Sunday, 26 August 2012

When God Says No

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons
“From the lips of children and infants
 you have ordained praise”
Psalm 8:2

An old troublesome doctrine has once again raised its head in me and begun to cause me to yet again try and seek understanding. Why is it troublesome? I count it so because, though I have not yet made peace with it, my leanings seem to be going in a direction that many of my friends and acquaintances are not going. When that happens, all sorts of problems can arise such as dissentions and factions within the Body of Christ. I say that it can, but it doesn’t have to. True fellowship, if built on genuine love and relationships, will endure even when doctrinal views are not the same. I know this to be true because I’ve seen evidence of it many times in my own life and relationships.

Now, please understand, I am not suggesting that I’ve got this whole faith thing all figured out. All that I know for sure is that “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Everything else, all of man’s doctrines, I am beginning to think are subject to interpretation. I would almost dare go so far as to suggest that they are subjective. In discussing the faith of the weak versus the strong believer, the Apostle Paul once said, “whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God” (Romans 14:22; NIV).

Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t even have doctrinal discussions at all, lest we find ourselves dividing the Body of Christ still further than we already shamefully have. Is that what this verse is saying? Probably not, especially when taken with other Pauline texts, such as Colossians 3:16, which tells us to, “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” This is a very fundamental part of the Christian community. Still, as per 1 Corinthians 13, I think Paul would also argue that a proper loving relationship trumps all doctrinal discussions. Jesus himself, in his Greatest Commandment, said that, “all the Law and the Prophets [doctrines] hang on these two commandments [love to God, and love to mankind]” (Matthew 22:40).

Yet, this nagging faith question of mine remains. What is the troublesome question that I am referring to? It is this:

What do we do when God says no?

Maybe this question really first should be preceded with another question, and that is, Does God sometimes say no? Maybe it’s my imagination, but sometimes when I listen to some folks talk, I get the impression that they think that God would never say no to them, unless of course, they don’t have enough faith. Now I know that there are many verses of scripture that speak about one’s faith being key to receiving blessings from God. Jesus himself said it time and again.
“Go! It will be done just as you believed it would” (Matthew 8:13). 
“According to your faith it will be done to you” (Matthew 9:29). 
“Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20). 
“Everything is possible for him who believes” (Mark 9:23). 
There are a host of other scriptures like that too, but you get the point. The outcome of events does seem to be tied in some divine way to the level of one’s faith. I do believe that. But here’s where it begins to get complicated for me.

What do we do when God seems to say ‘No’ to our prayer request? Do we pray harder? Do we ‘name it and claim it’ as some have taught? Do we get more religious and try to manipulate the situation by ‘doing’ good things in order to try and get God’s attention to our plight? Certainly, we might argue, God wants the best for me and desires that I be healed (or whatever else we’re praying for). Certainly, we reason, a God of love always answers prayer. So we busy ourselves seeking a more intense level of faith, or at least something closer to the kind of faith that we imagine Jesus was referring to in the Gospels.

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But then the child dies anyway. But then the job is lost and the paychecks dry up. But then despite our prayers for healing, the cancer returns. But then the house is repossessed and we find ourselves on the street. But then, though the Bible says that “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16), God either seems to say ‘No,’ or remains altogether silent despite our (perceived strong) faith.

Now what do we do? I’ve known of very godly people, with very strong faith (certainly much stronger than mine) who were told by presumably well meaning Christians at the funeral of their child that if they had a stronger faith, the child would not have died. I’ve known others too who, also appearing to have had powerfully strong faiths, have completely walked away from the Lord and live as atheists today because they feel God had rejected them by unanswered prayer. Based upon a reading of 1 John 2:19, we could ask if such backsliders were ever really Christians in the first place, but that’s a hot potato that I really don’t want to juggle at this time. Still, the question remains:

What do we do when God says no?

The Bible records an interesting time when God said no to the Apostle Paul’s repeated prayer for healing. What do we do with that?
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassing great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 7-9; NIV).
I wonder, did Paul not have enough faith to be healed? Does that sound crazy? It does to me, and yet when many others in the church have found themselves in similar circumstances, lack of faith is precisely the answer many of them receive from their well-meaning brothers and sisters in the Lord. What do we do with that?

“It is not as though God’s word had failed” (Romans 9:6).

Now, I realize that we all read these texts differently, but the only way that I have been able to reconcile this subject is by looking at Romans 9 and the sovereignty of God. Though the context has to do with Israel, the message applies universally; God is sovereign and will do as He sovereignly wills. Yes, the Bible promises are there, and they are true, but at the end of the day, just as God said through Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). The Apostle Paul continues his discourse by saying,
It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:16-21; NIV).
Many in the church have struggled with that. It seems almost contradictory to other scriptures and doctrines that we hold dear, and yet, there it is in the pages of our Bibles. What are we to do with it? Can we make peace with difficult or seemingly contradictory scriptures? I hope we can.

