Thursday, March 20, 2014

Worshipfully Mind-Stretching Truth

Don't empty your mind...stretch it!
I was recently reading a blog post by David Mathis on the hypostatic union and he described the concept as "worshipfully mind-stretching." This phrase immediately jumped off the computer screen to me! It pretty much spoke my love language. Loving God with all of our hearts is something Christians talk about frequently. But there is also something deeply powerful about loving God with our minds (Matt 22:37). Pondering and meditating on God's Word not only allows us to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2), but also to delight in the cognitive grasp of who God is. This is a form of worship.

We usually equate the singing of praises to God with the act of worship. There are certainly countless examples in Scripture of believers and angels worshiping God through song. We are to "make a joyful noise to the Lord" and to "come into His presence with singing!" (Psalm 100:1-2). There is something profoundly celestial about members of the Body of Christ singing in unison. But when the act of glorifying God with our hearts and voices combines with worshiping Him with our minds, our worship-experience is all the more transcendentallike when we join our voices to sing the awe-inspiring, mind-stretching words of Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be,” for example. Hymns like this that are deeply enriched with God's mind-renewing, heart-transforming truth are to be cherished.

Authentically worshipping God involves both humbling ourselves and proclaiming His greatness. And submerging ourselves in God's worshipfully mind-stretching truth is to glorify God with our minds because it is an inherently humbling experience. To contemplate the Trinity, for example, is mind-stretching to say the least! The Trinity, a mysterious and befuddling biblical truth, reflects the supernatural power and divine nature of a God who is beyond our conceptual grasp as human beings. The Trinity challenges us to accept God on His terms, rather than trying to fit Him into a box of our own cognitive construction. The Trinity takes control away from us in our all-about-me world, and gives all the glory to God. In other words, the Trinity prevents us from creating our own fictitious god and forces us to live by faith in a God who is bigger than we can understand. (I believe this is the reason for the many pride-fueled attacks on the doctrine of the Trinity). This is the opposite of touchy-feely faith that neglects the mind. 

To fully grasp the depth of God's soul-piercing, living and active Word is far beyond the mental capacity of our human minds. But, God has given us the ability to discern things about Him and His Word through “a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him” and by enlightening the eyes of our hearts (Eph 1:17-18). This ability comes from Him, not from us. It's not theological training in and of itself that increases our ability to comprehend the Word of God or understand who He is. While theology plays an important role in helping us know God better, head-knowledge alone doesn't give us spiritual discernment. I have known atheists who can describe the gospel with perfect theological accuracy, for example. And even the demons believe in the one God! (Jas 2:19). But it is the Holy Spirit who gives us the ability to discern the Word of God through the enlightening, and renewal, of our minds and the transforming of our hearts.

To love and to worship God with our minds necessitates our humility and our acknowledgment of the futility of human wisdom. As Paul exhorts us, "Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, 'He catches the wise in their craftiness,' and again, 'The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.' So let no one boast in men." (1 Cor 3:18-21). Letting our minds be stretched by God-sized truths may seem like foolishness to the rest of the world (the world may even tell you to empty your mind, not stretch it!), but in actuality the philosophies of men are worthless
they are foolishness before an omnipotent and almighty God. 

Instead of worshiping the wisdom of earthly minds, we can rejoice in God's truth, echoing the words of the psalmist who exclaims, "How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!" (Psa 139:23-24). And delight ourselves in the "knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence" (2 Peter 1:3).

Monday, March 10, 2014

Disunity in the Church: A Real Problem With a Real Solution

There is a lot of talk these days about disunity in the churchand with good reason. Christians are splintered not only into a wide variety of denominations and associations, but also within our churches where the differences between individual believers can often be stark and can even cause irreconcilable rifts. And all this while the world is watching. But what is the true answer to this problem? I think the solution is actually well within our reach...

