Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Love Actually...Is Truth!

When blogging about the Christian worldview and framing apologetics arguments there is typicallyat least, there should be!a heavy dose of truth involved. But what does Paul mean when he admonished us to "speak the truth in love"? I think Paul was making an important point here, the subtlety and profoundness of which can be easily missed. An obvious response to this verse would be: "Well, Paul is saying we shouldn't bash people over the head with the truth because that wouldn't be loving." This may be true, but I think Paul's statement goes way deeper than that. I think it's worth exploring some further questions:

What does Paul mean by love?

It is useful to view Paul's statement in the context of Jesus' teaching[1] that the first and greatest commandment was "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt 22:37) and the that the second is like it: "‘Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matt 22:38). If we consider Paul's statement in light of these two commandments on which "all the Law and the Prophets hang" (Matt 22:40), we can deduce that Paul is telling us to speak the truth as an outworking of our love of God and of people—not, on the other hand, as inspired by our love of the world, our love of popular approval, or our love of ourselves. The Greek term for love Paul uses here is agape, a form of agapeis, which is also used by Jesus (agapaō) when he quotes the greatest commandments. The essence of agape love is self-sacrifice. So then, speaking the truth should be done in self-sacrificial love as modeled by Jesus Christ. It should primarily be to glorify God, and also be edifying to those who hear it. And speaking the truth may be costly to us.

The Holy Spirit empowers us to love God and love others in a self-sacrificial way. Loving others without the Holy Spirit involves a self-serving, consumerist form of love that actually takes away from God and other people more than it gives. This may not be immediately evident when we observe acts of love that are done in human strength such as generosity, kindness, or charity, for example. Humans are created in the image of God, so we naturally gravitate toward the notion of doing good unto others. But, loving others in our own strength, as well-intended as it may be, will ultimately end up being self-serving because of our fallen nature. Loving others certainly can provide us with a whole lot of earthly perks: a warm and fuzzy feeling; popularity and a good reputation; a wholesome family environment; a better marriage; a safer community to live in, etc. Loving others in our own strength, however, hardly ever leads us to speak the truth in love. Instead, it's more likely to move us to smooth things over and make everything comfortable. It can lead us to ignore inconvenient truths and live in denial. It can lead to double-mindedness, flattery, and people-pleasing. Living in the power of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, gives us a supernatural ability to genuinely love others self-sacrificially. Christ-like love, however, is often rejected by the world and doesn't necessarily come with all the earthly perks we might desire.

What does Paul mean by truth?

We can see from the passage above, that the alternative to speaking the truth in love is spiritual immaturity (being like "infants") and susceptibility to being to being deceived by every wind of teaching and the deceitful scheming of other people (Eph 4:14-16). Paul, then, is urging us to teach others to obey God's commandments so that they will not be caught up in circumstances or be deceived by false teaching, but will instead be anchored in the truth so that they will mature and be built up in the Body of Christ. This is the essence of discipling others just as Jesus articulated before His ascension to heaven, when He said, "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." (Matt 28:19-20). Teaching the truth about God's commands as laid out in His Word is an integral part of discipling others and building up the Body of Christ.  

Paul admonished believers to handle the "Word of truth" accurately (2 Tim 2:15). Paul made it clear that the only way to do this was to first understand that it is in Christ alone that all truth is rooted. Speaking rigidly about the law like the Pharisees did is not what Paul meant by handling the Word of truth accurately. Paul resolved to "boast in nothing 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). While Paul stayed with the Corinthian believers, he described how, "When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power." (1 Cor 2:1-5). Speaking the truth, then, must be Christ-centered and must not rely on human wisdom, but on the power of God. Because speaking the truth in love rejects human wisdom, and centers on the stumbling block of Christ, it may often be offensive others. 

What does Paul mean by "in"?

The little word, "in," carries a lot of weight here. Paul's admonishes us to speak the truth "in" love. He doesn't talk about speaking the truth "with" love or speaking the truth "about" love.  I think there is a subtle but significant distinction here. 

Firstly, in his use of the word, "in," Paul presents love as the context for our speech. In other words, loving actions and behavior towards others should provide the backdrop for speaking the truth. Young Life's founder, Jim Rayburn, talks about "earning the right to be heard" when ministering to young people and sharing the gospel with them. The gospel is best communicated within a context of friendship or loving outreach. I think Paul is saying something similar here: the truth is better received when it's delivered within the context of Christ-like love. 

Interestingly, Paul didn't say speak love, he said speak truth. He isn't talking here about love as the content of what is being spoken. Have you ever heard the saying, "actions speak louder than words?" Simply saying nice things to some one without backing up our words with loving actions is disingenuous. Love is more authentically demonstrated in the way we treat others than in our words alone. Therefore, we need to shoot for doing love, and speaking truth. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't express love verbally. Often, verbal expressions of love will merge with truth. For example, I tell my husband and daughters how much I love them all the time. I am speaking the truth about my love for them! Setting out to speak truth in love is different from setting out to speak words of love alone, which can quickly devolve into flattery and empty words. We need to be sure that our speech is not peppered with gushing expressions of flattery that do not truthfully reflect Christ-like love for others. In the same way, speaking words of encouragement to others, unless anchored in biblical truth, can too easily turn into people-pleasing even though our intentions were good to begin with. This is true of those who emphasize tolerance and cultural sensitivity over biblical truth in the name of loving their neighbor, which usually leads to watering down the gospel. But Paul urged the Galatians to "act in line with the truth of the gospel" (Gal 2:14). We need, then, to be careful that the things we do and say are not aimed at pleasing people first, but God first. 

