Sunday, November 6, 2016

Cold-Case Christianity for Kids: A Book Review by Grace, Aged 10

I loved Cold-Case Christianity for Kids. It is a helpful and enjoyable book that teaches you many facts about Jesus of Nazareth, while showing you how to be a detective. This book helps prove that Jesus is not a lie.

My favorite thing about this book is that you are included in the story! It is written as if you are learning about Jesus in a detective training academy. You get to learn a different detective skill in each chapter, like the "chain of custody," which shows how the disciples passed the message of Jesus down through history. This means that I can trust the bible.

I think it's cool that this book was written by a real detective! It is very well thought out and it is an important resource for kids my age to help us know that Jesus is real.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Tenor of Truth

Sing to the LORD a new song; Sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD, bless His name; Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day. Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples. Psa 96:1-9

The tenor of something, according to Webster's Dictionary, connotes its habitual condition or essential meaning, and also stresses its "clearly perceptible direction on a continuous, undeviating course." It is in the tenor of God's Word, then, that we can we can trace His narrative flow and begin to grasp the essence of who He has revealed Himself to be. In other words, it's in God's tenor that we can actually start to "catch His drift." And when we learn the tenor of His voice, we can start to sing along, joining in Heaven's chorus, and echoing His truth—for He puts a new song in our mouth (Psa 40:3).

In order to discern God's tenor, we need to become intimately familiar with how it sounds. For isn't it true that most mothers can pick out the sound of their own child's cries from a crowded room of infants? This is because they know and love them intimately. In the same way, God's voice will be more easily distinguishable from that of the counterfeit when we know the Bible well and grow to love it.

If we know God's Word well, we will not be led astray when Scripture is twisted, cherry-picked, or misapplied. We will not be thrown off course by extra-biblical themes that distract from the thrust of the gospel message. We not be deceived when [often very popular] pastors use Scripture to back up their sermons of spiritual spin. We will not mistake eisegesis for sound, honest exegeses. For we can rest assured that His Word will be a lamp to our feet, illuminating the truth. (John 15:7; Psa 119:105). The premise that the study of God’s Word is paramount to understanding and loving Him more cannot be emphasized enough.

An oft-quoted, but useful illustration of this is the counterfeit money analogy: Bankers are taught to recognize counterfeit money by studying real bills. In the same way, learning the tenor of God's voice by studying His Word is vital—not to mention that sincere believers will have an inherently deep desire to know God better (Psa 25:4). God’s Word should be our “delight” (Psa 119:16, 24).

To help discern the tenor of truth, it's important first and foremost to remember, quite simply, that truth is Jesus (John 14:6). Remember also that just as Jesus is the truth, He is the Word (John 1:1,14). The tenor of God's truth, therefore, is always both Christ-centered and Bible-based. The Old Testament pre-echoes, and bares witness, to the gospel of Christ. The New Testament testifies to, and echoes, that same gospel message throughout. Simply put, the Bible is always all about Jesus.

Do not be led astray by what is becoming an overwhelmingly popular form of false teaching in the seeker-friendly movement that some have accurately termed, "narcissistic eisegesis." It is a self-centered approach to Scripture which involves superimposing oneself into the meaning of a Bible verse or passage regardless of its context. Often, the focus of narcissistic eisegesis is primarily on our success, our dream, our purpose, or our adventure. This, however, warps the Bible into a self-help guide in which Jesus shows up as some type of cheer-leader, facilitator, or navigator. But remember, the Bible centers on Jesus, not on the self. "For from Him and through Him and for Him are all things" (Rom 11:36). We may have the privilege to serve Him in exciting ways, yes! But the adventure that this may involve should not be our focus; the end-goal of God's glory is all that ultimately matters, if we are truly slaves of Christ.

With this in mind, we can identify several qualities that resonate in the tenor of God's truth:

The tenor of truth resounds with infallibility
This concept of truth in the tenor of God's Word is rooted in Scripture. God told Moses, "Write these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel." (Ex 34:27 NKJ). The word translated tenor, here, is the Hebrew, peh, which is used throughout the Old Testament to mean tenor, speech, mouth, command, or mind (Num 3;16, Eze 33;7; Lev 24:12). God's words in this verse are covenantally binding, exemplifying the tenor of His Word to be infallible—or as Jesus puts it, "trustworthy and true." (Rev 21:5).

The tenor of truth resounds with omnipotence
By His Word, God introduced the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 15:1) and gave Israel the Ten Commandments (Ex 24:3–4; Deut 5:5; Ex 34:28; Deut 9:10). By His Word, all creation came into being (Gen 1; Psa 33:6). The commanding tenor, or sovereign power, of God's Word is also illustrated in the book of Micah: "but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth [peh] of the Lord of hosts has spoken." (Mic 4:4). And if we live by His Word, we likewise live by His power. As Jesus put it, "If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." (John 15:7).

The tenor of truth is unwavering
It is in the unwavering tenor of God's Word, therefore, that His divine and unchanging nature is revealed to us through the Holy Spirit. The most powerful way to get to know God, therefore, is not through our experience of Him (which is subjective), but through studying what God has said about Himself in the Bible. Experience-based faith, as opposed to biblically-based faith, doesn't lead to an intimate and enduring knowledge of Him. As our circumstances change, an experience-based faith may falter. But if our faith is based on God's Word, we will rest in the assurance that His love never changes, regardless of what we are going through.

The tenor of truth is uncompromising
There is currently, however, an increasing emphasis on experiential faith in mainstream evangelical Christianity in form of a growing tendency to base our relationship with God more heavily on our emotional response to Him rather than on our biblical knowledge of Him. These days, many believers are placing more stock in heart-feelings as a means to discerning God's will for their lives without also going to the Bible for direction. And increasingly Christians are turning to mystical or self-help books that contain spiritual fluff rather than solid biblical content. Often, these books call themselves "Christian," but they distract from the gospel message, quote Bible verses rarely, selectively, or out of context, and indulge the reader in an almost cartoonish portrayal of who God is. Jesus—if He is mentioned at all—is often presented as some type of Santa-esque caricature that bears little or no resemblance to the true Son of God as revealed in Scripture. "Jesus" takes on many different personas in these contexts. In fact, he conveniently morphs into whoever you want him to be.

...In contrast, the great "I Am," however, does not compromise on who He is. He just is.