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Probably the best thing we can do is to go back and look at our initial prayer from the beginning. Were we praying according to our will, or according to God’s will? My son once put it this way:
“Your will before mine. That needs to come first. Far too frequently we think that we know best and our prayers are simply telling God what to do, so to speak. If we know what is best for us, we pray to God to see that happen, and if it doesn’t, we interpret that as a lack of faith, not that we were incorrect about our request to begin with.”
I do not believe that the Bible contradicts itself, but I do believe that we are often inclined to “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). How do we move past this? Maybe the answer lies in another Pauline text. Maybe the answer lies in, “Now we see but a poor reflection” (1 Corinthians 13:12). The fact is, you and I do not fully understand the mind of God as to why and how he chooses to do that which he does. Yes, we live by faith, and through our study and learning we do understand some things. But at the end of the day, isn’t it all just a poor reflection of the bigger picture? Could it be that maybe the forest is actually keeping us from seeing the tree? Could it be that maybe too much doctrinal learning has actually had the reverse effect and kept us from seeing Jesus? Maybe we move past this problem by getting back to some basics, to which we now turn.

Have we complicated faith unnecessarily?

Maybe when all is said and done, I’ve even completely missed the boat on this subject too. Do I have all the answers? Of course not! However, when it comes back to dealing with the question of God sometimes appearing to say ‘No,’ at the moment, and until such time as the Lord perhaps chooses to give greater revelation, this is all that seems to make sense to me.

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Then again, perhaps in the words of Festus to Paul, “Your great learning is driving you insane” (Acts 26:24) could be spoken of to many of us as well. Perhaps our “insanity” has been to grossly overcomplicate the Gospel message. Perhaps instead of moving from doctrinal learning to understanding and then (maybe) on towards love, perhaps we would be wise to reverse the order and start with love. If love is truly the fulfillment of understanding God (as in the Great Commission), then by focusing on love we have already achieved all else that may be necessary.

Maybe we think too much about these things. Do we really have to have answers to all those “why” and “where” and what” questions about the things of God? At the end of the day, and as I said earlier, all that I now seem to know for sure is that, as in that classic children’s hymn, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Childish, you say? Maybe. But then again, Jesus also said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Maybe that’s enough. Jesus loves me, this I know. Can we rest in that?

Anyways, that's the way I see it. 

Peace and Blessings.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

10 Reasons I Criticize the Church

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"What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside." (1 Corinthians 5:12-13)

I just read an excellent post by my friend Jeremy Myers. In it he says that people often label him as being too critical of the church. Boy, can I relate! I've often gotten flack for the same thing. Does that make us somehow less Christian for being critical? Far from it. In truth, as Jeremy points out, there are actually some very good reasons for being somewhat critical.

As I thought about Jeremy's post, I was reminded of a post of mine from a few years ago called on Critically Testing Church Leaders. I was also reminded of how people often are quick to say, "Do not judge," seemingly forgetting that sometimes we are to in fact judge. No, we are not to judge in a condemnation sense, for only God can do that. However, we are to judge in a discernment sense, and especially so when it comes to the church. Having said that, any criticizing must always be loving and redemptive in nature. Without that we too have missed the boat.

Jeremy's blog post is called, 10 Reasons I Criticize the Church. I couldn't have said it better myself if I had tried. Be sure to check it out.

Peace and Blessings.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Theology and the Hat Rack

Once upon a time, there was a man who was notorious for losing hats. It seemed that, no matter what he did, he always ended up losing his hat, and no matter how hard he tried, he could never seem to remember where he left them.

One day, as he was telling a friend about his hat-woes, his friend made a rather peculiar suggestion. His friend said, “Why don’t you go to church on Sunday?”

“Go to church?” asked the other man with a bewildered look on his face. “How will that solve my problem of forgetting where I keep leaving my hats?”

“Well that’s simple,” replied the man’s friend. “In the back of the church, above the coat racks, there are all sorts of hats. I’m sure you can find a suitable hat to replace the one that you just lost.

The scheme appealed to the man, and so on the very next Sunday, the man found himself in a place that he hadn’t been for a very long time; he found himself at church.

Rather than just grab a hat and run, the man decided that, since he was at church anyway, he might as well sit down and see for himself what this church-thing was all about. So he went into the sanctuary and sat down.

