Imagine a man

Imagine a man whose heart is far from God. He puts many gods before the one true God but the god who has a real hold on his heart is the god known as Self. The one true God is higher than any other god. He alone is all powerful and all knowing. He alone is worthy of all honor and praise. The one true God is the God of love and the source of all that is good. The man whose heart is far from God follows a god of hate. His god brings forth that which is evil.

The man whose heart is far from God expends an extraordinary amount of energy elevating the god of Self – boasting about how smart he is, how wealthy he is, how powerful he is. He exalts himself over everyone and everything. He knows more about any subject than anyone else. In his own eyes, no one is greater in all the earth. He never admits failure, never confesses a wrong, never acknowledges weakness or self-doubt. When he is not elevating the god of Self, he busies himself tearing down his enemies – anyone who makes the god of Self look bad. His greatest enemy is the truth and he fights the truth with a vengeance.

Imagine Narcissis gazing adoringly at Self in the mirror. Self-aggrandizement. Self-adulation. Self-importance. Self-indulgence. For the man whose heart is far from God, it is all about Self.

The man whose god is Self is a master manipulator, a master of deception, a conman. He belongs to his Father, the devil, the father of lies. He carries out his father’s desires. There is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language.

No man is perfect. We all sin. We all fall short of the glory of God. None of us knows everything. We all fail. We all stumble. But the man whose god is the god of Self will never admit this. He will never repent. He lives in a world of make believe, a world of fantasy and unreality. When he looks in the mirror he sees a distorted version of himself.

His most consequential lie is a powerful self-delusion. The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” He tells himself, if there is a god, I can deceive him just as I deceive people.

The man who worships the god of Self surrounds himself with oleaginous sycophants, toadies, boot lickers. They see his nakedness but pretend that the emperor wears the finest clothes. Convinced that the ends justify the means, they flatter and praise him to stay in his good graces and to trade on his influence.

The man who is his own god believes he is above the law. Many men have tried and failed to hold him to account. The truth is, every man will have to account to God for every wicked act, every careless word. Imagine the day when the man who has spent his life worshiping Self finally faces his Maker. He will not get away with lying to the Father of truth. He will not impress the omnipotent, omniscient God with his wealth, power or intelligence. He will not escape God’s judgment by deflecting and blaming others.

The man whose heart is far from God is not a figment of my imagination. He is real. He is an old man but there is a childlike quality about him. There is something sad and pathetic about his constant need for adulation. He is rich in material wealth but morally bankrupt. He is seemingly successful and yet a colossal failure. He is a powerful liar but he cannot change the truth. He presents himself as a savior but he cannot save his own soul.

I had a dream about this man a couple of months ago. I said one word to him. Repent. The man whose heart is far from God is not beyond God’s redemption. I pray that he will be humbled before the one true God before it is too late.

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By John William Waterhouse – http://www.allartpainting.com/echo-and-narcissus-p-16444.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7716057

A Prayer for the Church

Heavenly Father, thank you for this new day. This morning, I remembered a childhood rhyme we recited on our way to church. We would interlace our fingers, placing our thumbs parallel to each other. Then we would say, ‘here’s the church.’ We would lift our index fingers, touch them together and say, ‘here’s the steeple.’ Finally, we would turn our hands out with the fingers still interlaced and say as we wiggled them, ‘open the door and see all the people.’ 

Tomorrow on what is normally one of the most “peopley” days of the year, most churches around the world will be empty. As they have for the past few weeks, pastors and priests, musicians and others who serve in the church have recorded a service for Easter Sunday. The people will watch from the safety of their homes.

Jesus, today I remember what you said to the woman at the well about places of worship. She said that her ancestors worshiped on the mountain but you Jews claim that the place we must worship is in Jerusalem. You said to her, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” 

Jesus, Messiah, this pandemic is proof that true worshipers do not need a physical building to worship you. We worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth! We will gather together virtually to pray and sing your praises. 

Lord, just as you warned, there are many false prophets and teachers out there, including those who promote the false prosperity gospel and those who falsely link religion and politics. I pray that those who lead people astray will be revealed for what they are and that people will discern the truth. You cannot serve both God and money. You cannot serve both God and political power. You alone are God. You alone are sovereign.

Jesus, thank you for dying for my sins. As Isaiah prophesied, you were pierced for our transgressions, you were crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on you, and by your wounds we are healed. 

Father, I pray for the body of believers. I pray for the clergy who lead us. Help us to grow spiritually through this challenging time of physical distancing. May we let our lights shine in the darkness so that others will see our good deeds and glorify you.

