Must Christians Doubt?

self-doubt

I have some doubts in life. I doubt I will ever be wealthy, because of the career path I have chosen (indeed I would prefer to not be). I doubt I will ever win the Iron Man Triathlon, though I would love to race in it someday. I doubt I will ever travel to space, though my imagination resides there 85% of the time.

There are also some things in life about which I have assurance. I am sure that I love my family deeply. I am sure that I will one day die. I am sure that any difficulty I am currently experiencing with eventually pass. And I am sure that Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord, that he died for me, and that I am a child of God.

But my assurance of that last sentence was not always so.

This morning on the radio I heard a song that talks about how God comforts us when we doubt. As I began thinking about the words, I realized that a lot of our contemporary Christian music talks about doubt and grief in on way or another, and I think this is so because so many of us do wrestle with doubt. We sometimes doubt that God’s promises are true, we doubt that we are freed from sin through Christ, we doubt that our situations will ever improve, and we doubt that God really loves us, no matter that John 3:16 says.

Notice here that we are talking about professing believers in Jesus Christ, not the unsaved. For those who have not yet come to know Jesus as Lord, doubt holds much bigger sway, and with much more significant implications. Perhaps I’ll have a chance to talk about that in another post.

For now, why do you suppose that it is so hard for many Christians to believe, without some trace of doubt? Maybe it will help if we first define what doubt in the life of a Christian is, and what it is not. Let’s start with what doubt is not.

 

What doubt is not

Doubt is not sin. There will be some who tell you that to doubt is to lack faith, and to lack faith is to sin. This can not be farther from the truth. Many of the Church’s faithful have experienced moments of doubt in their lives. Sometimes this is the result of life situations, sometimes it is dues to an inquisitive mind seeking to more fully understand God’s truth and mystery. What is important to remember is that doubt does not equal lack of faith. Doubt is not itself sin, unless we allow it to persist to the extent that it becomes a barrier between us and God.

Doubt is not a sign of weakness. I know that when I have wrestled with doubt, I have tended to view this as some weakness in my character. I have wondered at times why other people don’t seem to struggle with questions of faith the way I have at times, and for a long time I assumed there was a problem with me. But doubting does not make a person weak, unless it takes control and becomes the primary way of viewing life. It is one thing to have doubts. It is another thing entirely to become a doubter, for whom all things are suspect or unreliable.

Doubt does not mean you aren’t a child of God. One of my biggest fears earlier in life coincided with one of my biggest doubts – that I was truly a child of God. For much of my early adult life I struggled with assurance of my salvation. This was due in part to factors we will discuss below of sin, broken promises, and a misplaced desire for independence. But sometimes people lack assurance for other reasons.

John Wesley, the subject of my doctoral research, early on thought that those who were “born again” received immediate assurance of their standing with God. It was something he taught as an expectation for all believers…until he learned that this isn’t always the case. When confronted with testimonies from many people who had come to faith in Christ, but who did not receive assurance until later (sometimes much later), he modified his teaching and recognized that God gives the gift of assurance in different ways.

Just because you are wrestling with doubt (of assurance or anything else), it doesn’t mean you aren’t a child of God. If you profess Jesus Christ and your Savior and Lord, believe that he died for your sins and rose again from the grave, and have confessed your sins to him, you are a heir of God and co-heir with Christ. Doubting sometimes can’t take away this glorious gift of God. If your doubts are in Jesus and his sacrifice, then you aren’t a Christian to begin with. Christians are by definition those who believe in and follow Christ.

Now that we have identified some things that doubt is not. Let’s talk about what doubt is.

 

What doubt is

Doubt is the result of broken promises. Most doubt is grounded upon past experiences of unfulfilled promises. Think about it, if everyone you ever know had always told you the truth and kept their promises to you, what basis would you have for doubting that what someone else tells you is reliable? Unfortunately, for most of us this is not our experience. We have all experienced hurt, and loss, and broken promises. All of these things contribute to our skepticism. They make us prone to doubt.

The Bible tells us that God is not only truthful, but that he is truth itself. Jesus said that he is the way, the truth, and the life for all those who believe in him. God does not give false witness, and he does not make false promises. His word is reliable. How do we know this? When God raised Jesus from the dead he confirmed everything that Jesus said about himself.

Though we may be prone to doubt, we must learn to echo the words of the apostle Paul, who said “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14).

Doubt arises out of the guilt of sin. Though I found this hard to admit for a long time, part of the reason I doubted my own salvation and doubted in the promises of God was because I was living in sin. I came to faith in Jesus at an early age, and for most of my youth I lived what might be called a “good” existence. I made mostly good choices, I mostly avoided evil, I went to church, I thought I loved God, and I asked for forgiveness from him when I committed sins. But I remained a baby in faith. I didn’t grow spiritually, because I didn’t spend time with God, I didn’t read my Bible, I didn’t pray regularly, and I feared more than loved God.