Before delving into the solution, we need to be sure that we're setting out with godly expectations. In response to the depressing state of discord within the Body of Christ, many of us feel weary and sometimes default to a can't-we-just-all-get-along sentiment. Understandable as this is, it doesn't work as a blanket solution. This is because, sometimes, disunity is unfortunately unavoidable. While we are told to live in peace with everyone as far as it depends on us (Rom 12:18), we are also told be guardians of the faith (1 Cor 16:13; 2 Cor 10:5). We are called, therefore, to speak the truth in love when the truth of gospel is being undermined or when besetting sin or false teaching has entered into the church. Doing so may indeed cause conflict and disunity. But it's important to recognize off the bat that we mustn't value unity at the expense of the gospel. To do so puts human relationships before God, which is an unbiblical approach to loving our neighbor. We might succeed in being united if we do this, but we've actually lost sight of our original purpose: to glorify God. Instead, it's important to unite with others in a way that honors God first and foremost. 

Loving God above all else will lead us to choose a bible-based church that is Christ-centered, and will inspire us to live out our faith in a God-honoring way. It will lead us to reject liberal churches that fail to make Christ their Lord and His Word central. But here's the challenge: We absolutely must not have our identity wrapped up in our choices—whether they are biblically sound or not. It is this that leads to unnecessary disunity.

Let me explain. When our identity is rooted in being a 5-point-Calvinist, an Arminian, a home-schooler, a baptist, a methodist, a presbyterian, a helper of the poor, an upholder of justice, a guardian of biblical doctrine, ANYTHING other than in Christ alone, we are missing the mark. These may be good things. Some of them may indeed be crucial, biblically correct things. But they cannot replace Christ. And if they become our identity, we have a problem. We have an identity crisis.

An identity crisis is not to be taken lightly. It can have devastating results. For example, an identity crisis is arguably what led to Satan's downfall from Heaven. The bible tells us that before his fall, Satan was the “anointed cherub” (Eze 28:14) and “the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.” (Eze 28:12b) It is likely that Satan was one of the highest of all angels because he had enough influence to convince one third of them to join him in his rebellion (Rev 12:4). There is speculation that Satan was the leader of worship in Heaven. But what we know for sure is that Satan found his identity in the wrong places. He didn't find his identity in being an angel of God. Instead, his identity was wrapped up in being the special oneone who was exalted above others. His identity was rooted in pride. And the effects of this were catastrophic. The fact is, Satan rebelled against God despite being anointed by, and in close relationship with, Him. This sends a chilling warning to us as Christians, doesn't it?

Satan's story shows us how important it is that our identity be firmly anchored in Christ. And if it isn't, it is always rooted in some form of pride. Just like Satan demonstrated, devastating disunity and dissention can result from an identity based on pride; think of the astounding number of Heaven's angels who followed Satan and rejected their Creator! The identity of these fallen angels was not rooted in the One True God, but was caught up in the charisma of a powerful leader and a misplaced sense of loyalty, which tragically led to their eternal damnation.

The truth is, we are all vulnerable to having an identity crisis. As a stay-at-home mom, there was a time when I lost sight of my true identity. I wrote about my early-motherhood struggle with this in a former post: "My Search for Significance in a World of Stray Cheerios." When mothers have their identity wrapped up in their choiceslike whether to stay at home with children or to work outside of the home, for examplethey are on a dangerous path. For example, I've noticed that there can sometimes be an unspoken division between Christian women who stay home full-time and those who don't. Likewise, there can be a silent stand-off between those who choose to home-school their kids and those who send their children to public school. The problem is, many of us let the choices of other parents become a tacit commentary on our own parenting decisions. It's as if we take the choices of others personally; If other moms make the same choice as us, we feel like we're on the same team. If they don't, we can be critical of them, or feel criticized by them, even if no words are actually spoken. But as members of the Body of Christ, we shouldn't be focusing on our differences in this way. Our identity shouldn't be wrapped up in the choices we make as parents. This leads to self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and unnecessary disunity. It can cause deep wedges in the Body of Christ. 