Amen


Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Contrasting Two Kingdoms

When I read The Myth of a Christian Nation last year, I took a lot of notes about the kingdom of God before launching into a self study of kingdom parables. The author, Gregory A. Boyd, responded to God-and-country believers who conflate religion and politics, by contrasting the ways of the world with the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ’s kingdom is not of this world; if it were, Jesus would have told his followers to fight as the world fights.

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

John 18:36

How do you use your power?

The kingdom of this world trusts the power of the sword. Boyd used the word sword to represent more than physical force. The sword symbolizes all the ways people use power over people. Individually, we use power over people to get our own way – to bend people to our own will. The strong use their power over the weak. The rich use their power over the poor.

The government uses its power over people to control the behavior of its citizens. Of course we need laws to protect our rights and to prevent people from harming other people, but there are limits to the power of the sword. Many Christians want the government to use the power of the sword to force people to obey God’s laws. The problem with this is that laws change a person’s behavior but do not have the power to change the heart.

The kingdom of God has a completely different concept of power. It is based on the power of the cross – the power of redemption. When you put your trust in Jesus, he changes you on the inside. When you have been redeemed, you want to follow God’s laws.

The kingdom of this world responds to conflict by engaging in a tit for tat. If we are insulted or injured, we respond in kind – an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. We may hit back even harder, trying to outdo the other person’s meanness. In God’s kingdom, the injured person responds by returning evil with good – turn the other cheek, bless those who curse you.

The hope of the world lies in a kingdom that is not of this world, a kingdom that doesn’t participate in tit for tat, a kingdom that operates with a completely different understanding of power.

Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation

Instead of using power over people to force them into compliance or engaging in a constant tit for tat, Boyd encourages us to use our power differently, following the example of Jesus. When you respond to another person with gentleness and self-sacrificing love, they may see the injustice of their own ways. Love has the power to transform the enemy’s heart. When we return evil with good, we stop the endless cycle of violence fueled by hatred. Let the Spirit purge your heart of bitterness, wrath and anger (Eph. 4:31).

Who is the center of your universe?

In the kingdom of the world, people are motivated by self-interest and personal will. Our culture encourages us to be self-centered, to put the self first. We compete with each other to be on top. We trample each other to get ahead. We covet what others have. Instead of living sacrificially, we are self-indulgent and greedy.

The kingdom of God is based on God’s will and the interests of others. God’s will is that we love others as we love ourselves. In God’s kingdom, we don’t look just to the interest of ourselves, but to the interest of others. We don’t exist to be served but to serve. In the kingdom of God, grace abounds. In the kingdom of God, humility abounds. There is no room in God’s kingdom for selfish, self-important people.

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:4 (ESV)

How big is your world?

The kingdom of this world is tribal. We choose sides. We circle the wagons. We ostracize. We build walls to keep people out. We insult and demean others. We look down on and exclude people who are different. We defend our own team at all costs. At our worst, we identify so strongly with our own tribe, we demonize our enemies and treat them inhumanely.

The kingdom of God is full of unconditional love and boundless grace. In God’s kingdom, we love one another, even our enemies. The kingdom of God isn’t limited to people who look like you and act like you. There is room in God’s kingdom for everyone – every racial, sexual, ethnic, and socioeconomic group. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

I long for the kingdom that is not of this place. As I know all too well, it is easy to conform myself to the ways of this world, to engage in selfish power struggles. If I want to be transformed by the Spirit, I must humble myself and become like a child. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

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Scottish Castle Photo by John Roberts on Unsplash

On being an outsider at church

Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.

Jesus – Luke 12:51

After my last post, my brother told me he is glad politics isn’t mentioned in his church – he would hate to feel isolated because his political views might not match those of other members of the congregation. My pastor tries not to be political and he rarely mentions politics in his sermons. Where I have been exposed to political views of the congregation is in my small group or koinonia. I have been in two groups so far and in both, I have found my political views to be at odds with others in the group. When politics is discussed, I feel like an outsider, like I am not following the same Christ. How can I have real fellowship and unity of purpose with Christians who are not like-minded?

My first small group met in the home of a member of the church, a woman who has served as a deacon. It was a great group of women and we shared and learned a lot in our Bible studies. But it became really uncomfortable when a couple of people claimed that Obama was a socialist. When the hostess called Obama the anti-Christ, I dropped out of the group and told her that the political comments were the reason.

