Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Essence of Advent

The Latin word, adventus, means "coming." The advent season is about preparing our hearts, minds, and spirits for the coming of the King. But what does this really mean?

Is it about celebrating Jesus' birthday? Is it about keeping Christ in Christmas by displaying nativity scenes and retelling the story of Jesus' birth? Is it about singing carols, giving to the needy, wishing others a Merry Christmas! and enjoying the festivities of the season? Yes, yes, and yes! It includes all of these things.

But the advent season is about more than these things alone. The Bible clearly teaches that believers are called to wait expectantly for our King's second coming, for all Scripture points to Christ's triumphal return on the clouds. Isn't this what we ultimately look forward to? Isn't this the culmination of it all? Indeed, the concluding words of Scripture, the last verses in the book of Revelation, contain a powerful pronouncement:
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. (Rev 22:20)
The advent season, as we count down to Christmas, not only looks back to that lowly stable in Bethlehem, but also forward to what is yet to come. For as we celebrate Jesus' humble birth, we also anticipate His glorious return.

The early believers, in the face of severe persecution, took great comfort in this promise, encouraging one another by saying in Aramaic, “Maranatha!” which means “the Lord is coming,” in place of the customary Jewish greeting, “shalom.” Still today, maranatha reminds us that our hope is not in this temporal world, but in the eternal Kingdom that is to come (Luke 21:28; Rev 22:12).

So, what does Scripture say about waiting for Jesus? Obviously, biblical waiting isn't to camp out in the desert and stockpile weapons in preparation for Armageddon! But it isn't like sitting idly at the bus stop either. Scripture illuminates several ways in which believers are to wait for Jesus.

1. Watchfully...

While we wait for the King, we are to be watchful. When Jesus said, "And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch." (Mark 13:37), He revealed something profoundly important about the Christian faith. The Greek word in this verse is grēgoreō, which means to watch and to be on the alert. We are to live in expectation of, and be ready for, Jesus' return.

Jesus taught several parables on the theme of watching for Himthe significance of which is unmistakably expressed in the tenor of His teaching. For example, in the parable of the ten virgins, the ones who were not ready and waiting when the bridegroom returned found themselves shut out of the banquet hall. Jesus concluded the parable with this warning: "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour." (Matt 25:1-13). And in another parable about watchfulness, Jesus said, "It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes." (Luke 12:35-40). As believers, then, we are called to live with the knowledge that He could come at any time. Every day we should expect Him to come, and every day we should long for Him to come. As the psalmist put it, "O my Strength, I will watch for you, for you, O God, are my fortress." (Psa 59:9). 

Jesus said, "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” (Matt 26:14a). How we live while we wait is of utmost importance; we are instructed to "watch our lives and our doctrine closely in order to save both ourselves and our hearers." (1 Tim 4:16).  Believers are called to live courageous (1 Cor 16:13) and righteous lives, "making every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with Him" on His return (2 Peter 3:14).

And we are repeatedly warned to watch out that we are not deceived (Matt 24:4). Jesus cautioned us to exercise vigilance when it comes to heresy and unbiblical teaching, as did the Apostles after Him, saying, "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves." (Matt 7:15). We are to examine every teaching, holding it 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 cling diligently to absolute truth in a relativistic world of deceit in which Satan masquerades as an angle of light (2 Cor 11:13-15).

In sum, we need to keep our eyes wide open and fixed on Jesus with the same mindset as Old Testament prophet when he wrote, "But as for me, I watch in hope for the LORD, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me." (Micah 7:7)

2. Wakefully...

While we wait for the King, we are to remain spiritually awake—for in order to keep watch, we must be awake! Jesus warned us to "stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." (Luke 21:36). And Paul exhorted us, "with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming." (1 Peter 1:13).

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told Peter, James, and John to "watch and pray." Then He went a few feet away and began to pray. When He came back, they were all sleeping. And Jesus was disappointed in them, asking Peter, "Couldn't you men keep watch with me for one hour?" (Matt 26:40). 

As believers, we are all prone to slumber spiritually aren't we? But Scripture consistently admonishes us to stay spiritually awake and be mentally alert.

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 not only the heart, but also a mental grasp of who He is, what He has done, and what He commands. It is this cognitive understanding of His truth, coupled with our Spirit-led heart response to the transformative power of the gospel, that equip us with a faith that endures.

When the Old Testament prophet, Daniel, was visited by an angel, for example, he was told, "Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them." (Daniel 10:12). According to God's angelic messenger, then, it was Daniel's humble heart, along with his eagerness to comprehend God's truth, that caused his prayers to be answered.

But the problem is, the importance of obeying Jesus' command to love God with our minds, is increasingly overlooked in a progressively dumbed-down Christian culture that depends too readily on gushy sentimentality and sound-bite theology. The rise of Touchy-Feely Faith that Neglects the Mind in contemporary Christian culture, does not encourage believers to remain mentally alert, but rather to embrace a feelings- and experience-based relationship with God, almost to the exclusion of a comprehensive understanding of His Word. In this context, Bible verses are often cherry-picked to support emotional needs and desires. And experiencing the feelings associated with God's presence becomes the end-goaland often more of a mystical practice than an authentic grasp of His true nature. For without a Biblical understanding of who Jesus is, we are in serious danger of creating our own fictitious version of Him to suit ourselves. In other words, we are in danger of worshiping a counterfeit Christ—an insidious figment of our own imagination.

In addition, there is currently a growing acceptance of Eastern-based philosophy in our societal context that encourages the detachment of oneself from one's thoughts. Christians need to wake up and take heed. For example, the trendy practice of mindfulness has been gaining widespread popularity in American public schools, in the workplace, and even in the armed services as a stress-relieving therapy. As the University of Nevada's counseling office words it, through mindfulness "we can come to realize our thoughts are just thoughts. They are not the ultimate truth or reality. Once we understand that, we are free to let our thoughts drift away."

