Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Is God a Co-Pilot?

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For the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God (Exodus 34:14)

One of my pet peeves is the “God Is My Co-Pilot” vanity plate. I noticed one of them again the other day. The problem I have with God being only a co-pilot is that it speaks of a God who is not fully in control of things. It also speaks of a man or woman who thinks that they can be fully in control of their own lives and, at best, give God only second place. The way I read my Bible, and the maxim I like to use in my life, is that God has the prominent seat (Pilot, if you will). I don’t ever want to lower Him to anything less than that. The sovereignty of God (see Romans 9) trumps everything, even my free will, which I wouldn’t have if He didn’t first give it to me. In truth, I can’t even choose to come to Him for salvation if He hadn’t called and chosen me first. (See: Matthew 22:14; John 15:16; Ephesians 1: 4-5; 2 Thessalonians 2: 13; 1 Peter 2:9)

Spiritually, it is a dangerous thing to give God less than first place in our lives. God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5). The God who created everything out of nothing, who created you and me, cannot and will not play second fiddle to His creation. It is ludicrous to think that He created everything and everyone that exists, only to step back and let His creation have the prominent seat over Him. Is God not still in full control? Does the sun not still rise and set simply because He has so ordained it? Does He not still give us the daily air that we breathe? Or, perhaps, do we somehow think that we can do that without Him? Of course not!

Part of the problem when God is only someone’s co-pilot is that we then also put God into the box of religion and institutionalized Him. Now we control things and essentially “dictate” to Him the terms of His Lordship. We gather around us a great number of teachers to give us what our itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4: 3-4). These false prophets then teach us to “name it and claim it” as if God were a puppet whose strings we can somehow control. If things don’t happen just as we would like, we refuse to accept the concept that maybe this is because it is God’s will that things are happening as they do. Instead, we rationalize that we don’t have enough faith to “dictate” the terms to God. We rationalize from a misreading of Scripture that He gives us everything we want simply because we ask (demand?) it of Him. While we do pray, we often forget the “if it is thy will” part (James 4:15). We bulldoze ahead of God and only afterwards do we (maybe) ask His blessing or advice. Everything needs to start with God, not with us.

If God isn’t unconditionally given the first place, if He isn’t the pilot as opposed to co-pilot of our lives, then we are guilty of evilness and greed, which in turn makes us guilty of idolatry (Colossians 3:5). I define evilness as the spirit of being contrary to God and not giving Him His proper place. By greed I mean the putting ourselves ahead of God, rather than humbly bowing before Him. There is and can be no middle ground. There is no opening in the Trinity for us to compete for.

One cannot half love God and half love our selves any more than one can be half pregnant. A woman either is or isn’t pregnant and God is either given first place or last place in our lives. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6: 24). There is no middle ground. It is really quite black and white. Who is the master, God or you? Who is in the pilot’s seat, God or you? Who is in control of the Body of Christ (the church), God or you? Who are we worshipping, God or our own little man-made kingdoms? Are we being idolatrous? I wonder sometimes.

“Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the Lord. “This is the one I esteem; he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66: 1-2). Do we still know what it means to “tremble” at God’s word? Do we even know what it means anymore to “Fear the Lord” as the early church did? (Acts 5:11).

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Even the Apostle Paul said, “Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in His kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off” (Romans 11: 20-22).

God is in total control. He is nobody’s “Co-Pilot.” Be careful walking according to your own understanding. When God speaks, we had better be listening, because if we think we know better by not taking His advice and obeying, then God says, “I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you” (Proverbs 1: 26). We may say, that doesn’t sound much like a loving God, but that is ultimately only because we didn’t get our own way. So then we pout and blame God for not being loving towards us. Sometimes we can be like manipulative little children! Of course God loves us and wants the best for us, but sometimes He does say “No,” and in all things He demands to be first.

Go ahead and put yourself in the pilot’s seat and assign God to the co-pilot’s seat. But when the plane of your life comes crashing down around you, and crashing it sooner or later will, then you will have nobody but yourself to blame. Jeremiah 2:17 says, “Have you not brought this on yourselves by forsaking the Lord your God when He led you in the way? After all, you wanted to lead yourselves; you only wanted God as a co-pilot.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

WWJD: What Would Jesus Drink?

"The Wedding Feast of Cana"
Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons
When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine.’” (John 2:3)

The other day I heard it again: “Jesus didn’t really turn the water into wine; he turned it into juice.” Have you ever heard that line of reasoning? I’m sure you have. Personally, I’m getting a little tired of those false teachings that leave little or no room for the humanity of Jesus. Now, I’m really not interested in arguing theology; but sometimes I do just want to yell, “Wake up and smell the ‘Draft!’”

