Category Archives: Faith

You are the beloved of God.

Most of us yearn to experience genuine, unconditional love in our lives. We seek absolute, unqualified affection from family, friends, and confidants alike. Such love inspires us to pursue bigger dreams than we ever imagined and motivates us to achieve greater accomplishments than we ever thought possible. Unconditional love encourages us to move past our failures and shortcomings and try again. Authentic love liberates us from the despair, discouragement, and hopelessness that paralyze and demoralize us. True love is the most integral input to a satisfying, fulfilled life.

Sadly, millions of Americans find such love elusive in an increasingly cold and impersonal world. We plod through life unaware of the power and hope produced by unconditional love. It appears too remote – like a desert mirage that lies just beyond our reach. We hunger for it desperately but consign ourselves to a reality that we will never possess it.

That is unfortunate since each of us has immediate access to a relationship grounded in a deeper, more authentic love than we have ever experienced. It is a love predicated on the majesty and glory of our Creator and not on our worthiness. We can never earn such love, yet we need not try because it is already ours. God’s love for you is not conditioned on doing anything to warrant it. He extends His affection because doing so brings Him pleasure.

You are dear to the heart of God. He cherishes you. He views you fondly. You are precious in the sight of God no matter what deeds darken your past. He wants to take you forward to a future filled with meaning and purpose. His love will break the shackles of regret and shame that destroy you. You are His beloved!

Take some time to revel in that truth. God loves you irrespective of how insignificant, how unworthy, or how unlovable you view yourself. He loves you no matter the stain of past behavior, the bleakness of current circumstances, or the futility-filled future you anticipate. God will restore you from the past, transform your present condition, and infuse your future with hope. That is good news. Indeed it is the Great News of the gospel.

Keep in mind, though, as the beloved of God we should not expect a life of comfort, pleasure, leisure, and luxury. God does not award in this life His beloved with an absence of trials, challenges, pain, or struggles. Instead He uses difficult events to transform us, draw us closer to Him, and teach us to trust Him. We learn to view the world through His eyes, to share His love with others, and to adopt His priorities. In the process we discover a life overflowing with significance and joy. For evidence we need look no further than the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

The apostle Matthew recounts three instances in which God calls Jesus, ‘My Beloved,” (see Matthew 3:17; 12:18; 17:5, NKJV). On each occasion Almighty God asserts, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” We learn three things about Jesus in these verses.

  • He is the beloved of God.
  • He is the Son of God.
  • He has pleased God.

We might expect someone with these credentials to enjoy a long life filled with material blessings, career success, abundant prosperity, and the absence of pain. Yet Jesus endured a short life (thirty-three years) marked by ridicule and contempt from his peers, crammed with suffering, and which lacked worldly riches. His life refutes the perception (often taught as doctrine) that God rewards His people with health, wealth, pleasure, and comfort. In fact, no one ever pleased God as fully as Jesus did yet He died impoverished and despised, and suffered a brutal, unjustified death at the hands of those who hated God.

While none of us may undergo such a similarly vicious conclusion to this world, we ought to recognize that a life pleasing to God is often accompanied by trouble, anguish, and toil. Such experiences do not reflect the absence of God in our lives but rather allow us to reveal His strength, love and power to those around us. In view of Jesus’ life and death we should recalibrate our expectation of what it means to be beloved of God.

Like Jesus we ought to pursue lives that align to God’s will, advance His agenda, and bring Him glory – not in a futile attempt to earn His favor and unconditional love but in recognition that we have already received both. Our desire to please and serve Him ought to be born of our awareness that He gives our life meaning, fullness, and hope. Those in turn equip us with the resolve to follow Him no matter the cost.

Does your life enjoy the unconditional, authentic love of God – a love that sustains you through whatever trials life places in your path? If not, call out today and ask Him to reveal His deep, abiding love to you, His beloved. When he bestows that affection on you remember it may not improve your circumstances (indeed they may get tougher) but it will equip you with the strength to overcome them. And living in that love makes life much more joyous, meaningful, and hopeful.

When Evangelicals Ignore Jesus.

