Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Lie of a Simple Benefit Program

I close my eyes to sleep and still see the faces of those 21 men on their knees, all with black-clad captors standing erect at their backs.  The orange of their prison jumpsuits is just so jarring in the monochrome beach setting with its calming ebb and flow of the white foamed surf.

The tide keeps coming in, going out.  The sun continues to rise and set as the news story sinks further down the page in Google, as if the world is just business as usual, as if nothing had changed.  And yet, for these Egyptian Christians, time has stopped and eternity begun.

When I tell my Wednesday night class the story of Moses and the Israelites in Egypt, I pause at the thought of the first Passover when all across the land of Egypt, mothers and fathers lost their firstborn sons to the angel of death passing over their houses.  The circumstances today are entirely different, but I can't help but think the land of Egypt is mourning once again, all the same.

I can't.  Won't.  Watch the video.  It is heart crushing enough just to know without sight.  Twenty one more martyrs in a civilized world.  Civilized.....

The Western world rocks itself to sleep at night in the comforting belief that this is over there, not here.  A wall of endless water separates ISIS from America. And yet, in our hearts, we know that is a lie.  The falling Twin Towers on 9/11 should have shattered that bedtime story,  but still it remains to wrap round us in intentional, sanity-saving ignorance. 

In those countries like mine not yet truly touched by life-threatening persecution such as this, we aren't counting the cost of Christianity.  Instead, we spend our days selling a Salvation Benefit Program where if you confess Jesus as your Lord and Savior, all will be right in your life--no money worries, health problems, marriage woes...

It's as if we fear that telling people the truth of the gospel will send them running.  And so, we sell salvation as a benefits package, much like fire insurance.  The result is a sea of people who claim Christianity because they "signed up" for the program, mentally confessed Jesus as Lord and acknowledged themselves sinners, but never demonstrated a true, saving faith in their lives because their hearts remained unchanged by this false gospel. 

Jesus' own disciples feared the gospel He preached was too difficult. They, too, wanted him to dumb it down so more people would become His disciples, not understanding Jesus' message that if a person's life didn't radically change by doing a complete 180, it wasn't possible to be His disciple.

In Luke, Jesus spoke difficult messages, saying, "If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple" (Lk. 14:26-27).

Salvation through Jesus meant giving up everything to follow Him, and so He warned people to "calculate the cost" before choosing to follow Him (v. 28).  That cost, for Jesus, was a road of suffering that led to the cross; that cost for each man and woman who chose to follow Him would also be suffering and a daily taking up of his cross.

Jesus continued to teach how much a person must be willing to suffer for His sake: "Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me" (Jn. 6:53-57).  

Though strange, Jesus' words emphasized the seriousness of salvation.  He was inviting them into a covenant with Him, an eternally binding covenant where the person would pass through Jesus' body, itself, as the sacrifice, would eat the shared meal, and would lay down his individual desires in commitment to his covenant partner.  This was no program to sign up for and then discard.  This was a life altering commitment.

Jesus' disciples replied, "“This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”" (v. 60).  In reply, Scripture says, "From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him" (v. 66).

When told the truth about what it meant to follow Jesus, many did choose to say "no" to His plan of salvation.  But those who chose to stay did so having been made aware of the cost, the truth of what it meant to follow Jesus and enter into His salvation.

The days of an easy salvation benefit program where all it takes is a prayer must end. If we wish to truly lead a person to Christ, we cannot do so under the pretense that all will be well on this earthly plane, that it is a simple decision.

As hard as it is to speak or write the words, we must communicate a true gospel of sacrifice where we may likewise be called upon to kneel in the sand and spill our life's blood in devotion to Jesus Christ.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Dangers of Not Wearing Your Belt

I move behind the gathering table and wrap my arms around husband's shoulders for a quick evening hug.  As I pull away, my fingers catch on his red t-shirt to find a new hole in the sleeve.

"How'd you get that?" I frown.  "This is a new shirt."

He shrugs and twists his head downwards to survey the damage, as surprised and clueless as I am. 

Long rips, torn holes, and jagged tears in both t-shirts and roomy carpenter jeans are all common occurrences here on the farm.  Any piece of clothing that billows even the slightest bit away from the smooth contours of the body is a magnet for every tree limb, briary thorn, or sharp-edged metal farm equipment to catch on, leaving its mark for me to roughly repair with needle and thread. 

It's not that husband tries to ruin his shirts.  It's just inevitable.  And if he's not careful, loose clothing can be deadly on a hay farm with lots of heavy moving equipment and mechanical moving parts, where the few seconds required to disentangle yourself can mean the difference between life and severe injury or even death.

The dangers of loose clothing are what come to my mind when reading through Ephesians 6:10-17 where Paul speaks to Christians about putting on the full armor of God

Last week, we talked about standing firm in our convictions and not losing ground in the slippery moral slope of our world. One way this passage tells us we can stand firm is by putting on our armor--the ever familiar belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shoes of peaceful assurance/confidence, shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and sword of the Spirit.

The passage I have been settling on reads, "Stand firm, therefore, having girded your loins with truth" (v. 14).  The NIV states it in more modern language as "Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist."

In all honesty, the breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet, and sword have always seemed more important parts of the battle uniform than the belt.  But, that's because I wasn't considering the original audience and how it would have understood the imagery.  

In Paul's day, the majority of people--even men--would have worn long, flowing robes, which would catch on everything they passed, especially on the battlefield. The belt, then, was an extremely important part of the soldier's armor since it cinched in those flowing robes, drawing the fabric in close to the body so the soldier could move more easily in the hurried chaos of the moment.  In this scenario, if a loose robe caught on the edge of a chariot, a splintery wooden cart, the corner of another soldier's armor, or even his own horse's gear, those few seconds of distraction could be all the enemy needed to plunge a sword in his side.