The tenor of truth resounds with omnipresence
God's Word preaches His ever-present nature; Psalm 139 is a beautiful illustration of this. We cannot conjure up more of God's presence with us regardless of how we might behave or feel. Worship experiences or prayer sessions, for example, can encourage our intimacy with God, but they cannot make His presence with us stronger. For, "Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" (1 Cor 3:16). Watch out for teachers who claim we can cultivate God's presence through worship events. They are shifting the focus to the self by making such a claim. We cannot invite the Holy Spirit to "come" to us, if He is already in us! While we are certainly exhorted to draw near to God (as He will to us), this isn't so much about increasing His presence as it is about increasing intimacy. And, to know God intimately is primarily to know His Word; It is in His Word, for instance, that we learn we cannot flee from His presence (Psa 139:7-10)! Like worship, prayer is an essential outworking of our faith—but neither of these form the foundation of our faith. We draw near to God through faith in Christ who alone gives us access to Him (Heb 4:14–16, 7:25, Phil 3:9). And our "faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.” (Rom 10:17).

The tenor of truth is humbling
While knowing God should not be primarily experiential, nor should it be exclusively theological either, however. Bible knowledge and sound theology are far better than gold when they fuel our trust in, and intimacy with, God (Psa 19:10). But when our exegesis becomes a self-motivated means to bolstering our theological presuppositions, this only fuels our pride (1 Cor 8:1). In the same way, if our self-focused accumulation of holy experiences become the basis of our relationship with God, our ego is fed, but our faith ultimately withers. In other words, theology—just like experience—plays a role in knowing God. But intimacy comes from a humble desire to learn the tenor of His voice. It's not about hearing what we want to hear, but listening to what God has already said.

The tenor of truth is life-giving and sanctifying
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. All three are inseparable aspects of Jesus' saving power. God changes the believer's life through His Word; just as Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your Word is truth.” (in John 17:17 ). God transforms the believer's heart through His Word. "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." (Heb 4:12). And He renews the believer's mind though His Word, which reveals His will (Rom 12:2).

The tenor of truth is both convicting and redemptive
The tenor of God's Word is not only reassuring, it can also be unsettling at times. Because the tenor of truth reverberates with the gospel message, it does not diminish the seriousness of sin, for this would be to downplay the power of the Cross. When the tenor of truth convicts our hearts and the double-edged sword pierces our soul, it can be uncomfortable, even painful at times. But the truth is, "the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God," are inextricably intertwined (Eph 6:17). The tenor of truth brings not only conviction, but also redemption and sanctification. It is then that we truly understand that to live is Christ, and to die is gain. It is then that we truly experience His great love.

The tenor of truth is an harmonic unison
Discerning the tenor of God's Word, involves a comprehensive reading of Scripture. Each verse works together in perfect harmony. Claims of contradictions and inconsistencies can be thoroughly refuted with careful apologetics. 
An important rule of biblical hermeneutics is that Scripture is always the best interpreter of Scripture. And while it's tempting to cherry-pick Bible verses to suit ourselves, God's Word needs to be understood in its entirety. Only then can the harmonic unison of the redemptive story which resonates through all parts of the Bible, truly be heard.

The tenor of truth is love
All of the accents and tones that make up the tenor of God's truth resound above all with His great love. For just as He is truth (John 14:6), He is love (1 John 4:8). The two exist in perfect harmony within the very nature of who God is and His Word echoes this throughout.

The tenor of truth is pure
On that note, the tenor of truth is purely good, purely just, and purely holy. It cannot be mixed with lies, or it is no longer truth. In contrast, he who masquerades as an angle of light masterfully mixes truth with lies. Sometimes his tenor even sounds Christian. The enemy loves to spout off about love, peace, truth, and spiritual fulfillment. He might talk about "god." But if we listen discerningly—especially when his deadly tenor resonates through the mega-popular spiritual and self-help icons of contemporary culture—we might realize that what he means by love, peace, truth, and god, is very different from the biblical definitions of those things. "Love" is a mere emotion. "Peace" is mental detachment. "Truth" is relative. And "god" is the inner light within ourselves. The enemy claims that we create our own truth, that we shape our own destinies, and ultimately that we can save ourselves. He can use "Christian" terminology, while at the same time convincing us that we have no need for a Savior.

The tenor of truth is always about Jesus
When we understand that the tenor of God's Word always points us to the risen Christ, we will not be led astray. Watch out for Bible studies or sermons that thematically emphasize a particular verse of the Bible more than the Bible itself does (the Word of Faith movement does this and hence preaches a different gospel). God's Word consistently expresses a narrative flow (an undeviating course!) in which the redemptive story unfolds to lead us to Jesus. In fact, every passage of Scripture either echoes or proclaims the gospel. For as Jesus said, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me." (John 5:39). Just as the tenor of truth always leads to Jesus, it also starts with Jesus. John opens his gospel with these words, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning." (John 1:1). Jesus is the Word made flesh (John 1:14).

God's tenor resounds with His glory
Essentially, the desire for, "more of Him, less of me," encapsulates the gospel; it expresses the truth that while I have a problem (a sinful heart), it is He who has the solution (Christ). And the beauty of this is that reading Scripture with a heart that yearns for God, and a mind that is yielded to His will, is how we come to know the tenor of His voice. He starts to replace our thoughts with His and our ways with His. He starts to renew our minds, transform our hearts, and replace our fallen nature with His righteousness.

Do you find you're often placing your spiritual focus on your own works, gifts, politics, circumstances, strengths, and weaknesses? As Alistair Begg often puts it: "Does your faith start with an I or a He?" Because if your spiritual conversations and your prayers constantly include sentences that start with "I" then you might be idolizing yourself instead of worshiping God. Remember that the tenor of God's Word consistently emphasizes His glory not our own. The truth of this rings clearly and unwaveringly throughout Scripture (Ja 4:10; Phil 2:7; Luke 14:9-11; Rom 12:3; 1 Cor 1:28; 2 Chron 7:14; 2 Kings 22:19; Psa 24:9...and on).

John the Baptist knew that in order to serve God fruitfully, "He must become greater, I must become less." (John 3:30). Consistently, John's entire ministry, as well as his personal faith, pointed away from himself and toward Christ. And ours should, too. Because when we get too focused on our own theology, our own circumstances, our own dreams, spiritual gifts and purpose, and less on Christ, we start to deafen ourselves to God's voice by filling our ears with our own self-generated monologue.

In light of this, every Christian should ask themselves, whose song am I really singing? Does my life resonate with the tenor of truth? Or am I humming along to my own tune? Can I echo the words of the psalmist, "He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God." (Psa 40:3)? Or have I elevated myself to the level of songwriter?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Definitions Matter

I was talking with a church friend the other day about matters of the faith, and he said, "definitions matter." He hit on a really important truth: sloppy definitions lead to sloppy theology. And sloppy theology leads to sloppy life-application and a muddled worldview.

The biblical definitions behind the Christian terminology we use matter because if we're not clear about what we mean by them in the first place, we can be thrown off course when we try to act on what we say. In other words, when we try to walk the walk after talking the talk our feet aren't sure where to go. And we may well find ourselves straying off the path.