I’m certainly not promoting drunkenness, but I am promoting the fact that I’m sure my Lord drank a glass of (alcoholic) wine or two while He walked this earth. I’m sure that Jesus, after a long walk with His disciples, probably would have stopped in at a local pub for a cold beer!

The point is, lest we have forgotten, that Jesus was both “fully man” and “fully God.” He was concerned with the relational, the meeting of people where they were at. If He sat with the prostitutes and if He ate with the tax collectors, I’m sure that He drank with them too. We see this in Jesus' own words when He said, "The son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' But wisdom is proved right by her actions" (Matthew 11: 19). The religious Pharisees criticized Him then, and the religious today often continue to do the same by criticizing Christians who drink and who suggest that Jesus probably did too. I would suggest that it is time that such Christians today stop being so religious!

To answer my critics who would have us to believe that the water that was turned into wine was really a non-alcoholic juice, let me begin by turning our attention to Numbers 6:3. This is the passage which deals with the rules for the Nazirite. It reads, “he must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or from other fermented drink. He must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins (emphasis mine). What I noticed here was that within the very same verse there is reference to, 1) wine, 2) other fermented drink, 3) grape juice. The point is, there were words in the original languages for each. If Jesus had turned the water into a juice instead of wine, there were other words that the Gospel writers could have used to describe the water turned into juice. However, they didn’t use those words because the water wasn’t turned into a juice, rather it was turned into a wine. Therefore we can conclude that it was in fact an alcoholic wine that Jesus miraculously created.

Unfortunately what we’ve all too often done is read back into the Gospels what we’ve wanted them to say in order to protect our western Christian biases. We need to understand the culture of the day and read our Bibles in light of that culture. It is a historical fact that grapes were fermented and turned into wine. It is a historical fact that fermented grape juice (wine) was served at weddings. Combine that with what the master of the banquet said to the groom about everyone bringing out the choicest wines first and the cheaper wines after everyone has had too much to drink, whereas the groom saved the best for last (John 2: 9-10), then we also see that it had to be fermented (alcoholic) wine that was being referred to as opposed to simply juice.

Photo Source: unknown; via Facebook
Do we really think that Jesus went to the home of the tax collector for dinner and refused the wine that was, no doubt, put before Him? Do we really think that Jesus went to a wedding banquet, turned the water into wine, and then said, “No thanks, I’ll just drink the Pepsi or a glass of water?” Jesus was “fully human” and would have walked where the people walked, and lived as the people lived; including having a glass of wine or other fermented drink. He did not drink to get drunk and thus violate Scripture on the subject, but I’m sure He did follow the custom of the odd glass of wine, and especially so at a wedding feast. Jesus lived life among the people and still remained sinless. So must we learn to live among the people and still live sinless lives.

The problem is that we each have our own version of a “sin list.” For some people the thought of alcoholic drink of any kind is sinful. It doesn’t matter to them if it’s even only one drink and if the drinker never drinks in excess and gets drunk. For them it’s sin. For the next person it may be tobacco products that are sinful. It’s ironic that Charles Spurgeon, who was known as the “Prince of Preachers,” enjoyed his cigars. While we see tobacco use declining more and more today, the point is that it was once culturally acceptable, even in the church. The next person has no issue with being overweight, even though excessive weight is also not good for any of us and also destroys the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19) as much as too much drinking or smoking does. The point is, people have their own little pet-peeves as to what is acceptable for other Christians and what is not.

What we need to come to is not to judge each other by what we eat or drink, but to act in love. “One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables….One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike” (Romans 14: 2, 5). In Christ we all have the freedom in regards to these things; it’s not a case of right versus wrong, but rather personal freedom in our walk of faith.

Do I drink wine or other fermented drink? Yes, from time to time I do. However, if my brother or sister has an issue with it, I will try and avoid the subject so as not to put a “stumbling block” (Romans 14: 13) into their path due to their weak faith. The key is to always respond in love. If we can learn to do that then I’m convinced we won’t have anywhere near as many divisive and factional (Galatians 5:20) issues as we do now.

Did Jesus drink wine? I’m sure that He did, but if you think differently, I won’t argue the point any further so as not to put a stumbling block between us. Christians have far too many of those between them already.

Anyways, that's the way I see it. Peace.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Of Charitable Donations and Tax Returns

But when you give to charity, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your deeds of charity may be in secret (Matthew 6: 3-4)

Once again the tax season is upon us and once again I’m wrestling with the practice of income tax receipts for charitable donations. While I do not believe that God calls Christians to necessarily give money into institutional church coffers, I do believe that He does call us to give alms as the Holy Spirit leads us and as we see the needs around us.

