Dangers of Feigned Obedience.

Remember the story of Balaam and Balak? Balak is the Moabite king alarmed by the arrival of the Israelites, who settle on the plains of Moab after they escape from Egypt and defeat the Amorites. Their numbers arouse fear in the king and his people. He is certain these foreigners represent a threat to the safety and prosperity of his kingdom.

So he sends messengers to Balaam, a diviner for hire, and asks him to come and place a curse on these interlopers. Balaam receives the messengers graciously and invites them to stay the night while he inquires of the Lord. Balaam then engages God in a dialogue and explains that the Moabite king wants the Israelites cursed so he can overpower them and force them from his land.

In response God tells Balaam, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:12, NKJV). Balaam reluctantly obeys God’s command and informs the king’s servants that he cannot go back with them; the Lord has not given him permission. So the messengers return home and notify the king of Balaam’s refusal.

On hearing the news Balak decides to send a larger and more prestigious delegation to solicit Balaam’s assistance. They locate Balaam and deliver an attractive proposition. ‘The king will pay you handsomely for your work and will do whatever you request. Just come and curse these wretched people.’

Balaam knows God’s will on the matter. But the allure of wealth and power spur him to petition the Lord a second time, hopeful God will change His mind. Those selfish and impure motivations anger God but He nevertheless allows Balaam to accompany the envoys back to Balak.

During their journey the angel of the Lord blocks Balaam’s path three times. Balaam cannot see the angel but his donkey does. Each time, the beast takes evasive action to avoid the angel, which infuriates Balaam. So he beats the animal. After the third encounter the angel reveals himself and explains that he would have killed Balaam had the donkey not acted as it did. God used the donkey to spare Balaam’s life, despite his greed.

I wonder how many of us are like Balaam? We know what God wants us to do but we resist. We pray over and over, hopeful that God will change His mind and give us what we want. Our delayed obedience doesn’t reflect a genuine desire to get God’s plan right, it simply reveals a craving for our own agendas.

And how many of us respond like Balaam when God uses circumstances and events, sometimes difficult or tragic ones, to steer us away from the path that leads to destruction? We kick and scream at God, perhaps even shake our fist in defiance, because He refuses to allow us to pursue an agenda we are certain is best, but in fact is catastrophic.

Does the story of Balaam resonate with you? Has disobedience and rebellion left you in a place of ruin or misery?

Well, take heart. God desires a restored relationship with you. He will never abandon you. Instead, He patiently beckons you back to Him, calling you by name. Come home.

Encouraging the Faithful.

Eight years ago FBI agents arrested financier Bernie Madoff and charged him with operating a $65 billion Ponzi scheme that remains the largest financial fraud in U.S. history. Thousands of investors suffered devastating losses, forcing many of them to forgo retirement and leaving others in financial straights. Driven by insatiable greed Mr. Madoff destroyed thousands of lives and inflicted incalculable pain on his clients.

As heartbreaking as that story was, it pales in comparison to the countless spiritual frauds perpetrated on unsuspecting Christians every week. Unfortunately, the consequences are far costlier for them than it was for those duped by Madoff’s financial fraud.

The author of Hebrews voices this warning, “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but encourage each other daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ so none of you is hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12-13).

Note the audience. The writer addresses believers. His cautionary counsel describes a dangerous series of interrelated events that lead to spiritual ruin. It all starts when a Christian succumbs to the deceitfulness of sin. Over time, as sin tightens its tentacles around the Christian, the believer’s heart hardens. It ceases to listen to the Holy Spirit’s promptings and grows desensitized to the ways and words of God. Eventually the hardened heart becomes fertile ground for evil and its presence evidences unbelief. That evil heart of unbelief then compels the believer to turn away from the living God.

That is a terrifying scenario that places in peril our spiritual health. It therefore behooves us to understand the sequence of steps that lead to this outcome. The passage offers a timeless reminder of the importance of resisting sin and remaining vigilant in guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Thankfully, the author of Hebrews provides a blueprint for avoiding such disastrous situations. We are to encourage one another. Notice the universality of the writer’s directive. Every Christian is included in its scope. All who follow Christ must encourage other believers.

Note the frequency we should do this. Daily. Not monthly, not weekly, daily. This speaks to the significance that encouragement plays in the life of a believer. Encouragement sustains faith, inspires growth, refreshes weary souls, and nourishes the heart that’s hungry for hope.

Lastly, encouragement reinforces truth. That is of particular concern in this text. Remember, the wayward believer’s departure from God begins with an embrace of sin’s deceit. To counter such deception we need a foundation steeped in God’s word. Consequently, we ought to encourage each other in truth. Scripture is the ultimate antidote for deceit.