In the face of what is beginning to seem like a constant barrage of emotionally and politically unsettling tragedies hitting the headlines, how are Christians to respond? We hear a lot about, "love!" "forgiveness!" and "grace!" We tend to use these terms frequently, and with good intention, but we're not always clear about what we mean by them. And as things progress, we find ourselves getting muddled.

Should we call sin, sin? Or should we show grace? Should we speak truth? Or show love? Should we withhold judgment? Or uphold justice? Without sound theology, we might forget that truth and love cannot be separated. Without sound theology we might forget that to downplay sin, is to diminish grace...

In other words, we need to be careful with our Christianese. We need to be careful we our theology.

But I don't like theology! You might hear some say... In fact, "theology" has almost become a bad word today. It is often associated with rigidity, harshness, even bigotry. In our post-modern culture, theology has become taboo.

The truth is, however, everyone has a theology. Theology is simply the study of God. Or as Saint Augustine in the fifth century put it, theology is a “rational discussion respecting the Deity.” The term comes from the word theos which is Greek for “God” and ology which is from the Greek word logos meaning “word.” Most literally, then, the word theology means “words about God.” As believers, who think about, and discuss, God, try to understand Him, and live out our faith accordingly, we are all developing a theology. Even atheists have a theology!

The big question is, however, does our theology reflect sound biblical truth, or something else?

The truth is, false teacherslike the mega-popular spiritual and self-help icons of secular culture and the New Ageoften use terms like love, peace, and truth. Yes, the enemy, who masquerades as an angel of light, loves to spout off about forgiveness and spiritual fulfillment. He might even talk about "god." But if we listen discerningly, we might realize that what he means by love, peace, truth, and god, is very different from the biblical definitions of those things. "Love" is a mere emotion. "Peace" is mental detachment. "Truth" is relative. And "god" is the inner light within ourselves. The enemy claims that we create our own truth, that we shape our own destinies, and ultimately that we can save ourselves. He can use "Christian" terminology, while at the same time convincing us that we have no need for a Savior.

In the same vein, what Mormons mean by Jesus, salvation, and atonement, is fundamentally different than what the Bible teaches about these things.

If our theology doesn't reflect God's truth, but something else, we are in danger of viewing God through a lens of deception. In fact, if we are consistently sloppy with our theology, over time we can even end up creating our own fictitious god, who bears little resemblance to the One revealed to us in Scripture.

Theology matters.

For example, when Jesus asked the disciples, "who do you say I am?" (Matt 16:13-15), He was asking them to define their theological perspective on who He is. And our answer to this pivotal theological question will be the most important one we will ever have to give.

Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.” (John 16:6-7, emphasis added). But the fact is, many who use His name do not actually know the true Christ. Jesus said:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt 7:21-23).
To know Him and to do His will involves understanding the truth about who He is, what He did for us on the Cross, and what His Word teaches. It involves sound theology.

The good news is that God in His mercy and wisdom has provided us with a carefully worded guide in which He has clearly defined the truths about His nature and how we can be reconciled to Him. It's important, then, to pay careful attention to these definitions. As Paul says, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." (2 Tim 2:15).

Before we use biblical terminology, we should hold up our own words against Scripture. We are commanded to hold all teaching up against God's Word, like the "noble" Berean Jews were commended for doing in the Book of Acts. This doesn't mean cherry-picking verses selectively. It means making a humble, honest examination of the text to make sure our definitions are sound.

Don't be discouraged; this isn't going to be a popular standard to uphold, for we've been forewarned that "the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." (2 Tim 4:3-4).

It is all the more crucial, then, that we equip ourselves with sound theology, in order to distinguish absolute truth from lies in a relativistic culture of deception.

Definitions matter.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Humility Paradox: Keeping it Real...or Just Really Awful?

Here's a paradoxical truth: True humility exudes confidence. 

Yep. The most humble person you'll ever meet will at the same time be the absolute most confident, most assured person you'll ever meet!

How can this be?

Because humility, in its purest form, is to seek your identity not in yourself, but in your Savior. For if you have truly died to self, then you can truly live in Christ. And if your identity is rooted in Him, so is your confidence!
"For the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught." (Prov 23:6).

Sadly, however, there is a growing trend among Christians to lead with their failures in an effort to "keep it real" and "stay humble." Increasingly, they publicly beat themselves up. They wallow in their weaknesses. They air their dirty laundry.

But for all intents and purposes, this self-deprecating behavior could be considered a form of humblebragging. For leading with one's failures is becoming a popular way for Christians to draw attention to how "humble" they are.

But that's not keeping it real. That's just really awful.


...Because this tragic misunderstanding of what it means to be humble distracts us from the power of the Cross.

...Because when we lead with our failures, we've actually committed the biggest failure of all: we have failed to glorify God.

...Because leading with our failures is false humility, which is actually rooted in pride. Essentially, it is self-absorption.

...Because when we lead with our failures, we have moved our focus from the holy He, to the sinful Me. And that is pretty awful.

I'm not good at that. I'm not gifted at that. I'm not as good as he is at that. I can't do what she can. I fail at this. I stink at that.

Did you notice that these ostensibly self-deprecating statements all start with an "I"? But the problem is, if your spiritual dialogue constantly starts with "I" instead of "He" then you're likely idolizing yourself in God's place.

This is not to say that we shouldn't be honest about our failings. We're all sinners. We all screw up. We all get discouraged. By no means should we pretend otherwise.

And we should absolutely confess our sins to one another! But we should not confess our sins with the goal of appearing "humble" or "real" to our friends/audience. Our ultimate goal should be to turn from that sin and to embrace our true righteousness in Christ. When we do this, we take the spotlight off ourselves, and place it on Him. We fix our eyes on Jesus!

In fact, truly humble believers will not only exude confidence, but they will actually be terribly boastful people when it comes to their Savior and what He has done for them. As Paul puts it, "May I never boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (Gal 6:14).

So, then, let's not be a people of humblebraggers. Let's be a people of Christ-boasters! Because that is really keeping it real!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Confessions of a Recovering People-Pleaser

...We endeavor—by His grace—to live not as "people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart." (Eph 6:6)

...We are not trying to please people, but God, who tests our hearts. (1 Thess 2:4)

I have spent a good deal of my life struggling with people-pleasing. I have wanted people to like me, to accept me, to approve of me. I have wanted the people around me to be happy. At times, I have even gone along with things that I was uncomfortable with in order to keep the peace or avoid disappointing someone. I don't like rocking the boat. I don't want to upset people. I hate discord.