After the service the man joined in at the pastoral receiving line to greet the pastor and shake his hand. When his turn came, he introduced himself to the pastor and said, “Pastor, today you kept me from sinning.”

“Oh,” said the pastor with a somewhat confused look on his face. “How did I do that?

“Well,” said the man, “I came here today with the express purpose of stealing a hat. You see, I have this strange problem of always losing mine. But when I heard you preach about the evils of adultery, I suddenly remembered where I keep leaving my hats.”

My father was always a great storyteller, and if memory serves me correct, the preceding was one of his stories. Was it original to him? I have no idea, but one thing is for sure, to this day, dad is known for his stories and one-liners. Maybe that’s where my brothers and I get our sense of humor from. Thanks, Dad J

Though funny, the story also has a more serious side. It is one that we don’t seem to talk about much anymore. Why? Maybe it is because too many of us have gone through it and it seems to have become an accepted norm, even in the church. What am I talking about? I’m talking about “adultery.”

Have I offended you yet by suggesting that many church-goers are adulterers? Before you label me a heretic, notice what Jesus said on the subject. He said, 
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32; NIV).
Then, as if to reinforce the seriousness of this, Jesus says it again. He says,
“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9; NIV).
Likewise, God said through the prophet Malachi,
“I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16).
Now if what they tell us is true, that the church has a higher divorce rate than the world (greater than 50% of Christian marriages end in divorce), and except for those cases where the reason for the divorce is marital unfaithfulness by one member of the union, and if we take Jesus’ words literally, it then logically follows that at least half of married (or formally married) Christians today, are adulterers. What are we going to do with that?

Based on the frequency of divorce today for any and every reason, apparently we do not share God’s sentiment on the subject. Or am I missing something here? But wait, it gets worse. (Are you ready to lynch this author for bringing up this subject?). Jesus also said,
“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28; NIV).
Oh, oh. Busted! I guess that makes me an adulterer too. Yep, I have looked at women the wrong way too before. God forgive me. The world often says, “Looking is free,” but is it really? The world often says, “It’s OK to look at the menu, but you have to eat at home,” but does that cheesy line really line up with what Jesus taught? Like many other things in life, it’s not always about the literal action or word; often even the spirit of the action or word is just as damning.
So what is the moral of this divorce and adultery stuff?
Before we beat ourselves up too much, the story doesn’t end there. Jesus still shows his love towards us adulterers, as seen through his parable of the woman who was actually caught in the very act of adultery. Poor thing, talk about embarrassing! You can read about it beginning in John 8:3. In the end, after all the accusations of the religious nut-cases who were seething for a capital punishment verdict, Jesus simply says,
“If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7)
From Facebook. Original source unknown
The way I paraphrase this is, we all have skeletons in our closets and we would do well to remember that the next time we come across a little too judgmental about the “sins” that we perceive in the lives of others. It is really quite sad, actually, that some of the most loving and forgiving people I know are actually non-Christians. Conversely, despite all the rhetoric of love and forgiveness preached by the church, some of the most unloving and unforgiving people I know are professing Christians.

Philip Yancey was right when he reportedly said, “Christians get very angry with other Christians who sin differently than they do.” Likewise CS Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” In his great book ‘Revise Us Again,’ Frank Viola wrote, “One can talk a great deal about Jesus Christ, and even about the need for knowing him, and yet betray him by one’s actions and attitudes toward those who are his.” That, my friends, is the bottom line! Have we, perhaps ironically, betrayed the one we call our Lord? Sadly, sometimes I think we have. God forgive us.

Yes, I’m sure you’re quite right; God doesn’t like some of those many things that people do and embrace today. Homosexuality was not a part of God’s plan for mankind. I’m sure His heart does ache with every child that is aborted. Murder is wrong, and so is lying and cheating and fornication and adultery and divorce and, and, and …

So, lest we get too smug with ourselves and think that we are somehow better than those people over there, we would do well to remember that sin is sin. One is not somehow better than the next. Our s**t stinks just as bad as theirs. We have all fallen short (Romans 3: 9-12), and were it not for Jesus, we would all be hopelessly lost.

So the next time you or I find ourselves tempted to point fingers, maybe we should consider an embrace of love and forgiveness instead. Maybe we should think about something else that Jesus also said:
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6: 14-15).
Hmm, I hate to think of it this way, but that almost sounds conditional, doesn’t it? So, from one adulterer to another, how’s that for ending on a controversial note?

Oh, and by the way, while you were out, your “friend” called and asked if you will come by later and pick up your hats. 

Photo Credit (cowboy hat): Flickr Creative Commons