Remember that Satan wants nothing more than to cause disunity in our churches, our relationships, and our marriages. He wants to divide and conquer. With this in mind, it's important to recognize that there are differences between believers that are peripheral (such as differing opinions on how to educate our kids) and there are those that are fundamental (such as opposing views on the doctrine of the Trinity, the rejection of which is a deal-breaker, for example). We need to exercise prayerful discernment when confronting our differences and compromising unity in the Body of Christ. If we are 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? Are we seeking revenge or to build another believer up? Is speaking the truth in this situation necessary to guard against false teaching that undermines the gospel? Or is it more about venting our grievances, and airing our opinions? Is it to glorify God or glorify ourselves?

Ultimately, the solution to disunity in the church is to be found quite simply in Christ alone. In actuality, what unifies us as believers is not brushing fundamental truths under the carpet to keep the peace, it is upholding the Gospel of Christ in our churches and uniting together in the name of Jesus. Paul explains that if Christ is truly our Lord, believers will be united together in His Body, so that we can "grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love." (Eph 4:15-16).

The more our identity is anchored in Christ, the more united we, as members of His Body, will be.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Cotton Candy for the Soul

If you can't tweet it in 140 characters or less, if it doesn't fit into a peppy sound-bite, if doesn't download in a matter of seconds, it isn't worth our time. Today it's all about the quick fix. We want immediate gratification. We want what we want and we want it now. Want to be thinner? There's a crash diet for that. Want to connect with friends? There's Facebook for that. Want to find something out? There's Google for that. In the Information Age, everything is one click away. But if the page takes too long to load, we soon lose interest. Our society is undergoing an A.D.D. epidemic in which the attention span of the collective conscious is shrinking by the second. And the same symptoms are affecting the spiritual health of Christianity in America.

We're living in a dumbed-down culture that values tidbits of superficial knowledge over intellectual rigor. And in this context, spiritual fluff has replaced solid biblical preaching in a rising number of our churches. Too many Christian preachers, books, and blogs these days are peddling cotton candy for the soul. It's sweet, it's pretty, it's easily consumed. Cotton candy for the soul is fed to us in lightweight bites that taste good, but melt away quickly. It's fast, it's convenient, but it's spiritual fluff that has no nutritional value. It's a sugar-rush that neither feeds the soul, nourishes the heart, nor sustains the mind for a faith that endures.

As a woman, I am especially aware of the problem of spiritual fluff in Christian books and blogs that target a female audience. Many of them present a touchy-feely portrayal of the Christian faith, relying on emotion-saturated content that lacks the solid substance of biblical truth and neglects Jesus's command to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds (Matt 22:37). Sadly, content like this is in heavy demand. Often, these books call themselves "Christian," but never mention the gospel, quote bible verses rarely, selectively, or out of context, and lack sound theology. They encourage Christians to base their relationship with God far more on their emotional response to Him than on their biblical knowledge of Him. But in actuality, the Christian faith isn't based on us and how we feel, it's about God and who He is.

In a culture that seeks to idolize humanity, the mega church-phenomenon has birthed the unfortunate by-product of celebrity pastors. In an effort to grab the waning attention of the over-stimulated masses, too many of these pastors turn to gimmicks and sound-bite theology for impact. A
udiences of spiritual consumers show up to stadium-style churches to get their weekly dose of positive thinking, practical advice, and pep talks. Don't feel down about yourself! You're important! You matter! In an increasing number of churches, it's a self-help ethos that's proclaimed from the pulpit (or the stage in most cases!) and one which often bares little or no relation to the true gospel. These messages cater to human feelings first, and attempt to cheer everyone up. But in doing so they trivialize sin and gloss over inconvenient truthsAs a result, they [albeit inadvertently] downplay our need for redemption and the atoning power of the cross. This is the epitome of cotton candy for the soul.

But in our sugar-addicted, self-centered culture, cotton candy for the soul sells. And the demand for it is being met in an increasing number of churches, as seen, for example, in various manifestations of the "emerging churches movement."[1] Many emerging churches tout a "post-evangelical" approach to the Christian faith and try to put a new spin on Christianity in response to the fact that the traditional model is failing to hold the attention of the younger generations. The tendency is to focus on what is wrong with how we've done church in the past and seeks, therefore, to repackage the Christian message to generate mass-appeal in a post-modern context. (Revisionists within this movement go as far as to question whether evangelical doctrine is appropriate for the postmodern world at all)But this approach fails to address the root causethe heart-problemthat is leading young people to walk away from their faith. Instead of addressing the heart-issue of sin, it starts with emotional heeling or behavior modification, which is like applying mere band-aids to expanding wounds in sinful hearts.

The emerging churches movement promotes a church culture that caters primarily to human needs and feelings. In this vein, emerging churches often preach an issues-driven message, not a gospel-driven message, forgetting that there is no area of human life to which the gospel does not speak directly. By focusing on human needs first, the transformative power of the gospel is marginalized. The tragedy of this is that it misses the fact that living a gospel-centered life is the only true solution to all our issues. 

Gospel-centered churches, on the other hand, endeavor to recenter the Christian faith on the atoning, heart-transforming love of Christ. The gospel-centered movement, which emerged with new terminology several years ago, is certainly one worth jumping on board with.[2] Tim Keller, for example, sums it up as follows: "the Christian life is a process of renewing every dimension of our lifespiritual, psychological, corporate, socialby thinking, hoping, and living out the 'lines' or ramifications of the gospel."[3] A gospel-centered life, then, is about "acting in line with the truth of the gospel" (Gal 2:14). It is a life that fosters a personal reliance on the gospel that protects the believer from depending on his or her own acts of righteousness or self-help efforts, or being seduced by idols in God's place. Leading a gospel-centered life involves authentic heart-transformation and sincere, daily submission to God. It involves a cognizant realization that our own efforts will never be good enough and that we need to rely fully on Christ not only as our Savior, but as the Lord of our lives. If Christ is truly our Lord, we will submit to Him in obedience because we have died with Him and He now lives in us (Gal 2:20). 

While the gospel-centered movement has gained substantial steam of late, it is paralleled by an increasing tendency within Christianity to focus on a personal feelings- and experience-based relationship with God, while downplaying the need for biblical doctrine to define who God actually is and what His Word actually teaches. In fact, the outright rejection of systematic theology, or even a statement of faith, is common in emerging churches. This approach assumes that absolute truth is revealed through experiencing God rather than through any mental comprehension of His Word. Interestingly, a similar concept has been promoted by Oprah Winfrey, who proclaimed, "God is a feeling-experience, not a believing-experience!

But undervaluing the conscious belief in biblical doctrine goes against Jesus' commission to teach others to obey His commands (Matt 28:20) and certainly opens up the flood-gates to a whole lot of false teaching. Perhaps this is why Paul urged believers to watch our doctrine closely (1 Tim 4:16). For example, inclusivism (the belief that everyone is saved) is prevalent in many emerging churches. And the emphasis on personal feelings as the basis for one's faith promotes self-indulgence while de-emphasizing the Lordship of Christ. In other words, the self is placed at the center of everything in place of Christ. Gospel-centrality, on the other hand, starts with the Gospel of Christ at the center from which everything else then stems, adhering firmly to the core truth that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). 

In light of this, we need to exercise discernment when we pick up a Christian book, attend a Christian conference, or seek a new church home, and ask ourselves, is the teaching I am exposing myself to really edifying? Does it glorify God or something else? It is rooted in the gospel? Similarly, when we lead or get involved in a ministry, we need to be sure that it is God's ministry, not a product of human effort. We should be gospel-driven in serving othersnot humanitarian. 

We need to replace cotton candy for the soul with the bread of lifethe gospel of Jesus Christin all aspects of our lives. For it is the gospel alone that will transform our hearts and minds and prepare our souls for a faith that endures to the end. Satan cannot destroy the gospel, therefore, he will do all he can to distract us from it. So then, let's fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, feeding our souls on the bread of life, not on a cheap, fake-food substitute.

[1] The emerging churches movement is fluid and multifaceted in nature and is hard to nail down. However, certain traits can be identified that many of these churches share as is touched on above.
[2] Many books, sermons, and blogs have been written about gospel-centrality, and so the term, "gospel-centered," is in danger of becoming cliched in a way which threatens to dilute the hard-hitting truth behind it, through over-use and potential misapplication.
[3] Tim Keller, "The Centrality of the Gospel."