Take time to encourage a believer or two this week and incorporate encouragement into your daily routine so it becomes a habit.

God’s Ways vs. Our Ways.

As Jesus’ ministry neared its end Scripture tells us “He began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again on the third day” (Matthew 16:21, NKJV).

It is a shocking revelation to those who have followed Him since the beginning of His ministry. They expect Jesus to establish His kingdom on earth soon, not die and disappear into the clouds. His pronouncement is inconsistent with everything they believe about Him. In fact, Peter had just identified Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Surely a glorious and powerful empire is more appropriate for God’s Son than a brutal and horrifying death – honor and authority more fitting than indignity and weakness.

Peter is certain Jesus is disoriented; that He has experienced a moment of confusion, and has misspoken. He decides to set Him straight and remind Him that His destiny lies in greatness not brokenness, in splendor not infamy. So Peter pulls him aside. Steeped in confidence from Jesus’ recent praise, Peter rebukes the Lord saying, “Far be it from you, Lord; this will never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22 NKJV).

Imagine Peter’s surprise when Jesus chastises him. “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23, NKJV). The reprimand catches the attention of the disciples. For the first time they understand that God’s plan for Jesus is remarkably different than their expectations. He is going to die an ignoble death, not lead a revolution.

Perhaps even more unsettling is what it means for them. They must wrestle with the reality that God’s plan for them is also remarkably different than their expectations. Jesus will not install them as leaders of His kingdom in the immediate future. Instead their commitment to Him will have perilous consequences.

To their credit they do not abandon the Lord at that moment, though they understand that Jesus’ life and death serve as a model for them, and now realize they too must surrender their lives to God – and that doing so changes everything.

I wonder how many of us are like Peter? We are certain our ambitions represent God’s will. And if the Lord disagrees then we need only correct Him. How many of us, like Peter, are mindful of the things of men but not of God; are mindful of the things of this world but not of the world to come?

As you contemplate God’s plan for your life and the possibility that it may diverge dramatically from your own plans, consider this verse from Isaiah. “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8, NIV).

How do you adopt the Lord’s thoughts as you own? By studying His word and watching how Christ interacted with those around Him. Notice who he invests His life in and how He serves them. Listen to what He teaches and the priorities He exemplifies. As you read Scripture ask God to reveal His ways to you through the lifestyle model Jesus provides. It is only as we become more like Christ that our thoughts and ways mirror God’s.

Christian Films: Best of 2016 and advice for future filmmakers

Two weeks ago Hillary Scott won a pair of GRAMMY awards for her album, Love Remains, and the hit song, Thy Will, in the contemporary Christian music category – a category that has been around since 2012. The recording industry presents awards in this category to performances that are expressly Christian in their content, and not merely to Christian singers who perform another genre such as country or pop.

To date, the film industry has not created a similar category for faith-based films, despite the growing number of filmmakers who weave their stories through a distinctly Christian worldview. This may, in part, be due to the significant quality gap that exists between faith-based and secular films, similar to the gap that existed in the music industry through the early 1990s. Of course, Christian musicians eventually achieved a level of production quality comparable to their secular peers.

Though Christian filmmakers have recently closed the gap in production quality (as well as in direction, special effects, stunts, and acting), a sizeable one remains. However, 2016 may be the year all that changed. This past year witnessed a significant improvement in overall filmmaking quality, particularly in screenplays, direction, and acting within the faith-based genre. It is a trend that will no doubt continue as Christians in the industry hone their craft.

That said, Christian films will never attract widespread audience interest (and industry recognition) beyond the church community unless several critical changes occur – changes that will also improve the overall quality of Christian films.

First, eliminate the heavy-handed and preachy dialogue. Those who want to hear a sermon go to church on Sunday morning not to the movies on Saturday night. Nothing interferes with a good story like incessant melodramatic sermonizing, which also exposes the directorial limitations of the filmmaker. Scriptwriters and directors should learn the art of subtlety in communicating the Christian message through cinema. That doesn’t make it doctrinally spineless, just less overt.

Second, develop multi-dimensional Christian characters with real flaws. Too often directors portray Christian characters as morally upright individuals who make good decisions, use churchy language, behave like Christ, and exhibit few flaws. But such superficiality does not reflect reality. The Christian encountered on the screen rarely mirrors the Christian encountered in everyday life, and such caricatures do a disservice to the Christian community and the film industry alike. Christian filmmakers who really want to connect with a secular audience must create authentic characters – those who struggle and sin like the rest of us.

