Is Easter Birthed Out Of Pagan Origins?

The other day I was having lunch with a good friend of mine. At one point the subject of Easter came up and he shared with me how he doesn’t believe we should celebrate it as Christians. Partly because it has ‘iffy’ pagan beginnings and partly because it has become less about Jesus’ resurrection and more to do with commercialism. Is he right? And if he is, should we then all cease to celebrate this Christian holiday?

Certainly, for some people in our culture, Easter Sunday is more about the Easter bunny, colourfully decorated Easter egg hunts and chocolate treats then it is about Jesus’ resurrection. Granted, most folks still know that Easter Sunday has ‘something’ to do with the resurrection of Jesus yet are unclear as to how that is related to the Easter eggs and the Easter bunny. That’s because there is no connection between the resurrection of Jesus and the common modern traditions related to Easter Sunday.

The truth is, that in order to make Christianity more attractive to non-Christians, the ancient Catholic Church mixed the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection with celebrations that involved spring fertility rituals. These spring fertility rituals are the source of the egg and bunny traditions.

Fast forward to today, our consumeristic culture can’t seem to help itself in trying to cash in on the gullibility of people to be parted with their money for none essential trinkets and sweets which focus on those eggs and bunnies. So, it seems that Easter might as well have pagan origins, since it has been almost completely commercialized – the world’s focus is on Easter eggs, Easter candy, and the Easter bunny and not on the resurrection. Does that mean we stop celebrating Easter? And what about the ‘iffy’ pagan origins?

Pagan origin theories

Some have made the claim that we get the name Easter from pagan sources, one being Ishtar an ancient Mesopotamian goddess of war, fertility, and sex. She is featured in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the “Ishtar Gate” was a part of King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. Her worship involved animal sacrifices; objects made of her sacred stone, lapis lazuli; and temple prostitution.

A popular meme has been circulating the internet with these words superimposed over an image of Ishtar: “This is Ishtar: pronounced ‘Easter.’ Easter was originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex. Her symbols (like the egg and the bunny) were and still are fertility and sex symbols (or did you actually think eggs and bunnies had anything to do with resurrection?). After Constantine decided to Christianize the Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus. But at its roots, Easter (which is how you pronounce Ishtar) is all about celebrating fertility and sex.”

Here’s the thing, there is absolutely no conclusive connection between the pagan goddess Ishtar and the Christian celebration of Easter. Any theory that Easter is named after Ishtar is pure speculation. Added to that, there is also no proof that Ishtar was ever associated with eggs or rabbits as symbols. Truth be known – Ishtar’s sacred animal was actually a lion. Both lions and bunnies are fluffy and furry, but certainly not the same.

Another theory makes the claim that the name Easter comes from a pagan figure called Eastre (or Eostre) who was celebrated as the goddess of spring by the Saxons of Northern Europe. According to this theory, Eastre was the “goddess of the east – from where the sun rises,” her symbol was the hare (a symbol of fertility), and a festival called Eastre was held during the spring equinox by the Saxons to honour her.

This theory on the origin of Easter is highly problematic however, because we have no hard evidence that such a goddess was ever worshiped by anyone, anywhere. In fact, the only mention of Eastre comes from a passing reference in the writings of the Venerable Bede, an eighth-century monk and historian.

Bede wrote, “Eosturmononath has a name which is now translated as ‘Paschal month,’ and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate the Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance” (source: De Temporum Ratione).

Other than this one source though, Eostre is not mentioned in any other ancient writing; no shrines have ever been found, no altars discovered, and nothing has ever been identified to document the worship of Eastre. So, it is quite possible that Bede simply extrapolated the name of the goddess from the name of the month.

Others contend that the word Easter ultimately derives from the Latin phrase in albis, related to alba (“dawn” or “daybreak” in Spanish and Italian). In Old High German, in albis became eostarum, which eventually became Ostern in modern German and Easter in English.

In the end, even if it could be proved that the word Easter is etymologically related to the name of a pagan goddess such as Ishtar or Eostre, it would not change what the Easter holiday itself means to us. For that matter, I don’t think that it should go unnoticed that the word Wednesday comes from Woden’s Day in honour of the Norse god Woden or Odin – but we don’t fret about ‘that’ word’s pagan origin.