Some of this may have to do with my childhood (at risk of sounding hackneyed). Like many of us, I was teased, and sometimes even bullied, as a child. I had an idiosyncratic, quirky personality. I was a perpetual dreamer. I was painfully shy. These things combined to make me an easy target. And as things generally go with school children, a number of kids took aim. Because my daydreaming caused me to be scatterbrained and accident prone, when anything went wrong in the classroom—like a poster falling off the wall or something—all 26 kids would chant my name in unison, joking that everything was always my fault. To them it was funny, to me it was collective shaming.

For years, I felt like a misfit and a mistake. These experiences likely contributed to my childhood eagerness to please others and to fit in. And during my teens this desire gave rise to a whole series of sin issues as you can imagine.

Now in my 40s, I am less insecure than in my teens and 20s. By God's grace my confidence, being rooted in Christ, has grown. By God's grace, I am happily married with three kids. By God's grace, I've distanced myself from negative, judgmental, over-critical people and have been blessed with edifying relationships—with friends and family who encourage me and build me up in Christ while allowing me to do the same for them. This doesn't mean everything is perfect (far from it!), but it does make for a healthier spiritual environment. And for this answer to prayer, I am very, very thankful.

But every now and then, the fear of condemnation and disapproval still sneaks in. I still struggle with the people-pleasing urge from time-to-time. And I've noticed that it's when I start making things more about me, and less about Him that the niggling temptation creeps back in.

As a recovering people-pleaser, I especially dislike posting an article that I know a number of people will be offended by, or won't agree with...but then the Holy Spirit pricks my conscience and I am still prompted to publish it. I pray over it, I post it...and then I wince.

I wince because writing on the Christian worldview, apologetics, and matters of biblical discernment will always ruffle some feathers and touch some nerves. I wince because I know it's not likely to be a popular point of view. I wince because...well...I am still in recovery, after all!

And in our anything-goes culture of relativism in which the "just do you" mantra carries way more weight than the "die to self" one, biblical discernment is not a trendy topic. It requires humility, raw honesty, and vulnerability—all things that are challenging for a recovering people-pleaser like me. And all things that are currently not en vogue in our post-modern culture (don't get duped by those humble braggers on social media!).

Suffice it to say, it's hard to go against the cultural flow when you're a recovering people-pleaser.

The thing is, the Christian worldview is offensive. This is because the Bible is offensive...and what Jesus said was offensive...and what the apostles wrote, and stood for, was offensive. For, "as it is written, 'Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.'" (Rom 9:33).

As the above verse illustrates, the gospel is essentially both loving and offensive at the same time. For, "this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (1 John 4;10). In other words, the slaughter of God's own Son illuminates both the magnitude of His love for us as well as the seriousness of our sin—sin that can only be ransomed by Jesus' death on the Cross. The gospel, then, shows us that we’re more loved than we ever could have dreamed, yet we're more sinful than we ever imagined. And the latter can be an unpalatable, repugnant thing to the post-modern palate. Especially when the world constantly tells us otherwise...

While the world might whisper sweet nothings in our ear, however, remember that godly love—pure, divine love—is not of this world. And so the world does not recognize it. Therefore, if you are speaking the truth in love, then you may find that you are pegged as hateful or judgmental in a world that is hostile to Christ—sometimes even by other Christians.

While this is unfortunate, it should not be surprising, however. As Jesus said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Matt 10:34). The doubled-edged sword of God's Word will separate bone and marrow and cut to the heart. And so, God's truth may hurt at times. It can be tough to hear, just as it can be tough to profess. But in the end, it's all about pleasing God, not people.

The truth is, people-pleasing is motivated by pride. It's fueled by a desire to feel needed, to be liked, to be popular, to gain worldly significance, or to advance a personal agenda. In essence, it's an insidious form of idolatry, which places the love of oneself before God.

As a recovering people-pleaser, then, I constantly need to check my motives... Am I speaking, writing, working, serving, etc., for my own self-determined ends, or for God's glory? Am I speaking, writing, working, serving, etc. with my love for God and for people as my motivation? Or is it all about me?

Here's what I find I need to keep reminding myself: love and truth cannot be separated. God is love, just as He is truth. (1 John 4:8; John 14:6). He cannot be divided. In this vein, if I am seeking to love God and love people, I need to be truthful—I need to hold fast to God's Word.

It is selfless love, then, that urges us to speak truth—with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). For, you can't claim to love and follow Jesus, while rejecting or distorting His Word

In light of this, here are twelve suggestions for recovering people-pleasers, like me, who endeavor to speak truth in love:

1. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will pray first, and be sensitive to the Holy Spirit in discerning when we should speak and when we should remain silent. Sometimes, I have found that holding my tongue with regards to a friend's sinful pattern of behavior and praying for him has born more fruit than if I had confronted him right then and there. And we should certainly err on the side of showing grace to someone who is suffering from clinical depression or mental illness. (Prayer, support, and healing should come before truth in these cases). We will have compassion (Col 3:12), be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19).

2. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will be humble and patient. It's easy to tip the balance from speaking the truth in love to nagging people or chastising them. I know how it feels to be the recipient of a judgmental attack instead of gentle admonishment out of love. In my life, I have needed to be nudged in the direction of righteousness, but when this was done gently, I did not feel under attack.

3. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we should also live by example. If we are truly humble, we will have a teachable heart ourselves and allow others the same freedom to speak truth to us when needed. Speaking the truth should go both ways! We have to be willing not only to give it but to receive it as well!

4. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will be sure to check our motive: is it to prove we are right about something, or to point that person, church, or ministry back to the gospel from which they've strayed? Is speaking the truth in this situation necessary to guard against false teaching? Are we holding a friend accountable, with gentleness and humility, for their own good or is it more about venting our personal grievances? If it is for their good, or the good of the Kingdom, then we must speak up. (And if there is no repentance, 1 Corinthians 5 provides a biblical model for how to confront immorality in the church).

5. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will treat the sin of unbelievers differently from the sin of Christians (1 Cor 5:12-13). Unbelievers are not held to the same standards as those who are born again, because they are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit and have not yet been made new in Christ. We cannot hold unbelievers to biblical standards that they don't yet believe in or are not yet aware of. We should love them, pray for them, and witness to them about the hope that is in Christ—not focus on their sins before they have been given new eyes to see.

6. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will draw a distinction between sin in our culture and the sin of an individual, standing firmly (but not always loudly) against the former, and showing grace towards the latter—being unwavering in the truth always. We will handle hot-button, controversial issues like homosexuality and transgenderism with humility, dignity, and conviction. We will speak out against societal and cultural sin, defending the sanctity of marriage—but we will not lambaste the gay community by taking to the streets with signs around our necks or ranting hatefully. That is truth without love. The end goal of speaking the truth in love is not to criticize, condemn, or win an argument. It is to point others to Christ. You can't berate or picket someone into that.

