Brady, Clinton, and the Art of Deception.

New chapters were written this week in two ongoing sagas in the worlds of politics and sports. First, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell upheld the four-game suspension of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for his alleged role in Deflate-Gate. Later, news broke that a two-month gap exists in released e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s private server, which she used to conduct official business during her time as Secretary of State; the gap corresponds with a time of intensifying violence in Libya.

Both narratives involve alleged wrongdoers destroying potential evidence and then demanding we believe their assertions that nothing incriminating existed on the devices they eradicated. Brady allegedly destroyed his cell phone and SIM card just before he was scheduled to meet with NFL investigators about his role in Deflate-Gate and insists he took the action because he had recently purchased a new phone. The timing was mere coincidence, he argues.

Similarly, Clinton’s campaign, while admitting that thousands of e-mails from her e-mail account were destroyed, insist that only those her team deemed personal were discarded and withheld from investigators. She also allegedly wiped clean the server she employed for her e-mail, making it impossible for anyone to recover documents previously stored on it.

Brady and Clinton appear to be following the same script, one increasingly popular for dealing with legal troubles, public scandals, and public relations nightmares: destroy anything that might corroborate alleged wrongdoing and then insist nothing of evidentiary value was on the device or document. That tact allows the accused to pursue a path of plausible deniability in which they inform investigators and the public alike that no evidence exists of their wrongdoing. If that all seems rather convenient for the defendant, well, it is – and by design.

While such a strategy may prevent an actionable legal remedy in court, it ought not preclude judgment in the court of public opinion. We need not suspend common sense or avoid exercising sound judgment in arriving at an informed decision as to what happened. We can decide whether a series of improbable coincidences is just that or points to something more devious. And we ought to keep in mind that those destroying potential evidence realize the optics will look bad for them and proceed anyway. That certainly suggests something to hide.

Defenders, of course, perform all manner of linguistic gyrations to preserve the integrity and innocence of their candidate, their teammate, or their hero. They refuse to employ objectivity in arriving at what happened. Like thousand-dollar-an-hour attorneys, they decry the absence of evidence and like rabid dogs bark the mantra of presumed innocence. And certainly we never want to lose sight of that precious presumption.

But we ought also keep in mind the legal principle of res ipsa loquitur, which is Latin for ‘the facts speak for themselves.’ Though primarily used in tort law, the doctrine infers culpability despite the lack of direct evidence. In the Brady and Clinton escapades, it means we ought not ignore the fact that destroying cell phones and servers say a great deal about potential evidence on the devices.

Sadly, this trend is not limited to Clinton or Brady, or to politicians and athletes. It is an epidemic plaguing the nation. It is born of a worldview that declares as long as no one can prove you misbehaved it never really happened. It dovetails nicely with the outlook that the ends always justify the means. Paired together, these philosophies teach us to do whatever it takes to achieve our goals and reach the pinnacle of success. And if in the process ethical lines are crossed, legal standards are breached, and the distinction between right and wrong is blurred, well so be it.

As a result, we have more and more athletes who do whatever necessary to win world championships, politicians who rewrite history to keep alive presidential aspirations, and businessmen who do anything to make a buck. If as a society we do not do a better job censuring deceit and the destruction of evidence, then eventually it will become a societal norm. And if we continue to look the other way and ignore transgressions because the accused plays for our team, represents our political persuasion, or earns us an enviable profit, then we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves when honesty disappears from the country, like incriminating evidence on a politician’s or athlete’s electronic device.

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One Thing Will Change Your Life.

Humanity constantly seeks that One Thing that will change life forever. One investment strategy that produces an unprecedented rate of return and makes us rich. One scientific discovery that yields a medical breakthrough and eradicates a disease that ails us. One activity that generates a rush of adrenaline and the ultimate thrill, eliminating the boredom that plagues us. One person who meets our needs for acceptance and unconditional love. One pursuit that satisfies the soul and gives our lives meaning.

Sadly, many of us never find the one thing we believe will transform our lives and make everything better. And those of us who do often learn a painful lesson: the one thing we’ve spent so much of life chasing disappoints and fails to satisfy our cravings, our hopes, and our yearnings.

