Friday, March 24, 2017

Defining Christians ................ Parables 566

August 19, 1997

A leader of a major evangelical Christian denomination says one of the biggest problems facing Christianity today is that many members of Christian churches claim to be Christians but in fact are not Christians at all. How does he know that?

There are several ways to defining a Christian. The Bible does it this way: “To all who received him (Jesus Christ), to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”

Scripture goes on to explain that this spiritual birth happens when the Holy Spirit gives His life to a person. Another passage explains that “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ dwelling within them does not belong to Christ.” Our question is this: how do we know if someone has actually received Christ, really believes, and has God’s Spirit living in them?

One way to know is by looking for evidence of God in their life. Since the Holy Spirit brings new life, there ought to be changes. To start with, genuine Christians will begin thinking God’s thoughts about many things, including sin, other Christians and Christ.

Thinking God’s thoughts doesn’t happen in a vacuum though. We must first KNOW His thoughts and ideas. Since the Bible is a record of His revelation to the prophets and apostles, it is our guide to the thoughts of God. When Christians read, study, and believe the Bible, their lives begin to change. They begin to think the way God thinks. The Spirit of God and the Word of God work together to produce evidence that a person really is a Christian.

If someone claims to be a Christian but does not live according to what the Bible says, then they are either deceived, imposters, or ignorant of God’s Word. Perhaps this ignorance is at the root of some of the problems in Christianity. For instance, 87% of “Christians” in a recent survey say that their religious beliefs are very important in their life; however, that same survey shows there is much confusion or ignorance about what the Bible says.

For instance, 8 out of 10 surveyed feel that “God helps those who help themselves” yet this notion is a contradiction to clear biblical teaching. The Bible is filled with commands to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”

Trusting God for all we need is a command, not an option or a suggestion. Ignoring this command is disobedience. How can anyone claim to follow Christ but say “No” to this most basic biblical truth?

However, Scripture also teaches that trusting ourselves is unreasonable. Compared to God, our wisdom and resources are puny at best. Instead, God helps the helpless. The sooner we realize our need of His help, the quicker we will see Him at work in our lives. . . and the more obvious it will be to others that we are indeed Christians.

Another key component of being a Christian is belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, only 70% of those surveyed said they believe it. Remember, these are people who claim to be Christians.

In contrast, the Apostle Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ (died believing in Him) are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”

Christians must refocus on Scripture. Even at that, if what we read, study and believe about God and ourselves does not affect how we live, then we must seriously question whether or not we really have read, studied or believed it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Taking a stand is not easy or simple ................ Parables 565

August 12, 1997

Southern Baptists, the largest non-Catholic denomination in the United States, have challenged the moral direction of The Disney Company, one of America’s corporate giants, by urging Baptists across the country “to refrain from patronizing” any of Disney’s enterprises. This protest includes any other company that promotes “immoral ideologies and practices.”

While most of their leaders feel this will not change Disney policies, the SB’s feel they will be making a statement about deteriorating family values and at the same time demonstrate that “Christians love Jesus more than our entertainment.”

This denomination does not want to alienate people from the church and from God but at the same time, they want to protest the promotion of a particular sinful lifestyle. To do this, they must have God’s hated of sin and His love for sinners. Even if they have it, they will be criticized and misunderstood. It appears the Southern Baptists have taken on a difficult and complex task.

Consider Jesus. He was called the “friend of sinners” because He ate and drank with tax collectors and prostitutes who gladly followed Him and listened to His every word. However, most of the Jewish religious leaders considered themselves above this rabble. They looked down on Jesus and even accused Him of belonging to Satan because He associated with these people.

Today, Christians wrestle with how to hate all sin yet at the same time be friends with people who struggle with it and need to know God. We don’t want to be misunderstood or accused of hating people. We need to remember that we too were once immoral and caught up in sin. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 names specific sins).

Even though the Bible says we now are “washed, sanctified and justified,” full victory over those old enslaving habits may mean avoiding certain places, even certain people. For instance, Christians converted from alcohol know it is easier to obey God if they stay away from situations where people are drinking.

Christians who have never had a problem with alcohol know the destructive power of a drunken lifestyle and feel sorrow over those caught in this or any other trap. So while we need to avoid that and all other sin, we also need to pray for those caught in sin, care deeply for them and hopefully share with them the liberating good news of the Gospel.

The downside is that excessive drinkers seem to feel rejected when we refuse to drink with them and may even think that we hate them. They misunderstand our stand against alcohol and criticize us as “wet blankets” or worse. At that, I sometimes lose my perspective and forget how God sees those people. Beneath the surface of their addictions and other sins is a soul for whom Christ died, a person of worth and importance. Sometimes I see only a drunk or a dealer or a liar or a thief.

What about those who do not actually commit certain sins but see nothing wrong with them? Scripture says, in some cases they are blind and need their eyes opened. If the leaders of Disney Company are openly supporting sexual behavior that God condemns, the stand taken by the Southern Baptists may open their eyes.

Before anyone is quick to criticize this denomination, remember that Jesus also stands against all sin. He said, “If your brother sins, rebuke Him” and “anyone who sins is a slave to sin.” Sin is so serious that He took drastic action to save us from it.

Therefore, whenever Christians take His powerful stand against sinful behavior and stand in disapproval of anyone who supports it, we must also convey His radical love for those who are guilty. While it will be misunderstood and criticized, this may not be as difficult and complicated as it appears—it is the same way we try to treat our children.

Monday, March 20, 2017

God and fearful threats ................ Parables 564

August 5, 1997

Abortion continues to be a hot topic. Recently, the United States Congress recommended a ban on partial-birth abortions. President Clinton vetoed this proposed legislation but at least a dozen states determined to go ahead with the ban at the state level.

Military hospitals continue to ban all abortions, even after a challenge to change that legislation. A member of the House of Representatives who voted to retain the ban said, “We are in the business of having the military win wars, not make war on an innocent baby in the womb.”

“Pro-choice” advocates would argue that is not a valid argument; that a fetus is not a “baby” and women should have total freedom to do as they wish with their own bodies. Some try to use Scripture to defend abortion even though their methods of interpretation are questionable.

The decision to abort a pregnancy has multiple motivations driven by powerful emotions. One of those emotions is fear: fear of being caught pregnant, fear of not being able to care for a child, fear of a boy friend’s rejection, fear of losing popularity, fear of the sacrifices required to raise a child and so on. Although God offers some direction about the value of human life related to a child in the womb, He gives much more direction and help for that debilitating emotion: fear.

The Bible says “God is not the author of fear.” It also says “fear not” and “be not afraid” over 100 times. Sometimes these are words of encouragement to His people to not be afraid of others who are a threat to them, because He is with them and is on their side.

Other times God encourages His people to drop an unwarranted fear of Him and of judgment. He promises that anyone who trusts Him, belongs to Him and is obedient to Him, has no reason to fear. He is with His people and will take care of them.

However, a few passages tell people that God is to be feared. For instance, in Luke 12 Jesus says, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

Reading this statement in its context, Jesus means we spend far too much energy being afraid of those things that threaten us when we should have more concern for our standing before God. After all, it is He who controls our eternal destiny.

For some, an unborn child is a fearful threat. Those fears pressure people into considering actions that are not based on a genuine awe of God or on a deep faith in His power. He can help us but He also can judge what we do. We need to be more concerned with His opinion of us than that of other people or even our own.

However, fear of God is not intended as a club over our head. Jesus affirms this by adding: “Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God.”

Rather than suggesting fear as a threat, Jesus wants us to realize God loves us and wants us to spend eternity with Him. We need to make that a priority choice.

Jesus also knows that when fear of people or other things motivates our decisions, we are not living by faith and “anything not of faith is sin.” When we find ourselves in emotionally-charged or frightful situations, Jesus wants us to realize that He cares about us more than we could ever know and that He is able to meet our need, no matter how impossible it seems to us. He invites us to come to Him rather than be driven by fear.

If fear is a driving force, then consider transferring that negative fear into a positive reverence for God. All our fears can be overcome — by faith.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Church vs. State? ................ Parables 563

July 22, 1997

Mandy shut her eyes and shouted, “There, you’re gone. I made you disappear.”

Her pesky brother laughed back, “You wish!”

Major segments of the population wouldn’t last long if shutting our eyes could make them go away. Neither would any other offensive realities. Nevertheless, recently elected members of the Michigan Board of Education have decided to try it anyway.

They voted five to three against certain portions of their mission statement. The unwanted and offensive parts “thanked God for the blessings of freedom,” and said “children are created by God” and “religion is necessary for good government.” Those statements are supposedly “a violation of laws concerning separation of church and state.”

Is that really the intent of that mission statement and those laws? By its nature, the church (at least as described in the Bible) is a group of people under the sovereign rule of Jesus Christ. It cannot be ruled by anyone else and still be the church. However, in the days of the Roman Empire, the emperors were declared head of the church regardless of their spiritual qualifications. They ruled as they pleased. This often resulted in not only bad government but in serious spiritual deterioration in the church. More recently, Christians have welcomed laws that protect the church’s unique submission to Christ from being undermined by ungodly political entities.