7. On the flip-side, if selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will not sugar-coat God's Word, dilute it with touchy-feely emotionalism, downplay the seriousness of sin, or turn a blind eye to false teaching. These are forms of people-pleasing. Doing these things may respectively earn you popularity, garner more Facebook likes, create a comfortable atmosphere, or cobble together some semblance of unity. But what is unity without Christ at its center? What is comfort without hope? And what is popularity in a temporal world?

8. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will be compelled to contend for the faith. For example, the Apostle Paul, an expert apologist, debated in the synagogues to save souls. Jude urged believers to contend tirelessly for the faith (Jude 1:3). Peter admonished us always to be ready to give an answer as to why our hope is in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). Paul exhorted us to guard our doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16). Unequivocally, it is our duty to defend and uphold Biblical truth. And it is our love of God and His Word that will fuel this. John Piper puts it this way, "There are truths about God and Christ and man and the church and the world which are essential to the life of Christianity. If they are lost or distorted, the result will not be merely wrong ideas but misplaced trust. The inner life of faith is not independent from the doctrinal statement of faith. When doctrine goes bad, so do hearts. There is a body of doctrine which must be preserved."

9. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will promote unity in Christ. We will uphold biblical truth to strengthen the Church (as Ephesians 4:15-16 illustrates), even though there may be those that fall away as a result. While we will defend the doctrine of salvation, however, we will also remember that Satan wants to cause unnecessary division among believers. Some Christians get all wrapped around the axle about peripheral matters like whether or not to have a Christmas tree due to its "pagan origins" or whether or not to let our kids believe in Santa, and then lambaste other Christians who don't have the same perspective. But these minor issues distract us from what really matters. We can also be over-critical of our fellow believers, obsessing over each other's differences and flaws, which can lead to pride, hatred, and division. If we are selfless, we may not win the peripheral argument, but we will glorify God.

10. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will speak up when it comes to matters of salvation. Jesus did not beat around the bush when it came to this. He mentioned hell 23 times as is recorded in the Gospels. When Jesus went to dinner at a Pharisee's home, for example, He told the Pharisees, "Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering." (Luke 11:52). Not exactly cordial dinner conversation! Jesus was far more concerned with speaking the truth to them than sparing their feelings and sticking to safe topics of discussion. The disciples came to Jesus and told Him the Pharisees were offended by what He had been saying (Matt 15:12). But, Jesus answered that the Pharisees’ failure to see the truth right in front of them would be their downfall and He continued to uphold the truth, even when it offended people.

11. If selfless love is our motive for speaking the truth, we will be truthful even when interacting with the rich and powerful. When a rich young ruler ran up to Jesus and fell on his knees before Him, asking “Good teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17), Jesus spoke forthrightly and told him to leave everything he had and follow Him. The man went away sadly because he had great wealth (Mark 10:22). But the Bible also tells us that, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” (Mark 10:21). It was because Jesus loved the man so much that He spoke the truth to him. By speaking the truth to Him, Jesus did not try to win him over right then and there. He didn't tell him what he wanted to hear in order to gain a new follower, even an influential, wealthy one. Likewise, if we really love someone selflessly, we too will be truthful with them—even if they run away because of it.

12. If selfless love is our motive for speaking truth, we will fearlessly defend the weak and the oppressed. By faith we are called to be administrators of justice (Heb 11:33) and to correct oppression (Isa 17:1). We will advocate for the widow and the fatherless. We will pray for, and raise awareness about, the persecuted Church. We will speak up on behalf of those who cannot do so for themselves—including the unborn.

...Ultimately, people-pleasing isn't loving or serving others. It's temporary convenience without conviction. It's temporary happiness without hope. It's temporary popularity without promise. It's temporary status without soul.

When Paul rebuked people-pleasing in his first letter to the Thessalonians, he was evidently aware that it perpetuates the human desire to be cozy in the world, gives rise to false teaching, enables sin, and usurps the authority of God.

As a recovering people-pleaser, (who still backslides from time-to-time), I know that writing on matters of discernment (which the Bible itself emphasizes!) will likely gain me more enemies than friends. Despite this, however, I would rather seek to please God who tests my heart, not people!  I would rather cling to Christ in a world that has rejected Him, whether it's offensive to others or not.

...even if I still wince once-in-a-while!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Spiritual Spin-Mastery: A Slippery Slope

It's common knowledge that news anchors, journalists, political pundits, and the like, often quote a person's statement in partial form, or out of context, in order to put their own spin on it. This use of spin is usually intended to create impact, to sell a story, to push an agenda, or even to slander. In other words, spin is always used with an ulterior motive.

Misrepresenting a person's statements is widely looked down on. The fact is, however, Christians can do exactly the same thing with our own handling of the truth. Just like the tabloid reporters we vilify, we can also put our own spin on God's Word—unintentionally or otherwise.

If we're really honest, we could probably all think of an occasion when we've twisted God's Word to suit ourselves. It's tempting to quote Bible verses selectively to prove a point, isn't it? It's comforting to cherry-pick tidbits of Scripture to support our presuppositions or to satisfy our emotional needs. It's convenient to filter the Word of God through the lens of our own theology or circumstances rather than letting our view of Scripture arise from an honest, humble examination of the text.

Our intentions in spinning God's Word may be well-meaning. We might want to be sensitive, relevant, or tolerant
We might want to present a more culturally acceptable, less polarizing, version of our faith to the world (lest anyone be offended) rather than speaking the truth in love (which isn't always well received)But the problem is, the more we systematically approach Scripture from our own perspective rather than from a desire to understand God's, the more we will find ourselves in it, and the less we will find Him. In other words, we can put ourselves in danger of becoming spiritual spin-masters.

In truth, we are all subjective beings, and we'll always get bits of ourselves mixed up in the text to some extent. But the less we do this, the better. When studying God's Word, reading a Christian book, or listening to a sermon, Christians need to exercise discernment, asking ourselves: whose voice am I really listening to? Am I submitting to the guidance of the Holy Spirit as I humbly seek truth or am I tight-fistedly gripping the control? Am I being diligent in testing every teaching or am I absent-mindedly letting myself be deceived?

Spinning God's Word is dangerous. It can create an entire web of lies. Is this not how Joseph Smith was able to found what is now the fastest growing religion in America? He closely mimicked the Word of God, and put his own spin on it—even to the extent of adding to it and rewriting chunks of it! And think of the greatest spiritual spin-master of all time... Satan masterfully mixes truth with lies. He tweaks, twists, and intertwines God's truth with lies to trick us and tempt us into sin just like he did to Adam and Eve.