Evangelicals emphasize a commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture and the belief that it represents the literal word of God. But on one particular topic we behave as though the Bible were fallible and ignore what Jesus taught. Instead we embrace a secular worldview that appeals to us and dismiss as irrelevant Jesus’ many lessons on the subject. We have little interest entertaining the idea that our perspective on the matter contravenes the very Bible we claim to follow so closely. Rather than accept the unambiguous principle Jesus conveyed we scrutinize God’s word for exceptions to the rule, to excuse us from following His counsel. As a result we face the dangers, temptations, and risks He warned us would occur when we follow our desires instead of His guidance.

Jesus informed His disciples that, “it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” (Matthew 19:23, NLT). Knowing this truth would surprise the disciples He immediately reinforced His point, “l say it again—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” (vs. 24). This shocked the disciples who wondered, “who then can be saved?” (vs. 25). We tend to focus on Jesus’ response to that question, “with God all things are possible,” (Matthew 19:26, NKJV). We insist that Jesus’ message has very little to do with the difficulty of the rich going to heaven and everything to do with accomplishing anything we want with God’s help. But if Jesus had simply wanted to emphasize the point that all things are possible with God, He needn’t have said anything at all about the wealthy.

Jesus’ primary message in the passage is that the wealthy rarely get to heaven. This should not surprise us. A cursory study of the Bible reveals the basis for this truth. Pride often resides with the affluent who tend to credit themselves for their success. Frequently, they ignore the needs of others, use their resources selfishly, and demonstrate a lack of compassion for the less fortunate. Worse of all, they fall in love with the things of the world and develop an idolatrous relationship with riches and the world. The Old Testament is replete with examples – as is modern America.

Jesus understood the dangers, temptations, and risks associated with acquiring wealth. He frequently warned His followers of these and consistently cautioned them against pursuing the things of this world. Doing so almost always leads away from God and precludes the joy of eternal life. In fact, Jesus references wealthy individuals on at least three occasions during His ministry and in every instance the person is separated from God and falls short of heaven. Let’s look briefly at each.

In the first a man asks Jesus to command his brother split an inheritance with him. In response, Jesus advises the crowd, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses,” (Luke 12:15, NKJV). Jesus’ point is clear. Quit focusing on this world and wasting time collecting things. That is not what this life is about. He then shares a parable about a rich farmer who harvests a bountiful crop. Instead of thanking God, sharing with the poor, and using the income to fund God’s work, the man responds selfishly, greedily, and arrogantly. He credits himself for his wealth and lavishes himself with luxury. God calls him a fool and informs him that he will die that night and must exchange his soul for the life he lived. Jesus then challenges the crowd, explaining that such is the case for everyone “who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God,” (Luke 12:21, NKJV). Wealth almost invariably distracts us from investing in our relationship with God and fulfilling His will. That is why Jesus required His disciples renounce everything before following Him.

In the second example a rich, young ruler approaches Jesus and inquires about what he must do to achieve eternal life. Jesus reminds him of several commandments, to which the young man responds, “All these I have kept from my youth,” (Luke 18:21, NKJV). On hearing this Jesus tells him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me,” (Luke 18:22, NKJV). At this, the man walks away in sorrow. He has no interest in following Christ or attaining eternal life if it costs him his possessions and wealth. The man had deceived himself into believing he was living his life for God and on the fast-track to heaven. But with one simple command Jesus explodes that myth. So it is with many of us. We have convinced ourselves we are evangelical Christians who love the Lord, do His will, and are heaven-bound. But our love for the world, our pursuit of possessions, and our lives of luxury suggest otherwise. We, too, have been deceived.

Finally, Jesus shares a parable about Lazarus and a rich man (we never learn the wealthy man’s name because he is a composite for the affluent). We learn little about him except that he “was splendidly clothed in purple and fine linen and lived each day in luxury,” (Luke 16:19, NLT). He showed no compassion for the poor, displayed no humility or gratitude toward God, and refused to direct His resources to advance God’s Kingdom. He was consumed with himself and believed his riches were his to be used however he wanted. On death he is cast into hell and tormented. Again, Jesus reminds us how dangerous wealth can be. It diverts our attention from our true purpose in this world (to know Christ and make Him known to others), and convinces us to focus on ourselves, the collection of material things, enjoying the lap of luxury, and entertaining ourselves. As we pursue those objectives we find ourselves further and further from God and His will.