Secondly, Paul's use of the word "in" shows that love should be our motive for speaking the truth. Our motive for speaking the truth should be rooted in our love of God and our love of people. The fact is, if we truly love some one, we will want to be honest with them. If you saw some one you loved dearly going down a path of self-destruction, you would do what you could to save them. In actuality, the only life-preserver that will save some one who's spiritually drowning, is the gospel. This should be our motivation behind speaking the truth: to help others find the way, which is Christ Jesus. 

Keeping our motives pure can be costly. It can cost us friendships, popularity, and can be really inconvenient! I am a people-pleaser by nature and as a result I am constantly struggling with the temptation to do and say things that I think will make people happy or make people like me more. At times, it has been tempting for me to make a friend feel better about a problem they are having, rather than speaking the truth to them about their situation. The truth can make us uncomfortable. This can lead us to brush it under the rug, or tell ourselves a different, more palatable story. In doing this, however, we put our feelings before our obedience to God.

I believe that people-pleasing is the essence of what is wrong with the emergent churches movement in which cultural-sensitivity often trumps biblical truth. In this context, the desire to make to make people feel better, and more comfortable, is more important that teaching obedience to God as Jesus commanded us to do. Turning a blind-eye to inconvenient truths and watering down the gospel so as not to "turn people off" might be pleasing to people, but it is disobedient to God. 

Paul, on the other hand, spoke a lot of truth even when it was costly to him. He angered 
Jewish leaders and Roman officials, which landed him in prison and led ultimately to his execution under Emperor Nero. He also spent a good deal of time refuting false teaching in his letters to the early churches. And he addressed issues of sinoften with black-and-white, hard-hitting truth. But for Paul, the central, vital, life-giving truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ was what really mattered. In the Epistles, Paul comes back over and over again to the gospel of Christ as being central to his ministry. He showed us that our faith should be firmly rooted in the gospel, so that we will not be blown about by every wind of teaching. It is the transformative power of the gospel that is the driving force behind Paul's endeavor to speak the truth in love. 

Finally, by using the word, "in," Paul shows that the nature of Christ-centered truth is essentially inseparable from love. It is the purest expression of love. Truth is, by its very nature, completely submerged and saturated in love! Love actually is truthAs demonstrated above, love without truth is people-pleasing. But just as dangerous is truth without love, which can lead to hard-headed legalism, hatred, and division. Truth without love is like faith without deeds. And we know from James that faith without deeds is dead: "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder." (James 2:18-19). 

Head-knowledge alone doesn't save us, for even the demons know the truth. I have known people who have a keen grasp of theological concepts and can even articulate the atonement, for example, with amazing precision. However, their hearts have been unchanged by the gospel. Head-knowledge alone doesn't change the heart. We know from Scripture that, "knowledge puffs up while love builds up" (1 Cor 8:1). Head-knowledge can be a source of pride—an unhealthy form of self-love that turns us away from God. If we don't experience heart-change in response to the truth of the gospel, our faith is dead. Truth without love, then, is nullified for Christ-centered truth cannot exist apart from love.

When should we speak truth in love and when should we remain silent?

If love is our motive for speaking the truth, this should cause us to 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 them has born more fruit than if I had confronted them right then and there. We should certainly err on the side of showing grace to some one who is suffering from depression, or to some one who would be discouraged from accepting the gospel by having to deal with heavy-hitting truth before being given new eyes to see. Confronting a sin issue in a brother- or sister-in-Christ is best done with humility and gentleness. 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!

The practice of "accountability" between Christians has grown in popularity over the last decade or two; many Christians are in "accountability groups" as a means to dealing with besetting sin, it's increasingly common to have "accountability partners," and we often ask our fellow believers to "hold us accountable" when we're dealing with a difficult relationship or situation. I think these are great ways to encourage each other to grow spiritually and to guard against pride and self-righteousness in our hearts. I also think that the practice of holding other Christians accountable can go over-board (as can happen with any trend in behavior). We can too easily tip the balance from speaking the truth in love into nagging people or hitting them over the head with THE TRUTH. If we are tempted to be judgmental and critical of a fellow believer, church, or ministry we should 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 may have strayed? Is speaking the truth in this situation necessary to guard against false teaching that undermines the gospel? Are we holding a friend accountable, with gentleness and humility, for their own good or is it more about venting our grievances? 

There are plenty of things happening in Christianity today that may make us angry: the emergent church; the prosperity gospel; and the problem of worldliness seeping into Christian culture. All of these things get me really fired up. I think this is righteous anger. And I think we need to address these issues head on, for issues such as these directly impact the gospel-centrality of the Christian faith. But there are other issues to which we should respond primarily with grace, because they don't directly affect the gospel. Satan cannot destroy the gospel. Therefore, he will do all he can to distract us from it and cause division among Christians. 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.

As the key passage from Ephesians above illuminates, the building up of the Body should be a strong motivator for us as believers. We should, therefore, avoid causing disunity in the church unnecessarily. We need to speak up, however, in situations when the truth of the gospel is compromised in any way. Speaking the truth in love within the context of defending the gospel will culminate in strengthening the Body of Christ, even though there may be those that fall away as a result.

Most importantly, we should 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. And from this passage we also learn that knowing the law is not enough. 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.

When a rich young man 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. The Greek word for love that Mark uses here is again agapaō—agape love. Jesus looked at the man with self-sacrificial love. By speaking the truth to Him, Jesus did not try to win him over right then and there, but caused him to walk away sadly. Jesus didn't tell the man what he wanted to hear in order to gain a new follower. He didn't focus on the common ground between the rich young man and Himself. Instead, Jesus showed him the cavernous rift that was between them. He wanted the man to hear what was good for him. If we really love some one, we will want to be truthful with them even if they reject us because of it.

What about "hot button," controversial issues like homosexuality and abortion? 

When should we speak up? When should we remain silent? A canned response to this does not suffice; we need to prayerfully seek God's guidance on a case-by-case basis and ask for discernment when addressing controversial issues. We need to ask, is this is a situation in which we are required to take a biblical stand for the sake of the gospel? Or is this a situation in which debating a controversial issue with an unbeliever is going to be a distraction from the gospel? It is important to make the distinction between sin in our culture and the sin of individuals. Like I blogged about in my previous post on Inconvenient Truths, we should stand firmly (but not always loudly) against the former, and show grace towards the latter, being truthful always. We should absolutely defend the rights of the unborn who have no power to defend themselves. But in advocating for traditional marriage and the right to life, we should never lambaste gay people or pro-choice activists with angry personal attacks. 

It is also important to treat the sin of individual unbelievers differently from the sin of Christians. 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 should love them, pray for them, and witness to them about the hope that is in Christ—not focus on their sins. Believers, on the other hand, are called to put off the old self that was governed by deceitful desires and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:22-24). We are told to distance ourselves from those within the Body of Christ who are unrepentant about living a life of sin, and to welcome them back as soon as they repent. I Corinthians 5 provides a great model for how to confront immorality in the church. I don't think Christians do enough to turn away from sin in our churches and as a result, we are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the world.

What is the exact right balance between truth and love?

The exact right balance of love and truth is almost impossible for anyone (except Jesus) to achieve. A formulaic answer to this question is not sufficient, but we can at least endeavor to
 do love and speak truth in the power of the Holy Spirit, while prayerfully seeking to glorify God in all we do and say. And before we get too overwhelmed by the prospect of tipping the balance too far one way or the other, we can remind ourselves that quite simply love actually is truth.


[1] Despite claims that Paul was not familiar with the teachings of Jesus, the Pauline Epistles clearly echo what Jesus taught throughout. There is a growing tendency to deny this and under-value the prescriptive significance of Paul's letters as a result. Although Paul did not spend time with Jesus during His earthly ministry, we know that Paul was very familiar with the Jesus traditions having spent so much time in ministry with those who had known Him personally like Peter, Barnabas, and John Mark. While Paul gives instructions similar to those of Jesus it is true that he does not cite specific quotations often. Paul did not feel the need to specifically reference Jesus' teachings often because they were so well known by his readers at the time. Paul had already taught the Jesus traditions when he planted the churches initially. For the Post-Easter church, Jesus was significant not so much as a teacher but more as the Christ who had died and risen. Paul concentrates on the Christ event in a post-Easter context, but is clearly guided by the general spirit of Jesus’ teachings.There are, in fact, 25 places where Paul makes references or allusions to a saying of Jesus. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Touchy-Feely Faith that Neglects the Mind

In one of her signature ah-ha moments, Oprah Winfrey announced to 50 million talk show viewers that, "God is a feeling-experience, not a believing-experience!"—a statement based on the New Age teaching of one of her spiritual gurus. Why should Christians take note of yet another one of Oprah's epiphanies? Because in this concise statement, Oprah succeeded in encapsulating the essence of an ideological movement that has gained far-reaching influence and has even infiltrated the Christian faith in insidious ways.

It is in the “new spiritualism” of Eckhart Tolle that Oprah finds the inspiration for such a concept. After Oprah’s widespread promotion of Tolle’s books, such as A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Tolle made several best seller lists and his teaching has had significant impact. In 2011, he was dubbed by the Watkins Review as the most spiritually influential person in the world. While this likely an inflated view of Tolle, it is true that ideas like his are hugely popular. Tolle articulates the common New Age notion that peace and truth can only be found by searching deep within oneself, a search which supposedly culminates in an overpowering feeling of oneness with the universe—which is God in us all, and by which we are all connected.