In the end, while the word Easter most likely comes from an old word for “east” or the name of a springtime month, we don’t have much evidence that suggests anything more. Assertions that Easter is pagan or that Christians have appropriated a goddess-holiday are untenable.

What Does Scripture Have to say?

Christians celebrate Easter as the resurrection of Christ on the third day after his crucifixion. It is the oldest Christian holiday and the most important day of the church year because of the significance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I get that because of the commercialization and possible pagan origins of Easter, many churches prefer to call it “Resurrection Sunday.”

The rationale is that, the more we focus on Christ and his work on our behalf, the better. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17, that without the resurrection of Christ our faith is futile. What more wonderful reason could we have to celebrate!

But, whether we call it “Easter” or “Resurrection Sunday,” isn’t the important thing. What is important is the reason for our celebration, which is that Christ is alive, making it possible for us to have eternal life. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” – Romans 6:4

So, should we celebrate Easter or allow our children to go on Easter egg hunts? This is a question both parents and church leaders struggle with. Ultimately, I believe that it comes down to a matter of conscience as Paul speaks to in Romans. “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” – Romans 14:5

There is nothing essentially evil about painting and hiding eggs and having children search for them. What is important is our focus. If our focus is on Christ, our children can be taught to understand that the eggs are just a fun game. Parents and the church, however, do have a responsibility to teach the true meaning. In the end, participation in Easter egg hunts and other secular traditions must be left up to the discretion of parents.

Regardless of where the name Easter came from, or what the world has done to commercialize an ancient experience, Easter itself is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is a critical doctrine of the Christian faith. When we celebrate, we are making a statement declaring definitively that Jesus conquered death and the grave, proving to be the world’s Saviour from sin and death. “Whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” – John 3:16

Christian – Choose The Right Side Of History

We all make choices every day. Some are life changing and some are so miniscule as to make no seeming difference in our lives. Either way making choices is a big part of our lives and very important. Do I choose to stop at the stop sign and look both ways before proceeding? Do I choose to brush my teeth in the morning before going out in public? Do I choose to respond in a loving manner or a nasty manner when someone crosses me?

Choices are not only important for me but choices affect other people. I remember Nick (not his real name). He was 18 at the time and had endured a life of terrible abuse at the hands of the person he should have been able to trust the most… his father. I had just gotten to know him only months after he had stood atop the fourth floor of a parking garage, determined to take his life by throwing himself backwards. He chose to die, but ended up making the choice for his family to now take care of a quadriplegic.

Certain choices I make cause others to make choices as a result. If I choose to play my trumpet outside on my neighbours front lawn at one in the morning, they could choose to respond… somehow.

Not making choices also affects others as well. Have you ever stood 4 deep in a line up at McDonalds and when it finally comes to the person in front of you, they act as though they have never been there before? Like as though McDonald’s has changed its menu in any great way since the last time they were there. They’ve been standing in line with the menu fully out displayed – in case they needed a reminder – and they still can’t seem to make a choice in a reasonable amount of time.

All choice consists of is the mental process of judging the merits of a few options and then selecting one or more of those options. Big Mac and a Large fry, done! I’m so glad I have a choice to use the self-serve kiosk nowadays.

Choices are important, but it seems as if most people meander through life as though they weren’t when it comes to the choices that matter the most – the ones that relate to eternity. It’s interesting to me how the average person puts an amazing amount of planning and strategic thought into their next weekend camping trip and barely give eternity a passing glance. So, while we do understand that making choices is probably important, we sometimes need to be reminded to make the right choices.

While growing up my father continually challenged me to make right choices and as a dad I do the same with my kids, understanding that I can’t force them to choose well. Our heavenly father won’t force us to make right choices either, but he presents us with the choices of a lifetime, such as to follow Jesus or treat him as a curiosity, to live in obedience and be a part of his plan or choose to live the Christian life by osmosis and miss out on the abundant life promised.