With this image in mind, I can more easily understand how vitally important it is to be girded with a belt of truth.  If I do not know with certainty the truth of who God is according to what He has taught in Scripture....if I don't know who I am as a child of God saved by grace in Christ--if I am not surrounded by those truths and others found in His Word, then my doctrine and precepts are like loose clothing, which will "catch" on every false whim or doctrine that comes my way.

I will become entangled in lies, half truths, which will hinder my ability to be successful in the battles against Satan in this world.  Not being certain of truth is not only dangerous to my witness on this earth and my eternal soul but is also dangerous to the eternal souls of everyone I come in contact with.

Christ, Himself, warned His followers of this same concept, saying, "'See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many...Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many'" (Matt. 24:4-5,11). 

This is why it is so very important to pick up our Bibles daily, to commit ourselves to studying and memorizing Scripture.  This is why it is necessary to question and examine everything against the plumb line of God's Word, even if it's something said by a Christian we deeply respect as an extremely knowledgeable man/woman of God.

As Paul said, "But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good" (1 Thes. 5:21). 

Recommit yourself to faithfully study the truths of Scripture this week.  Put on that belt with me so we can stand firm together.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How to Stop Losing Ground

"You can be so right, you're wrong."  That is the saying my mother passed along to me from her mother, right alongside her other favorite aphorism, "There's a wrong way to do the right thing." 

I can't remember a time before I knew that the ends didn't justify the means.  Perhaps that's why I find it so difficult to watch the pro-life advocates angrily protesting in the parking lot of the downtown abortion clinic or why I've always ducked my blazing cheeks in shame to avoid the man yelling hell and damnation on the street corner.

In those moments when I've seen other Christians using the moral truth as a weapon, I have almost been ashamed to call myself Christian, knowing that once I slap on that label, the image that will immediately spring to a person's mind won't necessarily be a loving, devoted follower of Jesus Christ but, rather, a divisive person bent on judging those around her. 

And yet, I still wear my scarlet "C," knowing within my soul that Scripture gives a clear sense of moral right and wrong, first presented in The Ten Commandments and then later clarified by Jesus, Himself, in Matthew 5-7, "The Sermon on the Mount."  What's more, the Old and New Testaments both provide list after list of what actions our God considers "righteous" and "unrighteous."

Because of my study of the Word, much of what the world wishes to paint fifty shades of grey is imprinted on my mind in clear black and white. The truth is God's Word is there for any who will read and study it.

And yet, what am I to do with this truth?

Do I lead an attack on my fellow man, my two-edged Biblical sword waving in front of me? Do I use the truth to keep pushing until those around me bend or break, acknowledging their error?

With my three children watching my every move, this is the struggle I face.  How am I to be a Christian in this world?  in my family?  How am I to be a witness for the truth without alienating those I wish to reach? without destroying my opportunity for a witness?

In the book of Ephesians, Paul speaks to Christians, telling them the "how" of Spiritual warfare.  He explains, in particular, how Christians can win the war by wearing the "full armor of God":

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.  Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Eph. 6:10-17).

A few years ago on this blog, we examined this armor of God and learned "how" to use both our numerous defensive weapons and single offensive weapon in the battle with the enemy.  And yet, as I read the passage again this week, I couldn't help but notice the emphasis on the "what" we should be doing, too.....standing.  Four times in this passage, Paul tells Christians just to stand.

We Christians are called to put on the armor of truth, righteousness, confidence in our stand, faith, salvation, and the Word of God.  But then, we're not told to advance courageously into battle.  We're not told to start charging at our enemy.  

Instead, we're simply told to hold the line, to stand and not lose ground.

This is where I believe we, as Christians, have been slowly going wrong for several generations.  Instead of standing and letting our God fight the battle, we have, instead, chosen to advance forward and attack various sins in this world...and in that advance, we have ultimately lost ground, the one thing we were told not to do.

More and more, I am convinced the secret of fighting the battle for moral uprightness in our world is as simple as standing firm.  It is as simple as the Shema, often the first verse of Scripture a young Jewish child would learn:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deut. 6:4-9).

How do Christians stand firm?  How do we not lose ground?  How do we fight against sin?

It starts in our home.  It starts with our own lives.  It starts with our children.

Instead of advancing on the world with our words of truth, we must demonstrate that truth in our own lives.  We must live morally upright lives, ourselves, ones singularly devoted to God, and ones where we pass our morals and love of God along to our children.

When we wake up and when we go to sleep...when we enter into our house...when we sit around the table...when we're driving down the highway---the Word of the Lord must be on our lips, in our actions, and in our hearts. No matter how morally depraved the world is at this moment, our focus must be to live out the moral truth in our actions and to communicate the moral truth to our children by word and deed.

If we live in righteousness and communicate that righteousness effectively to our children, then they will do the same with their children and their children's children.  And yet, this is where Christians have failed.  Slowly, more and more Christians in each generation have not demonstrated righteousness in their own lives, have not made it a priority to communicate those moral standards to their children...and so, those children did not make it a priority to both follow or communicate those standards to their children, and so on down through the ages. 

When we Christians grow lax in our living according to the truth of God's Word....when we Christians become lazy in teaching that truth to our children--that's when the morality of the world around us crumbles. 

As Scripture says, "You should diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and His testimonies and His statutes which He has commanded you.... It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the Lord our God, just as He commanded us" (Deut. 6:17, 25). 

May it be righteousness for us...and for our children.