Interestingly, the Bible uses the phrase one thing on a variety of occasions and it is instructive to discover what it says about the term. The one thing that gives us purpose and satiates our souls. The one thing that changes our encounters with others. The one thing that draws us into a meaningful relationship with God. The one thing that might block our path to eternal life. Let’s examine a few and see what insights the Bible yields.

1] In Psalm 27, David declares, “One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple” (Psalm 27:4, NKJV). More than anything, David wanted to be in the presence of God and dialogue with Him. And as he pursued that desire David experienced such incredible joy he felt compelled to “sing praises to the Lord” (vs. 6b). In God, he found the source of true happiness – one that exists in all situations and which is not predicated on favorable conditions.

Moreover, he found strength to confront circumstances that had the potential to overwhelm him: “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord” (Psalm 27:6b, 13, NKJV). As David reflected on God and His glory, he acquired perspective and perseverance. Armed with those attributes, David defeated the enemy’s effort to discourage and distress him.

2] In Luke’s account of the gospel he describes two sisters who encounter Jesus as He enters a village. One of them, Martha, welcomes Jesus into her home, busies herself with acts of hospitality, and serves Him. The other, Mary, does nothing but sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Him. Frustrated, Martha brings this disparity in behavior to Jesus’ attention and asks Him to tell Mary to pull her weight and help. But Jesus does not respond as Martha hopes. He informs her she is troubled and distracted about many things. He then proclaims, “One thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42, NKJV).

What an accurate metaphor for most of our lives. We busy ourselves doing good things, pursuing noble endeavors, performing honorable deeds. All this activity, we convince ourselves, reflects those things God wants more than anything. Like Martha, however, we misunderstand. God’s passion is for us, not our busyness. He yearns for us to sit at His feet and listen; develop a relationship with Him; experience intimacy with Him; and worship Him. Mary understood this truth. Do you understand it? Do you, like Mary, carve out time from your frenetic schedule of good activities to pursue the one thing that truly matters: listening to and spending time with Jesus? If not, consider making a commitment to prioritize that above all else.

3] In his gospel account, Mark tells the story of a rich young man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. It is a question that has interested mankind since the beginning of time and is as salient as ever in today’s modern world. Jesus points the man to the Old Testament commandments and highlights a few in particular. In response, the man insists he has obeyed them all since his youth. In other words, he is righteous before the law.

Jesus recognizes the statement for what it is: a falsehood masking the true condition of the man’s faith. It is dead; yet he has no idea. The man is on the fast track to judgment but believes his place in heaven is secure. Because Jesus loves him, He makes one more attempt to reveal the truth. He says to the man, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me” (Mark 10:21, NKJV).

The man had an idolatrous relationship with the world. His love for the things of the world precluded him from having a genuine relationship with God. More than that, it prevented him from understanding how far removed from God he really was.

Like the rich young ruler, many of us allow something in life to distract us from God and compromise our relationship with Him. The world is filled with attractions, pleasures, and seductions that seek to draw us away from the Lord. Once it does, it can be difficult to recognize that a wedge exists between God and us, and that our faith is floundering as a result. What one thing in your life pulls you away from the Lord? If you’re unsure, ask God to reveal it. Then request He remove its influence and presence.

4] One of my favorite encounters in the New Testament occurs after Jesus heals a blind man. The Pharisees are enraged because the healing took place on the Sabbath and they are more interested in imposing Mosaic law on the people than seeing the captives set free. More than that, they want to destroy Jesus’ ministry because they perceive Him as a threat.

The scuttlebutt among the people is that Jesus might be the Christ. After all, who else has the power to heal a man blind from birth except the Son of God? The Pharisees want to eradicate this belief so they put out the word that anyone who confesses Jesus as the Christ (the Savior) will be excommunicated and kicked out of the synagogue.

They then contact the former blind man and insist he give an account of what happened. To influence his testimony they tell him, “Give God the glory! We know that this Man is a sinner” (John 9:24, NKJV). In other words, make sure you emphasize the fact that He sinned by healing you on the Sabbath. The man ignores their entreaty and replies, “Whether He is a sinner or not I do not know. One thing I know; that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25, NKJV). He refuses to debate the issue they want to discuss. Instead, he focuses on His encounter with Jesus and how that changed his life forever.