When I became a young adult, my sins increased and so did my doubts. I doubted in God’s promises, because I doubted that I could inherit them as I was. I doubted in my salvation, because I knew that I should be living differently. I was calling Jesus Lord, but that was really just lip service. I believed in Jesus, but not enough to change the way I lived.

With sin comes doubt. This is partly because all sins separate us from God, and it is difficult to trust in someone you don’t know. This is partly because we experience guilt from our sins, which causes shame and leads us to hide from God like Adam and Eve in the garden.

If you are wrestling with doubt, I would encourage you to examine your life and ask God if any sin remains in you. He has promised us not only that we will have freedom from the guilt of sin, but that we can also experience freedom from the power of sin in our lives. Through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live lives that are pleasing and acceptable to God. We can choose to not sin.

Doubt is the product of a misplaced desire for independence. Another factor contributing to my doubts was my desire to be self- sufficient. We have been told a huge lie, particularly in the West. We have been told that people make their own success. We have been told that people have to learn to pick themselves up and become self-reliant to make it in this world. We have been told that the only person we can trust is ourselves.

Scripture tells us that we are to be dependent on God and rely on him for all that we have and are and do. He is the source of life as our Creator, and he both loves and sustains us. When Jesus told his disciples to not worry in Matthew 6, he did so on the basis that God knows what we need better than we do, and that he loves us. We don’t need to be independent. Independence isolates, it creates fear and doubt. Dependence, on the other hand, is inclusive, and it creates joy and peace.

Doubt is the result of misinformation. Let’s be brutally honest here. One of the greatest causes of doubt for Christians is a lack of knowledge. We are often ignorant of God’s truth. We don’t know him and we don’t understand his promises. When I wrestled with doubt I was treating God like a long-distance friendship. I went to him with my needs, and occasionally said hi, but most of the time I acted as though he wasn’t anywhere nearby.

Christians, we have to stop living this way. God has condescended to teach us his truths and to demonstrate his love through Jesus Christ. He has given us his scripture and he speaks to us in prayer. If you were in desperate need for help and there was a phone sitting net to you, would you ignore it, doubting that anyone would pick up on the other end, or would to call 911 with the expectation, the hope that someone would hear your cries for help and come running to you?

Why then do so many of us fail to spend regular time in God’s word and in prayer? He has given us these means of spending time with him and communicating with him. We have a direct line to the Living God through his Son Jesus. Why on earth would we choose to push aside such incredible gifts? And yet many of us do (notice I include myself here).

When we do not live on the word of God, we cannot know or understand his promises and truth. When we do not know him it becomes much easier to doubt him.

The truth is that many Christians experience doubt at some point in their lives. Equally important to understanding doubt is to recognize what we must not allow doubt to become.

 

What doubt should not become

Doubt should not be allowed to develop into fear. From cover to cover, scripture tells us that we are not to fear. Fear cripples us and leads us into sin. The antidote to fear is belief. So what do you do when you lack faith and are having trouble believing? Ask God to increase your faith, and he will be “faithful” to do so. Faith is a gift of God. It is not something we gain by our own work, but something that is freely given. Do you fear? Ask God for a greater measure of faith, and you will be amazed by the peace that comes with reliance upon God.

Doubt should not produce hopelessness, but rather its opposite. When doubt has become so prevalent that it becomes a default mode, it can quickly turn into hopelessness. It is nearly impossible to maintain a sense of hope when nothing around us appears trustworthy. The Bible tells us that God’s promises are true and that he has plans for us. We have been promised that those who trust in Jesus will have eternal life with God and that we will experience the resurrection. These are the content of Christian hope. But how can one hope in something when doubt reigns?

Doubt should not become persistent. As I have said several times before, it is common for Christians to experience doubt at some point in life. However, we must not allow those moments of doubt to persist. When doubting persists, it produces fear and hopelessness, and ultimately leads to sin. And sin separates us from God.

 

So, must Christians doubt?

I have heard some people say that, until a person has wrestled with his/her faith, it isn’t a vibrant faith. I completely disagree with this. I have known those to whom God has given a lively, vibrant faith, and yet have not wrestled with doubt the way that I have. I think some personalities are more prone to doubt, but I also think that some people accept God’s gift of faith as just that, a gift that doesn’t need to be dissected or pulled apart and reassembled in order to be enjoyed.

This is the essence of a childlike faith. It is by no means an immature faith, but a true faith that rests in the promises of God, seeing them as what they are.

I did not possess this type of faith at first. For many years, I wrestled with doubt. I didn’t doubt that Jesus is the Son of God, or that he truly died on a cross as an atonement for sin, or that he was raised again from the grave. I didn’t doubt that God has promised eternal life for those who place their trust in him through Jesus. What I did doubt was that he could ever forgive someone as awful as me. I had no doubts that he could save me, but I had doubts that he had saved me.