But practicing thought-detachment such as that taught in mindfulness programs, can have serious spiritual consequences; Scripture teaches us that using our minds—our conscious thoughts and our God-given ability to exercise reason, discernment, and sound judgment—is a crucial part of our faith (Matt 22:37; Luke 10:27; Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 10:3-6; Phil 2:5). Biblical truth is worshipfully mind-stretching—not mind-emptying or -detaching. Rather than separating ourselves from our thoughts, then, Christians are called to love and honor God by taking captive every thought in obedience to Christ and by being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Cor 10:3-6; Rom 12:2).

As believers, we must wake up and take heed. We must flee from the ungodly ideas and values that our culture embraces. We must flee from the constant temptation to live in the flesh. Letting ourselves become worldly and live in the flesh will only cause us to become spiritually drowsy. Coziness in the world can lull us sleepily into a false sense of security. The world will tell us to "live in the moment," but the beguiling pleasures it has to offer can entrap us into losing sight of the everlasting riches that await us in Glory. Peter reminds us of this when he writes, "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul." (1 Peter 2:11). The world tells us to focus on the here-and-now, and to indulge the desires of the flesh, but Scripture tells us to live our lives counter-culturally in anticipation of the coming Kingdom.

We should also fight the urge to become spiritually lazy, ambivalent, or complacent. Spiritual disciplines such as reading the Word daily, praying without ceasing,* fasting, investing in Kingdom relationships, serving the sick and needy, and remembering the persecuted among us, are key to keeping us active and awake in our faith. The most important of all spiritual disciplines is, perhaps, to humble oneself daily and let go of our pride. This allows us to seek God's glory above all else, and live a truly gospel-centered life. Jesus said to His disciples, "If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. (Matt 16:14). Dying to self is crucial in preventing spiritual slumps. For to live is Christ and to die is gain! (Phil 1:21).

As Paul explains, "[we] must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart." (Eph 4:17-18). And as he cautioned the Thessalonian believers, "So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober." (1 Thess 5:6). Rather than slumbering lazily in a selfish world, then, we are to remain spiritually active and alert until we are called home.

3. Wisely...

While we wait for the King, we are to be wise. The Bible talks about two kinds of wisdom; the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God. But the wisdom of the world is mere foolishness in God's sight. (1 Cor 3:19). True wisdom comes from Him alone. And it is He who imparts wisdom to us, for from His mouth comes knowledge and understanding (Prov 2:6).

And if we are wise while we wait, we will not to be filled with worry or fear. With alert minds and open eyes, we will certainly discern the evil around us, and this can be unsettling. Even so, we are not to shield our eyes from the suffering of others, but to have empathy for them, praying for them and tending to their needs. We are not to stick our heads in the sand when it comes to the problems of the world, but to be in fervent prayer. It is our duty to mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15). We are called to remember those in prison for their faith, as if we ourselves our in prison (Heb 13:3) and to be upholders of justice (Isa 1:17). There are many tragic, frightening things happening in the world and we shouldn't pretend that these things aren't happening. If we are wise, however, we will trust in our sovereign God even though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

While should fear no evil, however, it wise is to fear God; for "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction." (Prov 10:11) Fearing God is to submit to Him. For if we submit to Him and resist the devil, he will flee from us (Jas 4:7). A disobedient or unsubmissive believer, on the other hand, is unwise and will not see victory.

As believers, we are not immune to suffering or hardship. But if we are truly wise, we will trust and obey God, while we wait for Him. And we will not let our circumstances, however dire, cause us to take our eyes off Himeven if we wrestle with His will on occasion. This may sound easier said that done, but remember that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

3. While Witnessing...

While we wait for the King, we are each called to be His witnesses. Before Jesus ascended into Heaven, He said to the disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20). And as recorded in the book of Acts, Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).

Our most important role as believers is to make His name known by spreading the gospel. This is the Great Commission to all believers. It is not an optional add-on to the Christian faith. Proclaiming the gospel is a natural outworking of our faith in Jesus. To be missional is a necessary characteristic of a life lived in Christ, not a special calling. If we are not working for God's glory as He commanded, we might want to ask ourselves, our we truly functioning as members of His body? For as James points out, "faith without works is dead." (Jas 2:20).

Disciple-making and witnessing are not only about front-line evangelism on the mission field. Those of us who are discipling our children and training them up in the faith are making disciples. Those who are mentoring others less mature in their faith are making disciples. Those who encourage other believers with Scripture or with their testimonies, are witnessing to others. Evangelism, teaching, encouraging, and admonishing each other with Scripture are all ways in which we can disciple, and witness to, others.

It is important to note that there is an important difference between humanitarianism and evangelistic outreach. It is admirable to serve the sick and give generously to the poor, but if the opportunity to point others to Christ is missed (or purposefully avoided so as not to offend anyone), only physical needs have been tended to, while spiritual needs are neglected to the potential detriment of the soul. Scripture says, "Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." (Col 3:16-17). Sadly, some major Christian charities** have anti-proselytization policies that prevent their workers from sharing the gospel with those whom they serve, hoping that God's love will shine through their actions alone. But this policy restricts their workers from sharing the gospel message in the power of the Holy Spirit as Jesus commanded.

The point is, waiting for Jesus' return is not a passive pastime. It involves participating in the work of the Kingdom, with the knowledge that there is no work of more eternal value than making disciples and making the name of Jesus Christ known in the world.

4. Worshipfully...

While we wait for the King, we worship Him! This advent season, we think of the shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks at night. What must it have been like to see the sky burst forth with Heavenly Host! After finding Jesus in a manger as promised by the angel Gabriel, the shepherds glorified and praised God! And we think of the magi who, after searching diligently for the King, finally found Jesus with His mother, and bowed down and worshiped Him.