Similar scenarios play out around us today. Those hostile to Jesus demand we embrace their inaccurate view of Him: He was a good man but is not the Savior; He is not the only way to eternal life; He doesn’t care about people because the world is a bad place; He is judgmental and an egotist. And like the Pharisees from two thousand years ago they issue threats to anyone who disagrees with them: We will reject you from mainstream society; we will kick you out of the scientific and intellectual communities; we will sully your reputation; we will mock you as a hater, a fool, and a Neanderthal.

In such circumstances we would do well to mirror the example of the healed blind man. Avoid debating the merits of an irrelevant issue. Instead, focus on what Jesus has done in your life, what He means to you, and the miracles you experienced when you surrendered your life and called Him Lord. No one can argue with you on those points and often those are the most persuasive in drawing people to Jesus.

4 Common (& Dangerous) Justifications to Sin

Many of us believe the biggest threat to genuine faith comes from charlatans who deceive with lies and half-truths, tickling our ears with what we want to hear. And certainly we must remain vigilant against those who preach a false gospel and seek to devour the gullible and vulnerable. But an equally dangerous source of deceit lies in our own hearts. In fact, the Bible tells us, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, NKJV).

According to this verse the heart has two defining attributes: it is deceitful and it is desperately wicked. Both traits represent sin that pushes us away from God and His love. And the two work quite well together. Deceit leads us to embrace doctrines and creeds that rationalize sin and justify whatever pursuit our heart desires. It subtly twists the truth of Scripture to convince us we are obeying God when in fact we are not. So powerful is the heart’s deceit that even in the midst of sinful behavior we insist we are in God’s presence.

Sadly, that treachery always takes us down a dangerous path that ends in ruin. It leads us to a place we hope is an ocean of happiness and satisfaction but actually is a cesspool of pain and sorrow. The heart’s duplicity always separates us from God and prevents us from experiencing His remarkable, exciting plans for us.

Why does the heart deceive us? Why does it make such herculean efforts to lead us astray? Because of its nature. Contrary to popular public opinion, mankind is not intrinsically good with just a few moral wrinkles to iron out. Remember, our hearts are desperately wicked. The heart insists on ruling our lives and refuses to yield to God. However, it happily allows us to act religiously and play church as long as we do not surrender our entire lives to God. As long as we allow the heart to remain in control of key decisions and to pursue cherished sins, it has no problem with us pretending Jesus is Lord and calling ourselves Christian.

So what are the most common arguments the heart uses to deceive us into justifying sin and allowing it to flourish? Here are four to consider.

1] God is leading me to sin. I call this the Christianization of sinful choices and sinful conduct. Basically, we live in whatever manner we want and convince ourselves it is the path God wants for us. We don’t seek His guidance, the counsel of godly friends, or the Bible for direction. What motivates us is simply our own desires. We determine what is best for us and make our decisions accordingly. We practice behaviors that produce pleasure and satisfy lusts. All the while we insist God is leading us to sin.

Perhaps an example will crystalize the point. Many years ago a friend informed me he had decided to divorce his wife. He explained that he had met another woman and they had fallen in love. He believed with certainty that God wanted him to marry the other woman. Therefore, to remain faithful to God and obey Him my friend had to divorce his wife. He had deceived himself so badly he actually believed God was leading him to sin.

Deep down my friend knew divorce was wrong. He also knew it was wrong to get involved with another woman. However, as an active and respected member of the church he faced a conundrum. How could he pursue his lust without losing his reputation in the church? He arrived at a solution many of us use in our lives. He declared it was God’s will. God was leading him to divorce one woman and marry another. Don’t blame him, my friend insisted, he was only doing God’s will.

Of course, God never calls people to sin. He abhors sin. Whenever we use ‘God’s will’ as a means to justify sin, we play a dangerous game. Not only does the sin separate us from God, but the justification blasphemes the Holy Spirit by suggesting He told us to sin.

2] Nobody is perfect. It is true. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In fact, the Bible tells us that even our most righteous deeds are as filthy rags before God. But that reality doesn’t mean we ought to accept sin in our lives. We should not justify disobedience to God by declaring we are wired to sin. ‘That’s just the way God made me’ is not an appropriate response for explaining our inclination to sin. God calls us to lives of holiness that honor Him.