But just because I did doubt, it doesn’t follow that I must doubt. Nor does it follow that all Christians must doubt. The Bible is full of God’s promises to humanity. Because he is trustworthy, I know his promises are true, and my hope rests in those promises. But here is the rub. No one can prove to you that God is reliable but God himself. He has shown his trustworthiness in that he raised Jesus from the dead. He has demonstrated his faithfulness throughout history, and we can read about this in his word. But until a person experiences God’s faithfulness personally, all of this other evidence is anecdotal.

So far, I have been talking to Christians, those who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But I want to take a brief moment to talk to everyone else. If you have not yet experienced God’s faithfulness for yourself. If you have doubts about all of this Christianity stuff. If you just don’t feel like you have the strength to believe, there is hope for you too.

The Bible tells us in 1 John, chapter 1 that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Do you hear that? It doesn’t say that when we confess our sins, God looks down on us and condemns us. It says that he forgives us AND purifies us from all unrighteousness. He makes us clean, and new. He fulfills his promises IN US.

If you want to experience a new life, free from a myriad of doubts, then turn to Jesus Christ. Place your trust in him, in his death on a cross for your sins and his resurrection from the dead, confess your sins to God, and ask him to make you new. He will be faithful to do so as a free gift of grace.

 

What to do as a Christian when you doubt

So what about those Christians who are experiencing doubt? Fortunately for us, the Bible is loaded with people who doubted. First and foremost were Jesus’ disciples (not just Thomas), who doubted that Jesus’ way of ushering in God’s kingdom was the right way, and who doubted in Jesus after his death, and before they saw him resurrected. Fortunately, the road that leads from doubt to assurance is well-worn and straight as an arrow.

Repent of your sins. If you are wrestling with doubt, first examine yourself and ask God if there is any sin that remains in you which might be contributing to your guilt, your shame, and your doubt. If so, confess your sins to God and he will be faithful to forgive you and wash you clean from all unrighteousness. This is the first step toward trusting in God’s promises for you.

Press into the promises of God. Then press into those promises. What I mean by this is to lean on, to rest on the promises God has made to us in this life and the next.

Remember that faith is a gift from God. Next, remember that faith (the antithesis of doubt) is a free gift from God. You cannot earn your faith. You cannot create it on your own. But if you ask God to give you faith, he will do so.

Ask God to give you assurance. And finally, ask God to give you assurance that you are his child. As a father, I know that my children need to hear that I love them regularly. As a son, I know that my security rested in knowing that my father loved and cared for me. God is our heavenly Father, and he loves his children. If you ask him to give you assurance that you belong to him, and you have repented of any sin that separates you from him, then he will lavishly bestow that gift of grace that only he can give. Right now, you can receive the greatest gift that a child can ever receive – the assurance that:

“This is my Son [or daughter], whom I love; with him [her] I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

 

Don’t doubt. Only believe.

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The Bride is Beautiful

It has become popular for Christians to bash the church. Especially by well-educated, well-off individuals in the West. Maybe it is because I live in the immediate context of a seminary and Christian university, maybe its because I am a research student and so many of the things that I read (even online) are written by other professionally trained theologian types, but it seems to me that I see far more criticism than praise lately. And I am beginning to question why this is so.

There can be no doubt that many of the criticisms I see have a good dose of truth to them. Especially in America, we are plagued with examples of privatized, Jesus is my boyfriend and wants to give me presents sort of Chriastian-ese. Sometimes, we have leaders who go off the deep end and create a following of people who look less like Christ and more like a cult.

Often, even in you average, small, local church we get things terribly wrong. We forget to tell people about the Good News of Jesus Christ. We forget to love other people as God first loved us. We forget to offer a huge helping of grace in place of judgment. And we too often turn inward, forgetting that we are to be the light of the world, not hiding under a basket, but shining from the hilltops.

But the trend of criticism I have seen of late would suggest a much darker picture than this. That the church is completely broken. That there are only tiny glimmers of light and hope that just occasionally peak through the darkness. That we are all getting it wrong, and that we are all (Americans anyway, so it would seem) a bunch of self-seeking, self-serving gluttons using our privilege and power to either a) create a version of Christianity that places no demands on us or b) oppress our people with endless fundamentalist mandates and suck the fun out of their lives.

I have leveled my fair share of criticism where I felt criticism was due. And let’s face it, criticism should come from within the church. We must continually look at ourselves and seek out those places that we have not yet surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

But there is more to the church than brokenness and failure. When I look at the church, with all of its problems, all of its worries, all of its helplessness, all of its messed up, wonderful people, I also see its beauty.

Here are 3 reasons why we should remember and talk about the beauty of the church. There are many other reasons to consider, but with all the negative things being highlighted, maybe it would do us well to just start with these.

1. The church is the bride of Christ

A bride on her wedding day is cherished and loved. She is worthy of the groom’s dedication, because he sees no faults in her. She is beautiful in his eyes, and he honors her for her purity, her grace, and the love she returns to him. Likewise, the church is the bride of Christ. Though our sins are many, he has forgiven us and knitted us together into one body. When we approach the throne of grace in worship, we come before him as an unblemished bride, not because we are sinless, but because his blood has covered over all our sins. The church us worthy, because Jesus is worthy. The bride is beautiful, because Jesus died to make her so.