I was invited to join my current group by a woman I met in a Sunday school class. At first we met in the home of one of the women but she travels a lot so we started meeting at church. As I’ve gotten to know the women, I’ve figured out that once again, I am an outsider. A few years ago, in response to news stories about a refugee crisis, one group member said she would throw the children back over the fence. WWJD? Definitely not that. When we were discussing “taking up your cross,” another woman said that for her that means speaking out against homosexuality. Not once has she expressed any concern for their souls. Another woman has expressed anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant views.

Prior to the 2016 presidential election, I heard a guy telling someone about a Sunday school class on voting your Christian values. The person asked whether there was a consensus in the class about who to vote for. He just laughed and said, oh yeah. I knew I would not have wanted to be in that class. After the election, the senior pastor said he thought that those of us who were upset about the results did not trust God enough. In my small group, one of the women laughed about the negative reaction to the election – “snowflakes.”

I thought about searching for a different church, one that reflects my views on God’s love, mercy, and justice, and the kind of life that Christ calls me to live. I decided to stay where I am because the word of God is preached, even if much of the congregation doesn’t really get the message of Jesus Christ. The scripture is being fulfilled. They hear but never understand.

When politics comes up in my small group, I feel like a visitor from another planet. The much repeated statistic about the election is that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. When I heard that statistic, I looked around at my group and thought to myself, that sounds right. I am the one in five who could not vote for the man who is the antithesis of my Savior. I am an outsider in my Christian group because my allegiance is to Christ, not to a political party.

Sometimes I feel like a liberal among conservatives and sometimes like a conservative among liberals.  I have conservative theology—I believe the Bible—but that leads me to “progressive” opinions about politics, because the Bible has much to say about justice and helping the poor.  And I believe we are called to show love and grace even toward people we disagree with, especially toward people we disagree with.

Philip Yancey, Author of Christians and Politics: Uneasy Partners

In being an outsider, I face challenging questions about Christian fellowship. Can I have a meaningful connection with people I disagree with? Can we live in harmony with each other (Romans 12:16)? Can we encourage each other (1 Thessalonians 5:11)? Can we accept one other (Romans 15:7)? Can we be kind and compassionate to each other (Ephesians 4:32)? Can we teach and admonish one another (Colossians 3:16)?

I can easily answer yes to most of these questions. Despite our differences, we are united in our love of God. We are one in our desire to seek Him. And yet, because my political beliefs are at odds with the rest of the group, I experience a lot of inner turmoil. I don’t accept views that contradict the teachings of Jesus. When those views are expressed, what should I say? Most of the time, I keep my mouth shut. I can get angry when I am passionate about an issue and I know that I should be gentle and not quarrelsome. That said, I could not be silent when one of the women said she hoped that Trump is a Christian and another said that “they say he is a Christian.” (Read 1 John 1:5-10.)

It would be easier to only worship with people who share my political views. But I have to live in this world; I can’t isolate myself from people who believe differently. In the Parable of the Weeds, the enemy sowed weeds among the wheat. The servant asked the owner, do you want us to pull up the weeds? “No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.”

Taking Christ Back for America

In my last post, I wrote about The Truth Project’s practice of conflating religion and politics which was most obvious in lesson nine, The State: Whose Law. Next week, I will watch the lesson titled The American Experiment: Stepping Stones. For years, I have watched conservative Christians blur the lines between politics and religion. I’ve read the study outline so I know that Dr. Tackett claims that America was founded as a Christian nation, the nation is now denying our biblically based Christian roots, and “believers who care deeply and passionately about their country” must try to salvage a government based on Christian values. Yet today it is so easy to see the corrupting influence of politics on Christianity.

Around the same time that Focus on the Family published The Truth Project video series (© 2006), an evangelical pastor named Gregory Boyd was feeling pressure from “right-wing political and religious sources” and from people in his congregation to participate in political activities, including distributing political leaflets and encouraging the congregation to vote for “the right candidate.” As he explains in the introduction to his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church, he decided to preach a sermon series explaining why his church should not join in promoting right-wing political activity. He also aimed to explain why the Christian faith should not be closely associated with any political point of view.

Boyd said that he received a lot of positive feedback from his sermon series. Some people were grateful because they had always felt like outsiders in the evangelical community for not “toeing the conservative party line.” (I know the feeling all to well.) But he also said he had never received such intense negative feedback. About 20% of his congregation left the church.

Boyd’s thesis is that “a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry.” In their quest for political power, these evangelicals have exchanged the good news of the gospel for political ideals and agendas. Like Tackett, many of these Christians mistakenly believe that they are “taking America back for God.”