Third, exercise creativity and be original. Too many Christian filmmakers and scriptwriters adopt a formulaic approach in telling their story (a flaw that pervades Hollywood and the studios as well). Such laziness neither inspires nor interests the audience. Instead it leaves them feeling fleeced. It is true that originality requires considerable time and effort, as well as reflection and research. But a final product that captivates audiences and manifests industry excellence makes it worthwhile – and honors the Lord far more than a cheap, sluggish imitation.

Finally, with the Motion Picture Academy set to announce their awards tonight, I thought it appropriate to select a few winners in the genre of Christian films since the Academy does not award Oscars in that category. I exclude films nominated for an award tonight, like Hacksaw Ridge and Silence, even if they had a Christian lead character or Christian theme. [By the way, their recognition by Hollywood demonstrates that films with a clear Christian message are taken seriously by the industry when excellence is achieved].

Now, without further ado:

Best Picture: Risen

Perhaps the best Christian film in recent memory. What makes this movie so original is that it unfolds through the eyes of a skeptic, a Roman Tribune tasked with finding the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. He dismisses the rumors of Christ’s resurrection as poppycock and simply wants to locate the dead body, on orders from his boss, Pontius Pilate, to quell the growing unrest in Jerusalem. It powerfully communicates the gospel without being preachy, exemplified by the cognitive dissonance displayed on the protagonist’s face when he encounters the risen Christ surrounded by His disciples in the upper room.

Best Actor: Joseph Fiennes (Risen)

Fiennes excels at nuanced expression and accurately captures the skepticism and urgency of his character. His performance is a tour de force and establishes a standard of excellence for other actors in faith-based films.

Best Actress: Madina Nalwanga (Queen of Katwe)

Sublime performance for newcomer Nalwanga, who plays a young girl in the Ugandan slums whose innate talent for chess creates an opportunity to improve not only her and her family’s life but to inspire her nation as well.

Best Comedy: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

The strength of this film is two-fold: the performance of lead actor Brett Dalton, who nails the role of faux-Christian Gavin Stone, and the levity it brings to the faith-based genre. The film never takes itself too seriously and often pokes fun at churchy talk and Christianesque behavior. The approach is both refreshing and the source of many laughs, and communicates its message without being too preachy. [As an added benefit it reveals the ease with which people can come into church and fake their faith for the purpose of advancing a selfish agenda – a timely warning].

Agree or Disagree? What films and actors would you award for excellence in 2016? Post your thoughts below.

Solving America’s Addiction to Anger.

Have you noticed an escalation in the frequency and intensity of heated outbursts across the country? When the slightest affront drives individuals to erupt in anger you have to ask whether an epidemic has gripped the nation. From road and jet rage, to campus and urban protests, to venomous political discourse, man’s fury seems to surface on a moment’s notice. And nowhere is that aggression more evident than on social media where seemingly harmless comments can fuel blistering attacks and scathing condemnation from friends and contacts.

Instead of respecting other opinions, politely resolving our differences, and pursuing reconciliation when offended, society increasingly expects and encourages us to rage against those with whom we disagree. You don’t have to be a sociologist to recognize this trend is detrimental to a healthy society. Nor do you have to be a psychologist to diagnose such anti-social outbursts as bordering on the psychotic, which makes society’s approval of them all the more alarming. It all makes me wonder: is America addicted to anger?

If so, how does America cure this nationwide addiction? Well it can’t, at least not on its own. Because it doesn’t understand that the source of anger flows from a rebellious heart. And you can’t solve the anger epidemic until you first transform the rebellious heart.

Which provides the church a tremendous opportunity to impact society. When Scripture informs our response to insults, disparagement, and verbal attacks, our behavior captures the world’s attention because it contrasts with societal norms. This does more than defuse explosive situations, it give those around us a glimpse into the transformative power of God.

So what’s the biblical model for handling conflict with aggressive, nasty, and confrontational people? Jesus provides a succinct but specific blueprint in His Sermon on the Mount. “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, NKJV).

Wow. Jesus’ words are as revolutionary today as they were in the First-Century. Loving our enemies requires us to exercise mercy, not judgment, and extend forgiveness, not revenge.

But what if people yell obscenities and malign us with innuendo? Jesus tells us to bless such individuals with kindness. And when they adopt an adversarial posture, level hateful tirades, exploit, and even persecute us, what then? Surely such situations require a more combative approach. On the contrary, Jesus expects us to pray for and do good to those individuals.

If all of that sounds insane, well it is. But in that display of insanity an irate and pugnacious world witnesses the power and grace of God. And that offers a compelling – and appealing – contrast to those suffering anger-fatigue. In that moment we are a light unto the world, a beacon of love for those shipwrecked on the rocks of animosity.