Another Oprah-endorsed author, Rhonda Byrne, presents much the same premise. In her best-selling book, The Secret, she claims to have unlocked the secret through which we can create a better life through Quantam physics and the law of attraction—in other words, we can shape our own destinies through harnessing the universal powers that are at our disposal if we search within ourselves. As Byrne puts it, “There is a truth deep down inside of you that has been waiting for you to discover it, and that Truth is this: you deserve all good things life has to offer.”[1]

Ideas like these can, and do, have mass-appeal because they tap into our innately self-centered nature. It's all about self-help, self-fulfillment, self-truth, and—quite frankly—self-indulgence. As a result, millions of people have embraced the New Age beliefs promoted by Oprah. Ann Oldenburg, reporting to USA Today wrote: “After two decades of searching for her authentic self — exploring New Age theories, giving away cars, trotting out fat, recommending good books and tackling countless issues from serious to frivolous — Oprah Winfrey has risen to a new level of guru.”  It is unsettling that the concept of self-truth has had such extensive impact even within Christian circles. I have encountered with some frequency Christians reading both Tolle's and Byrne's books and also Christians who admire Oprah. 

In the quest for self-truth, Tolle encourages his readers to let go of pre-conceived religious beliefs that present obstacles to the transformative power of his teachings and to gain freedom from the mental constraints that inhibit their access to spiritual enlightenment. Like other new spiritualists, Tolle claims that his version of the “Truth” about universal oneness is a-religious, (completely disregarding the fact that he is merely replacing one belief system with another pantheistic version). Tolle denies the need for a conscious belief in God, holding that the “Truth” can only be sensed through an intuitive method of unconscious internal knowing—in other words—a feeling. He criticizes “mind-dominated religions” in which “people…equate truth with thought.”[2] Tolle’s theory of oneness, therefore, did not come to him through a thought-process, he claims, but through a near-death experience.[3] 

For those not firmly grounded in the Word of God, ideas like these may sound profound and have surface appeal. Even among Christians, the trendy practice of mind-emptying meditation[4] as a relaxation technique has become popular, for example. Erasing conscious beliefs from the mind involves letting go of biblical knowledge and opening up the unconscious to the "power of the universe." While this process may seem benign to some believers, it can in fact open them up to ungodly influences, perhaps even demonic persuasion.  

Paul describes how we should "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God" and "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." (2 Cor 10:3-6). In complete opposition to Tolle's position, it is clear from scripture that the process of salvation begins in the heart through the believing reception of the testimony of God—a conscious process that also involves the mind. The mental rejection of that testimony hardens the heart, for without a conscious acknowledgment of our sinful state and our need for salvation, we will have stubborn and unrepentant hearts (Rom 2:5). Instead, we are told to set our "minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth." (Cor 3:1-2). Seeking the truth within the [earthly] self through a feeling-experience, therefore, can only lead to deception, a hardened heart, and away from God.

Worryingly, an emphasis on faith as a feeling-experience is being echoed by a growing number of Christians today who base their relationship with God far more heavily on their emotional response to Him than on their biblical knowledge of Him. Believers are increasingly 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. Many 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 never mention the gospel, quote Bible verses rarely, selectively, or out of context, and indulge the reader in a touchy-feely portrayal of the Christian faith. Books such as these fail to equip believers for a faith that endures.

In keeping with this trend is the Emerging Church movement—a broad, yet controversial, movement that seeks to use culturally sensitive approaches to reach the postmodern, un-churched population with the Christian message. Emerging churches often promote a feelings- and experience-based relationship with God, while downplaying the need for doctrinal understanding. In this context, the gospel can be diluted in a sea of emotion and a church culture is created that caters to human needs first, which sadly results in promoting self-indulgence while de-emphasizing the Lordship of Christ. This is the epitome of touchy-feely faith.

Touchy-feely faith, as well-intended as it may be, can put us on a winding rabbit trail of emotion that actually leads us away from God. This is because without Bible-knowledge, it is harder to discern which heart-feeling is of God and which isn't. God never contradicts His Word, and heart-feelings that aren't compatible with biblical truth are not of the Holy Spirit, even if they might feel like it. But touchy-feely faith overlooks the need to watch our doctrine closely and persevere in it in order to save both ourselves and our hearers (1 Tim 4:16). It neglects the need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds in order to test and approve God's will (Romans 12:2). And it can leave us vulnerable to being led astray by false teaching. Jesus showed that being rooted in scripture is vital when He said, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). 

The importance of loving God with all our minds is overlooked in a dumbed-down Christian culture that relishes sound-bite theology and fleeting ah-ha moments in our Twitter feed. In addition, the growing emphasis on feeling-experiences in the Christian culture reflects the pattern-behavior of this world—patterns we are specifically taught not to conform to! (Romans 12:1).  Leading emotion-driven lives and “following one’s heart” is indeed the modus operandi of a worldly culture. The vast majority of secular pop music unashamedly indulges every emotional whim and fantasy rather than conveying anything remotely redeeming or edifying to the human heart. And our younger generations suffer from a culturally imposed sense of entitlement—believing that they deserve to live emotionally indulgent lives of happiness, comfort, pleasure, or, in other words, self-worship. David Powlison, in his in-depth analysis of idols of the heart, explains that the Bible treats idolatry, not only as stemming from within the human heart, but also “as a central feature of the social context, ‘the world,’ which shapes and molds us.”[5]  Indeed, our self-absorbed culture provides the perfect context for Byrnes’ pronouncement that “you deserve all good things life has to offer”  to be well-received, and for the idol of self-worship to take root. The hedonistic environment in which we live, is also fertile ground for self-serving lies to flourish such as, “if it feels good, it is good.” And as followers of Christ, we should reject this worldly pattern of behavior vehemently.

Basing one’s life decisions and priorities on feelings, or following one’s heart, certainly has fatal pitfalls; the Bible teaches clearly that the heart (in biblical Hebrew, the heart is a metaphor for the seat of emotions) is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9) and is naturally wicked (Gen 8:21). Hence, the heart, when left in its original condition, contaminates one’s whole life and character (Matt 12:34; Matt 15:18). The Bible teaches that the heart must be changed and regenerated (Eze 36:26; Eze 11:19; Psa 51:10), before we can willingly obey God. 

Jesus said: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt 22:37). In this, the first and greatest of God's commandments, we learn that loving God involves a cognitive grasp of who He is (through His Word), coupled with our heart response to the transformative power of the gospel, for a faith that will endure with our souls forever. 

[1] Byrne, Rhonda, The Secret, 2006, p41
[2] Ekahrt Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose
[3] Richard Abanes responds to this claim in A New Earth, An Old Deception: Awakening to the dangers of Ekhart Tolle’s #1 Bestseller, pointing out that similar out-of-body sensations have been documented to result from torture, hypnosis, and drug-induced hysteria.
[4] The term "meditation" here is not to be confused with practice of meditating on God's Word, which has an entirely different meaning.
[5] Powlison, David, “Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Volume 13, Number 2, Winter 1995, p36

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The JOY of Christmas

Christmas is my absolute favorite time of year. I love the nostalgic, cozy feelings brought on by the sound of Christmas carols, the cheerful twinkle of Christmas lights, the warm reds and golds and the shiny silver baubles. I love the crisp air and deep-green wreaths on the snow-covered houses in our town. I love how the snowy lamppost outside our house reminds me of talking beavers, fur-coats, and the smell of mothballs. And I even love the bustle of Christmas shoppers and the sparkle of decorations in store windows! 

Now that we have kids, we feel the wonder and merriment of Christmas all the more. Our kids can hardly contain themselves waiting for Christmas Day. We put up our nativity and talked about the Christmas story. On Christmas morning we will place baby Jesus in the manger before we do anything else. It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas! A time for celebration and joy! There's a truly magical feeling that is unique to this time of year, and I am convinced that it radiates from the miracle of Jesus' birth--just like the star that shone so brightly on the night He was born, for all to see.

I loved Kevin De Young's recent post on Christian Christmas Grinches. He writes: 

It seems like every time Christmas rolls around, a couple rage-against-the-Christmas-machine blog posts go viral. The kind that blast Christians for ruining everything with commercialism, toys made in sweatshops, and too many reindeer games. For a season that’s supposed to be full of joy and peace, we can be awfully angry and confrontational this time of year. Downright grinchy at times. Do you or your kids like Santa? Get rid of him. Pronto. He’s fake. He’s not the point. He’s obese and his name is an anagram for Satan. Do you buy toys for your kids? Stop it. They don’t need them. Are you into Christmas trees? So were the pagans. Fuhgeddaboudit. Happy Holidays? Not in my face you don’t. Merry flippin’ Christmas, Walmart Greeter.

It's easy for some of us to get wrapped up in all the negatives surrounding the Christmas season: the war against political correctness; the problem of commercialism; the marginalization of its true meaning. These are important challenges to be aware of. But, I think the best way to overcome these challenges is in experiencing and reflecting the true JOY of the season. The joy of Christmas is contagious! If we let it shine through us, that is a powerful witness. No one wants to be around a bunch of Christian grinches on a rampant witch-hunt for all the pagan influences that have seeped into our Christmas traditions! 

Knowing that I am a "truth-person" (slightly more "head" than "heart" in my spiritual wiring), I am constantly aware of the need to balance grace and truth in what I say and do to others. I feel a great burden to express the truth about tough, sometimes controversial, issues faced in Christianity today (hence this blog!). But there is a time and a place for this. And when I can't hold my tongue any longer, it's usually because of issues that I believe directly impact the gospel. The ministry of those who love the truth and are passionate about guarding it is vital. People who are gifted in apologetics, or in discerning insidious strains of false teaching that have crept into the church, are instrumental in helping believers to watch their lives and doctrine closely in order to save both themselves and those around them (1 Tim 4:16). Sometimes, though, we truth-people can be a little too negative, or tempted to lambaste other believers without much restraint. There is a time for handling the truth accurately (2 Tim 2:15) and also a time to encourage other believers and build up the Body of Christ (1 Thess 5:11). Sometimes, we should say nothing and pray. Other times we should speak up. But whatever we do, we need to do it prayerfully, led by the Holy Spirit, and in the love of Christ. Paul put it so well when he urged us to: "be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." (Eph 4:2-3).

The message of Christmas is truly a positive one of hope. Christmas is a great time of year to spread the good news about Jesus Christ, who is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Let's be merry this Christmas!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Stop Sharing Jesus!

Yes! You heard me right. I think we should stop sharing Jesus. Let me explain...