How do conservative Christians aim to take America back for God? They vote for Christian candidates, oppose abortion, oppose gay marriage, fight to keep the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, fight to keep prayer in public schools and to display the Ten Commandments in public places, and make a really big deal about their right to say Merry Christmas.

Anyone who has been around the past couple of decades has observed Christians try to transform the kingdom of God to their own desired design for the kingdom of this world. The result is a quasi-religion that no longer resembles Christ.

It is heartening to find a pastor these days who is not afraid to say how idolatrous and dangerous it is to fuse religion and politics. Anything that takes the place of God in a believer’s heart is an idol. A Christian’s identity should come from Christ and not from their nation or political party. Believers who fuse their religious and political identities are easily led astray by false teachers who bring the way of truth into disrepute, twisting and distorting biblical truths to serve their own purposes. And sadly, when nonbelievers see that Christians are no different from anyone else, they are turned off by the hypocrisy.

The Myth of a Christian Nation

Why is there no such thing as a Christian nation? As J.D. Walt observed, “the only entity that can actually be Christian is a human being.” Many individuals claim to be a Christian without really understanding what it means to follow Christ. Christianity is not a cultural identity. Christianity is not a political identity. You don’t become a Christian by going to church or being baptized. You become a Christian by confessing your sins and making a very personal and life-transforming decision to follow Christ.

The Truth Project feeds the myth of a Christian nation in part by claiming that God has a specific design and purpose for government. Contrary to Tackett’s assertion, God doesn’t design worldly governments. As Boyd notes, God uses governments as they are, “in all their ungodly rebellious ways,” to serve his divine purposes. In other words, God doesn’t mandate one form of government over another. However, if governments preserve law and order in the right way (with justice and mercy), they serve God’s purpose (Romans 13).

The Truth Project believes that even though not all of America’s early leaders were Christians, they all agreed that the success of America’s republican form of government is “directly dependent upon the virtue and morality of her people, and that virtue and morality are necessarily founded upon religion – by which all meant the Christian religion.”

But the truth is, all worldly governments are flawed, even governments that proclaim “in God we trust.” Boyd points out that the god of this age is Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4). Satan inserts himself in earthly affairs and deceives the nations (Revelations 9:11, 20:3, 8, 13:14). The ways of the world are influenced by “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2).

As Boyd reminds us, the history of the world is a history of violent conflicts. Boyd used Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as brilliant illustrations of fallen humans driven by passions they cannot control – desires for possessions, power, etc. These desires and passions lead to conflicts with other humans because other people feel just as strongly about their wants and desires. And while humans fight it out, Zeus sits on the mountain amused by it all.

When a worldly ruler elevates himself above all others, tears other people down, spreads lies, sows discord, seeks vengeance against his enemies, and treats others inhumanely, I imagine Satan laughing and saying, “well done, bad and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few dastardly things; I will put you in charge of many more.” And when Christians exchange the truth of the gospel for the seductive lure of political power, I imagine that Satan is overjoyed.

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

Jesus – John 8:44

Power corrupts…

Boyd says that whenever you see a person or group exercising power over other people, you are seeing a version of the kingdom of the world. Boyd calls power over other people the “power of the sword.” Humans use power over people to bend other people to their will and to inflict pain and suffering on those who defy or threaten their authority. The power of the sword is exercised in many ways – physical violence, restraint, coercion, threats, and denial of rights or access to resources.

Laws, enforced by the sword, control behavior but cannot change hearts.

Gregory A. Boyd

There is a saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power can be used for good but sometimes power changes people. As Chris Benderev wrote in the article When power goes to your head, it may shut out your heart, having power over people reduces our ability to empathize with them.

The kingdom of the world is nothing like the kingdom of God. It is a tribal “us versus them” kingdom – my race versus yours, my country versus yours, my religion versus yours, my political party versus yours. The world’s way is all about winning and having the upper hand. The world’s kingdom is a tit for tat kingdom. No insult or injury goes unanswered or unpunished.

The kingdom of God is radically different from the kingdom of this world. In the kingdom of God, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers. God’s kingdom is based on the power of the cross, that is, the power of redemption, the power of sacrificial living. Followers of Christ are to express power under people, humbly serving others. Followers of Christ are to love their enemies and to leave vengeance to God.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Philippians 2:3-5

I am among a growing chorus of believers who care so deeply and passionately about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we feel called to reclaim the name and share the real message of Christ. The hope of a nation does not depend on having a government based on biblical values. The hope of a nation lies in the redeeming power of Christ. He has the power to change people from the inside out! For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

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Father, may I not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of my mind and my heart so that I can be more like Christ, loving others as I love myself.

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy

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Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash