Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Should Christians Just ‘Be Nice’--Or What?

Newsweek, January 2, 2015
Kurt Eichenwald has written a Newsweek cover story on the Bible--and on his personal view of Christians.  The article was met with a firestorm of objection, both because of his inaccurate claims regarding the authenticity of the Bible and because of his scathing criticism of Christians.  Eichenwald, a two-time winner of the George Polk Award and a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, gave this description of Christians: 

They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.

They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s word.

Michael J. Kruger has posted a 2-part critique of Eichenwald's article in his Canon Fodder blog, stating that the article:
goes so far beyond the standard polemics, and is so egregiously mistaken about the Bible at so many places, that the magazine should seriously consider a public apology to Christians everywhere.

Al Mohler expresses his more general criticism of the Newsweek article in AlMohler.com:
Amazingly, Eichenwald claims some stance of objectivity. “Newsweek’s exploration here of the Bible’s history and meaning is not intended to advance a particular theology or debate the existence of God,” Eichenwald insists. “Rather, it is designed to shine a light on a book that has been abused by people who claim to revere it but don’t read it, in the process creating misery for others.”

But Eichenwald demonstrates absolutely no attempt to understand traditional Christian understandings of the Bible, nor ever to have spoken with the people he asserts “claim to revere [the Bible] but don’t read it.” What follows is a reckless rant against the Bible and Christians who claim to base their faith upon its teachings.

Kurt Eichenwald
What is most interesting is Eichenwald's reaction to the criticism on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kurteichenwald  For example,  Eichenwald tweets his definition of a Christian as a person

...who refuses all gifts for himself and welcomes all - gay, straight, prostitute, drug addict - without condemnation. THAT is Christianity.

The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in the act of adultery and placed her as an object of scorn in front of Jesus; and they asked Him what ought to be done to her (John 8: 3-11).  Jesus did not tell them to dismiss the Old Testament law which called for the penalty of death by stoning.  Instead, He stooped down and wrote in the dust of the ground from which humans were created (Genesis 2: 7), perhaps reminding them of the commandments they had received through Moses.  Then, He invited those who were without sin to cast the first stone at the adulterous woman.  The Scriptures record the response of the Jewish leaders:

And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst (John 8: 9).

Jesus, now alone with the woman, asked her, Woman, where are your accusers?  Has no man condemned you. She replied, No man, Lord.  And, Jesus said to her,
Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

Jesus had shown compassion and mercy toward the woman who had been condemned to death.  But, we forget that He also showed compassion toward the Jewish leaders with stones in their hands ready to crush the woman to death.

Elsewhere, in Matthew 9, Jesus had just called Levi (Matthew) the tax collector to follow him as one of His twelve disciples.  Levi had responded by inviting Jesus to a party he had prepared for all of his friends—other tax collectors and people who were looked down upon by the Jewish leaders.  The Jewish leaders approached Jesus’ disciples and asked, Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?  When Jesus heard this, He explained to them that

only those who are sick need a physician.
But go and learn what this means: 'I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

As He had done with the Jewish leaders poised to stone the woman caught in adultery, so here His words are aimed right at the heart of those who would judge themselves sinless before God—i.e. “not needing a physician.” 

In these two accounts, Jesus reminds us that He did not come to do away with the laws of God for righteousness (righteous living), but rather to convict us of how far we have fallen short of God’s righteousness.  For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ (John 1: 17, emphasis mine).  God is calling us to righteous living, but the only way to this Life is through Christ Who became the sinless sacrificial lamb, dying in our place, taking upon Himself the sins of the world.

There are millions like Kurt Eichenwald all around us whose experience tells them that Christians are harsh and condemning.  Perhaps unknowingly, they are waiting for a Christ-like (Christ-ian) response.  Our place is to see them with the eyes of Jesus—eyes of compassion and mercy.  But the eyes of Jesus can be ours only if we remember that Jesus continually offers us what we also need--compassion, mercy, and forgiveness for our sins.  When we are harsh and condemning, we are just like the Jewish leaders with stones in their hands.  When we, like the Jewish leaders, remember our own debt of sin, we drop our stones, drop to our knees, repent of our sin, and rely on the Spirit of our Savior to show us how to relate to sinners like us with God’s winsome love and compassion. 