As believers, we are called to spend time at Jesus feet in worship. And we worship Him not just for what He has done for us, but for who He is! For He is called:

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, 
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6)

Advent reminds us to keep our eyes on the eternal things of the Spirit. To dwell on material things is to be in constant mental turmoil. Looking around us we see the chaos, the suffering, and the instability. But looking past all this, we see the hope in our coming King.

To those who are discouraged, maranatha! To those who are fearful, marantha! To those who are grieving, maranatha! Let us cling to the promise the Lord has made. He is coming soon...

* i.e. setting aside time for focused prayer, and throughout the day, letting our stream of consciousness reflect a constant dialogue with God.

** For example, World Vision does much good work, but has a policy against sharing the gospel as part of this work. "We do not proselytize, and we pledge never to exploit vulnerability to obtain a profession of faith. We do not feed the hungry as a means to an end." - See more at: . In Faith Actually's opinion, it is far better to support gospel-centered ministries that profess the name of Jesus freely with those they serve, and ultimately serve the spiritual needs of the needy, not their physical bodies alone.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Good Dinosaur: Hindu Gods for Children

Our guest blogger, Marcia Montenegro, is a former astrologer who spent 20 years practicing New Age spirituality. After she became a Christian, she founded Christian Answers for the New Age. Her insights are invaluable in discerning occult influences in mainstream secular society and even within the Church.

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur

About a year ago, I woke up with the word "Hanuman" repeating over and over in my head. It took me a few minutes to remember who Hanuman is: he is a monkey-headed god, one of the billions of Hindu gods but also a figure in Tibetan Buddhism. Although I had first become involved with Hindu beliefs (Vedanta, the non-dualistic form), it was when I immersed myself for awhile in Tibetan Buddhist teachings that I heard about Hanuman. For some reason, that name popped up from somewhere in my brain; I still recall much of what I learned and was exposed to. But this name, Hanuman, was like a buzzing fly I wanted to swat.

A short video shown before the children's movie, "The Good Dinosaur," gave a lesson on a young boy, Sanjay, whose father (family is originally from India) wants his son to join him in his Hindu worship practice. But Sanjay prefers the super-heroes he sees on TV., creating conflict. Eventually, Sanjay learns to appreciate the Hindu gods, who become his super-heroes, as the video states:
"In the short, Sanjay plunges into a vivid fantasy that blends his favorite superheroes with manifestations of three Hindu gods after accidentally interrupting his father’s prayers while reaching for an action figure. Trapped in a temple being ravaged by a chaotic demon made of smoke, Sanjay teams up with Vishnu, Durga, and Hanuman to bring back balance before his father realizes what he’s done."[1]
A reviewer at the theater stated that this video, "Sanjay's Super Team," created a stir:
You could hear and see the amazement that swept through the crowd as the sound of chiming ghanta bells filled the room and Durga conjured a spectral tiger on the screen.
The reviewer sees this a good lesson for children in other cultural stories and beliefs. Perhaps so, but I also see the exposure to spiritual beliefs that are glamorized and false gods presented as adventurous and powerful.

Aren't Vishnu, Durga, and Hanuman just make-believe? In several passages, the Bible refers to false gods or idols as demons:
  • They sacrificed to demons who were not God, To gods whom they have not known, New gods who came lately, Whom your fathers did not dread. Deuteronomy 32:17
  • They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons." Psalm 106:37
  • ....but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons." 1 Corinthians 10:20 (also see next verse)
  • Also see Leviticus 17:7
In contrast to false Gods, we read in Scripture: "And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." (John 17:3). And Scripture says, "Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry." (1 Cor 10:14)

Cartoons tend to be dismissed and not taken seriously. Any character of a children's cartoon or story is viewed as cute, innocent, and/or harmless. This is a mistake. We need to remind ourselves that evil beliefs can be disguised as innocent or as good, just as Satan comes disguised as an angel of light.

In sum, I wouldn't recommend voluntarily exposing your children to this movie for the sake of fleeting entertainment. The movie makes light of evil and glosses over serious issues of false teaching that Christians are repeatedly warned in Scripture to watch out for.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Last Lecture: Life or Lie?

Soon after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and being given months to live, 47-year-old Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, gave a stirring speech to his students in what soon became famously coined as, "The Last Lecture." The lecture went viral. Dr. Pausch appeared on Oprah to deliver a condensed version of his lecture before millions of viewers. And during his remaining months, he co-authored a best-selling book based on his life-lessons, which involved a discussion of the importance of childhood dreams and how to go about achieving them as one grows older.

You likely remember Dr. Pausch from a few years ago. And perhaps you think of him as a brave, inspiring, and likable man, who helped many people live life to the fullest and appreciate more deeply the time they have with their loved ones. He was certainly successful in encouraging us all to stop sweating the small stuff, and for that there is something to be said.

But, tragically, the truth is this: Dr. Pausch missed the point. In fact, he didn't even come close to it.

As the New York Times lightheartedly put it,
Dr. Pausch gave practical advice in his lecture, avoiding spiritual and religious matters. He did, however, mention that he experienced a near-deathbed conversion: he switched and bought a Macintosh computer.
While many may have been inspired by the head-on, practical, and good-humored way in which Dr. Pausch faced his imminent death, listening to his lecture sent chills down my spine. It wasn't that I didn't like him. I liked him a lot. And that made it even worse. For all I could think as I listened to him talk was, where is God? Yet, surprisingly many Christians joined in the widespread acclamation of Dr. Pausch, embracing his positive outlook, sharing his video online, and buying his book.

Recently, as I awaited the results of a biopsy myself—results that might very well have meant I could be facing something similar to Dr. Pausch—I thought of The Last Lecture. And I thought of what type of lecture I might give if I were in the same boat. What would I want the world to know? What wisdom would I want to impart to my children?

