Sunday, June 28, 2015

Take the Adventure God Has Appointed For You

The world is changing in ways we find unimaginable. Things seem out of control and beyond reason. And many Christians are very uncertain about what place we’re going to have in society as these changes develop.

Yet these words could have been written of almost any century in which the Church has existed. In fact, the Church has endured so many cultural shifts and waves of hostility over the years that we ought to look at the latest one as just another hurricane making landfall. God has given us an example of how to respond to this: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” (1 Peter 4:12-14)

Russell Moore set a perfect example of this conviction and steadfastness on Friday in The Washington Post:

“Some Christians will be tempted to anger, lashing out at the world around us with a narrative of decline. That temptation is wrong. God decided when we would be born, and when we would be born again. We have the Spirit and the gospel. To think that we deserve to live in different times is to tell God that we deserve a better mission field than the one he has given us. Let’s joyfully march to Zion.

“The witness to marriage will be, like the pro-life movement, a long-term strategy that is multi-pronged. This is no time for fear or outrage or politicizing. We see that we are strangers and exiles in American culture. We are on the wrong side of history, just like we started. We should have been all along.

“Let’s seek the kingdom. Let’s stand with the gospel. Let’s fear our God. But let’s not fear our mission field.”

This is what the Lord has prepared us for. We didn’t expect it, but He did. Our mission is still the same. As C.S. Lewis wrote, we must take the adventure Aslan sends to us. (The Last Battle). When the path of the kingdom goes around twists and turns and even through impassable labyrinths of razor-sharp rocks, we don’t give up and turn back. If God is laying out the path, we have no excuse not to follow it.

Consider this: where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. Yes, our society and culture are changing (and have been changing for some time) in ways that are unrecognizable. But something else is coming too. We are about to see God act in ways you have never seen Him act before. You have never seen a culture like this. But you have also never seen God acting in power in the midst of a culture like this. You’re about to see something new. We don’t welcome the sin just so we can see the displays of grace, but we are comforted and encouraged that when sin does come, the outpouring of grace is inevitable.

We have a choice about what kind of believers to be. We can spend our time sitting in dismay as we look helplessly at the things happening around us – which is nothing but a prescription for perpetual depression - or we can be eager to see what God is about to do and to play our parts in it. The idea that a cultural change like this can defeat the Lord’s gracious work of salvation is absurd. So don’t let it quietly creep around in your mind under the disguises of discouragement or helplessness. Take the adventure God is handing you today and watch to see what the Lord will do.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Invincible, Unfailing Source of Courage

I know that there are a lot of reasons that Christians are feeling anxiety and intimidation about what the future holds in the United States after yesterday's ruling on same-sex marriage. As a lawyer myself, I am well aware of the types of concerns that people are worrying about. Some are worrying about what may happen to their jobs. Some are anxious about what's going to happen to the culture and the school system their children grow up within. Some are worried about what may be required of them as members of the clergy regarding marriage ceremonies. Some are simply anxious and dismayed because things are changing so radically around us.

I am confident that many of these concerns will not actually be something we have to worry about. Hopefully I will have the chance in the days ahead to talk about some of those things specifically. But above all, the most important thing that I can say is that no matter what the future might hold, we have no reason to be anxious or afraid. This is not an all or nothing moment in the culture. The fact that the laws have changed radically on one issue and we find ourselves very much on the outside does not actually pose any new threat or risk to Christianity or to the Church. The Church has always been in tension with the culture, and in fact has often been most powerfully and clearly the Church of God when the tension has been very clear. God is not checkmated. No matter how laws may shift or governments may act, nothing surprises Him or intimidates Him. The fierceness of whole nations and the plotting of whole cultures is nothing to Him. Legal changes cannot hinder the Gospel. The Gospel will still advance. It simply may take some different routes now since the landscape has shifted.

Our biggest problem is not how we will solve these problems or how we will win over the culture. God will give the right results if we remain faithful and live the kind of lives He has called us to live. Our biggest problem is that we are afraid and anxious even though God is firmly in control and unmoved. We need to shed that fear. No matter how things may look as the years ahead unfold, there is no reason for us to fear whatever it may be. And the solution is the same as it has always been, as the early church discovered:

"23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, 25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot in vain?
26                  The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed’ —

27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness." (Acts 4:23-31)

The response to hostile government and opposition is simply to put the matter before God in prayer and ask Him to give us the courage and boldness to be steadfast and defy intimidation. What makes you brave is that you trust God to put a spirit of bravery in you. It's easy to be intimidated or anxious when you forget that there is a spirit within you that is more than a match for everything you have to face. As Paul exhorted Timothy, remind yourself that "God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control." (2 Timothy 1:7).

Notice also that Acts 4:31 says they were "all filled with the Holy Spirit" and boldness. It was not only the apostles or the leading members who received boldness. It was everyone - thousands of people. The most untrained and timid among them was still filled with the courage of God. That's your source of courage.

For another great example of invincible courage, here is how Martin Luther displayed peace of mind in the midst of vicious opposition. His peaceful indifference to the dangers and challenges around him, grounded entirely in his rock-solid confidence in the Lord's power and authority, always wakes me up to how fretful and pointless my own fears can be. Fretting when God is not at all disturbed is simply wasting the energy He gave us to accomplish good.

Friday, June 26, 2015

No Reason to Despair, and Nothing to Fear - Thoughts on Today's Marriage Ruling at Supreme Court

Today's United States Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges (PDF copy at the link) means same-sex marriage unions must now be recognized and allowed by all 50 states. This post is for my friends who are discouraged by today's decision. I know there are Christian brothers and sisters who don't disagree with this ruling and who feel strongly about it. For them, today is probably not a day of mourning, but right now I want to spend time with those who mourn. I think we have many, many reasons to be encouraged, so take heart.

Mourning for the Right Reasons

First, we should mourn. Mourning is the proper emotion to feel when we see people celebrating things that are harmful to themselves. When we see people embracing what the church has always warned us against, we should mourn for the state of society and for the sake of their souls. This was exactly Paul's response: "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?" (1 Corinthians 5:1-2).

What we should not do is surrender to self-pity. There is a crucial difference between mourning for the people who are chasing after emptiness by embracing same-sex marriage and simply feeling sorry for ourselves. This is not a time to despair or to surrender to the wave of depressing emotions that come along with any event that makes us feel overwhelmed and powerless. Tolkien put it beautifully in the mouth of Gandalf: "despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt." (The Lord of the Rings). We must not despair just because things turn out to be much harder than we hoped. Our confidence is not in courts or governments or cultures or civilizations. The society we have citizenship in is the kingdom of heaven, and the growth of that kingdom is not measured by things like this court decision. Focus on the souls of people, not on the shifting sands of culture.

Second, we should reject all anger and bitterness and resentment. Those are emotions born from self-pity or self-righteousness. Either they come from feeling wounded pride at being rejected and being left out, or they come from being indignant and self-righteous about the sins of others. Christian, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. There are a number of people in conservative political circles who will be venting about this decision and stirring up anger. Resolve not to listen to them. Turn off the television and the radio. Do not read what they post online. Guard your heart and mind against anyone who is spreading these emotions in the air. Give it a week before you even consider tuning in again (if you do at all). These things do not build us up in Christ.

As I was composing this earlier, I had the chance to read Russell Moore's commentary in The Washington Post. Read it. He is wise, peaceful, courageous, and practical, rather than angry.

Don't Let Love Lose

There will be many people celebrating same-sex marriages and this ruling with the phrase "Love Wins!" I fear that the reflex of many Christians will be to distance themselves so much from those who welcomed this decision that they will actually let their love grow cold. This is not a time to be uncertain about how to approach or communicate with those who embrace same-sex marriage or homosexual relationships. You do not need to agree with them to love them! Love is not dependent on agreement. This is the time to make sure that we put the love of Christ on display as purely and powerfully as ever.

Many people who have advocated for same-sex marriage will be expecting us to be bitter and hostile. They will be expecting us to entrench ourselves against them or fight back. They have been told for a long time that the opposition of Christians to same-sex marriage is based on hate and prejudice. Prove them wrong. Spend as much time getting to know them and showing them the love of Christ as you can. Don't shrink back from this because you don't know how to talk to them about this. There are many very wise and helpful resources that have been written on how to show love to someone you disagree with, including those you disagree with about homosexual behavior. Start here with The Gospel Coalition website and keep on searching there and on Desiring God and Russell Moore's blog. Get prepared to interact with people in love.