2. The church has been the single greatest agent of good in the world throughout history

Detractors, especially Atheists with a revisionist history, love to point out that Christians are responsible for such atrocities as the Crusades, and are therefore just as evil as anyone else. Anything done in the name of God that does not convey his character is tragic and evil and a false teaching. The Crusades and other terrible acts committed by the church are the results of sinful men and women living out that brokenness. They are not the work of the church, Christ’s body. And they are not the dominant activity tied to the name Christian.

In fact, throughout the history of the Christianity, the church has been the greatest agent of good throughout the world. The church and her extension ministries have been responsible for bringing to many parts of the world such things as education, hospitals, orphanages, and organizations to help those in need. Many of the modern versions of these things started as Christian initiatives.

For the last two-thousand years, the church has clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited prisoners, healed the sick, protected the weak, and loved the unloved.

If you question the positive impact the church has had in the world, go read a book on world history. I’ve read several, and they all say the same thing.

3. The church is God’s chosen vehicle for spreading the good news of salvation

Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus gave this command to his disciples, the church.

Then Jesus came to them and said,  “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.”

This command is still being answered all over the world today. It is happening in America, Korea, and the UK, in Swaziland, in India, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Across every continent and in every nation the church is faithfully preaching the good news and making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Christians who live in places where they are persecuted for their faith are willing to (and often do) die for their membership in the church. In many parts of the world, people will walk miles, endure untold hardships, and give up everything to be called God’s church. If you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, then you too are a part of this body. Scripture tells us that when one member of the body suffers, we all suffer. But do you not also see that when one lost sheep is found, we all rejoice?

God is still using his church to find lost sheep and bring them into the fold. He is ever working within and through the church to call us to himself and send us out in the name of his Son Jesus to set the captives free in him, and to bring reconciliation to a world that has rejected him.

When the church follows God where he is leading, she becomes a light shining on a hill for all to see. She is the bride of Christ. She is a picture of beauty that draws all eyes to the one who has made her beautiful. 

Remember. We are the church.

Remember. We are the bride of Christ.

Remember. Christ loves his church, and so should we.

Of Hobbits, Mangers, and the Savior of the World

mangerThere was a time when I didn’t look forward to the Christmas season, when I felt I had little to celebrate and felt the chill of the weather far more than the warmth of the holidays. It was a time of great sorrow for me, long before I met my beautiful wife and we had our amazing kids. I was not sorrowful because I was lonely, though that was true at times. I was sorrowful, because I felt like I had lost something dear to me and couldn’t quite place my finger on what it was that was lost. I had become a weary wanderer, slogging through life in the aimless pursuit of something better.

The problem with Christmas was that I had no understanding of Advent. I had no expectation and, therefore, I had no hope.

I have said before on here how thankful I am that God relentlessly pursues people, that he is in the business of saving lives. If not for his great mercy and grace I would still be slogging through life. That thing, that person, that I was looking for was Jesus. I had known him intimately as a youth and then somewhere along the way I had allowed the pressures of life to get a grip on me, distracting and dragging me away to world of hopeless oblivion and loss of memory (http://bible.us/112/mat.13.7.niv84). It wasn’t until I stopped running away from my pursuer that I finally began to see that he was pursuing me so that I might finally live.

I was living in the in-between, unaware that a hero was there to rescue me, unable to hope.

I love to read epic fiction. Like so many others I have enjoyed the story of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and I am eagerly awaiting the movies. What I love most about this sweeping story and other like it isn’t the larger-than-life scenes of battle and the struggle to overcome hardship. It isn’t the fantastic worlds defined and communicated to my imagination. It isn’t the love stories, amazing creatures, or mysteries that appeal to me most. I love all of these things, of course, but what pulls me into a story most is that the hero is never quite who or what I expect. It isn’t the valiant dwarves, powerful wizards, or armies of elves that win the day. It is the small, portly, unassuming hobbit who steps into the light at the critical moment and offers the only thing he really has to offer – himself.

My problem with living in the in-between was that I was looking in the wrong place for a hero. I knew there was a deep longing in my soul for something more, and intellectually I knew that I should be looking to Jesus to supply my need. I was expecting some sort of dramatic rescue from my misery, a sudden event when I would be forcefully removed from the muck and mire I had allowed my life to become. But though I knew Jesus is the Christ, I had forgotten that in God’s grand epic the hero didn’t come as a conqueror leading an army into battle. He didn’t win the war by force. He came as a baby boy born in a manger, the very Son of God enfleshed, who became a man, who suffered a willing humiliation and death on a cross for me, and who was raised again to the right hand of God the Father.

It wasn’t until God showed me that Jesus came as the most unexpected of heroes that I realized my rescue couldn’t begin with an incursion. It had to begin with an Incarnation.

By the blood of Jesus Christ I have been saved, and by his resurrection I have gained a sure trust and hope in his promises. This hope has transformed Christmas for me, from a season of dreaded slogging into a season of expectation. The season of Advent helps us to live into this expectation as we both remember the coming of our Savior and Lord in the Incarnation and look forward with anticipation to his return. It is a season of active waiting. It is a season where my soul whispers ‘Come, Lord Jesus, come…’. And I can hardly wait.

Are you ready?

Blessed are the Peacemakers: Reflections on 9-11

Image from abcnews.go.com

In writing this, I know that I am opening myself up to criticism from several fronts. We are commanded in Romans 12:1-2 to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God, seeking the renewal of our minds so that we might discern what is pleasing to God. Serious reflection about one’s self and major world events is part of this, though it is no easy task to do well.

Today, I write as one reflecting on the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the light of my identity as a child of God and follower of Jesus Christ. I also write as a husband, a father, a son . . . and a brother to one of the most courageous men I know; a man in uniform, serving God in the midst of war.

Terrorism is Evil Action

It is very easy when remembering distant events to begin thinking of them in passive terms. It is not uncommon to hear phrases like “when the planes hit the buildings” or “when the buildings fell” or “lives were lost”. These are all passive phrases used to describe events. But there is a problem with remembering in passive terms. This type of remembering further removes the events from the one remembering, and trivializes the events as inevitabilities that have come to pass, so be it.

Christians are continually called by Scripture to remember, and we are called to do so collectively. Through collective remembering we become participants in salvation history as God has unfolded himself and his will to lost humanity. This collective remembering, however, does not end with the Biblical witness. We are also called to remember, for example, those who are living outside of a saving faith in Christ and who are living on the margins of society. We are called to remember the poor, the downtrodden, the widows, the orphans, the homeless, the helpless. We are called to collectively remember these in prayer before the throne of God and in practice through acts of mercy. This is active remembrance.

This collective remembering also includes the victims of disaster, war, and famine. Through the solidarity of collective remembering we become part of the story of others, and they part of ours.

But collective memory ceases to become a shared experience when we do not rightly remember that acts of evil are just that, the chosen ‘actions’ of evil men and women. 9/11 did not just ‘happen’ to America. Three-thousand people did not just happen to die on that day. On 9/11 evil and cowardly men attacked the United States of America and murdered three-thousand people. It was an act of terrorism, not a passive happenstance. And we do no justice to the memory of the dead when we fail to acknowledge the wickedness of those who perpetrated these acts.

Reflection, however, is not just about correct remembrance. True reflection also invites both the group and individual to evaluate our conclusions gleaned from and responses to the events in question. As we remember the acts of evil and their impact on our shared lives, what should be our response?

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Matthew 5:9 tells us, ‘ Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.’ (http://bible.us/matt5.9.niv84).

This verse and others like it have been co-opted for a variety of causes, particularly that of pacifism. But the language of the text is not as clear as some would have us believe. While it is quite clear that to seek and make peace is preferable in the eyes of God, the means to that end are not spelled out.

Easy speculation suggests that to make peace one must always be peaceable, hence the position of pacifism (this is simplistic, but consistent with the logic of pacifism). But while this sounds good on the surface, the truth of the matter is something entirely more complex and deep. It is a fallacy of logic to assume that peacefulness leads to peacemaking in every instance. This is an ideal, and it is one that has a serious flaw.

You see, Matthew 5:9 tells us that peacemakers are blessed. Peacemakers are those who make peace. They are active in the pursuit of peace. Pacifism, on the other hand, by its very definition is passive. It does not make peace, it merely seeks to be peaceable.

Are You a War-monger, Isaac?

No. War is terrible, no matter how you look at it. It is a true picture of fallen humanity, that we should ever seek to solve our differences by killing one another. My prayer is that all war will cease and that humanity will learn to live together as one body. Even as I pray for such a peace, I know that it will only come when Jesus Christ returns, and so I pray that his return comes swiftly.

When we remember the violent atrocities of 9/11, and we remember that wicked men performed evil acts, our immediate response should not be a sprint toward war or conflict. Any such response should be carefully weighed, prayerfully considered. Yet neither does Scripture tell us that we should flee from agression and embrace a passive stance in the face of evil actions.

When evil is active in the world, sometimes the only viable response is to act against it.

Sometimes, evil must be stopped, not simply tolerated until Christ’s return. This can only be done through the actions of peacemakers. While war itself is to be avoided if at all possible, we should not seek to condemn those who fight in wars, for many of those who do so are brothers and sisters in Christ.

My older brother is one such person. He has faithfully served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force for many years. His job, both in the sky and on the ground, is often a dangerous one. It is one that he does not take upon himself lightly, but does so because it is where God has called him to serve for now. My brother is first and foremost a loving child of God and disciple of Jesus Christ. He is also, like me, a husband, a father, and a brother. He has served in many countries, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and he is in the greatest sense of the word a hero, because he voluntarily goes in to confront wickedness and evil at the risk of his own life and well-being. My sister-in-law has also served as a fighter pilot, putter herself in harm’s way many times during the early months of the Iraqi invasion. Many of you have family and friends who have served in the military selflessly and at great personal loss.

Not all of us are called to serve vocationally in such dangerous jobs, but each of us is called to serve others sacrificially as a testimony to God’s love for humanity. Most often, this sacrificial work is done through works of mercy and service, through prayer and fasting. Occasionally, though, when wicked people perform evil acts we may be required to act in response.

It is not loving, nor does it faithfully represent the love of God who acted mightily to save us, to sit idly by in the face of evil acts.

And so, on this day when we remember September 11, 2001, let us also remember all of those who have served and are serving to combat evil actions wherever they occur. Let us all strive to be active peacemakers. But let us also remember that God alone can bring true peace to our world and is doing so through his son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Abundant Life

This morning our Internet connection went down at home. Fifteen years ago, this phrase wouldn’t have even made sense. Today, it spells catastrophe for someone like myself, who works remotely and “needs” the Internet to get things done and get paid. So, like many other freelance web developers in the U.S., I packed up my laptop and other gear, hopped in the car, and began my morning commute to the local Starbucks for a refreshing cup (or 3) of my favorite coffee and access to their free WiFi connection.

As I was leaving our tiny town, I heard a sudden cacophony of sirens blasting through the crisp morning air. I then watched as (at least) two ambulances, a fire truck, and three police cars came screaming past me with their lights flashing, and headed straight for the center of town.

Over the years, Sarah and I have developed the habit of praying every time we see emergency workers with their lights on. We never know where they are headed to or from, but we know that the work they do is vital and dangerous. Since we can do nothing to help them physically, we pray. We pray for safety for the workers and whomever they have been sent to help. We pray that those involved who don’t know the Lord will have a chance to meet and respond with faith to Jesus’ offer of forgiveness from sin.

And lately, I have begun to pray a simple benediction: “Heavenly Father, preserve life.” I’m not sure why I started adding this little phrase to the end of my prayer for emergency workers. In fact, I haven’t really given it a great deal of thought, until this morning.

As I was praying for the host of police, EMTs, and firemen headed to the scene in Wilmore today, and breathed those final words and an “Amen”, I was suddenly flooded with emotion at the thought that followed. Hear these words…

God is not in the business of preserving temporal life, He is in the business of creating new, abundant, eternal life.

Now hear me correctly when I say this. I am not saying that God does not care about our physical well-being. He most certainly does. How do I know this? Two reasons come immediately to mind.

First, Genesis tells us that God created humanity in his image and likeness. He created us to rule over the earth and its creatures. And when he was finished creating us, God blessed humanity and saw that what he had made was “very good” (Genesis 1:26-31). We are created in the very image of God, which makes us of inestimable worth, not just as souls, but as whole people, body and soul.

Second, Jesus’ earthly ministry was a two-fold ministry of healing and restoration. He miraculously healed physical illnesses and demon possessions, restoring physical and mental well-being, as well as restoring relationships between those who were afflicted and their families and communities. In the second part of his ministry, his death and resurrection, Jesus healed humanity from the effects of sin and restored our relationships with one another and with God.

So, when I say that God is not in the business of preserving temporal life, I don’t mean that he doesn’t care about our physical lives. What I mean is that His business is far grander. He came to give life abundantly . . .

“I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. he will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:7-10)

The Son of God became a man, Jesus of Nazareth, in order to fulfill a life-giving mission. As we saw in Genesis, God is the creator of all life. What we learn in the New Testament is that the work of creation was mediated through the Son.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God int he beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” (John 1:1-4)

The Word is the Third Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, who became Jesus. With the Incarnation the very creator of life became a man; the source of life, life himself became human.

But why would God do this? Surely he wouldn’t go to such lengths in order to simply “preserve” life as we have known it since the garden of Eden. I mean, he is God, right? If he wants to save a person’s life, he just has to will it.

Remember when I said that God’s plans were far grander than this? Jesus Christ didn’t just come to heal the sick and drive out demons, but also to heal humanity from the effects of sin and give us New Life. Only he could do this, because “in him was life”. Through his willing death on the cross, Jesus bridged the gap between God and people that was caused by sin. He laid down his life for ours (John 10:15).

Now, this seems like a pretty crummy trade from my point of view. Why would God himself give up his life, the source of all life, for dead and dying people in a dead and dying world?

Because death doesn’t have the last word.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25) You see, Jesus conquered death through death, and breathed his life, life itself, into dead and dying humanity, so that we too might have that life in us. And we know this is true, because God raised Jesus from the dead. If he is alive, then we can be alive through him. Really ALIVE!!!

Where sin reigns, death follows. Christ has overcome death through the Cross, so that we newly minted humans can experience abundant life, freed from the power of sin and death, for all eternity.

Have you experienced this newness of life for yourself? Do you know that you are made in the very image of God? Do you know that you are of inestimable worth? Do you recognize that you are no longer under the power of sin and death?

Hear the words of Paul to the Romans, and to us: “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness…now you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:13-14; 22-23)

God is not primarily in the business of preserving life, he is in the business of creating new life. Jesus offers this gift of abundant and eternal life to each of us.

Will you receive it?

When Burnout Becomes a Broken Promise

My daughter (5) has been learning a tremendous amount in kindergarten this year. It has been amazing to watch her grow, and I am so proud of my little girl. What has surprised me most about her year so far is the amount of time that her teachers spend teaching the kids about proper behavior. Along with reading, math, and all the normal subjects, the kids are also learning how to interact with one another in a civilized manner and to ‘stop and think’ before they act.

One of my favorite things that her teacher has mentioned to us in parent meetings is the way she deals with discipline in the classroom. The children are taught from day one that there are two types of problems: small problems and big problems.  A small problem might be that one child is using a toy that another child wants to use, or a child ‘cutting’ in line. A big problem would be when a child gets sick, has an accident, or hurts another child.  But the teacher also talks about allowing a small problem to become a big problem, such as when a child who has been cut in line retaliates by pushing, hitting, or throwing a fit.

Our daughter’s teacher allows the children to solve small problems for themselves, teaching them to be self-reliant and learn to reason through problems together. When a problem becomes a big problem, though, the teacher immediately steps in.

I have come to discover that kindergarten teachers can teach us a lot about the way that God relates to his children as a loving Father.

This summer has, quite frankly, been a very tough one for me. I traveled to Manchester, England in June for my annual research trip. During my stay I worked an average of 12-14 hours in the library, researching and writing a paper on Christology in the Hymns of John Wesley, and preparing for my academic review.  For the six months leading up to this trip, my days were consumed with work on one of my thesis chapters and transitions happening at my ‘day job’. By the time I came home from England I had developed both a sense of accomplishment for all that I achieved during the spring term and my summer trip, and also a profound sense of burnout.  I was simply exhausted, mentally.

I thought that I would take a couple of weeks off of my research to overcome my mental fatigue, and then jump right back in where I left off.  I have rarely been so profoundly wrong.

Shortly after returning home I had to begin looking for new work, as my current contract is coming to a close soon.  I began taking on some additional side projects to ‘make up’ for any time that I might not be employed as I am looking for new work. I began spending research time applying for jobs and brushing up on my skill set.  In essence, I began finding things to do that would fill my time. That way, I had a legitimate excuse for not getting research done. In all honesty, it has taken me until just a couple of weeks ago to recover to the point that I am able to think about doing research without getting a headache. Even then, I was still making excuses rather than putting in solid study time.

It is not uncommon to experience momentary periods of burnout while doing research.  Think about it. A PhD student spends YEARS of his/her life writing what amounts to a very long paper about a very detailed subject, which very few people will care to read (at least until it is rewritten for publication).

However, there comes a tipping point when temporary burnout goes from being a small problem to a big one. When burnout becomes a broken promise.

I never considered my bout of burnout to be anything but a minor issue that I would overcome in time. I never expected it to spiral out of control in any way. I had it under control, you see. And then my pastor made a comment in his Sunday sermon on Jeremiah 2:2-9 that caused my world of self-reliance to come crashing down around my ears.

He said that if we are not careful, if we do not rely upon God as our source of strength, “time and cost will whittle down your promise to God.”

When the pastor spoke those words, they hit me like a ton of bricks.  I had allowed the time and cost of a research degree to get in the way of keeping my promise to Him, that I would go where he leads our family, no matter the sacrifice. In other words, what started out as a small problem had very quickly morphed into a big problem.  My burnout was threatening to become a broken promise.

And then God spoke to my heart. He reminded me that, when I begin to believe that I can deal with the small problems of life on my own, they very quickly grow into big problems. Fortunately, like a good kindergarten teacher, my Father in heaven takes control when the problem starts to grow. While I could choose to refuse his help and allow a big problem to get even bigger, I have come to trust Him over the years. You see, He has never failed me. He has never left me alone to my self-destructive ends. He is a God who loves me, who has rescued me, and I have come to love and trust Him deeply in return.

And so I have turned to God in my time of need. By his power my burnout has not become a broken promise. For the first time in more than two months, I am energized and excited about my research, I am looking forward to the plans that he has for our family, and I am profoundly grateful for God’s abundant blessings and grace.

Do you have a small problem that you are trying to conquer on your own? Is your small problem threatening to become a big problem? Has it already become a big problem?

Our society would tell us that self-reliance is a virtue. I say that our society is aligned with the father of lies.  God calls us out of sinful self-reliance into the freedom that can only be lived with the help of the Holy Spirit. He calls us to cross over from death to life in the name of his only begotten Son, Jesus, who died that we might become children of the Almighty God.

So I urge you not to go back to your self-reliant ways once you have tasted freedom. Give all of your small problems over to God the Father, who loves you, before they become big problems from which you need to be rescued once again.