But spiritual spin-mastery can also appear in other less obvious places, even emerging on the mission field. In Islamic contexts, for example, a growing number of missionaries have begun to contextualize biblical truth in an effort to win more converts in what has long been a very hostile mission field. Some degree of cultural contextualization is necessary. Too much, however, is a slippery slope that quickly leads to syncretism. For example, in order to contextualize the gospel in a culturally sensitive way for the purpose of "building bridges" to Muslims, certain outspoken—but widely influential—leaders in Muslim ministry have encouraged using the Koran (as opposed to the Bible) to introduce Muslims to Jesus. Numbers-driven strategies in missiology such as the C5 (or the high-spectrum contextualization) method and the Jesus in the Qur'an trainings (CAMEL), are examples of this. In addition, Muslim idiom translations of the Bible have been promoted in these contexts, which remove un-Islamic concepts (such as God as Father) from Scripture, even though doing so is to take away from God's Word and obscure the doctrine of the TrinityAnd in an effort to make Jesus more "accessible" to Muslims by repackaging Him in a Muslim-friendly way, some C5 missionaries go so far as to effectively extract Jesus from Christianity altogether. Christian speaker and Muslim, Carl Medearis, for example, likes to state that Christianity has laid unfair claim to Jesus anyway.[1]

The problem is, however, the Jesus of Islam is an entirely different person from the biblical Jesus and when you extract Him from Christianity there's no longer clear doctrine to define in absolute terms who He is and what He has done for us on the Cross. It all becomes culturally relative. These contextualization strategies go way too far in spinning the truth. And this results in false converts.

It is important to remember that it is the role of the Holy Spirit to convict hearts, not ours to finesse and spin the Word of God to make it more culturally appealing. We are to proclaim the gospel message, and let the gospel stand for itself. Or as Paul puts it: "renounce disgraceful, underhanded ways" and "refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's Word, but by the open statement of the truth...commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God." (2 Cor 4:2). For seeking to ingratiate ourselves with a world that has rejected Christ is like trying to mix God's light with darkness. This dangerous form of spiritual spin will undoubtedly result in 50 shades of grey.

Spiritual spin-masters are everywhere. We need to be aware of them, and identify them, in order to guard ourselves and others. Remember: Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). He doesn't only try to destroy our faith by denying the Bible; he often quotes it out of context to lead us into disobedience—just as he attempted to do to Jesus in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11). Evidently, just because someone quotes Scripture, doesn't mean they speak God's Word!

Are we just nit-picking by trying to identify the spin-masters in our midst? Why be so negative? If people get something positive out of a Christian book even if it's not in line with Scripture, why make a fuss about it? There's a short answer to this: Because Jesus did.

Jesus repeatedly warned against false teaching and urged His followers to watch out that they are not deceived, for “many will come in My name” to lead people astray. (Luke 21:8; Mark 13:6). Jesus' description of false teachers is sobering: “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matt 7:15-16). The Epistles and Proverbs contain many of the same warnings. As a result, people who claim to have information from God should be tested carefully (1 John 4:1). In fact, every teaching should be tested (1 Thess 5:21).

Take for example the vastly popular "prosperity" teaching of the Word of Faith mega-pastors. While they call themselves "Christian," and have mass-appeal among many professing Christians, these preachers are in fact promoting a false gospel and a false Jesus. They preach the Convenient Christ—a lovable, Santa-esque figure who wants to make us happy and bless us abundantly. Their Jesus wants us to be comfortable in the world and for the world to comfortable with him. He always refrains from saying things that might offend people (conveniently skipping over the polarizing, convicting things that Jesus actually said). Their Jesus wants us to be successful, wealthy, and healthy above all else!

Earlier this year, Mega-Pastor Joel Osteen, for example, explained on a special Easter edition of CBS Sunday Morning, why he specifically chooses not to preach on repentance: "You know, it's not hellfire and brimstone [at Lakewood Church]. But I say most people are beaten down enough by life. They already feel guilty enough." As is often the case with prosperity preachers, calling for repentance is mistaken for guilt-tripping, and conviction of sin is muddled with beating people down. But, in actuality, preaching the gospel of Christ necessitates preaching repentance—otherwise the atoning power of the Cross is completely negated. As a result, the message Osteen preaches, bears very little resemblance to God's Word. He has put his own health-and-wealth spin on it, with a wink and smile to boot.

Beware of preachers who stick to positive, crowd-pleasing topics, dodging Bible verses that could ruffle feathers—like, for example, when Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Matt 16:24-26). Or when He said, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Matt 10:34). And what about the multiple times He talked about sin, hell, repentance, salvation, and eternity? There's certainly very little emphasis on cross-bearing or eternal salvation from within the Word of Faith camp. Instead it's all about Your Best Life Now![2]  Know your Bible.

...And then there's the enormously popular book (dare I even say it), Jesus Calling, in which the author, Sarah Young, writes in the inspired first-person voice of Jesus.[3] While she states up front that, unlike Scripture, her writing is not inerrant, she nevertheless presents words received directly from the "spirit of Christ." In fact, she has given interviews in which she describes the process by which she received the words, which involved sitting before a blank piece of paper with pen in hand and "listening" for guidance (perhaps due to criticism, this point has not been emphasized so much by the author of late).

This is problematic. Firstly, the method of receiving inspiration that she describes is akin to the occultic practice of "automatic writing," and has absolutely no biblical basis. Secondly, the words she received, while alluding to certain Bible verses, do not reflect the same themes of Scripture as those Jesus actually preached during His earthly ministry. Her consistent emphasis is on how much God delights in us as His children, which is certainly true, but Scripture consistently points us to Christ, and not back to ourselves like Young's book unfortunately does. In essence, her words do not echo the tenor of God's Word.

Jesus' teaching certainly didn't take the form of a crooning love song. It was a soul-piercing, hard-hitting, life-and-death message of repentance, hope, and salvation. In Jesus Calling, the author seldom speaks of sin and repentance and even less of Christ’s work on the Cross. There is almost nothing of the gospel in her book. But why would the tenor of Jesus' teaching change now in the 21st century? Remember that God never changes (Num 23:19; Heb 13:8; Jas 1:17). We can trust, therefore, that His voice is consistent and unchanging also. In truth, the author's voice in Jesus Calling sounds suspiciously more like a middle-aged woman in living in post-modern suburbia than it does the voice of the living God.

We are commanded to hold all teaching up against God's Word, like the "noble" Berean Jews were commended for doing in the Book of Acts. For we've been forewarned that "the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." (2 Tim 4:3-4). It is crucial, then, that we equip ourselves with a thorough knowledge of Scripture, and biblical doctrine (such as that of the Trinity and biblical inerrancy), in order to distinguish absolute truth from lies in a relativistic culture of deception.