Above all, don't let the state of the civil law be a stumbling block to loving people. We are not responsible for policing people's behavior. That has never been the mission of the Church. Paul actually told us we have nothing to do with judging the moral behavior of unbelievers. (1 Cor. 5:9-13).We are supposed to preach the Gospel to all. That means you are off the hook for feeling like you have to prevent any same-sex wedding or marriage. Yes, we want to warn people against these things, and part of preaching the Gospel includes helping people become conscious of sin and how they have fallen short of the glory of God. But that is different than trying to hold them to a standard of behavior and enforce it on them. Granted, Paul makes a distinction between how we treat moral commands with those inside the Church compared with how we deal with unbelievers. But for now, consider that it is not your burden to stop people who don't believe the Scriptures from embracing same-sex marriage. It is only your responsibility to preach the love of Christ to them. Focus on that.

If you had a friend who was getting divorced for sinful reasons, you would certainly do everything you could to plead with her and reason with her not to go through with it. But even if you could sue to stop the divorce (which you can't), I doubt you would. That would change your relationship from being a friend to being an opponent. It would cross a line. The same with a friend getting re-married after an unbiblical divorce. You might not attend the marriage. But I doubt you would try to legally block it even if you could. Consider what that means for how you interact with friends embracing same-sex marriage. Your role as a Christian and friend is to show the Gospel and demonstrate love. And do it with perseverance and prayer and earnestness. But you don't have to change the law or panic if they go through with the ceremony. Loving people who are deceived by sin often does not result in their turning away from sin immediately. We have to be patient and persevere in love, showing our commitment to their good. The results are up to God. Be encouraged that His Spirit is at work, and that is what ultimately changes people's hearts. The state of the law can only hold things back for a time. The heart is where people get saved.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Pray Like a Christian - How to Pray with Confidence

There is a reason that the Apostle Paul urges Christians to be "praying at all times" and to "pray without ceasing." (Eph. 6:18; 1 Thess. 5:17). Prayer is the pulse of faith. If you aren't praying, it's like your faith is flat-lining on the operating table. Prayer connects you with God, anchoring your mind on your Father and Savior.

This is crucial to your spiritual life (which is really the core of your entire life):
  • Prayer is one of the primary ways we experience God. How else will we connect with an  invisible God who we cannot simply touch with our hands or hear with our own ears? When you don't pray, God feels distant. It is very difficult to have a fulfilling, comforting relationship with someone who feels distant and unreachable. Prayer connects us. It's like checking in during the day with someone you love by phone, text, or e-mail. Your closeness to people is fostered by how often you interact with each other. So it is with God.
  • Prayer strengthens faith and keeps us focused. One of our biggest weaknesses is that the physical things we see and hear and feel around us seem like the definition of reality to us. We struggle to believe that God, whom we cannot see, is able to change the things we see. An angry boss, an empty bank account when more checks still have to clear, a broken friendship, the test results showing cancer - all of these things seem vivid and solid and undeniable. It is difficult to envision God as forceful and powerful enough to simply change or remove them. There is a difference between saying you believe God is able to do all things, and feeling the reality that God can actually overpower these physical forces and cause them to be changed. Prayer plugs us in to the spiritual power grid and reminds us that there is an unseen reality that is far more potent, vast, and inexhaustible than anything we see. It puts our focus on God and His greatness instead of on what surrounds us.
  • Prayer reminds us who we are. One of the most influential things about prayer is that it reminds us that we are children with a strong, loving, generous Father who looks after our needs. Our dependence on God in prayer when we ask for what we need serves to put life back into perspective. We are not strong and inexhaustible and self-sufficient enough to stand on our own - but we are also not left on our own. When you realize that everything you are facing is not you against the world, but you following along at your Dad's side while He sorts out the problems and responsibilities of life, you realize life isn't that big and intimidating after all. And it begins to seem like the most natural thing in the world to just ask Him to fix this or that and to help you reach the things you can't.
Prayer brings God into focus and puts the world back into perspective. It is exhausting and discouraging to try to tackle life when the world seems big and solid and inescapable and God seems vague and unclear. Confidence grows from seeing God clearly in all His strength and greatness and irresistible power and seeing the troubles and needs of life as small things littered around His feet like so many toys. God is strong, and He is Our Father. That's the way He created things to be. He intends for us to depend on Him and to draw on His strength and resources for our needs.

This is a secret of confidence in prayer: you don't have to feel strong to be strong. The strength is God's, and it is ready and waiting to be used. Even when our prayers seem weak and feeble and dismayed, we can take courage and confidence in the fact that even the most timid plea for help is met by the awesome and unlimited power and love of our Father in Heaven. You don't have to feel something powerful happening inside of you when you pray. You only need to trust that God is powerful when He acts. We have confidence because the power of prayer is based not on our contribution, but on the power of the One who answers it.