A recent encounter highlights the danger of adopting a ‘nobody is perfect’ philosophy to dismiss the pursuit of godliness in our lives. While sharing the gospel in a rough part of town recently I met an intoxicated pimp. I explained to him I was out praying for people and sharing the good news of God’s love. On hearing this he replied he was a Christian as well.

Surprised by the remark I asked him what that meant. He informed me that he loved God and regularly evangelized the call girls working for him. As for his immoral business and propensity for alcohol, well he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) change those things. Holiness was a bridge too far. Since perfection was unattainable he was free to pursue sin whenever he wanted.

Most would agree such a blatant abuse of God’s grace is categorically wrong. Yet I wonder how many of us practice a similar approach to faith but in a less dramatic manner? Do we make allowances for sin in our lives because “nobody is perfect?” Do we overlook selfishness, greed, and anger in our hearts with the same indifference as the inebriated pimp?

3] That’s legalism. A favorite retort for rationalizing sins of omission, the legalism argument is compelling because it prevails in so many churches. And it is dangerous. Legalism produces religious zombies who go through the motions of faith without having a real, dynamic relationship with Christ.

That said, we frequently ascribe to legalism behaviors we admire and embrace in a secular context such as discipline, diligence, and determination. Too often we defend spiritual laziness, inconsistency, and indifference with a nod to legalism. Instead of exercising ourselves in the faith and pursuing spiritual maturity with persistence we accept spiritual sloth as an acceptable alternative to avoid the pitfalls accompanying legalism.

Countless Christians rarely read the Bible, invest little time in prayer, and have never discipled anyone. Many resist allocating time to worship God daily, ignore opportunities to be generous, and seldom memorize Scripture. Few dismiss the value of these actions. In fact, most agree these undertakings draw us closer to God and strengthen our faith. But we fail to do them because misplaced priorities, worldly distractions, and unsound doctrine have left our faith in a state of ennui.

To reconcile this disparity between God’s expectations and our reality, we trumpet the danger of legalism. Pursuing spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, and Scripture memory is wrong, we declare, unless we do so with unbridled enthusiasm. And since we lack the requisite enthusiasm we must avoid the actions altogether. In doing so we parade ourselves as paragons of spiritual virtue when in fact we are spiritually stagnant. We ought to pursue these manifestations of faith with the same rigor and resolve we do our careers and our passions, even if at times it is a forced effort.

4] God wants me happy. This is a frequently employed rationale when we want to act selfishly. Do I choose the career with lots of worldly perks or a vocation that honors God? Do I spend a princely sum upgrading my perfectly functional kitchen or donate the funds to a ministry that cares for Christian refuges? Do I use my vacation time to relax on a beach or spend a portion of it serving victims of a recent natural disaster? Do I invest my annual bonus on a new toy for my enjoyment or helping destitute believers in third-world villages struggling to survive?

Instead of adopting the sacrificial model Jesus taught and lived, we often choose the option that gratifies. To avoid any guilt or angst over the decision we contend that God wants His people happy, satisfied, and comfortable. We ignore any biblical evidence to the contrary and in doing so reveal the truth of Jeremiah’s observation that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.”

I encourage you to examine your life and see if any of these deceitful justifications of sin influence your decisions, your behavior, or your worldview. If so, ask God to remove them from your heart and prevent them from deceiving you any longer. Instead ask Him to allow His Word to rule your choices and conduct. If you do, your life will never be the same.

Winning the Culture Wars.

Evangelicals and conservative Christians are apoplectic with last week’s Supreme Court ruling and if you have to ask which one you’re not paying attention. Using social media, pastors, leaders, and laity alike decried the ruling and insisted it represented another chink in America’s moral armor. Some even claimed the decision would expedite God’s imminent judgment on the nation.

Widely embraced by evangelicals and orthodox Christians, the heart of this message has flourished for decades and always blames society for the unraveling of the nation’s moral fabric. From the secularization of public schools, the explosion of the abortion industry, and the filth of Hollywood, to the radicalism of colleges, growing antagonism toward God, and the celebration of hedonism, many Christian voices insist America’s pending downfall is due entirely to increasing immorality outside the church walls.