Of course, Christian leaders will remind us that it is not a sin to be wealthy. That is true. They will also assert that God sometimes materially blesses those who follow Him. That is also true. What we often fail to hear from them, though, is the truth that wealth frequently leads us away from the Lord and corrodes our relationship with Him. It repeatedly leads to arrogance, selfishness, greed, and idolatry. For this reason readers ought to resist the temptation to chase riches and the things of this world as that almost always leads to destruction and torment.

 

Postscript: This blog provides rudimentary coverage of the topic but Scripture says much more on the subject of wealth and the danger it represents, the temptation it produces, and the deceit it manufactures. We would do well to explore more closely Jesus’ teachings on the subject. I address this theme thoroughly in my book, Difficult Is the Path: Why Life as a Disciple of Jesus Is Not for the Fainthearted. It is available at Barnes and Noble and on Amazon.

 

 

Customized Faith.

Increasingly, American consumers demand customized products. From coke bottles that bear individual names to homes designed to meet the exotic tastes of an eccentric buyer, manufacturers recognize the affiliation purchasers have for personalized goods and offer them with growing frequency. They understand that consumers will pay a significant premium for products tailored to their specific palates.

This phenomenon thrives in matters of faith as well, even among American evangelicals. This significant segment of Christianity confesses religious orthodoxy and a literal view of the Bible, yet it ignores passages of Scripture it finds uncomfortable. Most evangelicals view Christianity primarily from a benefit perspective. What can God do for me? They eagerly receive His love, mercy, forgiveness, peace, joy, promises, and blessings. They believe God wants to shower them with these gifts and requires little in return – perhaps regular church attendance and an appearance of holiness but nothing more.

Sadly, many evangelical pastors and leaders enthusiastically peddle false or compromised gospels that reinforce this view so they can line their pockets with thirty pieces of silver. They readily preach and promote what evangelical audiences want to hear and explain away any objectionable lesson Jesus taught. Sharing the whole truth of Scripture jeopardizes their position, income, and status. Better to preach half the truth and enjoy prosperity, reputation, and acclaim then advocate the entirety of the Bible and walk in camel’s hair eating locusts and wild honey.

What most evangelicals want, and most church leaders willingly teach, is a gospel that legitimizes their current lifestyle. They demand a faith that does not disrupt their dreams, does not inconvenience them, makes no difficult demands, and allows them to enjoy all the accouterments of this world. They insist on practicing a faith that offers the best of both worlds: a life of comfort, pleasure, leisure, and wealth in this world, and eternal life with God in the next.

What such evangelicals fail to understand, however, is that Jesus routinely rebuked that form of faith. He emphasized time and again the considerable cost of following Him as a disciple. In describing His expectations for those who place their faith in Him, Jesus asserted, “if anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me,” (Luke 9:23). Later He added, “whoever does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14:33).

The crux of these two verses is that following Christ is a full-time commitment that requires we go all-in. The result is a life so transformed that no one recognizes us. We put to death our own interests, plans, and desires, and replaced them with His. Does this sound more challenging than what the church teaches? Would you prefer a faith that is easy to follow? If so, consider the counsel Jesus offered His disciples. “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the path which leads to life, and there are few who find it,” (Matthew 7:14). Christ does not mince words about the challenge of becoming His disciple. It will be difficult. So difficult, in fact, few people actually find eternal life.

I encourage readers to meditate on these verses. Seek guidance from the Holy Spirit as to how your life should reflect these words from Jesus. Resist the temptation to disregard them or embrace the idea that Christ didn’t really mean what He said. Your salvation is at stake.

Signs of End Times – Part I

I traveled regularly when I worked in the corporate world and occasionally I would experience a flight delay. In one instance a severe storm swept through the area I had been visiting causing a two-hour delay. Since I had not eaten yet, I walked to a restaurant just around the corner from my gate and ordered dinner. In an effort to optimize time I pulled out my laptop and began working on a presentation.

After an hour I poked my head around the corner to see if the weather had further delayed my flight. Imagine my surprise when I noticed no one in the waiting area and the gate information sign had been updated to reflect a departed flight. I hustled to the gate agent, asked about my flight and learned it had just left. Apparently a brief break in the weather allowed the pilot to secure clearance from air traffic control to depart. The airline had loaded passengers quickly and then left the terminal.