“Jesus withdrew with His disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that He was doing, they came to Him. And He told His disciples to have a boat ready for Him because of the crowd, lest they crush Him, for He had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around Him to touch Him. And whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, they fell down before Him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” And He strictly ordered them not to make Him known.” – Mark 3:7-12

 

The people’s choice resulted in a broken relationship with God and so ended up on the wrong side of history

This is a period of time in which there is no medical care, and no real healing by the medical arts. This is a difficult world; life expectancy is short. The people came from all over the countryside because they heard of all that he was doing.

No one denies the miracles, they all affirm the miracles. No one denies that he had power over the kingdom of darkness, over the agents of hell and still they reject Jesus. Interesting…

No one tries to dismiss Jesus as a fraud ever, no one, not even any of their leaders. His miracles are daily and they’re public. They are undeniable testimony and evidence of his deity, yet in the end they will scream for his blood and say, “Crucify Him, crucify Him.”

And so, the people make the choice to reject him because they want the miracles, never the gospel. They choose to see Jesus as a provider of needs rather than the Lord of their lives. Instead of “Dying to Know Him”, it’s more likely they’d ‘kill’ to get something from him.

They thought that they were on the right side of history and that Jesus’ way was the wrong choice, that his movement would soon be forgotten. They were so comfortable in the place where they were that they made their choice thinking  their way was the right and better one, and though it was the popular choice, it cost – big time. They lost their chance to be restored to God in a right relationship and ended up on the wrong side of history.

 

The Disciple’s choice resulted in a renewed relationship, ending up on the right side of history

 After a while Jesus goes up a mountainside away from the crowds choosing to take with him just those who are his closest followers. Here’s the interesting part of the choices made that day. First off Jesus’ choice of such a motley crew and then secondly the choice of the disciples to accept Jesus’ offer.

We get a bit of insight into what Jesus’ plan was and why he chose such ordinary guys from Paul. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart. Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”.” – 1 Corinthians 1:18-20

God never does things by guess and by golly. He chose on purpose the lowest of the low, the foolish and the weak, the lowest of this world, the no-births, the insignificants, those who others don’t even notice.

As far as the world was concerned, these twelve followers of Jesus’ didn’t even exist. They certainly didn’t matter to the religious establishment of Israel. In fact, the elite looked at them and said, “What in the world is this, these untrained, uneducated, unskilled people from Galilee?” And the only explanation they could give for what power they had was that they had been with Jesus. That was always going to be the explanation. They were never the explanation, Jesus was always the explanation.

We’re not the explanation – ever, Jesus is always the explanation. Truth is that you could never find the secret formula to what’s going on in the Kingdom by looking at the people. You have to look at the power and that comes from Jesus. However, the thing we can do is choose to get to know Jesus so much, so intimately, that the power flows through us.

How do we do this? By surrendering every part of our life to God, to the Holy Spirit’s power to change us. The Disciples made their choice, choosing to surrender… everything, including their personal agendas, their very lives to make Jesus known. And God used them to turn the world upside down and changed history. They were among those who ended up on the right side of history.

 

What side of history will you find yourself? 

How about us? What choices do we make? We live in a pretty dark world right now. Shootings in high schools, gunmen hiding in hotel rooms killing people on the streets, wars and rumours of wars, changing environments, sexual abuses and political unrest… I could go on but I think we all get it. Life isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse.

It also is becoming increasingly clear that the ‘popular’ direction of culture goes against the way of Jesus. In view of this, do we allow ourselves to follow the status quo, or get filled with anxiety or anger or fear? And do we play the blame game? “It’s the millennials fault”, or “It’s the government’s fault”, or “If everyone else just smartened up”. But have we thought about the choices we, ourselves make about our stand for Jesus?

Would be accused of being sold out for him like the disciples were or are we so focused on our next ‘camping trip’ or making sure we plan to get out and watch that next blockbuster movie, or plan for the upcoming hockey tournament or family event, wrapping ourselves up so much so that we don’t give eternal choices more than a passing thought?

I am in no way condemning a hockey tournament, or a good movie or a family potluck… I for one, am planning on seeing the Black Panther on the big screen and as for potluck – sign me up, but I guess I’m wondering if we’re more like the folks in Jesus day looking for and believing that Jesus is more about comfort and what I can get out of him and less concerned about being sold out for him, especially if it’s unpopular.