Christians are commissioned to share the good news about Jesus with those who do not know Him (Matt 28:19; Act 1:8). But with the rising tide of pluralism and political correctness in our society, the concept of "sharing" Jesus is taking on new meaning. A growing number of Christians are starting to feel guilty about claiming Jesus as theirs and theirs alone, when lots of people from other religious and cultural backgrounds lay claim to Him also. In this context, "sharing Jesus" means showing tolerance towards other viewpoints on who He is. Rather than hogging Him for our Christian selves, shouldn't we share Jesus with people from other faiths and cultures, and free Him from a Westernized strait-jacket? Why should He be confined to our Christian churches with stained-glass and rows of pews, anyway? Isn't it unreasonable and, quite frankly, arrogant to think that we have all the answers about who He is? I hear this type of sentiment expressed more frequently now that cultural sensitivity is beginning to trump Scriptural accuracy more often in our churches.

There are indeed many different perspectives on who Jesus is that exist throughout the world—we may even encounter differing ideas among our friends or in our own neighborhoods. Our Muslim neighbors may revere Him as a great prophet. Our Mormon friends may proclaim Him to be their Savior. Agnostics may admire His moral teachings, but deny any certainty of His divinity. Spiritualists and New Agers may believe Him to be divine, but reject His uniqueness. And Jehovah’s Witnesses may tell you He is an archangel. We may even find varying opinions about Jesus within the Christian community. Living in the DC-metro area, and having worked in international development and missions, I have been exposed to a diversity of opinion on who Jesus is.

The fact is, however, these conflicting views on who He is cannot all be right. While it might make us feel more comfortable to adopt a politically-correct attitude towards Jesus' identity, it makes no logical sense. He's either the Son of God or He isn't. The lunatic, liar or Lord trilemma[1] comes to mind! But in an era of cultural relativism, the idea that there is absolute truth about who Jesus is, is widely deemed intolerant, narrow-minded, offensive, even bigoted. Many Christians, therefore, shrink away from making absolute statements about Jesus these days.

Rooted in the rise of relativism and pluralism in our culture is the interfaith movement, which attempts to bring about unity between otherwise opposing believe systems through an exploration of the mystical elements in all religions and identifying the common ground between them. In this context, the Bible cannot be treated as the supreme authority on matters of faith. Today, various—seemingly benign—aspects of the interfaith movement have permeated the church. One of these is the practice of interfaith dialogue. Many churches engage in interfaith dialogue as a means to achieving deeper understanding, and seeking common ground, between religions. Within evangelicalism, the practice of interfaith dialogue for the purpose of "building bridges" between those of different faith-backgrounds has become increasingly popular. The ultimate motive for evangelical churches in reaching out this way, often begins as a starting point to sharing the gospel. Usually, however, the rules of engagement involve a prior agreement to refrain from attempting to convert one another, as with the Christian-Muslim dialogue sessions practiced at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, for example. This can result in the gospel message being obscured, and relativistic compromises being made, in an effort to maintain the amicable relations that have been forged through such sessions. Moreover, the biblical Jesus is often watered down, even misrepresented, so as to be compatible with differing religious beliefs. In these dialogues, deal-breakers like the Trinity, for example, are almost always conveniently ignored or down-played.

A good example of this was when a slew of evangelical leaders (Wheaton College President Duane Litfin[2], National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson, Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren[3], and former Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw, to name a few) signed what was to become a controversial document produced by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture titled, “Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to a Common Word Between Us and You.” The document was in response to an open letter in which 138 Muslim scholars, clerics, and intellectuals came together to declare that there is common ground between Christianity and Islam. The “Christian Response,” in agreement with the Muslim open letter states, “What is common between us lies not in something marginal nor in something merely important to each. It lies, rather, in something absolutely central to both: love of God and love of neighbor.”  Essentially, then, the “Christian Response” refers to the love of one shared God. It treats the God of the Qur’an and the God of the Bible as the same and makes no mention of the fact that the love of God, as represented in the Bible, is expressed most significantly through Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ Himself is the central component of Christianity, but is completely omitted in the Common Word documents, while “common ground” is declared “absolutely central” in His place. Patrick De Leon illustrates well the difficulties with the Common Word movement: “If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, must we not be true to ourselves? Must we reject our own faith and deny the very persons we are in order to live in harmony? Such a peace is false from the beginning, and we would question if it is even possible to last. Can a peace founded upon falsehood be lasting?”[4]

Jesus Himself, however, demonstrated that understanding who He is, is of utmost importance. Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” He asked. “Who do you say I am?” (Matt 16:13-15). Our answer to this question will be the most important one we will ever give. The Bible tells us that knowing the true Christ is a matter of critical, life-and-death importance. In this vein, 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). A relationship with the authentic Son of God alone is upon which our salvation depends. The Bible is clear that “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). 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) Jesus makes it clear, then, we must understand the truth about who He really is, and what He actually taught.

Jesus also taught us that being truthful with others about who He is, is paramount. He said,  "whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven." (Matt 10:33). The fact is, Jesus is polarizing and His work on the cross is pivotal. Because of this, the very nature of who Jesus is, is a "stumbling block" and a "rock of offense" to many (1 Tim 1:16). 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. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.'" (Matt 10:34). Tragically, many will reject Jesus because of who the Bible says He is. 