I protested and asked the agent why she hadn’t made an announcement on the PA system. She informed me that she had made several such announcements. Evidently I was so focused on getting my work done that I had not heard the updates. I had allowed something of secondary importance, my work, to distract me from that which was of primary importance, going home. As it turned out, that was the last flight out the day and I missed it. I was left behind.

God knows how easily the things of this world distract us. We get focused on things of secondary importance such as our careers, education, reputation, entertainment and even our friends and family. Often they distract us so much we lose focus entirely on the one thing of primary importance, our relationship with God. Our time with Him diminishes to a point of such insignificance that we are unable to hear His voice. The cacophony of voices demanding our attention prevent us from hearing His guidance for our lives and His instruction for our decisions. We do not hear Him sending us a message just I did not hear the gate agent make her announcement over the PA system.

Unfortunately, failing to hear and respond to God’s call carries far greater consequences than failing to hear an update on a flight departure. We risk missing the return of Christ and failing to join Him when He takes His followers to their eternal home. Billions of people will miss that ultimate journey because the world distracted them. Sadly, many of those will be folks who thought they were following the Lord all along.

I think that risk of distraction is why Scripture informs us of the signs that reflect end times. God wants us ready when His Son returns to gather His people. He does not want us caught unprepared and therefore left behind. Let’s examine a biblical passage (2 Timothy 3:1-5) that identifies some of the signs of the end times and see what we can glean from it.

In Paul’s second epistle to Timothy he observes, “in the last days times of stress will come,” (2 Tim. 3:1, NKJV). Certainly many in the world are experiencing significant stress in their lives today, perhaps unprecedented for some. Paul then proceeds to list a number of sinful behaviors that people will manifest in later days. Of course, all of these sins have been evidenced since the beginning of time. In today’s world, though, they seem to be growing exponentially in frequency and intensity. Here are several he mentions that appear especially germane in our world today. You may want to consider whether you reflect any of these behaviors in your own life.

People will be lovers of themselves. With the explosion of social media, reality television, and the phenomenon of the selfie, it is rather obvious that our culture has fallen in love with itself. People love to promote, adore and celebrate themselves, and encourage others to join them in their acts of self-aggrandizement. Our society has become crazed with becoming famous, popular, and esteemed by others. We have evolved into a culture that celebrates self. The danger in this is that intense love for self precludes the presence of God – who demands we love Him supremely.

People will be lovers of money. Greed. Our society lusts for money with increasing ferocity and money has become the dominant motivation for much of our nation. Political, corporate, educational, and cultural leaders seem to base their decisions on what generates the most income, not on what is best for others or on what is right and wrong. That has had catastrophic consequences on our nation and will contribute significantly to its impending economic collapse. America’s love for money has reached idolatrous levels and God abhors idolatry. Greed is destroying our culture and, sadly, the church along with it.

People will be boasters, proud, and haughty. Arrogance has evolved into an art form. Athletes talk smack to one another and exclaim they are the greatest. Politicians speak of themselves in glowing terms and insist we revere them. We emphasize to others our educational pedigrees, our career successes, and our achievements in the world. Listen to conversations around you and many focus almost entirely on themselves and their accomplishments. The emphasis on me, me, me, has become an epidemic in our nation’s dialogue. It represents pride, which the Lord loathes. This sin is especially notable in that it has infiltrated the church, contributing to its declining power and influence in the nation.

People will not exercise self-control. This sin seems to capture the overall condition of our world today. Everything seems to be out of control. The economy, the government, world affairs. Even the weather appears out of control. But the lack of order in these areas is merely symptomatic of the lack of control exercised by those managing the economy, operating the government, and leading world affairs. Our inability to control our behavior, spending, dialogue, attitudes, and anger have generated the conditions ripe for war, corporate exploitation, governmental abuse of power, exploding debt, and severe weather extremes. Sadly, our leaders are trying to solve the symptoms without addressing the cause: our lack of self-control.