We have a choice to make. Will it be like the nation of Israel who rejected the messiah after he had been revealed to them, choosing rather to see Jesus simply as someone or something to satisfy their own wants, desires and needs? Or will your choice be on the right side of history and like the disciples choose to Go… every day and in every way, forgoing comforts, popularity and even great plans – giving their very lives – dramatically different than their neighbours?

The world is claiming that it is ‘they’ who are on the right side of history. There are comments being made that say that we are out of step and that Jesus’ way is becoming obsolete. Christians are called homophobic, unscientific, old fashioned, bigots and backward thinkers. Be that as it may, I believe that we are in a day and a time where God’s people must forgo our ‘comforts’ and make a choice about what side of history to be on.

We need to take a deep look at our lives and ask whether or not we are living in such a way and making choices that cause us to be accused of being with Jesus. Are our  lives so dramatically different than the world around us that people can’t help but see that we’ve been with him?

The question we must ask ourselves is whether we’re too comfortable with where we are or will we make the right choices – living dramatically different than the world around us?

You Can Have Confidence In Your Salvation

As a boy I got saved from my sin about 101 times. Well, not really, but as a 10 or 11-year-old, I would lay awake in my bed and not ‘feel’ saved’. My lack of maturity would get the best of me and I’d want to make sure that Jesus had heard me say the ‘sinner’s prayer’- again, just to make sure of course. I don’t struggle with that issue today because my confidence is rooted in my understanding and acceptance of what Jesus has already done for me, but I run across many today who are living angst driven lives, having the same fears I did as a boy, questioning their salvation and not ‘feeling’ that they’re saved. .

Here’s the thing… God’s word has a lot to say about salvation, but nothing to say about “feeling saved.” The world we live in is a feeling-oriented society and, sadly, that has spilled over into the church. But feelings are unreliable. The fact is, God promised to save us if we come to him in faith. But he never promised that we would ‘feel’ saved.

Emotions are untrustworthy. They ebb and flow like the tides of the ocean that bring in all kinds of debris and deposit them on the shore, then go back out, eroding the ground we stand on and washing it out to sea. That’s a pretty good picture of those whose emotions rule their lives. The simplest circumstances – a headache, a cloudy day, a word thoughtlessly spoken by a friend – can erode our confidence and send us “out to sea” in a fit of despair. Doubt and discouragement, particularly about the Christian life, are the inevitable result of trying to interpret our feelings as though they were truth. They are not. 

But the disciple who is forewarned and well-armed is a person not governed by feelings but by the truth she knows, not relying on feelings to prove anything. Someone who relies on feelings is someone who is so introspective that they become preoccupied with themselves, constantly analyzing their own feelings. As a result, they’ll continually question their relationship with God. “Do I really love God?” “Does he really love me?” “Am I good enough?” What we need to do is stop focusing on our feelings and instead redirect our focus to God and the truth we know about him from his Word.

The disciple’s life is about death to self and rising to “walk in the newness of life” – Romans 6:4, a life characterized by thoughts about him who saved us, not thoughts about the feelings of the dead flesh that has been crucified with Christ. When we are continually thinking about ourselves and our feelings, we are essentially obsessing about a corpse, full of rottenness and death. Not a good thing. 

As I have matured in my faith I have found scripture to be an encouragement to me and have found confidence about my salvation as I’ve spent time reading the Word. More specifically, here are three assurance sign-posts of salvation from 1 John that have blessed me over the years:

Theological: 1 John 4:14-16; 5:1-13

You should have confidence if you believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God, And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” – 1 John 5:11-13

John doesn’t want people to doubt and God wants you to have assurance, to know that you have eternal life. And this is the first sign that you believe in Jesus, that you believe he is the Christ or the Messiah,  “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.” – 1 John 2:22.

You believe he is the Son of God, “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son.” – 1 John 5:10.

And you believe that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” – 1 John 4:2.

One of the signs that should give you confidence before God is that you believe in his only Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Moral: John 15; Romans 6; Galatians 5

You should have confidence if you live a righteous life,No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.  Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.” “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” – 1 John 3:6-9; 3:24

Those who practice wickedness, who plunge headlong into sin, who not only stumble, but habitually walk in wickedness, should not be confident. This is no different than what Paul tells us in Romans 6 that we are no longer slaves to sin but slaves to righteousness and in Galatians 5 that those who walk in the flesh will not inherit the kingdom. This is no different than what Jesus tells us in John 15 that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 

So, if you live a morally righteous life you should have confidence. And lest this standard make you despair, keep in mind that part of living a righteous life is refusing to claim that you live without sin and coming to Christ for cleansing when you do sin, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” – 1 John 1:9-10

know we have eternal life if we love Jesus, love his commands, and love his people.

Social: 1 John 4:7-12, 21

You should have confidence if you love other Christians, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” – 1 John 3:14. If you hate like Cain you do not have life. But if your heart and your wallet are open to your brothers and sisters, eternal life abides in you. One necessary sign of true spiritual life is that we love one another.

These are John’s three signposts to assure us that we are on the road that leads to eternal life. These are not three things we do to earn salvation, but three indicators that God has indeed saved us. We believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God. We live a righteous life. We are generous toward other Christians. 

Or we can put it this way: we know we have eternal life if we love Jesus, love his commands, and love his people. 1 John 2:4, 6; 4:20; 5:2. No one of the three is optional. All must be present  in the Christian, and all three are meant to be signs for our assurance. Of course in varying degrees as we grow and mature but there non the less. 

John belabours the same points again and again. Do you love God? Do you love his commands? Do you love his people? If you don’t, it’s a sign you have death. If you do, it’s sign that you have life. And that means confidence instead of condemnation. 

The Church & Gender Dysphoria

Gender dysphoria (or gender Identity disorder) is fast becoming an accepted standard in our world and is quickly being eliminated as a classifed disorder at all. An individual may now identify as ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘other’ on many, if not all government forms today. Transgenderism currently finds protection within the law of the land… at least north of the American/Canadian border.

In Canada, Bill C-16, was recently introduced that updates the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to include the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression” making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or expression. It also extends hate speech laws to include the two terms, making it a hate crime to target someone for being transgender.

Jordan Peterson, Canadian clinical psychologist, cultural critic, and professor of physiology at the University of Toronto, jumped all over it, “I will never use words I hate,” Peterson wrote, “like the trendy and artificially constructed words ‘zhe’ and ‘zher.’ These words are at the vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is, in my professional opinion, frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.”

Some applaud Jordan Peterson, while others decry his position. Lines have been drawn, opinions shared, accusations made and unkind words are being thrown left and right. For myself, no matter my personal opinion about the ‘gender’ issue, I am first and foremost a believer in treating people with a value and respect that I’d hope to receive for myself. We shouldn’t need a law to force us to respect other people.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that this blurring of the gender lines is sin and a problem. I do believe that it is certainly sin and needs to be called for what it is. It is controlling the hearts and minds of people, damaging society along with the individuals who are caught in the lie that says their self-worth is found in their sexuality or sexual identity. It’s not! Self-worth can only be found in Jesus Christ. And one of the ways we discover our self-worth and true identities through Jesus is in the celebration of the sexes as God created them, male and female.

However, this never gives a Christian licence to demean someone who might struggle with sexual identity or identifies other than their birth gender. In fact, as disciples of Jesus Christ, our churches should be the safest place to talk about, and struggle with gender dysphoria. Yet too often, our churches have been anything but safe – and that’s something that Christians, including me, need to repent about. The Bible challenges churches to reflect and represent Jesus by reaching out to transgender and gender dysphoric neighbours with loving grace-filled hope.

I’m not sure that the average church is living out that challenge though. Having said that I believe most churches would like to. So, the question begs to be asked; To live like that, what would we need to be more like? If we lived like that what would we look like?

We must be a caring people

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:10

If a self-identified transgender individual walked into your church, would this person be greeted? How about invited for lunch? How about invited back next Sunday? Our response to those who identify as transgender must be absolute and sincere, “You are welcome here. You are loved.”

That’s because we believe that all people matter to God. As a result, we must seek to intentionally engage all people with an effort to move them toward God, while relating to them where they are at in every stage of life and spiritual journey. The mission of every Christian is to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ within their circle of influence. This needs to be characterized by genuine friendships; actively doing good deeds; sharing a personal witness; & dependence upon prayer and the Holy Spirit’s convicting /drawing work.

Sadly though, too often our churches give the impression that the Son of Man came to seek and save the squeaky clean, not the lost. To combat this requires us to be transparent about our own struggles and failings. The antidote to this impression is to embrace the compassion that Jesus extends to each of us – and in turn extend it to others. We need to live lives that habitually repent often, forgive freely and extend grace continuously.

 We must be a listening people

As the bringers of light to a dark world and as representatives of Jesus who declared himself as the way, the truth and the life, we must boldly stand for truth and declare the way. That must never change. However,  I wonder if, in our fervour we too often believe we can just declare the truth to the world and think that our job is done. “Good job boys… that’ll tell em.”

We work hard to make sure we have our truth or theology and apologetics down pat and then act as though we can simply give the ‘right’ answer, or the so called ‘Sunday school response’ to all the cultural problems being faced, believing then that the ‘issue’ will be cleared up, much like a home remedy for a spiritual head cold. But the problem is that many aren’t looking for head answers because they’re crying out to us from the heart. God made us with both heads and hearts that come with real thoughts, real feelings, and real desires.

I wonder if we sometimes forget that it is real people living in our neighbourhoods, interacting in our work spaces, sitting in our gatherings, and having real struggles. What do they hear in our conversations? Do they hear people trying to understand them or do they hear the dismissiveness of someone who has never really stopped to consider how they feel? Of anyone on this earth, we should be known for being the ones who seek to understand their heart. This takes work, because sometimes, instead of coming up with the ‘answers’ we should spend more time being silent while honestly listening. In order to sincerely affect someone, we need to first listen to their heart.

 We must be a gracious people

“But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” – 1 Timothy 1:16 

To truly understand mercy is to understand that I am an unworthy recipient of God’s mercy, and that but for the grace of God I would be not only a sinner but a condemned sinner. In consequence, I must endeavor to reflect in my dealings with others something of the mercy God has shown me.

Grace is an essential part of God’s character and is closely related to his benevolence, love, and mercy. Grace can be variously defined as “God’s favour toward the unworthy” or “God’s benevolence on the undeserving.” In his grace, God is willing to forgive us and bless us abundantly, in spite of the fact that we don’t deserve to be treated so well or dealt with so generously. As the recipients of God’s grace, Christians are to be gracious to others.

If our churches are marked by one thing, let it be grace – the grace that always welcomes, always goes the extra mile, always forgives, and is extended continuously. We were meant to be a place of grace – a place where everyone, no matter background or struggles, finds homes open and family offered, a place where people are listened to and loved rather than stereotyped and lectured. If you’re a disciple of Jesus Christ, God is calling you to that ministry.

Why We Should Talk About Hell

A while back I read Rob Bell’s book ‘Love Wins’ and it caused me to re-think a lot about how I view hell, even causing me to have some concerns about what I had been taught all my life. That fallback position to go back to ‘what I’ve always been taught’ isn’t the best standard to judge the legitimacy of an idea, though, like comfort food, can be a good starting point. I will admit that I even had some doubt about what I believe. What is hell? What is its purpose? Is it a place? Is it forever? Should we fear it? Does it cause people to turn away from God? Does it make it hard if not impossible for us to share the love of Christ with someone else? Is it a problem for Christianity?

I think that the whole idea of hell is one of Christianity’s most offensive doctrines. Peter Kreeft writes: “Of all the doctrines in Christianity, Hell is probably the most difficult to defend, the most burdensome to believe and the first to be abandoned.”

 Many are repulsed, sickened and appalled by the idea of an eternal place of punishment, especially if someone suggests that includes themselves, friends & family. “Hitler maybe, but not my grandmother.”

Because of these angsts, many Christians will avoid the topic of Hell altogether. We don’t hear it talked about from the pulpit in may churches anymore and it isn’t usually a part of the conversation around a shared meal. We don’t want to rock the boat maybe or we think that Hell isn’t a required subject when sharing the gospel.

I propose however, that we need to talk about Hell more than we do. I believe that it is integral to the Gospel message and is doing the church a disservice when we hide it away as though it is the crazy uncle we’re embarrassed to talk about.

So, I did what I always do when faced with a spiritual and / or theological question. No, I didn’t ask Siri or head to the theological depths of Wikipedia, I went to God’s word… and even more specifically the Word made flesh. If we want to answer the question of hell, then we need to look at Jesus and what he had to say on the subject.

He’s a great place to start for a few reasons. The first is that people in the West think Jesus is a pretty good guy so if you want to help others understand a particular subject it helps if you can ‘name drop’ someone they like. Oprah likes him, at least the non-confrontational Jesus, and Deepak Chopra has even written books about Jesus as a great mystic and guru of Eastern religion.

In our culture we find that Jesus isn’t painted with the same brush as that angry, vengeful, cranky God of the Old Testament who hadn’t matured out of his confusing puberty years yet. But when God finally grew up and entered his college years in the New Testament, he reemerged as the party guy named Jesus. Good times! Parties in Cana, lots of talk about love and compassion and grace, and of course helpful spiritual sound bites. Selfies all round!

The problem with this view though is that it’s not true, which is another reason why I find it helpful to go to Jesus. We get most of our understanding of hell, not from the Old Testament, but from Jesus own words. When you start reading the Gospels, you find that Jesus speaks about hell more than anyone else. About 13% of his teachings and half of his parables are about hell, judgment, punishment, and the wrath of God.

Jesus talked about hell and it follows that we should too. First though, how do we reconcile a Jesus of grace & mercy & love with a Jesus’ of wrath, punishment & hell?

I think that number one, we need to see that interwoven with the love of God is his mercy that requires justice. If a judge pardons an unrepentant child abuser without any good reason, we wouldn’t applaud his mercy and see it as an act of love, particularly when we consider the rights of the victim (and the safety of potential future victims). Mercy without justice is reckless and dangerous. True justice requires adequate payment for the crime or crimes committed.

“When a person goes through rape or child abuse, she needs to know that there is a God of such holiness and beauty that his reign can tolerate no evil.” – Tim Keller

Even if someone got off because of a loophole in the justice system, we’d call it “Injustice!” Why? Because we have something within us that tells us that injustice is wrong. It’s a universal belief that we know it has to be paid for.

If God is truly just, then there is punishment for offenses committed.

Yet, many people will demand God show them mercy while still refusing to love that very same God. “I will not follow you and obey your commands –  but don’t send me to hell.” However, the facts are that God’s mercy & love are inseparable.

The other concern I needed to address after reading Rob Bell’s book was the idea that hell was symbolic as opposed to a real cavernous abode of fire and brimstone… so I went back to the Word of God to see what is revealed there.

Some people get confused and will deduce that hell can’t be a physical place because of how it is described. For example, when scripture describes hell, it speaks about “eternal fire” “unquenchable fire”. But it also says that hell is a place of utter darkness.

So, what is it?

It’s all the above. It is fire, darkness and a real place hung in real time. Yet, because of our culture, we often imagine the fire and darkness as literal flames and literal inky blackness. Instead we need to understand the language was used to help us understand the magnitude of the place.

For example, when the bible speaks about a God of unquenchable fire, we don’t imagine him being a big ball of literal fire. Rather we understand that it’s giving us a picture of his holiness.

Likewise, when we read that God has blinded the eyes of the unbeliever in John 12:10, we don’t expect to see a bunch of unsaved people on the roads driving around with dark glasses on because they’re literally blind all of a sudden. We know that it’s speaking of their spiritual condition.

At the same time, in Luke 16, Jesus speaks about heaven and hell as being real places with hell as a place of separation from the presence of God. Yet it wasn’t utter darkness in a physical sense since the Rich man could see Lazarus (albeit through sweaty eyes). However, think about the following; Since God is the source of all spiritual light, and all joy and all wisdom and all love or good thing of any sort, and since we were originally created for God’s immediate presence, it is then only before him will we thrive, flourish, and achieve our highest potential.

So, if we were to lose his presence totally, that’d be the deepest darkness of the soul. Without his light, we can only expect the loss of our capability for giving or receiving love or joy and finding any kind of satisfaction.