I conclude with a reminder for all of us sinners from the response of Elyse Fitzpatrick in an interview with Marvin Olasky (“Transparent Sinner”,WORLD Magazine, October 18, 2014)

OLASKY:  The prostitutes knew they needed help. Zacchaeus knew.
FITZPATRICK:  And Matthew knew. But the Pharisees didn’t know, and the thing that guaranteed Christ was going to die on the cross was His love for sinners, because the Pharisees didn’t think they were part of that group. Yes, of course, we might sin somewhat if we take too many steps on a certain day, but we’re not really sinners. The thing that drove them to crucify Him, of course in God’s sovereignty, was that He didn’t pander to their religion. He told him their religion was the very thing that kept them from God. So we have to not only repent of our badness (I didn’t make this up) but also our goodness. There is nothing more difficult to accept than the truth that you bring nothing to the table except your sin, and He has to bring everything else. 

Kurt Eichenwald calls for Christians to be gracious--and he is right.  But he seems unaware that he too needs a physician—one who can graciously point out his infection (his sin nature) and lead him to the only cure--repentance and acceptance of the cleansing blood of Christ. No tally of "good works" or self-justification on the part of any of us will suffice.  Nor are Christians who try to "be nice" around unbelieving sinners really "being nice."  It's good for physicians to have a good
"bedside manner" but it may be deadly if they fail to express clearly the patient's condition and provide a plan of action.  Ultimately, in mission and in medicine, being honest is better than "being nice" or "being liked."

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent: Waiting, Worshiping, & Working in a Groaning Creation

In the previous entry to Oikonomia, we cited examples of turmoil and injustice that can make us wonder, “Where is God?”  We cited the violent storms of creation, the storming hoards of terrorists killing innocent people, the disappointing hurts that occur even in our churches, and the death of God’s non-human creatures all around us.   Now, let’s revisit these troubling examples—this time looking for the Hope that shines through when we apply the lens of God’s Word.

Advent wreath and candles aid our waiting and worship.
What better time than the Season of Advent to apply a biblical perspective to the storms, storming hoards, personal disappointments, and groans of creation?   Advent draws our attention to the anticipated coming of Jesus Christ the Savior that we celebrate on Christmas.  Just as people of faith before Christ’s coming awaited the coming Messiah, so now by faith we are encouraged through Advent to develop a “theology of waiting” as we follow the weekly Advent themes of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, culminating in the lighting of the Christ candle on Christmas Day.

First, in the context of Advent, let’s return to our neighbor’s Nativity that was strewn about their front yard.  Although they were saddened by the destruction, it turns out that the Nativity was scattered, not be evil intent, but by a wind storm—a storm that God allowed.  Such stormy events are small in comparison to the larger disruptions their children will no doubt face during their lives.  Storms of life disrupt our Hope and our Peace; but Advent can teach us to view these storms in the context of waiting upon God for His peace and provision.  For the person who has never known God’s forgiveness for sin, storms can be a wake-up call to surrender and be reconciled through the atoning death of Christ (Romans 3: 23; 6:23).

According to John Piper (WORLD Magazine, "Mercy for the Living," Jan. 15, 2005), “Every deadly calamity is a merciful call from God for the living to repent.  Proof that God wants us to reflect seriously and learn from creation’s calamities is seen in Jesus’ comments when 18 people were crushed to death by the fall of the tower of Siloam, Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:4-5).  

Principle #1:  While we await Christ’s return, the storms of life can bring us to mourn our sin and the sins of others, and repent of our sins, and become new creatures who can lead others to God.  

Piper says it well:
Repent. Let our hearts be broken that God means so little to us. Grieve that He is a whipping boy to be blamed for pain, but not praised for pleasure. Lament that He makes headlines only when man mocks His power, but no headlines for 10,000 days of wrath withheld. Let us rend our hearts that we love life more than we love Jesus Christ. Let us cast ourselves on the mercy of our Maker. He offers it through the death and resurrection of His Son.

Some disasters are as much "acts of man" as "acts of God."
But not all calamities of creation are simply “acts of God.”  Although God is ultimately in control, some calamities are “acts of man”—violations of God’s laws of creation.  Mudslides that destroy whole villages downstream are the result of deforestation that increases soil erosion and soil instability.   Likewise, man-made dams create reservoirs that eventually fill with eroded soil.  When a weakened dam breaks, sediment-laden water escapes in a destructive torrent that destroys people and possessions in its path. 

Principle #2:  While we await Christ’s return, storms and devastation in creation remind us that we are God’s stewards called to serve with creation based on “good science” so that devastations are minimized and Earth can yield its bounty in a sustainable way.  [See Fundamentals of Conservation]

But what about other storms in today’s world?  God is now permitting the storming hoards of Islamic terrorists in the Middle East to disrupt and destroy the lives of His children who stand boldly for their faith in Christ.  How should a “theology of waiting” during this Advent season affect our reaction to the disruptions of life being caused by Islamic terrorists?  Perhaps like me, at times you are tempted to doubt God’s providential care for His people, Jew and Gentile alike.  However, realize today’s news is not unusual when we recall the long and interrupted history of conflict between godless people and the people of faith (e.g. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Rahab, Ruth, and the prophets).   In fact, after the writer of Hebrews 11 recounts the acts of such men and women of faith by name, he gives a shocking list of the forms of persecution and execution suffered by unnamed believers down through history, and concludes with this powerful claim (Hebrews 11:  39-40):

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised,  because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.

We are among the people described in this Scripture for whom God has provided something better.  Before the coming of Christ the Messiah, people of faith did not know or experience fully the completed plan of redemption provided through the death of Christ for the sins of both Jew and Gentile.   Now, God is at work building His church composed of those who accept His Son by faith and are willing to deny themselves, take up His cross, and follow Him (Matthew 16: 24).  For increasing numbers today, taking up the cross and following can require emotional and physical suffering, and even death.

Even in the relative safety of our own neighborhoods and especially in our churches, we are not free from harsh words and even weapons that can hurt us.  Recall we illustrated this point by the young couple whose invitee to church was very unwelcome.  Nevertheless, our task as God’s people is to sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (I Peter 3: 15).   We may have to earn the privilege of “giving and account” by first acting in a Christ-like manner in the midst of trying and even life-threatening situations.   In so doing, we are drawn closer to the sufferings of Christ as the Apostle Paul teaches us when he wrote to the Christians in the city of Corinth, you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort (2 Corinthians 1: 7).

Shakir Wahiyi (face uncovered) and other ISIS enforcers.
Pray that God's love will break into hearts full of evil and hate.
Although the universal body of Christ is spread around the world, today internet access can provide immediate information and communication links to our brethren, many of whom are under siege in very hard places such as Syria and Iraq.  Voice of the Martyrs and Samaritan’s Purse are two organizations that provide access to information about prayer needs and helpful guides to prayer and ways to help our fellow Christians living under persecution.  Perhaps the most difficult task for me is to pray for the Islamic terrorists who are pillaging and murdering innocent people in the Middle East and in Africa.  But I’ve been encouraged to pray that the “eyes and ears of the consciences” of the slayers will not cease to reveal the Love of God that can pierce even the  most evil hearts.

Voice of the Martyrs provides a helpful prayer guide.
Principle #3:  While we await Christ’s return, our responsibility is to intercede at the throne of God for our brothers and sisters facing brutal persecution, and to pray that God will use the blood of the martyrs and the power of the cross of Christ to open the hearts of their Islamic persecutors.

Following our examples of turmoil and injustice in this world, I’m hesitant to add the incident of the cat and the squirrel in which the latter became dinner for the former.  Recall that once the squirrel became prey, I heard what appeared to be an outburst of anger by nearby squirrels; then, a period of solemn mourning by its mate.  Even a squirrel moaning the loss of her mate speaks of the cloud of sadness and despair that often characterizes God’s fallen creation. 

Although the groaning of creation is evident in the deaths of animals, it is also troubling to see the needless deaths of helpless unborn babies by abortion while the elderly and infirm are often poorly treated and forgotten by their families.  Those who do not recognize the authority of Scripture find it difficult to distribute their “compassion” among a groaning world of violent storms, murderous hoards of terrorists, and the deaths of animals by predation and disease.  Only a biblical worldview can provide a logical cause and a satisfying explanation of the future direction of this groaning world.

In Romans 8: 22-23, the God reveals to us that

the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

Do you see in this Scripture that, although all creation groans, and we groan; yet, we have reason to be “waiting eagerly?” For Christ has come!  He has purchased our redemption from the fall if we accept His sacrifice for our sins which guarantees that we have the adoption as sons into God’s family.  In the context of the troubling examples of violent storms in nature and the trying storms, suffering, and death all around us we are asked to wait for Christ’s coming—His Second Advent.  He promised, in the world, you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16: 33).  Thankfully, we can claim the truth of what I will label Principle #4:

Christ came humbly into the world, God in flesh appearing.
While creation groans, we work and wait until He returns.
Principle #4:  While we await Christ’s return, celebrating Christmas in the context of Advent can help us face the storms, sufferings, and deaths in the context of the Hope of Christ’s return, while gaining His Peace and Joy for our stewardly work and our prayers, and the Gift of the Love of God which is ours to share with others. 

The Nativity in our neighbor’s lawn has been restored to its order after the storm, and now tells the story of Christ’s first coming as we observe it on this quiet December night.  And, we are all ready to light the fourth Advent candle to celebrate the Love of God—Love that saved us (John 3: 16) and moves us to work and pray as we eagerly await Christ’s Second Advent.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Injustice All Around Us—But Where is God?