Are You Too Content?

As a father of two (5 & almost 3), I find myself regularly reminding my children that they should be thankful for and content with what they have, not always looking for the ‘next thing’. In my daughter’s case, this particularly means not looking toward the next sugar fix, when she is already actively eating a piece of candy. Happiness, after all, is not to be found in things or activities, but in God himself, right?

If we are to be good Christians, we should just be content. Isn’t that what we are often told in church?

Yet, while the source of all our hope and joy and love and fulfillment should be God as he has been revealed in Jesus and witnessed to by the Holy Spirit, is recognition of God as the ‘source’ off goodness and happiness all that we as Christians should desire? Is it wrong to seek for more than contentedness in our knowledge of God, even our experiences of Him?

Or are we in danger of becoming too content?

Let me explain by way of an illustration from the Hopper Household last night. Our son will turn 3 in just a few days, and for pretty much the whole of this last year he has refused to eat any food that is a) not chicken nuggets, b) not crackers or c) not sugar. After thinking about this for quite some time, I made the executive decision last night that it is time for him to try something new. I took my stand with one of Sarah’s favorite dishes – chicken and dumplings.

Now, this particular dish is not very nutritious. I wold much rather have him eat a green bean or some broccoli, but I’m picking my battles carefully, and I thought 1) it isn’t a weird color, 2) it isn’t a vegetable, 3) Sarah likes it so it must not be too spicy, and 4) Its what I made, and I am tired of making multiple meals each night for dinner.

While all of these reasons made the choice rational in my mind, none of them accounted for the fact that my son would take one look at it and immediately throw a fit. Nonetheless, I was resolved, so Sarah and I calmed him down then offered him a compromise, since this was a foray into new and scary things for him. The compromise was simple, and completely loaded in his favor:

“Take one tiny bite of a dumpling, and if you don’t like it I will make you something else that you want.”

Simple, right? I mean, I could eat pretty much anything if I knew I only had to take one tiny nibble. Especially if it means getting anything I want to ea afterward. To the mind of a nearly-three-year-old, however, I might as well have declared war. I had declared my intentions, and he was going to stand and fight to the death.

After a 45 minute battle with increasing threats by me about what would happen to him if he didn’t take a bite (no other food, no desert, no movie before bed, early bedtime) he still refused to take a bite of dumpling, so there was only one thing left to do. Give in. PSYCHE! We followed through. We gave him a bath and put him straight to bed, all the while letting him know that he could change the course of his near future by simply taking a bite of dumpling.  He never gave in. He chose to go straight to bed with no dinner than take a bite of something new.

Fast forward to this morning. When I got out of bed, he wasn’t feeling good. In fact, he was sick to his stomach. Since he hadn’t eaten dinner the night before, and probably didn’t eat lunch at school (he is finicky there too), I said to Sarah that he was probably just really hungry.

When I said this, he turned to look at me, folded his little arms over his chest in a defiant manner, smiled broadly, and said, “I still didn’t eat a dumpling.”

Having lost his chicken nuggets, his desert, his play time, his before-bed cartoon, and gaining a sick tummy, he believed he was still victorious. He was content. He was so satisfied with his position that he couldn’t conceive of the good things I had prepared for him.

Isn’t this how we sometimes react to God when he offers us something more? Now, when I say “more” I’m not talking about more things, or more money, or more time.  I am talking quality, not quantity. How often have you or I rejected the notion that we can be better than what we are now, emphasizing that simply knowing Jesus is enough? How often have you or I stayed home and watched TV instead of getting involved in mission or service or WORSHIP, all the while making a mental note that it doesn’t matter anyway, because we ‘made a decision’ to follow Jesus?

Are you and I content with the bare minimum of calling Jesus Lord and asking him to save us?

In the person of Jesus Christ, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, in order to reconcile all things to himself (Col 1:19-20). God was not content to leave things as they were. Why are we so anxious to do so, when God has promised us so much more?

Christians are called by God to be a holy people. We are called to live lives that reflect the love of God shed abroad in our hearts. We are promised that when we turn over all that we have to God’s authority, he will make us new creatures, capable of such love and holiness.  Only when we allow God to work in us to create new life can we truly love others as he intends.
Do you want to truly live, experiencing genuine hope and freedom from sin? Seek Jesus!
Do you want to have an impact on the world? Surrender your will to Him!
Do you want to see lives transformed by God’s love shed abroad in you? Seek your own transformation!
Do you want to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”? Seek holiness!

Are you content with calling Jesus Lord, or are you ready to bend the knee to his authority? Are you content with the idea that you are safe from hell, or do you desire to see the whole world saved? Are you content with living as a saved sinner, or are you ready to become a loving, obedient child of the Living God?

Are you ready to experience the fullness of a life lived in Christ?

Or are you, even now, folding your arms across your chest, smiling broadly, and saying, “I still won’t eat the dumpling”?