what is unshakable will remain. There will be complete stability and strength. We should seek to understand what, in God’s view, are these unshakable things.

The best place to start is with the love of God, agape. His love is the greatest thing, the force that never fails when every other force is taken away (1 Cor. 13:8).

Vertically, God’s love for his people is absolutely solid. Recalling the days of Noah, when God promised never to allow the floodwaters to fill the earth, Isaiah writes,

“’Though the mountains be shaken, and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” (Isaiah 54:10).

This promise relates to those who are in covenant with him, who will not be shaken from that bond, no matter what happens. It is for those who have put trust in his unfailing love, not for those who stubbornly resist him.

David said, “I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken” (Ps. 15:8). Another psalm compares those who trust in him to Mount Zion, “which cannot be shaken but endures forever” (Ps. 125:1). And still another, “Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken” (Ps. 62:6).

In other words, in response to his love, we trust in him completely, and have our house built upon a rock (Matt. 7:24). While all around us is shaking, we find peace, strength, and stability for our souls.

But God doesn’t want us to sit around on his promises. Instead, he says “having done all…stand”. We must use our life energy to promote God’s unshakable values and purposes. David, in Psalm 15, spells out the lifestyle of people God considers unshakable. They:

  • do what is righteous
  • speak the truth from their heart
  • utter no slander
  • do no wrong to a neighbor
  • cast no slurs on others
  • despise evil
  • honor those who fear the Lord
  • keep an oath even when it hurts
  • lend money to the poor without interest
  • do not accept a bribe 

That’s a challenging, comprehensive list of attitudes and behaviors that reinforce God’s firm foundation of love and trust in our lives. It is a sturdy set of moral absolutes that stabilize us–if we choose to apply them–in a relativistic culture that is toppling moral absolutes faster than it is toppling statues.

As anachronistic as it may seem, let’s choose to follow this way of living and being. Opening our hearts to receive God’s perfect love. Putting all our trust in the one who can hold us together when all is falling apart. Extending his faithful love to the other humans around us. Doing the right thing whether others are watching or not.

This is how we stay safe and sound, sheltered and grounded by our God, unshakable.

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Brothers and Sisters of Other Mothers

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It seems like eons ago when I was preparing to be a professional jazz guitarist and vocalist. I was in college studying jazz, and it was the only music on my turntable.  I practiced jazz tunes for hours every day. I sought out gigs of my own and live performances by some of the best musicians in the world. This was New York in the 1980’s for me.

Sometimes my father would come into the city to hear me play or attend a jazz concert with me. He was always mystified by the non-verbal communication that takes place when a jazz band is improvising together. I would explain to him that the musicians are rooted in a common repertoire, moving through familiar harmonic structures, listening for a melody or rhythm to creatively add color and texture to the familiar landscape of each song.      

To this day, wherever I might travel, I could track down some jazz musicians, and we could play music together immediately even if we spoke different languages. The sound, the swing, the history and library of songs and the adventure of improvisation would unite us. We’re like brothers and sisters of other mothers, to borrow a phrase.

This phenomenon came to my mind while reading excerpts from Oswald Chambers’ writings on prayer. I experienced some perplexity because of his lofty, old-school way of phrasing things. But then he quoted Scripture, and I felt instantly connected.

This can happen when exploring theological works of any previous generation of “God chasers” throughout the history of the church. They all have different styles of expression that reflect the era and distinct cultural environment in which they lived.

It may take some effort to get to the core of their theology because of their context-specific idioms and cultural references. But it’s worthwhile to take in what seems obscure at first, digest it, and contextualize it for our time and place. We can do this if we are convinced of the integrity of our same source, God’s perfect book.

The Scriptures are our common language and heritage. They transcend all time and space and cultural nuance. They connect you and me to the heart of Oswald’s faith, or Luther’s, or Edwards,’ and that faith looks just like ours in the end.

Of course! They are brothers from other mothers, enlivened by the grace of the same Father, reconciled by the same Jesus, led by the same Holy Spirit, instructed by the same words of wisdom. We ought to look alike on the level of our saved souls.

Perhaps you’ve experienced this phenomenon when you’ve visited a church in a different cultural environment. The worship style is different, and the service and fellowship have a different feel. But if brothers and sisters are preaching and worshiping in accordance with the truths of Scripture, there is a comfortable familiarity. Instead of distancing ourselves, we can come closer and enjoy their unique ways of loving God and each other.

As Bible-believing disciples of Christ, we have a family bond that goes much deeper than race, ethnicity, education level, social status, or any of the other categories that often divide us. Jesus is the “firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Rom. 8:29), and we are those brothers and sisters!

God does not show partiality to individuals within his flock (Deut. 10:17; Acts 10:34), and we are not supposed to show partiality either (James 2:1-9; 1 Tim. 5:21). God’s love compels us to walk in familial love for our brothers and sisters everywhere.

Like players in a jazz ensemble, members the body of Christ can jump into the creation of new sounds, colors, and rhythms, knowing that we are all drawing from the same source. All of our unique contributions come together into a holy song that rises to the throne of God.

God rejoices in the united song of his people. And he rejoices when we understand and experience our family ties, when we recognize that we are brothers and sisters of many mothers.

How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity.

It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.

(Psalm 133)

God Uses Evil for Good

I was with two other women in ministry recently, talking about how the COVID virus has impacted just about every aspect of our daily lives and ministries. Where we go, who we see, how we earn a living, how we plan our next steps.

It’s been frustrating on the human level for sure. But we know that God is at work, and we have a common desire to see what he is doing through it all. As we’ve been singing recently:

Even when I don’t see it, You’re working, even when I don’t feel it, You’re working
You never stop, You never stop working, You never stop, You never stop working
(Leeland)

I believe, based on spiritual discernment and Scripture (John 10:9), that the COVID-19 virus is a work of the devil. If his assignment is to “steal, kill, and destroy,” then it fits perfectly that this virus comes from him, because that is what it is doing. Stealing lives and livelihoods. Killing vulnerable bodies and killing hope in the hearts of millions. Destroying business, governments, social structure, and community.

If you think that this is a crazy, superstitious idea, then you don’t trust the teaching of Jesus, because it was Jesus who identified this as the enemy’s job description. Satan, the great liar, loves to bring hopelessness, and ultimately, to steal worship from our God.

The more we focus fearfully on the virus and its effects the happier he is. All that energy is not going toward the advancing of the kingdom of God.

But there is good news.

God doesn’t just use the good things in our lives to fulfill his purposes. He uses the evil things too. In our personal lives, if we look back at the times of greatest growth and breakthrough, often we find that it was during times of calamity, pain, and hardship. Conversely, when we recall seasons full of “trials of many kinds” (James 1:2), don’t we also see that spiritual fruit matured within us as we persevered?

Think about the devastating hurricanes of the past few decades. Recall how individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches, businesses, organizations, governments, and first responders worked together to rescue, support, and pray for one another. God does not delight in the devastation, but he is well pleased when people show their best selves amid the wreckage Satan brings.

Think about someone you know who has received a terrible diagnosis and had to endure months of frightening, painful treatments. They emerged on the other side so much stronger, braver, deeper in faith, more thankful, and more wholehearted in every way. God received glory and honor for his transforming healing and grace.

Years ago I facilitated a support group for women who had survived breast cancer. Every one of them said that hearing their doctors utter the word “cancer” was one of the worst moments of their lives. They wouldn’t wish it upon their worst enemy. Yet every one told me that they wouldn’t give back the way their hearts and lives had expanded in love and gratitude through the ordeal.

Scripture comes to life in so many places on this topic, but most vividly in the story of the crucifixion. As a human, Jesus recognized himself in the prophecies of the Old Testament as the “mediator between God and man” (1 Tim. 2:5) that would confront and do away with the sin of humanity on the cross. All four Gospels verify that he knew he would be killed, how he would be killed, and that he would be raised from the dead on the third day.  

Jesus knew he would drink the bitter cup, to purchase the pardon for our iniquity. He said yes to the Father. But isn’t it interesting that God used evil-minded, vicious people to carry out his plan?

God allowed Satan to enter Judas, prompting him to betray Jesus to the authorities. God allowed the Jewish leaders to falsely accuse Jesus and unjustly sentence him to death.

God allowed the bloodthirsty Roman soldiers to torture Jesus, drive thorns into his scalp, and nail holes in his hands and feet. God allowed Herod and Pilate to sit idly by while all of this happened. God allowed the crowd to shout, “Crucify him, crucify him!”

God is light, and there is no darkness or shadow in him. To create the conditions in which Jesus could take on all our sin—all of it—he allowed people filled with darkness to play parts in the drama of redemption.

In the final analysis, we must never forget that these evildoers didn’t kill Jesus; Jesus gave himself freely. He could have come down from the cross, but for love of the world, he finished his part.

So, what can we learn and apply as we navigate through a time of unprecedented tension, confusion, isolation, and fear. What does God want to do with this COVID-19 demonic bug? He’s not afraid of it, that’s for sure. And he doesn’t want his people to be afraid either.

Maybe he is teaching us to represent him in some new ways. Do we continue to speak boldly of his goodness, declaring our complete confidence in him, however things appear?  

Maybe he is teaching us to trust him more fully, to protect our health or provide for our needs.

Maybe he is testing our faithfulness. If we aren’t in church to give our tithes and offerings, do we still give? If we don’t have a live band in front of us, and lyrics on a screen, do we still worship? If we cannot meet with our brothers and sisters to intercede for each other, do we still pray?

Maybe he is teaching us what it means to take up our cross and follow him (Matt 10:38). When we see the enemy at work, do we go headlong into the work of the kingdom, taking our stand? Do we oppose him, standing firm with our armor on, brandishing the sword of the Spirit, the word of God?

I believe he is doing all these things. He is speaking especially to his church in this crucial moment.

I’d love to hear from you! Would you please share what you see and feel God doing in your own life, in your family and community, in your local church, in our country or in the world? He is surely doing great things. Tell me what you see!

“Let them praise the Lord for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them.” (Ps. 107:8)

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Making an Argument

We often hear people these days yelling at each other, full of emotional fury, but unable to make a clear defense for their strongly held positions. Presenting a thesis and a coherent argument to support it is becoming a lost art.

We don’t all have to be high-level debaters, rhetoricians, or apologists to acquire skill in presenting a case for what we believe and why we believe it.  

Granted, it is sometimes hard to discern when it is the right time or place to argue a case, and with whom. Please, not on Facebook with your Aunt Sylvia!

One of my daily prayers has been, ‘Lord, show me when to speak, what to say, and more importantly, when to be silent.’ If I can’t state my case on an issue in a way that is honoring to God and his word, and with the genuine desire to peacefully edify and inform others, it is probably best to hold my tongue.

What not to argue about…and with whom

Scripture gives us guidance on issues that God’s people are not to argue about. In Luke 9, the disciples disputed like children in the schoolyard about which of them would be the greatest. Let us not be found engaging in this kind of ridiculous argument with our brothers and sisters!  

John the Baptist’s disciples argued with some Jews about the need for ceremonial washing (John 3:25-26). The Pharisees were always trying to pick a fight with Jesus about his healing people on the Sabbath. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time for disputes about religious practices that are not essential to faith in Christ and his salvation.

Several times Paul warns about those who get caught up in genealogies or obsess about angels. These are distractions from sincere faith in Christ. We shouldn’t give them space in our heads.

And there are warnings in the Proverbs and in Paul’s letters about avoiding arguments with certain types of people: fools and heretics. Proverbs repeatedly points out the futility in trying to convince fools of anything. That is what makes them fools in the first place—they do not receive instruction and despise true wisdom.

Paul says about a person who persists in arguing against the commandments of God, “If anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant” (1 Cor. 14:38). He warns Timothy,

“If anyone…does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness,he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself. (1 Tim. 6:3-5).

These are some strong apostolic warnings and we should take heed to them. His description unfortunately applies to quite a few troublemakers out there right now.

Demonic arguments and human arguments

The father of lies continually stirs up strife and sets up deceptive arguments against faith-based convictions. These then become culturally normalized, so that if we dare to object to what we perceive to be lies, people who promote them will call us names and try to silence us. This is true right now on issues of sexuality, abortion, Covid19, environmentalism, and many others. It’s being called “cancel culture.”

When we recognize demonic work like this in our midst, we must counter with the correct weapons—Scripture, spiritual admonition, prayer, and prophesy. We use our spiritual authority in the name of Jesus Christ to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5).

We demolish arguments, not people; we are not fighting against flesh and blood. This is a spiritual calling, and it requires faith, determination, and plenty of courage. Even in the midst of severe spiritual warfare, we do our best to keep loving people. They often don’t know they are being exploited by the enemy.

We don’t give in, as Eve did in the garden, when the serpent flatly contradicted God’s clear direction. God had said, “Don’t eat of this tree or you will surely die.” Satan said, “You will not surely die, because…” Satan brought an argument, and Eve had no counterargument to demolish his. I don’t think there is a plainer illustration in all of Scripture. We must be prepared to demolish demonic arguments.

Not all arguments are demonic, however, and certainly not all who argue against Scripture are evil. They may be inculcated in a different system of thought but are open to an honest discussion. This calls for the art of apologetics. This is where being an ambassador for Christ gets interesting and can even be fun.

The best-known biblical example of this skill is Paul’s message to the curious Athenians in Acts 17. Paul acknowledges their religious, cultural, and philosophical worldviews, and makes his own case from that platform. He shows the skeptics a path to faith in Jesus Christ that makes sense to their Greek mentality.

Paul can do this because he has taken the time to understand their cultural context. He doesn’t yell at them to win them to Christ. He reasons with them using their own cultural vocabulary.

There are also some contemporary apologists I admire greatly, Ravi Zacharias (whose brilliant voice we sadly just lost a few weeks ago), Tim Keller, Lee Strobel, and Michael Brown, to name a few. What I appreciate about these men is their ability to stay objectively grounded in truth, while showing great grace and respect for their debate opponents.

It is a pleasure to watch Ravi or Tim patiently listen to a debate opponent’s or skeptic’s challenge to Scripture and then respond with disarming wisdom, grace, and kindness. They’ve learned to make an argument and defend it, using chapter and verse, but not only chapter and verse. They also use reason, philosophy, literature, logic, experience, history, and best of all, common sense.

Like the opponents of Jesus, their opponents are often left speechless. Not disrespected, just corrected. Challenged to think more deeply, their curiosity aroused.

In this highly charged, conflicted atmosphere we are experiencing, it is tempting to just ride with the downstream flow of the cultural current. But if we do, we forfeit our opportunity to offer an alternative to the increasing barbarity and depravity that grieves our hearts and the heart of God.

Let us look to Jesus, The Apostles, and the honorable apologists of our day and follow their examples. When called to take a position on a controversial issue, we will do well to learn how to make an argument based in Scriptural truth. We approach people with respect for their differing worldview. We then can speak with authority and grace, and not merely react from our emotions.

Ideas about Debate