Tellingly, Christians often fail to consider the possibility (or likelihood) that the church owns as much responsibility for the nation’s moral decay and God’s pending judgment as does secular society, perhaps more. Despite this, the church and individual Christians have contributed significantly to the dramatic shift in our country’s values. In fact, absent our complicity the nation would not have fallen so fast and so fully into the moral abyss it now finds itself, nor would it be in jeopardy of experiencing God’s immediate correction.

In what ways are we, as Christians, complicit? We have created classes of sin and determined that some sins are worse than others. The worst sins are those that offend the church and pious Christians. Such sins are widespread in society and easily identified as the cause of God’s anger. They represent all that is wrong in the world. But for these sins, we insist, our nation would be ready for Christ’s return. The church quickly and forcefully condemns these sins and describes them as scourges to society.

In contrast, another class of sin fails to raise the church’s ire. Though denounced by the Bible they thrive in our hearts and our sanctuaries. We wink and nod at these sins, giving little more than lip service to their eradication from our lives. We ignore the manifestations of these sins in our church leaders and ourselves. They are de facto acceptable and go unchallenged.

An excellent example of this class of sin is pride. Officially the church and serious Christians agree it must be uprooted from the heart and cast out. Sermons are preached against it and universal agreement exists that it offends God. Many Christians even know Scripture that highlights its danger – for example, ‘pride goes before destruction.’ Nevertheless, it endures and flourishes in the Christian heart and within church walls: in the pulpit, the choir, and in the congregation.

Doubters need only listen to language used by ministers, worship leaders, and lay Christians alike. ‘I’ and ‘me’ predominate, with a special emphasis on the work Christ is doing them. The celebration of self within the Christian community has reached epidemic proportions and shows no signs of slowing. Of course, spiritual narcissism hides behind a mask of false modesty, feigning humility while feasting on self-exaltation.

Another excellent example of this class of sin involves idolatry. We know it is wrong. Pastors openly preach against it. The Bible strongly condemns it. Yet it survives and thrives in our hearts and churches. Our love for the world, its treasures and pleasures, and all it has to offer is difficult to deny. It is obvious to our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and colleagues who love the world unashamedly and see that same love in us.

So how do we avoid cognitive dissonance without admitting our hypocrisy? We simply tell ourselves we don’t love the world, its treasures and pleasures, and all it offers. Despite evidence to the contrary we insist our love for Jesus knows no bounds. And if the overwhelming majority of our time, income, and energy is spent chasing the world and everything in it, we rationalize away the implications of that fact by declaring that God wants us to enjoy ourselves, have fun, and be happy. Nothing wrong with that even if such pursuits define us, consume us, and remove any doubt as to what we’ve made lord of our lives.

If we are serious about preventing moral bankruptcy from ruining the nation, we must keep in mind several important truths. First, genuine change always begins with a transformation of the heart. Always. Imposing morality by judicial edict or legislative fiat never produces substantive, enduring change. It only masks the real problem: sin. Only Jesus removes the stain of sin and empowers authentic and permanent transformation.

Most believers understand this truth and yet still focus a disproportionate amount of time and effort fighting cultural wars at the statehouse and in the courtroom instead of in the prayer closet. This misplaced priority needs to change if we want America’s moral landscape to change. The issue is primarily a spiritual problem and we ought to wage the battle using spiritual weapons such as prayer, service, intercession, and evangelism. Ignoring these disciplines all but guarantees the nation’s moral implosion.

Let’s also recall that God was willing to spare Sodom if as few as ten righteous were found therein. Wouldn’t He apply the same principle with us? I imagine so. Rather than fretting over the sins of others, then, let’s instead redouble our efforts to live righteous lives that honor God. If enough followers of Christ do so we may yet see the nation spared from approaching wrath. Rejoice then, that God gives us an opportunity to stand in the gap for our nation.

And remember, the die is not yet cast. There remains time for the nation to reverse course and avoid the ruin that awaits if we continue down our current path. Doing so, however, will require Christians to take the lead. We must recognize our responsibility for the situation, confess our sins (individually and collectively), repent from our iniquities, and rekindle our love for the Lord. We ought also pray for God’s mercy, intercede for the nation, and pursue Him with single-minded purpose. If we are unwilling to follow this prescription, then we have no right to criticize the culture for its failures. We will be as responsible as secular society for the nation’s collapse. More so in fact, because we had the chance to stop it but chose to remain ensconced in our sin instead.