But thankfully for those whose hearts truly seek Him, Jesus is not an elusive figure. We are told that we will find Him if we seek Him with all our heart and with all our soul (Deut 4:29). And we must seek to know Him better through studying the Word; Jesus said: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32, emphasis added). The Word of God is the only dependable source of information about Jesus; the doctrines and beliefs of other faiths or philosophies that might use His name, should not be trusted or promoted in any way as a means to learning about Jesus. He Himself warned us to beware of false teaching (Matt 7:15; Matt 24:24)

Despite this, there are missionaries today who use certain verses from the Qu'ran that shed Jesus in a positive light to teach Muslims about Him. The controversial Camel Method, for example, an evangelistic strategy that was promoted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2010, does just that. The figure of Jesus also features prominently in New Age spiritualism. New agers often use Christian-sounding language, which can be confusing to new believers who might be more susceptible to being led astray by false teaching. For this, reason, we should be on guard against the insidious strains of New Age teaching that are seeping into our churches.[5] 

The Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded (Matt 28:19-20) was the last and, perhaps, the most important commandment given by Jesus right before His ascension. We can conclude from this that our mission as Christians is first and foremost to make disciples, which involves conversion and baptism, as well as the on-going teaching of Jesus' commands. Jesus said, "whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:27). Jesus made it clear that knowing the truth about who He is and responding in obedient submission to Him are what makes a discipleWe must encourage others, then, to study what the Bible teaches about Jesus, not confuse them with some type of kum-bah-yah notion that all religions can share Jesus and coexist happily.

So then, let's stop sharing Jesus with other religions, and stick to sharing the good news about Jesus as revealed in His word. 

[1] Famous CS Lewis argument, "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. ... Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God." Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, p54-56

[2] Due to the unbiblical nature of the Common Word document, the evangelicals who signed it have come under criticism, after which Dr. Litfin, for one, felt the need to explain his decision: 
“I signed the statement because I am committed to the business of peace-making and neighbor-love,” Litfin wrote in The Record. ”I did not savor the document’s unnuanced apology section, but swallowed that in order to be a part of reaching out a hand to these Muslim leaders who had courageously taken the initiative. Though the statement was not written in the way I would have written it, it seemed to me that I could sign it without compromising any of my Christian convictions.” Eventually, Litfin chose to have his signature removed from the document, however. 

[3] Despite signing the document, Rick Warren, has since stated very clearly that he does not believe that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  

[4] Patrcik De Leon, “Who You Gonna Serve? Theological Difficulties in A Common Word Between Us and You.”

[5] Please refer to future blog posts on the New Age Jesus and Jesus in Islam.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Don't Tell Me What To Do! Self-Actualization & the Sovereignty of God

One of the most powerful motives that lures us away from Christ is the desire for self-autonomy—in other words, the right to shape our own destiny, to “be who we are,” and to pursue the empty goal of self-fulfillment. In an increasingly secularized society that touts tolerance and political correctness over truth and good conscience, and in which moral relativism commands the rejection of the most basic notions of right and wrong, the will of God is conveniently cast aside, even reviled as a concept. 

Self-actualization (“selfism” or “self religion”) theories were first popularized in the 1960s and 1970s and underlie much of today’s psychotherapy [1]  helping to form the ideological basis--and justification--for the increasing self-centeredness of our culture. Self-actualization is a term used in various theories of psychology—most famously in the work of Abraham Maslow and his influential “hierarchy of needs” pyramid [2]—usually to describe the process by which we can reach our full personal potential, and transform our lives. As Maslow puts it, “What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization…It  refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”[3] 

The idea that we should aspire to become more of what we are—in biblical terms: sinful; weak; lost—as opposed to being made new in Christ, represents a fundamental rejection of our need for God. This is the epitome of secular humanism, which is characterized by what Ray C. Stedman so accurately describes as, “godless chatter, profane babblings, talking endlessly about man, his abilities and his wisdom, but never recognizing God.”[4] The impact of such thinking has not been confined within an academic bubble or limited to prevailing theories of psychotherapy alone, but has laid the foundation for many social changes in our society (as ideas tend to do!)—including the growing cultural acceptance of homosexuality and the redefinition of the family structure.

Historians William Strauss and Neil Howe's book, The Fourth Turning, is a fascinating depiction of the “unraveling” of contemporary American society. In it, they discuss how, “while we exalt our own personal growth, we realize that millions of self-actualized persons don’t add up to an actualized society.”[5] This is because “optimism still attaches to self, but no longer to family or community.”[6] Strauss and Howe predict that America is on the cusp of a complete unraveling, a crisis stage, as part of a cyclical pattern that can be identified in every society throughout history. They claim that the historical pattern they have traced always involves four “turnings” or seasons that end in a societal crisis—the “fourth turning” or “winter” of every cycle, “a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one.”[7] Like the other fourth turnings experienced in American history so far—marked by the American Revolution of the 1770s, the Civil War of the 1860s, and the Great Depression and World War II of the last century—Strauss and Howe predict that the fourth turning of this century (by 2050) will also be both completely unexpected and will involve “bone-jarring Crises” so monumental that, by their end, America will emerge in a wholly new form.[8]

Whether or not they are right, we are certainly seeing the effects of the rise of selfism in our society today, just as was seen in the “third turning” stage of previous eras depicted by Strauss and Howe. The quest to self-actualize leads many to seek meaning in narcissistic pursuits and to place the self at the center of everything. It has become commonplace, even clichéd, to make self-centered statements like, “I need to do what’s good for me” or for younger generations, “I need to do me.” The concept of loving oneself and putting oneself first is lauded on day-time TV chat shows as the harrowed housewife’s solution to her woes. Teens are encouraged to explore their sexual orientation in order to find out “who they really are” and to be “true to themselves.” An individual’s sense of identity is to be sought in personal achievement, social status, family, career, sexual orientation, or in other idols.

Selfism has become the prevailing ideology in our culture. This way of thinking veils a deep-seated desire for self-autonomy and self-worship; in essence the desire to be one’s own God. Indeed, if the human heart is not submitted to glorifying God, it will surely seek to glorify itself. As was demonstrated in that fateful act of rebellion—that grasp for self-empowerment—first committed in the Garden of Eden, the human heart has always been prey to a prideful spirit whispering alluring promises of earthly gain. For the heart is always worshiping something, and if it is not God, it will be a cheap substitute. And the idol of self is a seductive substitute indeed.

A fellow believer and friend of mine recently found herself confronting this very idol in a conversation with an old friend, whom I shall refer to here as Jane. Jane had formerly accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior, only to categorize Him some time later as one of several paths to a higher spiritual level of existence. Initially upon accepting Christ, Jane had passionately shared her faith with others, and was even instrumental in leading another to Christ. But like a seed that fell on rocky soil and quickly sprang up, Jane’s faith soon withered as she began to look to other religions and belief systems for further guidance. She began seeking answers in New Age spiritualism, bypassing what she now called the “middle man” of Jesus Christ, and rejecting Him as the only way to God. After my friend spent some time probing Jane with questions to understand why she was blending mysticism and other faiths with Christianity, Jane finally admitted: “The fact is, I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do.” And there it was: the heart-problem exposed. The innate, rebellious desire for self-autonomy—the potential for which lurks within all of our fallen hearts—had surfaced in Jane’s heart, leading her away from a life of submission to the sovereignty of God. She wanted things on her own terms, and didn't want to be limited by the Bible. 

It is this sinful nature within each of us that leads many to seek out other paths to happiness, and other idols in God's place, rather than accepting His authority and seeking first His Kingdom. As Tim Keller illuminates in Counterfeit Gods“Most people spend their lives trying to make their heart’s fondest dreams come true. Isn’t that what life is all about, ‘the pursuit of happiness’? We search endlessly for ways to acquire the things we desire, and we are willing to sacrifice much to achieve them. We never imagine that getting our hearts deepest desires might be the worst thing that can ever happen to us.”[9] For our heart's desires can be rooted in pride, rather than in our love of God. Whatever one’s idol might be, even if it is something virtuous, like family or Christian ministry, for example, if it is an idol, it is always going to be tied to a prideful form of self-love. For it is pride that leads us away from God, to be lovers of self (psa 10:4) and lovers of the world (James 4:1-6). 

The fallible self is a shaky foundation on which to base one’s life-meaning and purpose, and many who do so ultimately find themselves sinking in a quick-sand of sin (Matt. 7:24-27). Whether serving in the community, performing warm and fuzzy acts of charity, aging gracefully, or living well through diet, meditation, and exercise, these things can all boil down to a futile quest for self-fulfillment in the wrong places. Christ’s redemptive love has no place in a religion of self that regards the human heart as essentially good and perfectible through human effort. The atonement of Christ can be side-lined, if not completely nullified, in this way for thinking. 

The concept that to “live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21) seems absurd when perceived through the distorting lens of selfism. But, being a disciple of Christ is about self-denial and submission to God. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it." (Luke 9:23-24). The world will tell us that to deny ourselves in obedience to God is to be enslaved. Self-actualization is about advancing our own agenda. But self-advancement leads to narcissism, egocentricity, and ultimately to being enslaved by sin. The only true source of freedom is found in Christ, for "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Gal 5:1). Let's be encouraged, then, as those made new in Christ, to stand firm in our freedom, and to put off the old self with all it's deceitful desires of the flesh (Eph 4:22-24). 

The nature of biblical truth is often paradoxical (a beautiful manifestation of the supernatural and mysterious power of God's Word). We can be uplifted by the paradoxical truth that we are actually empowered through our submission to God, for it is through dying to self that we truly live!

****See also previous blog post on Selfism and the Real Me.
[1] Vitz, Paul, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, (1977, 1994, William Eerdmans Publishing), 
[2] Maslow, Abraham Harold, (1908—1970) was an American professor of psychology at Brandeis University, Brooklyn College, New School for Social Research and Columbia University who created Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
[3] Maslow, Abraham Harold, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review, (1943). p370-96.
[4] Ray C. Stedman, O MAN OF GOD! (http://www.pbc.org/dp/stedman/timothy/3781.html)
[5] William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning, An American Prophecy, (New York, 1997), p1
[6] Ibid, p2
[7] Ibid, p3
[8] Ibid, p5
[9] Keller, Timothy, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters, (USA, 2009), p1