The immediate answer was black-and-white, pure and simple. It was uncompromisingly, unwaveringly this: I would want them to receive in their hearts and know in their minds the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the face of death, nothing else ultimately matters. No fleeting family moments. No fun memories of times gone by. No earthly fulfillment of childhood dreams. As harsh as it may sound, no worldly experiences or relationships, however valuable to us, will truly matter when it comes to that final moment we will all face at the point of death. Nothing other than our experience of, and relationship with, God, that is. For only He can save us from eternal death. And that's the bottom line.

Dr. Pausch's Last Lecture was full of nice ideas and self-help tips. It was a lesson in memory-making and dream-chasing. It paid homage to family values. And it gave a good-natured nod to the wholesome things in life. But what Dr. Pausch's lecture lacked was any message of salvation. In other words, it lacked Jesus. And if we, as Christians, believe that Jesus is the only way, the truth, and the life, why would we ever settle for anything less?

Satan cannot destroy the gospel, but he'll do his darnedest to distract us from it. Remember that the enemy comes disguised as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). And it's often through life's pleasantries which he operates most insidiously. He can tempt us to turn feel-good moments and family relationships into our religion, for example. These are not bad things. In fact, they can be very good things! But if they become ultimate things, they become idols that we worship in place of God. Idols that cannot save us.

This is not to say that we shouldn't experience joy in our lives, invest purposefully in our relationships, pursue God-ordained goals, and cherish time with our loved ones. But the deadly lie of The Last Lecture is that life is all about living in the fleeting moment and fulfilling earthly dreams. And therein lies the fatal mistake.

You might also remember the more recent story of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old newlywed who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and subsequently elected to be euthanized last year under the state of Oregon's Death With Dignity law. Before her death, Brittany told People magazine, "There is not a cell in my body that is suicidal or that wants to die. I want to live. I wish there was a cure for my disease, but there's not." Despite being implored by many Christians to reconsider, the worldly affirmation she received evidently won out. She was widely lauded as a courageous pioneer in the fight for the right to die with "dignity." And now other state legislators are introducing bills to let the terminally ill end their lives. (Let's pray that our country doesn't go in the same direction as several of those in Europe, like Belgium where a man was recently euthanized after a botched sex-change operation, for example).

The real tragedy is, Brittany Maynard chose death, when she could have had everlasting life.

We cannot know the heart condition of Randy Pausch or Brittany Maynard when they breathed their last breath. And it is absolutely not our place to judge their salvation. What we do know, however, is this: In facing death, they both publicly held to, and promoted, a tragic lie. While Randy Pausch thought he was teaching about life, in actuality, he was preaching death—just like Brittany Maynard was. In essence, The Last Lecture was really The Last Lie—a lie that led Randy Pausch, and many others who listened to him, away from the hope that is in Christ.

One thing is certain for every single person on this planet: we will all die. It could be today, it could be tomorrow. It could be many years from now. But physical death comes to us all. In the face of certain death, then, what will your Last Lecture be about? Hopefully, yours will proclaim everlasting life.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Real Zombie Apocolypse: The Rise of Mindfulness

What would it be like to live among a generation of people who've grown up in a mild hypnotic state, having been psychologically conditioned not to question what is right or wrong, but instead to ignore their consciences and detach themselves from their thoughts? Perhaps a bit like living in a nation of zombies. And it might not be long before we actually find out.

Why? Because the psychological conditioning described above, commonly known as mindfulness, is being practiced in our nation today. As a form of therapy, the practice of mindfulness is a growing trend in psychology and psychotherapy, which has been strongly promoted through mainstream media outlets as an effective stress-relieving remedy. Subsequently, the adoption of mindfulness has already become widespread.

 Illustration of the benefits of mindfulness
from the University of Michigan
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, for example, are common adaptations of the practice to the healthcare field, which are purported to alleviate stress, foster "awareness," and improve quality of life. These practices have been widely implemented in the American workplace (in companies such as Google, Safeway, Target, General Mills, and Aetna), in the federal government, and even in the armed services. Celebrity-backed mindfulness programs, such as Goldie Hawn's Eastern-based MindUp program, have become popular in public schools and children's hospitals. Many schools have experimented with incorporating mindfulness programs into their curricula with a view to boosting focus and lowering stress levels. Patterson High School in Baltimore, for example, has made mindfulness meditation a central part of the students' everyday lives, implementing a 15-minute yoga and mindfulness session school-wide at the beginning and end of each day. At the McLean School, near Washington, DC, many classes routinely start with a brief mindfulness practice.

So, what exactly is mindfulness?

Psychology Today describes mindfulness as, "a state of active, open attention on the present," explaining that, "When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience." (Emphasis added).

There are red flags in the above statement that should jump out to any Christian reading it. To refrain from "judging [thoughts] good or bad" is a blatant contradiction of our biblical command to flee from evil, embrace righteousness, and consciously follow God's commands. And the mindfulness goal to "live in the moment" is in direct contrast to the biblical premise of perceiving one's life in the light of eternity. Yet, sadly, many professing Christians have also been duped by the fad.