As James Montgomery Boice, late pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church, so rightly pointed out, the great issue of our day would not be the authority of the Bible, but its sufficiency. The temptation for Christians today is to turn to other revelation and experiences of God, instead of relying on Scripture. In actuality, it's a form of spiritual greed. Jesus Calling represents just that trend. As Kathy Keller puts it in her emphatic warning against the best-seller, "Young had the Bible, but found it insufficient."[3] 
Or as Young herself puts it in the introduction to her book, "I knew that God communicated with me in the Bible, but I yearned for more."[4] 

Just because a particular book, teaching, song, or other spiritual resource seems appealing, helpful, comforting, etc., that doesn't always mean it is from God. He might redeem the use of that resource in your life by His grace, but this doesn't mean He has ordained it...

Why bother with books like these that have received so much criticism from credible sources? Why tolerate preaching in our churches that doesn't point to Christ? Why bother dabbling in Eastern philosophies? Why bother taking cues from secular self-helpism or New Age spiritualism? If we take God at His Word, we will believe that His Word is sufficient (2 Tim 3:16). And God promises that the work He has begun in you, He will bring to completion (Phil 1:6). Why look elsewhere?

For the Bible tells us, “Every word of God is flawless; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar." (Prov 30:5-6). And this sobering warning is echoed at the end of the book of Revelation: "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll." (Rev 22:18-19). Be on guard against extra-biblical writing that claims to contain new messages from God. Avoid books like these and stick to Scripture as the sole source of God's truth.

Don't overlook a little Scriptural twist here and a little Scriptural tweak there, because if you start inching off in the wrong direction, in time, you will find yourself way off course. If we keep spinning Scripture, in the end, we'll spin out of control. But if we know the Word of God well, we will not be led astray when Scripture is twisted or misapplied! If we abide in God's Word, we can rest assured that He will abide in us and His Word will be a lamp to our feet. (John 15:7; Psa 119:105).

[1] Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism, Carl Medearis, 2011

[2] Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, Joel Osteen, 2007
[3] This is a particularly controversial topic as many mature believers enjoy her book and get a lot out of it. It is unpopular to bring up concerns over it, and doing so almost always offends people. My concern here, however, is that while the book is not heretical in itself, it is not reflective of the tenor of God's Word. On this, I cannot remain silent, despite the fact that there is always backlash.
[4] Jesus Calling by Sarah Young: A Review by Kathy Keller (wife of Pastor Tim Keller)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why Christians Should Stop Seeking Their Life's Purpose

Since Rick Warren published his all-time best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life,[1] over ten years ago, vast numbers of Christians have been on an eager quest to discover their life's purpose. Pastor Warren was careful in his book to make a distinction between worldly goals and godly ones and pointed out that he wasn't urging Christians to focus on earthly dreams and desires when seeking after their God-ordained purpose, or to collect "temporary crowns," but that they were to seek after things of eternal value. Warren also warned against deeming material blessings as integral to one's purpose, and that trials are to be viewed as growth opportunities in this temporal life. Amen.

But, themes such as "purpose-driven lives" and "dream-chasing," while currently generating wide appeal in our [somewhat Disneyfied] Christian culture, and while not being inherently wrong in themselves, are not themes that are emphasized in Scripture, however. And as extra-biblical themes have a habit of doing, the concept of being "purpose-driven" has taken on a life of its own...Over the past decade, the fad has generated a wave of manifestations, such as: purpose-driven youth ministries; purpose-driven worship conferences; purpose-driven daily devotionals, etc. Many churches have eagerly glommed onto the concept in a big way over the past ten years.

Unlike the principle of "gospel-centrality," however, which is a theme clearly emphasized in Scripture and is unequivocal in its definition, "purpose-driven" is an ambiguous term, which can mean different things to different people. More often than not, it has sadly morphed from what I believe was Pastor Warren's originally well-intended meaning into a source of spiritual narcissism. In his book, Warren does lay out five biblically sound, universally applicable, purposes for which we have each been created, but these are not often what people have in mind when they are in the throws of seeking their life's purpose.

The idea has indeed taken on a life of its own having been cast into the amorphous Twittersphere of soundbite theology. And instead of bringing clarity to God's Word, the purpose-driven theme has caused confusion among Christians, many of whom have been unable to clearly identify a specific, God-ordained calling on their lives and have ended up feeling discouraged and directionless as a result. Just yesterday, I was talking with yet another frazzled stay-at-home mom who looked me with desperate eyes and lamented, "I just can't figure out what my purpose is." I know how you feel. I've been there, too.

Another popular wave of post-modern teaching that has been sweeping through the Western Church of late emphasizes chasing God-sized dreams. Dream-chasing has become something of a fad in many nontraditional churches. Dream Centers[2] are being built, dream-chasing small groups are being formed, and Dream Conferences are being held. It all sounds good doesn't it? And again, the idea in itself isn't wrong. It's just that nowhere in the Bible, are Christians urged to chase dreams. Like the purpose-driven theme, the terminology of dream-chasing in Christian teaching is problematic, because it can too easily be misunderstood and cause the centrality of Christ to be obscured. The contemporary Christianese of dream-chasing vernacular does sound more like the theme of a Disney movie than a biblical exposition of God's Word. And there is a reason for this. Because when we end up talking about dreams—or any theme—more than we're talking about the gospel of Christ, there's a problem. Here's the point: when the themes of Christian conferences, sermons, and books don't echo Biblical themes, we're going down a slippery theological slope.

A good example of how an extra-Biblical theme can lead to unsound theology, can be seen in the opening of Pastor Warren's book, in which he asks readers to sign a covenant to partner with him by committing the next 40 days of their lives to discovering their life's purpose. He then promises that, “By the end of the journey you will know God’s purpose for your life and will understand the big picture—how all the pieces of your life fit together.” (p.9) But who are we—and who is Warren—to place a time frame on God's guidance for our lives? The Bible is clear that God doesn't operate on our schedule, for with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day (2 Peter 3:8).

Furthermore, Christians who are seeking to define a God-given purpose for their lives are often disappointed when the lofty calling or grandiose mission they were anticipating doesn't materialize. What if your purpose that day is picking up Cheerios off the floor? Does that seem like making a difference in the world? Instead of reaching for the stars, many of us spend our days scrubbing the bathroom floor or staring at a computer screen. One might ask: could these menial tasks really be part of God's plan for me? Or am I missing something? And what about that inspirational verse: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" (Jer 29:11)? There's nothing menial about that!