Loving God With Just Words.

A friend tells his fiancé he loves her with all his heart and soul. He insists she’s the most important thing in his life and he wants to spend the rest of his life with her. Ironically, nothing in his life validates those adamant claims. He spends very little time with her on any given day. Seems there’s always something distracting him. The golf course is calling his name. His buds want him to go fishing. He needs to put in long hours at work. There’s something interesting on television. His family asks him for dinner. Turns out, he only spends an hour or two a week with her.

When she asks to spend more time with him he refuses. He explains that if things are going to work out with them she needs to accept the fact that he wants balance in life. She should not expect or demand more time than he already gives her. After all, he asserts, a couple hours a week is quite generous. He is a busy man with lofty goals and countless interests. She can’t expect him to sacrifice any of his activities just because he loves her. For her to expect that is very selfish.

Perhaps even more surprising is that when they are together he always seems distracted, as if he really doesn’t want to be there. It appears he’s simply checking a box to say he’s spending time with her – but his mind is elsewhere. He doesn’t adopt her interests as his own and avoids doing the things that make her happy. He refuses to attend the ballet, explore antique stores, or help with her garden. He says those things are boring and she shouldn’t insist he cultivate an interest in anything she likes.

Most curious of all is how little affection he shows for her in public. He declines to hold her hand as they walk, pepper her with kisses when sitting outside, or put his arm around her if anyone’s watching. What’s more, he hides his love for her whenever he’s around people who don’t like her ethnicity. He’s embarrassed to admit to strangers his deep and abiding love for her because they may think he’s nuts, or a loser for loving someone so different as she.

Sadly, he spends very little of his income on her. He insists they go Dutch when sharing a meal at a restaurant. He’s never bought her flowers. Not once. For her birthday he buys cheap costume jewelry and an item of used clothing from Goodwill. His stinginess isn’t a reflection of his poverty. He actually earns a significant income and showers himself with all kinds of man toys. He owns two cars, a motorcycle, snowmobile, and the latest electronic devices.

Rather, he believes she should be happy he gives her anything at all. He insists that true love does not require generosity. He notes that it’s his money and she should not expect to enjoy the fruits of his labor simply because they are madly in love. He tracks what he spends on her and says it is a very lavish five percent of his income. What more could she want?

I talk to him and point out the disparity between what he says and what he does – that the immense love he claims to have for her is not corroborated by his actions. It seems to me a significant gulf exists between his professed love for her and the reality of how he treats her. In response he stares at me blankly. What I say makes no sense to him. He dismisses my observation with a wave of the hand and informs me his love for her knows no bounds, his commitment to her is unending.

He explains that what matters are his words – not his actions. He need not prove his love by spending precious time with her, showing affection in public, showering her with gifts, or proudly proclaiming his love for her to others. His love is genuine, he declares, because he says it is – and any evidence to the contrary is irrelevant. He takes great umbrage at my suggesting otherwise. Who am I, he demands, to pretend to know the depths of his heart and the authenticity of his love for her. I clarify that I’m not suggesting I know his heart, only that his actions paint a very different picture than his words.

I wonder how many of us treat our relationship with God the same way my friend does with his fiancé. We claim to love Him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength but do our actions validate that declaration? Do we, like my friend, insist it is enough to say we love God and then live as if we barely know Him? Do we contend that investing a couple hours a week is sufficient for building a healthy relationship with the one we call Lord? Do other things in the world easily distract us from Him? Do we inform God that He ought to be satisfied with whatever He gets from us and He ought not expect anything sacrificial? Like my friend, do we believe that true love does not transform our lives?

If we’re honest with ourselves, I suspect many of us have adopted an approach to our relationship with God that mirrors my friend’s approach with his fiancé. We want God to ignore our actions and the facts, and simply believe what we tell Him. If He prompts us to consider any inconsistency between the two we express offense and tell Him it’s not His place to demand more of us. But it is His place and the Bible informs us God wants our love evidenced in action not simply words.