At the same time, the Bible teaches that we are to “submit to the governing authorities” unless they demand we disobey God. In a normal sense, “they are God’s servants to do us good” (Romans 13). The idea is that political leaders should also submit themselves to God so their rule is wise and just. God had no intention that leaders abandon a genuine, biblical religion.

Even though political abuse of God’s principles once motivated laws to protect the church from political domination, now the church is considered a threat to political entities. In an odd turnabout, leaders are using these same laws to keep God and God-fearing people from having a voice in the way they govern. This has gone so far as to strike mention of God and religion from anything remotely connected to government activities and documents. It is as if they think that by putting both out of sight, God and religion will simply disappear.

Apart from using separation of church and state to keep God from political and legal arenas, many individuals also try to shut their eyes to God. While they may want a God who is there when they need Him, as in tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes, they push Him out of day-to-day decision making. Unless disaster strikes, both individuals and governing bodies would rather try and make Him disappear than admit any need for help from Him.

The psalmist observed a similar foolishness in his day. He asks, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against His Anointed One. ‘Let us break their chains,’ they say...”

He goes on, “The One enthroned in heaven laughs. . . I have installed my King on Zion...”

God has firmly established Christ as Sovereign King over all. Shutting our eyes or pretending He does not exist will not make Him vanish. According to God, He is Lord, whether we say so or not.

As for religion, people who “thank God for the blessings of freedom” should appreciate and safeguard that freedom. People who know they are “children created by God” should respect themselves and others. People who feel that “religion is necessary for good government” should bring godly wisdom and fairness into their political activities.

Shutting out God will not make Him go away but what will happen if closing our eyes to Him instead shuts out freedom, respect, and justice?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Facts rule over opinions ................ Parables 562

July 15, 1997

Children in a grade school crowded around their new school mascot, a furry little hamster. One asked the teacher if it was a boy or a girl. The teacher didn’t know. The children hotly debated the question until finally, one little fellow thought he had the solution. He said, “I know. Let’s vote on it.”

This amusing story is harmless because the children will soon learn that taking a poll does not change a hamster’s gender. However, what happens when we make vital decisions based on opinion polls rather than on established facts?

One example might be the trial of a person for a murder he did not commit. A decision must be made whether or not the suspect committed the crime even though innocence is already a fact. But if innocence cannot be defended with solid evidence, the suspect’s fate is left in to the opinion of a judge or jury.

All too often, spiritual matters are likewise tried in the courts of popular opinion. Consider statements like: “The Bible? Nobody believes that anymore.” Or “Christianity is just old-fashioned and not very popular.” Or “None of my friends believe in God so why should I?”

In polling Americans to find out their beliefs, results consistently show that about 85% of Americans and Canadians consider themselves to be Christian. The biblical definition of a Christian is someone who knows God, trusts Jesus Christ for salvation, and believes the Word of God. That is, Christians put their faith in what God says rather than in the opinions of people.

Being a Christian is a fact-issue. A person either believes God or they don’t. Yet another poll reveals that some of those 85% may have the wrong opinion of themselves. This poll asked questions about spiritual matters to those who claim to know God. Some were: Can a person who does good earn a place in Heaven? Is Hell an actual place or a state of separation from God? Is Satan a living being or a symbol of evil? Was Jesus actually resurrected from the dead?

In this poll, 57% said they think people who do good can earn a place in Heaven. In contrast, Scriptures say the opposite: “For it is by grace you are saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2).

Of course God wants everyone to do good, but the Bible makes it clear that not one person’s life measures up to God’s standard for heaven. If we want to have eternal life, He offers only one way to get it—through faith in Jesus. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one can come to the Father but by me.”

Those who entrust their eternal destiny to Christ are given His life and a new nature, out of which comes the ability to do the kind of good deeds that please God. Apart from Christ, whatever we call good cannot earn us a place in Heaven.

Another question in the poll asked people if they believe Jesus rose from the dead (as if such a monumental event could be decided by opinion). Despite evidence from Scripture, the testimonies of key witnesses, and other historical records, 45% of people interviewed believe that Jesus was not resurrected.

What if that had been a 100% decision against it? Or for that matter, a 100% vote for it? Would either one determine whether it happened or not?

Public opinion is not always reliable because many people do not always make decisions based on facts or a thorough examination of the evidence. In this case, everyone needs to examine the record and claims of Christ as they would a case in a courtroom. This is a vital issue that concerns eternal destiny and should not be left to public opinion but given serious investigation.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The greatest technology ................ Parables 561

(?)

One family member is suspicious of technology and assumes it has some vague connection to a massive super power. He shies away from using the Internet, even using computers.

Regardless of those who hold back, communication technology is here to stay. Perhaps it started with Gutenberg’s printing press, invented over five hundred years ago for the mass reproduction of books. This technology revolutionized the way people communicate and learn.

In a few generations, we have seen other amazing changes in communication methods. Our grandparents used fence phones; we have call-display cellulars. Our parents understood Morse code; our children understand satellite conference calls, complete with large-screen video displays of those in attendance. Communication technology changes so rapidly that even experts struggle to keep on top of the latest inventions.

In another segment of this vast field, the Internet is now reported to draw hordes of consumers away from their television sets. Some are predicting that digital broadcasting soon will replace television systems around the world. They back up their claims with surveys that show many people prefer to be on the Internet rather than watch the tube.

Others claim the ‘Net is just a novelty that will wear off’ but maybe they need to think again. In 1943, Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, reportedly said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” He had to eat his words. This technology is here to stay, at least until something new is invented.

Changes and growth in our technology is awesome yet God has a system that is more amazing. He offers us a means by which we can connect with Him that has never been declared obsolete and anyone can use it with very little instruction. Further, no matter where we are or what condition we are in, we are still able to communicate with Him.

Yes, prayer is never outdated or upgraded. It provides an instant link with the One who hears and answers our pleas. He understands it, whether we speak in English, French, Chinese, Russian or any other language. He hears us when we offer our words in silence, from the heart.

Prayer is also instantly translated into the correct request. Romans 8 explains, “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. . . the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”

Genesis records the first instance in the Bible of man talking to God when Adam offers his excuse for why he was hiding from Him. The last prayer is the closing verse at the end of the Bible that says: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.”

In between these utterances, the history of man’s sin and the story of God’s grace and redemption can be traced in the prayers of His people; prayers of contrition and confession, of pleading and complaining, of submission and also praise.

God remains in the business of hearing and answering prayer. My prayer journal is a personal reminder that He does what seems impossible to me, even that He takes time to hear (never mind grant) the requests I place before Him.

Book lovers know books will never be obsolete and radio and television have their usefulness. We value our computers (but don’t curl up in an easy chair with them) and the Internet provides a wealth of information, saving many trips to the library. Yet none of these can match the timeless efficiency and value of prayer. It is a marvelous “technology” from God that is in a class all by itself.

Friday, March 10, 2017

I Am What I Am! ................ Parables 560

June 24, 1997

While mutually admiring a photograph of the Rockies, seven-year-old Levi told me he loves being in the mountains. I asked this little lad, “When you stand looking up at them, do they make you feel small?”

He said, “No, I already know I am small.”

The so-called negative realities of life are sometimes difficult for most people to accept. Some “vertically challenged” adults buy shoes with lifts or wear clothes with vertical stripes, anything to appear taller. Two shoe salespeople have related that customers came in insisting they wear shoes two sizes smaller than the pair that fits them. Both clerks admitted scratching off the number and putting the proper-sized shoes in the wrong box, just to make the sale. They understood that these customers are not prepared simply to state the facts and live with them. Perhaps that is why remarks like Levi’s make us say, “Out of the mouths of babes. . . .”

Accepting undesired, unchangeable features is a challenge for many people. Too often we think we should be taller, or slimmer, or have smaller feet, or that our bodies must conform to the vogue in Hollywood or the criteria of New York modeling agents.

That our outside shape dictates our value seems to be an old problem. Somewhere around 1050 BC, the people asked one of God’s prophets to anoint for them a king. He picked Saul. The Bible says Saul was “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others.”

Saul also impressed the prophet but after a few years, that same prophet had to boot him from office. This “impressive” king had not kept the commands the Lord God gave him so his tenure as king was over. God asked the prophet to anoint another man.

This time he was directed to a family with several sons. When he saw the height and appearance of the first one, he said, “Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here . . .” but God told him “No.” He added, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

Because we see the outside first, we often make evaluations on only that. If a person’s appearance conforms to our idea of good, favorable, well-shaped, lovely, well-muscled, or whatever other measurement we use, then we accept the person. In other words, if “short” is in then Levi will not have a problem with his peers, but if tall is popular, he will be ostracized for being small for his age.

Thankfully, God does not look at Levi or anyone else with those measurements in mind. Instead, He looks for an honest heart, one that will admit that the standards of this world are not reliable. They change from culture to culture, from year to year but God’s standards never change.

For that reason, the Lord looks for people who can say, “Yes, I may be short (if shortness is their particular issue) but I also fall short. I cannot measure up to the standards of God and I know that I need a Savior. I need God’s forgiveness and His help so that I can become all that He wants me to be.”

God also says, “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD. . . .”

An addition seems appropriate: “Let not the tall, handsome lad boast in his appearance...” Levi, small and ordinary, displays extraordinary humility. He has already taken a giant step towards pleasing God.