The Nativity scene on our neighbor’s lawn was decimated.  Mary, Joseph, angels, and stable animals were strewn about, and an adult figure of Jesus was partly covered with the collapsed stable roof.   Just the day before, we had watched as a grandfather, father, and son assembled the Nativity and added lights for nighttime viewing as a testimony of their faith in the virgin birth.  But now, it seemed that their labor had been in vain.

Who would do such a thing?  What’s more, how could God allow this to happen? 

On the same day of the “nasty Nativity,” the news from northern Iraq added more gruesome details of how the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had continued in its pillaging of villages, brutalizing and killing residents, and carrying off women and children.  All the while, the opposing factions remained committed to defending their homes and villages, many willing to die for their faith in Christ while using limited weaponry to fight off the ISIS pillagers.

What kind of people would do such a thing?  What’s more, how would God allow this to happen? 

As I pondered these questions, I wondered if there is any place on Earth where one can truly find sanctuary, a place of refuge where a person can be safe and accepted among friends and family.  Is there any place where one can be encouraged in things that are “true, honorable, right, and pure?”  Then, I remembered an unfortunate situation that occurred in a place that should have been a safe sanctuary.  According to the story, a husband and wife had just been saved and had rededicated their lives toward loving and obeying God in obedience to a newfound power of the Spirit within their hearts.  Wanting to share the joy of their walk with Jesus, they invited a lady friend to come to church with them.  This lady had had a hard life because of some bad decisions she had made—some would say she had a “shady reputation.” 

When our newly revived couple introduced her to their pastor hoping she would be drawn closer to God through his encouragement, he greeted her politely, but later called them aside and said, “We don’t want her kind in our church.”  How devastated they were!  Wanting to be the hands and feet of a welcoming Savior, they were instead crushed in their faith. 

What kind of pastor (shepherd) would do such a thing?   How could God allow this to happen?

As I’m writing, a grey squirrel frolics in the branches of the oak tree outside my study.  The cute little fuzz ball reminds me of another puzzling event that I witnessed recently.  While raking leaves in our front yard, I observed our neighbor’s cat walking stealthily across the front of our house and disappear around the corner.  In a few minutes, I heard a raucous outburst of protest from squirrels in the backyard.  I looked toward our house and saw the cat returning with her prey—you guessed it, a squirrel hanging limply from her jaws.  Meanwhile, what seemed like angry protests in squirrel language continued to sound from the backyard.  Then, all was silent, except for a pathetic, solemn utterance from one squirrel that repeated every 10 seconds for another 5 minutes.  I paused and listened to what seemed to be an expression of mourning, perhaps by a mate for her lost companion.

Gray Squirrel "mourning" the death of  her mate?
What kind of world gives us frolicking squirrels punctuated so quickly by mournful death?   And, what kind of a Creator would allow life to be snuffed out so quickly without warning?
Perhaps a disheveled Nativity scene in the eyes of the boy and his family is a small thing.  After all, it can be restored.  But such events have a way of lodging in the memory of a child and could plant a seed of doubt or confusion.  Is this how the world, or God, responds to the good intentions of a family?

On the other side of the world, Syrian and Iraqi Christians must wonder whether their commitment to Jesus Christ is worth losing their homes, their children’s lives, or their own lives to the murderous actions of terrorists.  Where is God Who promised never to leave us or forsake us?

All around us are Christians who extend a hand to help a neighbor only to be misunderstood.  Or who invite a friend to their church only to experience disappointing behavior from supposed “people of God.”  Where is God’s power in His church where people ought to hear His invitation to come unto Me all of you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest… (Matthew 11: 28)?

Even God’s creatures seem to convey the message, “Something is wrong.  Something is not quite right.”  Where is the promise of a loving, caring Creator Who asked His disciples, Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father (Matthew 10: 29). How can  God be attentive to the minutia of His creation without being deeply touched by the mournful sound of a squirrel at the death of its mate?

Christmas is a season of contrasts.  It has been that way since the night of Christ’s birth—a light piercing the darkness; a King born in a lowly stable; a Child of God being hunted down by a powerful and murderous king.  These contrasts seem to us to represent a chasm between “what is” and “what ought to be.” But Jesus was well aware of this chasm, and He declared, in the world, you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16: 33).  And so we wait, and we wonder how many more storms, personal trials, and deaths will occur before Christ returns to establish His kingdom in justice and righteousness on Earth. 

For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.  And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.   – Romans 8: 22-23

Reader Comments Welcomed:   How do you reconcile calamities in creation or in the daily news or in a person’s life, with the notion of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and personal God?   If you are a Christian and are awaiting Christ’s return, how do you balance your wait with work so that each expresses the faith and power of God’s Spirit within you?   How might the season of Advent be a good time to bring biblical faith to bear on these questions?