The Pharisees wanted to love God with words alone and Jesus severely rebuked them saying, “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me, and in vain they worship Me” (Matthew 15:8-9a, NKJV). The ancient Israelites suffered the same problem. Through Ezekiel God told them that they, “pretend to be sincere…but have no intention of doing what [God wants]. Their mouths are full of lustful words, and their hearts seek only after money. They hear what [God says], but they don’t act on it!” (Ezekiel 33:31-32, NLT).

In both instances God explains there are consequences for loving Him in word but not in deed. Those who claim to love God but whose lives lack corroborating evidence are as bad as those who reject Him outright. He makes no distinction between the two.

Take time this week to examine your life. Does it validate your claimed love for the Lord? If not, ask Him to reveal what steps you should take to cultivate a deeper, more intimate and genuine love for Him that is consistent with your declaration. You’ll find that such love not only transforms your life but also produces unimaginable joy.

Time for Justice Department to Apply Real Deterrents to Bank Malfeasance

Why does the Justice Department continue to provide mere lip service in holding big banks accountable for egregious financial crimes instead of aggressively prosecuting them in a manner that will substantively deter future malfeasance? Too often Federal prosecutors adopt a ‘wink and nod’ approach to crimes on Wall Street rather than acting vigorously to eliminate them. The most recent example involves four of the world’s largest banks: Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays PLC, and The Royal Bank of Scotland.

According to reports the four will plead guilty to felony charges of conspiracy to manipulate global financial markets, specifically foreign currency markets, over a five-year period from December 2007 to January 2013. Though the four (and a fifth bank, UBS AG) will pay fines that approach $5.8 billion, none of the banks lose their ability to continue trading in the markets in which they committed their violations. Moreover, the Federal Government refuses to hold bank executives personally responsible for the collusion and for allowing an environment of illicit conduct to thrive.

While we expect Republican administrations to coddle the thieves of Wall Street, things were supposed to be much different with the Obama administration. He promised to go after those wolves much more forcefully than the previous administration and put an end to illegal activities that enrich the über-wealthy and often threaten the stability of our economy. Instead, we get more of the same despite newly confirmed Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s claim that the penalties are “fitting” and will “deter” future illegality.

Nonsense! Until Justice bans violators from participating in future business activity in those markets in which illegal activity occurred, no bank is properly incented to curb its appetite for illegitimate profits. And until it holds bank executives personally liable for the conduct of their traders, the environment for such illegality will continue to thrive. The Justice Department needs to quit behaving like one of the boys in the Wall Street fraternity. Instead of administering modest slaps on the hand and declaring victory it needs to bare some real teeth and adopt an adversarial posture against those banks who repeatedly commit financial crimes, which means banning banks from future activity in markets where an offense occurs and prosecuting bank executives criminally and requesting lengthy prison terms for those found guilty.

Anything less is just more of the same. And that is very disappointing considering all the fanfare President Obama generated in (rightfully) targeting bank malfeasance.

What can persecuted Christians teach us?

A widespread view in this country, especially among Evangelicals, is that we are a Christian nation. Polls appear to support this supposition, regularly finding a majority of the country declaring itself Christian. Consequently, believers suffer little, if any, real persecution here. On the contrary, we enjoy unparalleled religious freedom, constitutional protection to worship and evangelize, and face limited governmental interference in practicing our faith.

In contrast, believers in most countries across Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East endure various forms of persecution, often face hostile governments determined to limit the practice of Christianity, and have no (substantive) legal protection to worship as they please. Radical terrorists, with designs to eradicate Christianity from places it has survived for two millennia, target Christians with increasing brutality, intimidation and death. The escalation in violence has, in some regions, reached epidemic proportions and often flourishes because local and national governments refuse to intervene.

So how do believers in these countries remain faithful despite the risk to life, limb, and liberty? How does the difficult environment in which they live produce Christians with faith so vibrant and mature? How does the fiery crucible of tyranny and torment yield faith so closely resembling the early church? Perhaps most importantly, what lessons can we learn from those living in a region engulfed by persecution and where basic religious freedoms do not exist? Here are four lessons from the persecuted church which we would do well to model in our own lives.