People will be lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. While Christians may readily agree this applies to our nation, I encourage them to reflect on whether the sin exists in their own life. Most believers pursue pleasure with the same fervor and focus that non-Christians do. Most Christians enjoy entertainment as much as the secular culture and take relaxing vacations, follow sports, enjoy spa treatments, and participate in fun activities as frequently as non-believers. The fact is, most of those in the church love pleasure every bit as much as our unchurched neighbors. We justify it by insisting the pleasure we pursue is godly fun and not the sinful pleasure the world pursues.

But Paul does not distinguish between the two in this passage. He simply asserts that people will love pleasure rather than God. And that is the connection we fail to understand. Our love and pursuit of innocuous pleasure is as dangerous as the non-Christian’s love and pursuit of wicked pleasure. Why? Because both distract us from God and loving Him. As Christians we may profess to love God but our pursuit of leisure, fun, and adventure often reveals our true love is pleasure.

That will offend many who will insist God wants us to have lots of wholesome fun and any other view is legalistic. But that is not what Paul teaches. When we direct most of our free time toward the pursuit of pleasure, it is evidence we love pleasure – and as a result do not love God. We have become distracted by the lures of this world and are in grave danger of missing God’s call when He returns.

Based on Paul’s signs that return is very likely in the near future.

Where are all the prophets?

The past couple weekends I spent considerable time in my car driving to relatives on one occasion and a distant ballpark on another. I listened to the radio during most of my travel time, primarily contemporary Christian stations. While the music was uplifting I noticed a distinct trend in the messages of these recording artists. They sing almost exclusively about God’s love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, peace, and joy, and revel in His blessings, promises, hope, and commitments. Their emphasis draws on biblical truth that encourages, inspires, comforts, and sustains believers. During my twenty-plus hours of driving more than 95% of the songs I heard focused on those themes.

On the one hand, I enjoyed these positive, uplifting messages. They align with God’s word and definitely represent an important component of the gospel. On the other hand, I was troubled that very few songs addressed the difficult lessons Jesus taught and emphasized during His ministry – ones we find uncomfortable today. His challenging messages on discipleship, repentance, denying ourselves, forsaking all, counting the cost, humility, and avoiding the lures of the world are as equally true and important as His message of love, mercy, and forgiveness. In fact, you cannot experience one without the other because both sets of truth represent God’s word and reveal His character.

But in recent times the church has shifted its focus to those themes highlighted on Christian radio while ignoring the difficult ones Jesus preached on so often. Sunday sermons rarely address Jesus’ most challenging teachings because congregants have little interest in hearing those truths. As a result, a generation of believers understands the gospel only in the context of the benefit they receive from it and know nothing of the cost. They are familiar with God’s blessings and promises but have little familiarity with Christ’s expectations, especially on those topics that lack appeal in our culture. A quick perusal of the local Christian bookstore reveals the same trend with authors. Lots of books address biblical truths we want to hear while few tackle the portions of Scripture that disinterest us.

So where have all the prophets gone? Why are most of our preachers, singers, writers, and evangelists focused primarily, often exclusively, on those aspects of the gospel everyone wants to embrace? Why do so few share that part of the gospel that challenges listeners to follow Christ in full, even when doing so is difficult and runs counter to our desires?

As I see it, there are several reasons for this trend. First, preaching, singing, and writing a message that everyone wants to hear generates more income, popularity, and influence for the pastor, singer, or author. Such attractive perks do not accrue to those who share Jesus’ challenging lessons. Since most want the status, affluence, and power enjoyed by the Pharisees, they share only those Scriptural truths people find appealing. Few are willing to bear the disrespect, contempt, poverty, and social isolation endured by Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist.

Also, most church leaders today have a blind spot with respect to some of Jesus’ most difficult teachings. They have explained away the true meaning of His words for so long that they no longer understand the simplicity of what He taught on subjects such as discipleship, sacrifice, and the dangers of this world. God has withdrawn from them an ability to comprehend His truth on these subjects because they have no desire to preach it.

Finally, congregants insist pastors, musicians, and authors share only palatable truths. They have itching ears that demand soothing words that reinforce their beliefs irrespective of their alignment with Scripture. They use the power of their wallet to demand easily digested spiritual food, even if it results in an imbalanced and nutritionally compromised spiritual diet – like a three-year old who demands to eat only candy and cookies.

But a gospel that captures only half of what Jesus taught, that reflects only half the Scriptures, is no gospel at all. It is a dangerous doctrine that leads down a path to eventual destruction. That is why we need more pastors willing to preach the entire gospel, recording artists willing to sing about the difficult truths Jesus spoke, and authors willing to address the challenging messages of the Bible.

I am not suggesting Christian leaders ignore God’s love, mercy, peace, hope, forgiveness, promises, and joy. Those are as critical to the gospel as His call for repentance, complete submission, obedience, sacrifice, humility, and the full embrace of discipleship. We need both. We need teachers and leaders who share both as the full gospel.

Recognizing the dearth of teaching on several critical areas of biblical truth in this country, I will use this blog to address some of these topics in upcoming posts. The content will challenge most readers and make many uncomfortable, but I encourage you to read the articles anyhow. Avoid dismissing the message as nonsense. Instead, explore what Jesus taught on these matters and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance in understanding. You may find yourself awash with a fresh, exciting faith as a result.

Taking Time to Thank God.

In his gospel account of Jesus’ life, Luke recounts an incident that highlights the mercy and generosity of Christ. As Jesus and His followers entered a village during their journey to Jerusalem, ten lepers saw Him from afar and cried out for healing. Moved with compassion, Jesus cleansed each of them from the horrible disease, which allowed them to re-enter society and enjoy life once again (since in those days lepers were expelled from society).

One of the lepers returned to Jesus, praised Him, and expressed his gratitude for Jesus’ blessing. In fact, Luke tells us he glorified God with a loud voice – he didn’t just whisper a quiet, ‘thanks,’ and move on. Surprisingly, this leper was a Samaritan, an ethnicity generally viewed unfavorably by the Jews and considered unclean. In contrast, the other nine lepers never offered thanks or made any effort to recognize Jesus’ blessing. Evidently they were too busy getting on with their lives. His healing created a situation where they now had so many activities on their calendar that they couldn’t afford the time to praise and thank God for His kindness.

We’re like that sometimes, too. When confronting a difficult circumstance or painful situation we often turn to God and ask for His mercy, blessing, intervention, or help. We request He heal us, find us employment, give us a perceived need, or extend His protection. Then when He answers our prayer we often return to our demanding schedules and frenetic lives without crediting Him for what happened or lifting a prayer of praise to Him.

What does that say about our faith when we have no difficulty finding time to cry out to God when we need Him but cannot spare a few minutes each day thanking Him for the many blessings He has rained down on us? Does it reveal a degree of selfishness in our hearts? Does such behavior indicate a less mature, perhaps even less authentic faith?

Fortunately, God is gracious and not vindictive. He never withdrew His healing from the nine lepers who declined to thank Him. He doesn’t demand we express our gratitude when He answers our prayer. He doesn’t inform us that His blessings are conditional on our appreciation. Yet, shouldn’t we extend our voice to Him in praise and worship whether He requires it or not. Is such a small act of gratefulness too much for us to offer?

I encourage you to set aside a few minutes every morning to thank God for the many blessings He has given you – perhaps during your commute into the office, while eating breakfast, or as you complete your morning exercise regimen. Develop a habit of offering gratitude to start each day.

Are you healthy? Thank God. Are you employed? Glorify Christ. Do you have any friends? Family? Offer gratitude to God. Do you have a roof over your head and a mattress to sleep on? Praise the Lord. Can you walk, see, hear, and think? What a blessing! Do you have the confidence of spending eternal life with God in heaven? Rejoice.

No doubt you can identify many more blessings for which to extend appreciation to God. Take some time now to do so and make today the first day of your new habit to praise Jesus for answered prayer and blessing.

Real vs. Faux Persecution

The State Department just released its annual report on religious freedom across the globe. It noted that in Syria “hundreds of thousands (of Christians) fled the country to escape ongoing violence from the government and extremist groups alike.” In fact, in the city of Homs the population of Christians collapsed from 160,000 to 1,000 over the past three years.

Meanwhile, recent reports from Iraq indicate that the jihadist terror group ISIS has forced tens of thousands of Christians to recant their faith, pay a faith tax penalty, abandon their homes, or suffer execution. As a result of these threats the city of Mosul, which once had as many as 60,000 Christians, now has none. They have all fled the area.