Ah...the oft-quoted coffee-cup verse.... Don't get me wrong! This is a verse to be cherished—like all verses of Scripture should be. But, also like all verses of Scripture, it is to be cherished in context. While Jeremiah 29:11 should rightfully give us a sense of hope, it is often quoted without any acknowledgement that this was God's promise through Jeremiah to the people of Israel while they were in exile to Babylon. And as promised, the Israelites came out of exile after 70 years.

This is not to say that the promises of the old covenant (given to Israel under Old Testament Mosaic law) are not applicable to Christians today under the new covenant (through which the law of Moses has given way to new life in Christ). Paul clarifies this: "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ." (Cor 1:20). And Hebrews 9:15 declares, “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that He has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” In other words, all God's promises, purposes, and plans are now fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, God's purpose for believers today is always going to point us to Christ. Not ourselves. And praise God for that!

The truth is, however, most of us struggle with a yearning for personal significance in this world. And so, the whole purpose-driven mantra that has prevailed in Western Christendom over recent years has inadvertently promoted more self-centerdness among believers than it is has Christ-centeredness. For when we spend more time thinking about our purpose than we do thinking about God's Word, we can start to elevate ourselves without realizing it. Unfortunately, our inherently selfish fallen nature has a tendency to twist potentially edifying concepts into narcissistic ones all too easily. And extra-biblical themes that are superimposed onto Scripture leave us vulnerable to doing just that.

It cannot be denied that our increasingly godless culture is dominated by self worship. Therefore, we should be on guard against its narcissistic influences seeping into the Church. In our post-modern context of selfism, seeking personal "purpose" has too much potential to puff us up, and therefore should be avoided.

For in actuality, Scripture teaches that our purpose as Christians is both singular and universal; it is to glorify God. And we are clearly instructed to do this by 1) living biblical, God-honoring lives, and 2) pointing others to Christ (making disciples). In other words, we are to obey what Jesus taught are the two greatest commandments: 1) to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, (which is synonymous with seeking to please Him as our loving Father) and 2) to love our neighbors as ourselves (which is synonymous with encouraging others to embrace new life in Christ). In both cases, the focus is ultimately off of ourselves, and onto God. Our purpose is naturally humbling. Are you noticing a theme?

This might sound over-simplified to those who prefer a more tangible or specific life-goal to cling to, but the fact is, Jesus never mentioned individual purpose, calling, or goals in His teaching. Nor did the apostles. A brief look at the major themes of Jesus' teaching in the Gospels, and those that are echoed throughout the Epistles reveals that the gospel message is unwaveringly central. Indeed, God's Word consistently and lovingly calls sinners to die to self in order to embrace new life in Him (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9;23; Gal 2:20; Eph 4;22-24; Phil 1;21). Importantly, the emphasis is not on individual purpose here, but instead on self-denial. In the words of John the Baptist, "He must become greater; I must become less." (John 3:30)

Jesus' earthly ministry culminates in a universal call to go out into the world and make disciples in the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8; Matt 28:19-20). The Great Commission, as it is known, is a calling to all believers to glorify God through the furtherance of His kingdom. Notably, Jesus is careful to point out that it is through the power of the Holy Spirit that we fulfill this purpose—not through our own strength or strategies. We are simply the messengers, not the manufacturers, of salvation.

Another consistent theme in the New Testament is justification, not by good works, but by faith alone in Christ alone, as laid out in Galatians and Romans (the emphasis is not on individual purpose here either, but unquestionably on the gospel of Christ). The central message of Philippians is an admonishment to rejoice in one's sufferings for Christ and to trust in the sovereignty of God (again, no mention of individual purpose). The need for believers to be united in Christ is emphasized in 1 Corinthians (no mention of individual purpose here either). 2 Corinthians is a testimony of Paul that through trials our hearts draw closer to God as He is able to comfort us and mold us into His image (God does use suffering to hone is, and in that there is purpose, but this is not the type of "purpose" or "dream" most people are seeking after). Colossians proclaims Christ's deity and urges us to reject worldly philosophies (which sadly the purpose-driven mantra has become more akin to).

As we move through the New Testament, the themes are consistently Christ-centered as opposed to purpose-driven. Paul's high Christology is unmistakable and constant. 1 & 2 Thessalonians encourage persecuted believers to look forward to the day of Christ's return (again no individual goals or purposes mentioned here). 1 & 2 Timothy highlight the importance of refuting false teaching (hmmm). Titus mainly instructs pastors to fight against both legalism and license, urging them to stand firm in the gospel of grace. 1 Peter emphasizes that sufferings and persecutions are to be expected in this life, but that there is hope in Christ. 2 Peter speaks out against licentious living and encourages believers to continue in godly living to the end. Paul's letter to Philemon instructs him to accept Onesimus now that he had converted to Christ. Hebrews embraces the new covenant over the old. James teaches that authentic Christian living involves loving others in Christ through trusting and obeying Him. John's epistles warn against false teachers and hold that obedience is integral to faith in Christ. John also urges believers to practice hospitality and support missionaries. Jude encourages believers to contend for the faith, clinging to Christ in godliness. And the final message in Revelation is to remain watchful, ready, and hopeful in eager expectation of the coming of our King.

In sum, the New Testament thematically exhorts us to live humbly in Christ-centered obedience. There really isn't anything in there about seeking one's personal life-purpose. So, why are we spending so much energy talking about something God's Word largely ignores? Sure, you can cherry-pick Bible verses to back up extra-biblical themes, but this doesn't mean they reflect the tenor of God's Word. It all seems like a bit of a distraction.

None of this means that we won't ever do great things in God's strength, for His glory. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. In God's strength we will be used to do amazing things! The Bible tells us so! But my point is, if we're too focused on our purpose, our gifts, or our you-name-it, and not enough on Him, we might miss the opportunity to do great things altogether. It's when are humbly immersed in God's Word, and prayerfully seeking Him, that we can be powerfully used by He "who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us." (Eph 3:20). We can trust that He will make use of the gifts He has given us, or equip us to serve Him in unprecedented ways. All we need to do is step out humbly in faith and keep our eyes on Him.

And none of this should be mistaken to mean that God doesn't care about the details of our individual lives—even the hairs on our heads are numbered, for instance (Matt 10:30)! Nor does it mean He doesn't love us intimately as individuals! Psalm 139, for example, makes that clear. But by calling us to live for His glory, God is graciously saving us from ourselves. And we are released from the exhausting task of figuring out His purpose for our lives because quite simply Jesus Christ is our God-given life-purpose. Praise God that we can stop running down those endless rabbit trails in a futile quest to find the answers, because we already have THE answer! We can find freedom, rest, guidance, and hope in Him—for the great I AM is the one true purpose in life.


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2. For example, Dream Center, DC