Let me begin with a couple of illustrations. Some years ago when I was still involved in institutional Christianity, there were two key events that I will always remember concerning the issue of giving. In one case, I had just recently begun serving a local church as their new pastor, when a man who had been the treasurer for many years, asked to meet with me for the purpose of discussing who in the congregation gave what. He seemed a little surprised (or miffed) when I responded that I really didn’t care who gave how much because, as far as I was concerned, individual giving was a private issue between the individual and God. As such, it really wasn’t any of my business, even if I was that person’s pastor. In retrospect, I suspect that what the treasurer wanted me to really see was how much he himself was giving in comparison to other people.

In another instance, we had decided that there was a need for a new computer. As often happened, in order to encourage giving, the people were reminded that their giving would be eligible for an income tax receipt where basically they would get back $4.00 for every $10.00 gift. Despite that common argument in soliciting giving, what impressed me the most was an anonymous envelope in the offering plate one Sunday with $1000.00 cash in it and with a note that simply said, “for the computer.” There was no way anyone could tell where it came from or who the giver was. Certainly, the giver wasn’t interested in an income tax receipt. Isn’t that precisely what Jesus meant in the aforementioned verse from Matthew 6? I believe it is.

The point I’m trying to make is that all charitable giving ought to be a secret and private thing. The practice of registered church offering envelopes so that giving can be tracked is, in my opinion, contrary to the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 6: 3-4. “But when you give to charity, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your deeds of charity may be in secret.” Not only is my giving none of anyone else’s business, but also in reality, even any charitable donation record keeping on my part is equally as wrong. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” speaks to me of even keeping the transaction from myself. I know that such a practice flies against accounting and bookkeeping principles, but the point is that, the only record keeper of my giving is God Himself. Obviously we do know how much we give and to whom we give it, but no other discussion or record keeping of the donation needs to be made by us, and certainly not by anyone else.

Another issue that comes up with charitable donation receipts for income tax purposes is that the government now also knows about our giving practices. It is really quite sickening to think how many of my affairs the government already knows about. It seems to me that they know that charitable giving is personal and private, but in order to gain access to that information, they bribe us with tax breaks. Maybe that is not an issue for most people. Maybe most people reason that they know everything else about me anyways, so what’s one more infringement on my privacy? Most likely, however, is that the almighty dollar speaks louder to most people than anything else.

We reason that we would rather give to charity than give to the tax man, so any vehicle we can use to reduce taxes must be right. In and of itself, that is not wrong seeing as how the government allows for that. The problem is that it goes contrary to Scripture in that our left hand does know what our right hand is doing, and our deeds of charity are not done in secret; everyone knows all about it, including the government. We think we’re serving God, and maybe we are, but perhaps what we are really serving is money. How does all this fit with what Jesus said about us not being able to serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24)? I wonder.

So long as our traditional institutional churches continue operating the way they do, they will continue to support income tax receipts for charitable donations made to them. After all, they have to encourage giving, because without it, they would cease to exist. As much as they claim to worship God, and I have no reason to believe that most do, the current system at least begs the question if in fact many are not also worshiping the dollar. With all due respect to my friends within the institutional system, I wonder sometimes if people aren't being duped into thinking they’re giving to God by giving to the institutional church, but what they’re really giving to is pastor and staff salaries, mortgage payments, utility bills, etc. Do you want to really “give” to God? If so, then don’t give to an institutional church organization, but rather give to people, because in giving to people, we truly give to God. Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

Do we want to “give” to God? Maybe we should focus instead on the food bank hampers instead of the offering plate. Maybe we should focus instead on paying the unemployed single mother’s heating bill instead of the offering plate. Maybe we should focus instead on secretly supporting those who, through their love, adopt third world orphans rather than focussing on the offering plate. But unfortunately, then who will see our giving and who will tally it up and give us our pat on the back (and our tax receipt)? If all we want is to be seen and recognized, honoured, and praised by men, then we have already received our reward and no further reward from the Lord will be coming (Matthew 6:2).

I wonder how many people would continue giving to the church, or anywhere else, if the government suddenly took away that charitable donation receipt for income tax purposes? If they ever did, and I long for that day, then maybe we will really see giving that is done simply for the joy of giving, and not with the ulterior motive of getting 40% (or whatever the figure actually is) back on taxes. Unfortunately, in the words of Jeremiah 5:31, “The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?” I know that sounds harsh, but I believe the warning still holds true today. Who cares about that income tax receipt? Ultimately it is those who care about money. Sure, we all need money, but it ought not to be as high a priority as we seem to have made it. Jesus said, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

I think it is time that we, as believers, really started focussing on the kingdom of God first and his righteousness. What does that mean? I know what it doesn’t mean, and that is placing as high a value on money as we seem to have done. I know I’m not there yet, but I want to be.

Jesus said, “But when you give to charity, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your deeds of charity may be in secret” (Matthew 6: 3-4).

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