China continues its oppression of Christians who refuse to register with the federal government and follow its approved theology. Believers in Egypt and Libya remain the target of violence from groups that have increased their brazen attacks as new governments operate in those countries. Converts to Christianity in most Muslim countries are subject to the death penalty. And the list of countries persecuting the church continues to grow.

So when I learned of a recently released movie that addressed the topic of Christian persecution, I eagerly made my way to the theater to watch it. With the church suffering so much painful and dramatic persecution worldwide, I wondered where the film would concentrate its attention.

Imagine my surprise when I realized a few minutes into the movie that its focus was not on the actual persecution currently borne by the global church but rather on the fictional persecution of the American church. Instead of using the opportunity to raise awareness of the plight of real believers suffering real persecution and the real trauma that accompanies it, the director, Daniel Lusko, chose to create a production that is as preposterous as it is fictitious.

His plot revolves around the premise that a powerful U.S. senator needs the support of an evangelical minister to secure passage of a bill aimed at eliminating biblical Christianity. (Since the evangelical community exercises little power on Capital Hill these days it is a silly supposition). When the minister refuses to extend his support, the senator has the man framed for a teenager’s murder. We later learn the president (who bears a remarkably ridiculous resemblance to President Clinton) was in on the plot but washes his hands of any involvement when it unravels.

The movie is painful to watch. The plot is disjointed, the script nonsensical, and the acting terrible (except for Fred Thompson’s solid performance as the minister’s father).

But what really saddened me as I left the theater was not the seven dollars I wasted on the movie but that it did a tremendous disservice to the persecuted church. By pretending Americans suffer persecution the movie shifts the discussion away from the need to work tirelessly on behalf of our suffering brethren overseas and instead directs it at ourselves and the risk that persecution may come our way. It reflects the same parochial and insular view often adopted by the American church in the use of its resources and neglecting the needs of the global church.

The director seems to believe the American church needs to understand the risk of persecution arriving in this country and organize to stop it. Before we do that, though, I recommend we consider the benefits persecution has brought to the church in other nations. It sharpens their commitment to the Lord, eliminates those activities and objects that distract them from Him, purifies the church, removes the chaff from uprooting it, and sparks revival that drives church growth. In view of such significant and exciting results, perhaps a little persecution is exactly what we need.

Pursuing our own glory.

Recently I attended a men’s Bible study that was studying the twelfth chapter of the book of Genesis. After reading the chapter out loud as a group the facilitator asked the men for any initial thoughts they had on the verses. One gentleman referenced verse two where God informs Abram (Abraham), “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2, NKJV). The man then explained that he believed the verse demonstrates that God wants to make the names of His people great. Specifically, he said the verse provided him the confidence that God planned to make his name great and would do so through his career. Other men agreed and weighed in with equal confidence that God would also make their names great among neighbors, at the church, and in the community.

After the others spoke I interjected that the book of Isaiah provides an applicable verse on the matter that we need to consider. In the forty-second chapter God proclaims, “I am the Lord, that is My name; And My glory I will not give to another,” (Isaiah 42:8, NKJV). God leaves no room for ambiguity – He will not share His glory with anyone. David understood this truth when he remarked, “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory,” (Psalm 115:1, NKJV). I explained that God does not seek to make great the names of men but instead declares the glory of His name alone. Therefore, we ought to pursue Him with humility and in awe rather than explore ways to make our names great.

The others fervently disagreed and insisted these two verses had no application to the saints of God. They wanted to limit their relevance and take a narrow view of them. They even expressed umbrage the verses were mentioned since they were not germane to the conversation.

Sadly, the American church tends to adopt a similar approach to Scripture. We want to universalize verses that capture God’s blessings and promises and insist they apply to all saints, especially when they speak of material blessings and promises of greatness. We often individualize verses and proclaim they represent God’s plan for our own lives when they assert some benefit we desire. At the same time we dismiss as irrelevant and inapplicable any verse that discomforts us or contradicts the plan we have for ourselves. Certainly God would never want us to follow Him down a path that does not align with our own desires, we insist.

But if we examine again the verses above we realize that God gave the promise of a great name to Abram for a specific reason – to bless the other nations of the earth. Nothing in the passage suggests that God wants us to claim the verse as our own and then expect to have Him make our names great. We personalize it to ourselves because that’s what our flesh desires.