Faith comes at a cost. Believers in nations hostile to Christianity understand and embrace this critical truth. It is not an ivory-tower belief or an intellectual assent. Instead, it is a practiced truth forged by daily experiences – where intimidation, threats, and physical pain often are an integral part of daily life. Embracing Jesus in these countries has severe consequences that can include rejection by family, job loss, arrest, assault, loss of housing, imprisonment, or even death. That daunting reality attracts only serious disciples to Christ and serves as a natural barrier to lukewarm adherents. Said another way, no one feigns faith in Jesus when the penalties are so high.

Curiously, many in this country reject the idea that Christianity has a cost. We often look with incredulity at anyone who teaches otherwise, as if the person had three heads. We assert that since salvation is free, faith cannot impose a cost. But that popular view is unbiblical. Not only did Jesus teach that following Him would have a cost, He emphasized it. Even a casual study of Jesus’ ministry reveals the significance He placed in grounding His disciples in this truth. It is the essence of His message in Luke 14 when He advises potential disciples to “count the cost” and understand that whoever “does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (vs. 33, NKJV). That comprehensive truth is readily understood and embraced by believers overseas, because they experience it daily.

In contrast, a faith that ignores the cost of discipleship, also ignores the call of Christ. What results is a church flourishing with casual Christians – those whose faith exists to the extent their lives undergo no disruption or pain. Whenever the first sign of difficulty arrives or they must sacrifice something for Jesus or it is no longer expedient to profess Him as Lord, they walk away and embrace whatever religion, philosophy, or ideology advances their agenda and validates their lifestyle. What those faux followers of Christ fail to understand is that God uses the cauldron of persecution, suffering, and difficulty to strengthen our faith, draw us close to Him, and prepare us for eternity in heaven. As strange as it sounds, those circumstances we often associate with curses are in fact blessings, and, similarly, those circumstances we often associate with blessings are often curses.

Eliminate distractions. As I visit with believers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America I discover something interesting. Those with few possessions and impoverished lifestyles often display the strongest faith, most hope, and an unbridled joy seldom seen in this country. The passion they demonstrate for Jesus, their boldness in sharing Him with a adversarial community, and the significant time they dedicate to growing their faith is rarely matched in this country. How can that be?

To understand this we must take off the temporal lens through which we often view the world and put on a spiritual lens instead. Without the treasures of this world to distract them, these believers have plenty of time to nurture their relationship with Jesus. For example, worship services in third-world countries often last hours with no one in the congregation checking the time or leaving early. The opportunity to fellowship with other believers is God’s blessing and they want to maximize that blessing each week. They focus more clearly and easily on Jesus because the things of this world do not demand their attention.

We can apply this insight by removing from our lives whatever worldly treasures distract us from the Lord and compete with Him for our time and devotion. The apostle Paul referred to this as “counting all things as loss” for the excellence of knowing Jesus more. (See Philippians 3:7-11).

Pain refines faith. The suffering, persecution, and threats endured by overseas believers produces deep trust in God. With nowhere else to turn, they petition God for relief, seeking solace and comfort from Him alone. Since the courts, government, and society refuse to address their fears, troubles and needs, they know that their survival rests entirely in God’s hands, as does their freedom, health, safety, and basic needs.

In contrast, experience often teaches us to trust our employment, family, government, retirement plans, and investment accounts to provide for and protect us. We thank God on the surface but do we trust Him when the circumstances change? If not, our faith rests on an untenable foundation. Let’s learn from our persecuted brothers and sisters and place our trust in Him and not the circumstances or the things of this world.

How do we demonstrate that? By better stewarding the resources He has provided, by refusing to remain in our comfort zones, and by living a more sacrificial life. Let’s give more generously, invest our lives more sacrificially, and respond in obedience when He calls us to action that is uncomfortable.

Cultivate urgency. A final lesson from persecuted believers involves our need to cultivate greater urgency and focus on fulfilling the Great Commission and reaching the world with Jesus’ love. Those priorities dominate the worldview and decisions of Christians surrounded by darkness and confronting daily hostility to Christianity. They seem to understand the critical role they play in serving God by serving others. We should adopt the same mindset. Let’s set aside those activities and plans that entertain us and satisfy our worldly desires and replace them with actions that satisfy God’s desires and fulfill His will. In doing so we not only draw others closer to Him, we become more like Him ourselves.

Commentary: Faith, Politics, Culture, and Bible Prophecy.