How so? Perhaps because the benefits of mindfulness programs have been so widely reported. A University of California study published in 2013 found that undergraduates who participated in a two-week mindfulness training program demonstrated heightened working memory and improved reading-comprehension scores on the GRE. Researchers at the University of Exeter, in collaboration with the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), tested 522 students between the ages of 12 and 16 from six UK high schools during the British summer exam period. The 256 teens who went through a nine-week introductory mindfulness course reported fewer symptoms of "depression, lower stress-levels, and greater well-being overall at the end of the nine weeks," compared to the control group of students who did not participate in the program. The Huffington Post reported that research has linked the practice of cultivating a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment to lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, as well as producing greater emotional stability, improved sleep quality, heightened feelings of compassion, and greater success achieving weight-loss goals, among a number of other advantages.[1]

Aetna employees practicing mindfulness
Reportedly, stress costs American companies an estimated $200 billion to $300 billion in lost productivity each year. Indeed, stress poses a very real public health concern having been linked to cancer, heart disease, and other serious ailments. Any program that offers a solution to this type of profit-loss and health benefit, therefore, is sure to be eagerly embraced. Take Aetna, for example. More than one-quarter of Aetna's 50,000 employees have participated in at least one class, and of these a 28 percent reduction in those employees' stress-levels has been reported, as well as a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality and a 19 percent reduction in pain. While the measurement of such stress- and pain-reduction is arguably subjective, Aetna posits that these employees have also become more effective on the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity each, which the company estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year. Indeed, demand for the programs continues to rise at the company and every class is overbooked.

In light of the benefits, surely mindfulness can't be that bad, can it?

With stress being viewed both as a serious public health concern, and a money-guzzling problem in the corporate context, it is little wonder that mindfulness has seen such a steep rise in popularity over recent years. Indeed, the meditative practice of mindfulness may seem harmless—arguably beneficial—on the surface, but don't let its popularity or celebrity-backing fool you. Mindfulness represents an increasingly dangerous phenomenon in our society for several reasons:

1. Mindfulness isn't just a meditative practice; it is a key part of Buddhist philosophy. While many mindfulness advocates, especially those in the public school system, choose not to use Buddhist terminology when presenting it as a stress-relieving, mind-focusing remedy, in actuality, the practice is fully entrenched in Buddhism, as Marcia Montenegro of Christian Answers for the New Age explains. Simply put, mindfulness is the method for reaching the Buddhist goal of detachment from one's individual identity. Christians should be aware that this is the ultimate goal of mindfulness, which stands in blatant contradiction to Scripture. As believers, we know that we are loved and cared for individually by God (Psa 139) who calls us each by name (John 10:3). Christians should not be naive about the true dangers of integrating the teachings and practices of false religions into their lives; the insidious lies behind them have a habit of seeping through and causing confusion.

2. Mindfulnessespecially when practiced routinely over a prolonged period of timeplaces the mind in a mild hypnotic state, thus leaving it more vulnerable to the power of suggestion. Mindfulness deliberately conditions people to disengage from their [God-given] ability to exercise conscious reason and discernment in order to simply "experience" life stress-free. But, "awakening to experience," as it is described, is a highly subjective activity. And any notions and feelings that arise during this meditative practicewhen the mind is opened up to the power of suggestionare questionable, to say the least.

The mental and spiritual vulnerability that comes from practicing mindfulness meditation is especially unsettling when one considers the growing number of public school children who are now doing so on a daily basis. Who knows what unsavory influences—demonic or otherwise—could be seeping into their suggestible minds and spirits? Instead of putting on the full armor of God to protect them against the enemy's schemes (Eph 6:11), which includes a cognitive grasp of God's truth, these children are being dangerously and routinely exposed to them. For they are urged to let go of a conscious understanding of God's absolute, transcendental truth and to instead find "truth" and "peace" within their amorphous feelings and subjective experiences of the moment during meditation. The fact that this is happening in our schools should not be taken lightly.

3. Mindfulness is essentially narcissistic. Because mindfulness focuses on the subjective experience of the moment, it unapologetically places the fleeting feelings of the self at the center of everything. It trains young people to believe that what feels right/good/true to them in a particular moment, is right/good/true. In this, there is of course much room for error. Moreover, the quest for inner-truth (sometimes referred to as Buddha-nature) that mindfulness facilitates stands in direct contrast to our biblical exhortation to center ourselves on Christ and seek truth in God's Word.

Mindfulness advocates do not, of course, concur with the above assessment that the practice gives rise to narcissism. In fact, they frequently claim the exact opposite, holding that the practice of mindfulness fosters increased compassion and empathy in people because it instills a sense of connectedness between them. This outlook is fueled by the Buddhist teaching that the individual self is not an integral, autonomous entity (it doesn't really exist). But because the increase in compassion and empathy that is perceived to result from mindfulness is based on a false premise to begin with, such claims are highly doubtful (and any measurement of the presumed increase is subjective to say the least). Furthermore, compassion that comes from human strength alone cannot last. It is only through God's strength that we can achieve unconditional, unfailing love of others (1 Cor 13).

4. In contrast to the biblical concept of dying to self, mindfulness culminates in losing the self. While narcissism can result from mindfulness, so can self-destruction. As usual, the two go hand-in-hand. Mindfulness is the meditative method for achieving ultimate goal of Buddhism, which is to let go of one's sense of individual identity in order to be freed from the cycle of rebirth and experience Nirvana. But what culminates in effectively losing oneself, stands in direct contrast to our biblical exhortation to die to self. The goal of dying to self is to live in Christ. In this, our true self is reborn—the idea of it is not evaporated into some amorphous state of being. As Christians, we also know that reality apart from God will pass away, but each of us, as part of God's Kingdom, will last forever in Glory (as individual children of God). Tragically, Buddhism represents a deadly path to securing self-loss, even before death.

5. Mindfulness philosophy, as taught as a therapeutic method today, assumes that the origin of stress is, in part, associated with the judgment of good and bad. And therein lies a fatal mistake. Mindfulness might reduce stress temporarily, (in the same way that smoking pot might, for example). But, instead of fostering true peace (which can only come from Christ), mindfulness lulls the mind into a false sense of security, producing a glazed-over, morally ambiguous, and relativistic view of reality. "Stress" in the context of mindfulness is often confused with a sense of conviction about sin. To compensate for this, mindfulness produces a neutralized, trance-like state of mind that glosses over absolute truth (especially the truth of one's need for a Savior) in favor of temporary relief. Yet, mindfulness, however much it is practiced, will never permanently quell the unsettled spirit that comes from a deep-down yearning to be reconciled to a holy God.

Furthermore, exercising judgment is not innately negative, as mindfulness implies. It is, in fact, integral to the Christian faith. While Jesus warned us against self-righteous, hypocritical judgment of others (i.e. "judge not, lest you be judged"), He repeatedly urged us to exercise sound judgment—discernment—when it comes to sin. Scripture is clear that we are to wisely judge right from wrong, to examine ourselves, to flee from sin, and to purge the evil from among us (2 Cor 13:5; 1 Cor 5:13). The problem is, mindfulness, by discouraging self-examination and wise judgment, lures us into becoming comfortable with our own sin and the sin of others.

6. Mindfulness is actually an attack on the mind rather than the therapeutic treatment of it. This is because it openly discourages analytical thought and self-examination, as has already been touched on. But it's worth further expanding on this aspect of mindfulness here because it is actually part of a wider post-Modern movement to place feelings and experiences over conscious belief.

Basing one’s worldview primarily on feelings and experiences has fatal pitfalls, however; the Bible clearly teaches that the heart 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), otherwise it will lead us deeper into sin. But mindfulness rejects the need for heart-change. 

Through moment-by-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of the present, mindfulness seeks instead to achieve the Buddhist goal of neutralized detachment. In this vein, mindfulness encourages people to watch their thoughts as they go by, in order to realize that they exist apart from themThis is often referred to as, "taming the monkey mind." While mindfulness does not seek to stop thoughts, it does seek to separate a person from themTo put it simply, in mindfulness teaching, we should not get wrapped up in our thoughts, but be freed from them.

The "don't worry, be happy" mantra might have widespread appeal. But it also has sinister implications in the context of mindfulness. It's almost like mindfulness seeks to produce an effect that is ironically reminiscent of Peter Gibbons in Office Space after he was hypnotized. Having been a stress-out, disgruntled programmer at Initech, hypnosis caused him to stop worrying about outcomes and became comically carefree—yet only to end up making disastrous, morally corrupt decisions! Of course, this is never the way mindfulness is presented by its advocates. But there are interesting similarities here that are too uncanny to ignore!

Unlike living in a pleasantly chilled-out state like that of Peter Gibbons, however, biblical living is quite often convicting and unsettling, particularly during seasons of spiritual growth. And following Christ (as in carrying one's cross daily), while peace-giving, does not allow one to feel comfortable in sin. For the peace doesn't come from pretending truth away, but from embracing the Prince of Peace, who is the truth. This is the difference between the true peace that passes earthly understanding and mental numbness.

popular image used by
mindfulness practitioners
Indeed, Scripture teaches us that using our minds—our God-given ability to exercise reason, discernment, and sound judgment—is a crucial part of our Christian faith (Matt 22:37; Luke 10:27; Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 10:3-6; Phil 2:5). A cognitive grasp of God's Word is essential to Christian living. Learning, pondering, and examining Scripture in order to know God more is strongly encouraged (2 Tim 3:16-17; John 15:7). And Biblical truth is worshipfully mind-stretching, not mind-separating.

7. Mindfulness distracts us from eternity to immerse us in the fleeting moment. This is perhaps that most insidious aspect of mindfulness. The boldly stated goal to "live in the moment" perpetuates the deadly lie that we can be safely at home in the present. But the truth is, this worldly moment is not our home. We should not be immersed in it, but are sojourners briefly moving through it. Our hope is not rooted in this world—or our momentary experiences of it. And our short lives on earth are like a vapor (James 4:14).

The fleeting pleasures the present moment has to offer can entrap us into losing sight of the everlasting riches that await us in Glory. Peter reminds us of this when he writes, "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul." (1 Peter 2:11). Mindfulness tells us to focus on the here-and-now, but Scripture tells us to live our lives in light of Eternity. The idea that the practice causes any type of "awakening" is, therefore, itself a deadly deception.

...The cumulative impact of the routine practice of mindfulness in our schools, hospitals, prisons, and in the workplace is quite frankly mind-boggling.

Can you imagine the widespread impact of a both conscienceless and consciousless mindset on a society of fallen human beings? And think about the long-term implications of our public school students growing up with the practice of mindfulness. They might have better attendance records and test scores (as has already been reported by a number of schools). They might feel more relaxed temporarily. But they won't truly be at peace. And if this practice continues to grow in popularity in our schools and children's hospitals, it'll be like we're fostering a generation of zombies who are trained to be indifferent to sin, having been preconditioned to resist their consciences for fear of experiencing stress. Think this is an overstatement? Google the number of schools that have adopted the practice already. It's a growing trend, and it's coming to a school near you.

The fact is, Satan can't destroy the gospel, but he'll do all he can to distract us from it. And this is exactly what mindfulness attempts to do. Rather than considering one's life after death, and pondering matters of eternal significance, mindfulness encourages a life lived in the moment and a detachment from the only truth that can save us.

Christians need to take heed and take a stand. And Christians especially need to take a stand against mindfulness being taught to vulnerable and impressionable children in the public school system. For the real zombie apocalypse might be less of a fantasy than we had all thought.

For more information on mindfulness please see the following CANA resources:

Mindfulness for Children

Mindfulness: Taming the Monkey
Mindfulness: No Mind Over Matter


Friday, August 14, 2015

The "New Normal" and the Future of Sound Judgment

There is currently war being waged against the practice of sound moral judgment in our society. Secular author and radio host, Tammy Bruce, in her book, The Death of Right and Wrong, puts it this way:
How best to change Americans’ fundamental values? How best to indoctrinate you into a culture that grows sicker and more corrupt by the minute?...The Left has had to restrict individual freedom of thought and deed in order to destroy the concept of judgment and undermine notions of right and wrong that have been held nearly universally for millennia.
She is right. Over recent years, cultural attacks on sound moral judgment and biblical thinking, have been lodged with alarming success and surprising rapidity. It's as if our society has undergone a Blitzkrieg of political correctness and moral relativism that has left the Judeo-Christian foundations of our country in shambles and turned absolute truth upside down...Bruce Jenner has been celebrated as a "hero" for adorning his body with breast implants and dressing like a woman. Female celebrities have been lauded as "brave" for donning t-shirts announcing in bold-print the abortion of their unborn children. Coldblooded cop-killer and death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal has been glorified by masses of young supporters for over a decade for his black activism and politically driven writing. And more young criminals have since been venerated, while cops have been unjustly vilified.

Our children are growing up in a new era in which Christianity is more counter-cultural than ever before in America. Sexual immorality is unabashedly exalted in our culture. Homosexuality is lionized on Emmy-awarded TV shows like Modern Family, for example, which received mass acclaim for airing an "historic" gay marriage proposal (how many "ground-breaking" or "historic" gay moments can there really be?). Promiscuity is promoted everywhere we look. Sexual sin is becoming so deeply embedded into the fabric of our society that it's hard to distinguish it anymore as we become increasingly desensitized to it. The shock-factor we felt back in the 80s when celebrities like Madonna first flaunted their sexuality so controversially has less impact now that an anything-goes mentality is so prevalent. We might have talked about the antics of Miley Cyrus for 5 minutes, but now we're getting used to the new Hannah Montana. She's just one of the many skin-baring, hip-gyrating young stars stooping to new moral lows in the name of "expressing themselves." These young women are selling their bodies, and people are buying in droves.

These few examples alone indicate that the normalization of wrong has become commonplace in our society. Are we still talked about the body parts of murdered babies being sold for profit by Planned Parenthood? Or is that already yesterday's news...?

In the midst of all this, the Great Accuser is ready and waiting to condemn all those who practice sound judgment. And our culture is proving an accommodating climate for him to do so. We are increasingly being dubbed as closed-mindedeven as bigoted haters.

A widespread sickness has gripped our nation. And it often attacks where we least expect it. While more striking cases of moral corruption such as those above might be easier to detect, some attacks against sound judgment are far less overt and arguably all the more insidious as a result. For example, the practice of mindfulness—a meditation practice that finds its origin in Buddhism—is steeply on the rise in our society. Widely deemed a harmless stress-reliever, mindfulness is in fact a dangerous form of false teaching that unapologetically undermines the use of our God-given conscience, our ability to practice sound judgment, and discern right from wrong. Psychology Today describes mindfulness as, "a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience." (Emphasis added).

As a form of therapy, mindlfulness is now a growing trend in psychology and psychotherapy, which has been strongly promoted through mainstream media outlets as an effective stress-relieving remedy. Mindfulness is now being implemented in the American workplace (in companies such as Google, Safeway, Target, General Mills, and Aetna), in the public school system, in the federal government, and even in the armed services. And Christians need to take heed.

Why? Because mindfulness, especially when practiced routinely over a prolonged period of time, places the mind in a mild hypnotic state and leaves one vulnerable to the power of suggestion. Think about the long-term implications of our public school students growing up with the practice of mindfulness. They might have better attendance records and test scores (as has already been reported by a number of schools). They might feel temporarily more relaxed. But they won't be at peace (just because it feels good for a moment, doesn't mean it is good). And if this practice continues to grow in popularity in our schools, it'll be like we're fostering a generation of zombies who are trained to be indifferent to sin and who are preconditioned to resist their consciences for fear of experiencing stress. Think this is an overstatement? Google the number of schools that have adopted the practice, some as a routine part of the school day, like Patterson High School in Baltimore, for example. It's a growing trend, and it's coming to a school near you.

The implications of this are quite frankly mind-boggling. For the less we exercise sound judgment as a culture, the more our nation will embrace sin and reject God.

Our post-modern culture already encourages us to live in the here-and-now and place subjective feelings and personal experience over universal and absolute truths. Moral relativism (what is true/good for me might be different from what is true/good for you) is barely talked about anymore; it has become so ingrained in our collective consciousness that it's difficult to stand back and observe it. But, like a cancer, it's working its way to the backbone of our society. And it's eating us away at the core.

The evidence of this is undeniable; you've probably noticed that exercising judgment of sin is widely frowned upon nowadays! It's often confused in people's minds with judgmentalism and is hurriedly passed off as a negative behaviorsomething to avoid. Yet, Scripture repeatedly teaches that sound judgment is essential for spiritual health. In Proverbs, we are urged to preserve "sound judgment and discretion." (Prov 3:21). Jesus consistently encourages us to exercise righteous judgment, to hold one another accountable and to watch out for false prophets in our midst, for example. And Paul tells us to "test everything" (1 Thess 5:21); We are to judge every teaching, holding it up against God's Word, like the "noble" Berean Jews were commended for in the Book of Acts. For Scripture warns us 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 Timothy 4:3-4). It is crucial, then, that we cling to sound judgment in a world of deceit in which Satan masquerades as an angle of light (2 Cor 11:13-15).

Don't believe the lie that sound judgment is judgmental! Throughout Scripture, there is a clear distinction drawn between two contrasting natures of judgment; judgmentalism (being excessively critical) is decried, while sound judgment (exercising wise discernment) is strongly prescribed. While humility is at the essence of sound judgment, judgmentalism is motivated by pride. Sound judgment is permeated with an acute awareness that it is by God's grace that we are saved, so that we cannot boast in our own strength. We can exercise sound, righteous judgment purely because our righteousness is in Christ. Judgmentalism, however, is self-righteous—and is not, therefore, of God.

Secular culture, however, is rejecting the use of moral judgment altogether—just as it is rejecting God—to embrace a "new normal" and the pursuit of "self truth." Just because immorality is being normalized in our culture, however, does not mean Christians need to accept it and refrain from discerning right from wrong for fear of being condemned by the world as bigots. For it is indeed very possible that within the next decade or two, it will be illegal to practice certain aspects of biblical Christianity, especially within our public school system. Signs of this have already begun. Gender-neutralization, for one thing, is on the horizon. How are we going to respond? With courage and righteousness, or with fear and capitulation?

As believers, we must live with our eyes wide open, while not giving into fear (it's not about being fearful, it's about being awake). As Christians, we are called to go against the tide of our culture when it comes to morality, not to live in denial or to unwittingly go with the cultural flow. For now is the time to be vigilant and to watch (Mark 13:37). Now is the time to pray for, practice, and preach sound judgment with courage. We must pray for our children. Pray for our country. And pray for the lost. Before it's too late.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Why you need to read "God’s Crime Scene" by J. Warner Wallace.

Faith Actually highly recommends Cold-Case Christianity author J. Warner Wallace's newest apologetics book, on shelves next month. God’s Crime Scene unravels the greatest mystery of all time—the creation of the universe—walking readers through the cold, hard evidence for the very basis of the Christian faith, and equipping readers to defend it with confidence and factual accuracy.

J. Warner, a seasoned cold-case homicide detective and adjunct professor of apologetics at Biola University, was previously an ardent and vocal atheist during his first years in law enforcement. He always considered himself to be an "evidentialist," convinced that truth is tied directly to evidence. But when, at the age of thirty-five, J. Warner took a serious and expansive look at the evidence for the Christian worldview, he determined that Christianity was indeed demonstrably true after all.

Now a steadfast defender of the faith, J. Warner's skilled and comprehensive analysis of the evidence for biblical truth undermines the claims of many that Christianity is a "blind faith" that doesn't stack up against the facts.

God's Crime Scene is indeed a unique apologetics overview in which J. Warner takes an investigative, evidential approach to the universe as a crime scene. The author walks the reader through the "inside the room or outside the room" methodology used by homicide detectives, which he applies in his investigation of the broad evidence for God's design. He challenges the reader to examine eight important pieces of evidence common to our human observations and experience to discern whether pure unguided naturalism or supernatural intervention best accounts for the evidence at the "crime scene." In doing so, J. Warner masterfully uncovers the compelling evidence for the existence of God and His intelligent design of the universe, drawing from a broad range of philosophical, cosmological, scientific, and moral evidence to build a bold, logical case for the biblical worldview.

J. Warner's book expertly boils down mounds of complex evidence into digestible chunks suitable for the non-specialist, as well as the experienced layperson. Harnessing the important work of the Intelligent Design movement, he looks at a number of key issues, including the remarkable fine-tuning found in the cosmos, the irreducible complexity of biological systems, and the awe-inspiring world of DNA and genetic information. He delves into key philosophical questions such as: "Are moral truths an illusion?" and refutes the myth that moral truths are merely the product of individual beliefs or culture by laying out an evidence-based case for absolutes over relativism. He demonstrates that while our brains and central nervous systems are the stuff of empirical measurement and observation, our emotions, sensations, thoughts, and desires are not, proving attempts to provide merely materialistic explanations of such things to fall down in face of the evidence.

Why should Christians read this book?

Faith Actually has long contended that lazy-mindedness is both unbiblical and dangerous. Biblical truth is worshipfully mind-stretching—not mind-emptying. As believers we must not neglect Jesus' command to love God with our minds as well as our hearts and souls (Matt 22:37). Scripture teaches us that using our minds—our conscious understanding and our God-given ability to exercise reason, discernment, and sound judgment—is a crucial part of our Christian faith (Matt 22:37; Luke 10:27; Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 10:3-6; Phil 2:5). In this vein, Christians are called to respond thoughtfully, with grace- and truth-based wisdom, to the world around us.

Today, many young Christians are growing up without a clear biblical worldview and any training in apologetics. Therefore, they lack the ability to defend, sustain, and live out their faith in a world that has rejected biblical truth. Undoubtedly, the post-modern tendency to base beliefs on feelings and experience over reason and understanding is partly to blame. And, it's certainly hard to stay grounded in a fast-paced, over-stimulated culture in which our time is short and our attention-span, shorter. Many Christians, overwhelmed by life's frantic pace, are turning to touchy-feely, quick-fix spirituality—or as I also like to refer to it, cotton candy for the soul. And for many of those in pursuit of the quick-fix, there's no time for discernment; if it sounds right, it probably is right. If a celebrity pastor tweeted it, it's gospel. If a bestselling self-help author posted it, it's gotta be enlightened. If the word, love, is thrown in there enough times, then it must be loving. Inner truth? I'm sure that's in the Bible somewhere...No time to look it up on BibleGateway though. 
Apologetics, sound theology, and a clear biblical worldview, however, serve to protect us from false teaching and spiritual confusion.

Additionally, lazy-minded Christianity becomes a stumbling block for the questioning unbeliever. If the Christian testimony can't hold up under scrutiny, why would any thinking person believe it? Certainly, training in apologetics and a clear, well-reasoned understanding of the biblical worldview are vital tools of evangelism in a culture that attempts to make a mockery of God. For as the Apostle Peter exhorts us, we must "always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you." (1 Peter 3:15). And there is lots of God-given evidence to make use of.

In times like these, it's authors like J. Warner Wallace whom we need to turn to. His expertise in investigative research and detective work have been used by God to produce an invaluable apologetics resource that will both build the believer's faith and boldly challenge the unbeliever's lack of it. God's Crime Scene is a thought-provoking, informative, and insightful book that should be in the hands of every believer.