Similarly, the verses in Isaiah and Psalm are clearly universal in application because they reflect the omnipotence and worthiness of God, which require we give Him all the glory and praise. But we dismiss the applicability of those verses because they do not advance the narrative we want to believe – that our faith is all about ourselves.

Let me add that the interpretation these men had of the verse in Genesis is not unique to their church, which is by all accounts evangelical and professes orthodox doctrine. Reading Scripture with an eye towards personalizing the verses that appeal to us and rejecting as irrelevant those that do not, represents a disease that plagues most evangelical churches in America today. And no surprise since we have been taught for too long that Jesus came to make our lives better, more pleasant, and fulfill our every desire.

We need to discipline ourselves better as we read the Bible and resist gravitating to any interpretation that gratifies our flesh. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal truth and remove our biases that distort our understanding of His Word – ask God to preclude us from viewing Scripture through the lens of our own agenda.

Otherwise we risk adopting a faith grounded in the desires of our flesh and not in the power of God’s truth – a faith that may well jeopardize our relationship with the Lord.

Opportunities abound in culture of hedonism

As our culture races toward a full-on embrace of hedonism, I grow increasingly concerned with the long-term viability of our nation. History is littered with states that possessed remarkable power, status, and influence but eventually fell to ruin due to internal rot rather than the hands of external forces. Moral decay bankrupts a nation as easily as it does an individual, or church for that matter.

As I observe society legitimize and celebrate behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs openly hostile to Christianity and biblical principles, I am both discouraged and saddened – at least initially. But on reflection it occurs to me that our culture’s rapid migration away from any semblance of Christian values has some unobvious benefits and yields a host of opportunities. While I prefer that we, as individuals and as a society, pursue God and His ways (not forcibly but freely), believers ought to remain mindful of those benefits and opportunities.

First, as our culture views Christians with increased contempt and hostility, the cost to practice Christianity faithfully grows. This heightened animosity tends to purge the church of its most casual members, those who embrace the faith largely because of what they can get from it. Their commitment to Jesus and His instructions extends only as far as the benefits they receive from Him. These believers often are the ones that malign Christ and His church by selfish behavior and hypocritical conduct – the ones who repulse society at large and from which it draws it caricatures. As more of these half-hearted followers leave the faith, the church will strengthen and grow healthier.

Second, a burgeoning apostate church precedes the second coming of Jesus. As we witness more denominations, Christian leaders, and churches dismiss God’s word as antiquated and allow the culture to inform its doctrine, Christ’s return draws closer. While I prefer to see the church in her entirety remain faithful to the Lord, Scripture makes clear that many will fall away from the faith in the end times and false doctrine will flourish. So we can know that an expanding apostasy in the church foreshadows Jesus’ arrival on earth.

Finally, as hedonism explodes across the culture and envelopes almost everything in its path, the lifestyle and behavior of faithful believers offers an increasingly stark contrast. Light shines brightest where the darkness is greatest. As the salt of this world, Christians can preserve our nation and prevent its eventual decay. With that in mind, society’s embrace of debauchery, selfishness, and moral relativity ought not discourage or frustrate but rather inspire us.

We have an historical opportunity to impact our nation for Christ unlike any other generation before us. The gulf between the cultural worldview and the biblical worldview has never been greater. Now is the time for all believers to commit themselves fully to living out all of Jesus’ teachings with reckless abandon.

–       Demonstrate love to a world that hates and despises us.

–       Display humility to those who treat us with contempt and want to kick us to the curb.

–       Remain steadfast and have the backbone to boldly proclaim your faith in Christ and commitment to His Lordship.

–       Share God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness with a society in desperate need for it but which is resolute in rejecting it.

–       Articulate biblical principles with gentleness and courage when discussing culture, current events, policy, and matters of societal importance.

–       Offer hope, peace, and joy to those around you even when they insist on pursuing activities that bring despair, restlessness, and dissatisfaction.

–       Follow Jesus’ example by holding firm to truth while expressing it with acts of kindness, generosity, and love.

As we live out the gospel with renewed vigor, we can help stem the tide of moral relativity and preserve our great nation for another generation.