What it Means to Believe

One of Christianity’s foundational doctrines asserts that a belief in Jesus is necessary for eternal life. Which raises a crucial question: what does it mean to believe? Many of us think it’s nothing more than cognitive acquiescence – if we say we believe, then we believe. We are convinced that on Judgment Day God will simply ask whether we believe in His Son, and if we respond affirmatively then we are whisked away to enjoy eternity in heaven.

Imagine that approach playing out at your local courthouse. The bailiff brings a defendant before the judge and reads the charges. The judge asks the defendant how he pleads and whether he committed the crime. If the defendant replies ‘not guilty’ and affirms his innocence then the judge sets him free. No trial takes place. No evidence is presented. The judge requires no corroborating proof to support the defendant’s claim of innocence.

We scoff at the absurdity of such a scenario and express relief that courts issue verdicts only after a rigorous examination of the evidence rather than simply trusting the defendant’s plea. And so it is with God. He doesn’t ask if we believe and then ignore any evidence to the contrary. Instead, he examines our lives in great detail – every thought, word, and deed. Not to determine whether we are worthy and have earned a place in heaven. None of us are worthy and heaven cannot be earned.

But our thoughts, words, and actions do evidence what we really believe. Authentic belief transforms our hearts and our souls. That’s why the apostle Paul encourages us to, ‘Examine ourselves as to whether we are in the faith,” and to “Prove ourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5). He tells us that unless evidence supports our claim of belief then we have become disqualified – Christ does not abide in us.

James addresses this issue with the early church declaring, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble” (James 2:19, NKJV). The demons not only believe in God but tremble in fear of Him. But none of them will spend eternity in heaven. James is not suggesting that belief in Christ is insufficient. We know that by faith alone we are saved.

What James asserts is this: “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17, NKJV). Godly works, thoughts, and words always accompany genuine faith. In their absence a fraudulent faith exists – one that cannot withstand God’s scrutiny. James summarizes that view with this rhetorical question, “If someone says he has faith but does not have works, can that kind of faith save him?” (2:14). The obvious answer, of course, is no.

Take time this week to examine your life. Does a growing body of evidence support your claim that you believe? Is your life increasingly marked by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? If not, ask God for authentic faith that transforms your heart and every facet of your life.

Too Busy for God.

I wonder how many of us fail to follow God’s plan for our lives because we convince ourselves that in the absence of egregious sin, any morally neutral activity or ambition enjoys God’s approval. As long as our pursuits don’t violate explicit biblical commands we assume God allows us enough latitude to do what we want. This thinking drives many of us to spend our days enjoying hobbies and chasing pleasures that do not directly contravene God’s Word.

However, avoiding obvious disobedience does not necessarily indicate actual obedience. Often the reasonable and adequate diverge as much from God’s plan as the scandalous and perverse. The Parable of the Great Supper illuminates this truth. In it those invited to enjoy the great supper (a metaphor for heaven) decline to attend.

One guest explains, “I have bought a piece of ground and must go and see it.” Another says, “I have bought five oxen and am going to test them.” A third excuses himself with good news. “I have married a wife and therefore cannot come.”

Most of us would agree that these explanations are reasonable. There is nothing morally defective about surveying your investments or validating the value of a purchase. And wanting to spend time with your new bride seems rather admirable. Yet on hearing their excuses the host proclaims that none of those invited would enjoy the feast. Why? Because they prioritized reasonable and admirable activities over something of greater importance: fellowship with the host.

So it is with us. When we allow good and practical pursuits to consume us then they become distractions from our primary purpose in life: developing a vibrant relationship with Christ. A lifetime neglecting that purpose (or just giving it lip service) jeopardizes our seat at the table of the marriage supper of the Lamb. We simply won’t recognize Christ when He returns. Worse, He won’t recognize us.

That theme emerges again when Jesus chastises a pair of potential disciples for delaying their obedience to His call, despite legitimate motives: one wants to bury his deceased father and the other wants to say goodbye to his family. No rational person would consider those explanations unreasonable. Yet Christ does. Not because those things are bad or inappropriate, but because they preempted faithfulness to Christ’s call. The men prioritized family commitments above immediate obedience to the Lord.

Take time this week to read these passages from the ninth and fourteenth chapters of Luke. Ask God to reveal their application in your life and reveal what good or practical pursuit you’ve allowed to displace your relationship with Christ, and what reasonable activity or ambition has distracted you from immediate obedience to the Lord. Then take steps to put those disruptive undertakings in their proper place.

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