Add to that the picture of fire which speaks to its nature as a degenerater, something that deteriorates to ash everything it touches. Even in this life we can see the kind of soul deterioration that self-centeredness creates.

We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them.

We see this process in a small way in addictions such as drugs, alcohol, gambling, and pornography. First there is the degeneration, because as time goes on you need more and more of the addictive substance to get an equal kick, which leads to less and less satisfaction.

And then add the bitter darkness that isolation brings we had talked about in the Rich man’s situation, as increasingly you blame others and the surrounding environment or circumstances in order to justify your behaviour.

With that in mind ask the question:

“What if when we die we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends into eternity?”

With that picture in your mind’s eye you can see that Hell is the fire or the deterioration of a soul by living a self-absorbed, self-centred, angst driven, anxiety filled, blame shifting life – going on & on forever.

“Yeah, but I’m not all that bad. I haven’t murdered somebody, I’m not a drug addict, I don’t look at porn – often. I only get mad at ‘stupid’ drivers, God will be fair and let me into heaven.”

Jesus didn’t say the greatest commandment is to not murder, or to not commit adultery, though he did say that if you had anger in your heart you’ve committed murder, or if you’ve ever lusted after someone other than your spouse you’ve committed adultery.

But what Jesus did say was that the greatest commandment was, “to love God with all your heart soul and mind.” There is no greater evidence of the inability of man to obey God’s law than this one commandment. No human being with a fallen nature can possibly love God with all his heart, soul, and strength 24 hours a day. It’s humanly impossible.

Even without considering the sins we commit daily, we are all condemned by our inability to fulfill this one commandment. Further to that, the Bible declares that everyone sins, and that all sin is ultimately against God.

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” – Romans 3:23

“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” – Psalm 51:4

Those verses are sobering enough, but then also understand that those who go to Hell aren’t going to be suddenly sinless and perfect. Those who go into eternity without Christ will be confirmed in their decision to not follow him while on earth.

Jesus said that there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in Hell. The gnashing of teeth isn’t a picture of someone who is in sorrow and repentance but rather a picture of a continued defiance toward God.

In Hell there will be no repentance.

So, unless you surrender your life to God in this lifetime, you will not only be living in disobedience to God for 70, 80, 90, or 100 years, you will be in disobedience before him for eternity – which requires an eternal penalty.

Why did Jesus speak about hell more than anyone else in the Bible? Because he wanted us to see what he was going to endure on the cross on our behalf so that we might choose heaven – so that we might choose God.

On the cross, Jesus’s sacrifice was scarcely describable: this bloodied, disfigured remnant of a man was given a cross that was perhaps recycled, likely covered in the blood, feces, and urine of other men who had used it previously. Hanging there in immense pain, he slowly suffocated to death. All the while knowing he could end the suffering, but choosing not to for our benefit.

But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the separation from the Father that Jesus felt, a separation that was like hell itself. “My God, my God,” he cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” – Matthew 27:46

An eternity without God is hell.

Without the cleansing of sin that he provides, and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit who lives in the hearts of the redeemed, loving God to any degree is impossible.

But, when we receive the free gift of salvation offered by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we are cleansed from sin and receive the Spirit of holiness to do the impossible. That being, a transformation of our hearts and minds to love God as we have been commanded to do, and as a result heaven becomes our home. This is great news!

That is why we talk about hell, because it allows us to talk about Jesus and his sacrifice… it allows us to make Jesus known, it brings clarity to the Gospel message about why Jesus died, and it lets us brag up our Saviour in order to bring him all the glory he deserves.

Does Christmas Have Pagan Roots And Should That Matter?

A friend recently told me that she and her family don’t celebrate Christmas because it began as a pagan holiday. Is that ‘pagan root’ thing true and if it is, does that mean that we all shouldn’t celebrate Christmas? What is the truth of the matter?

Personally, I look forward to the season. I see it as a natural opportunity to share Christ with the world – especially given that for the most part there is an ‘openness’ to the gospel message during this time of the year like no other time on the calendar. But still, does my friend have a legitimate point? Was the event we now call Christmas originally a “pagan holiday”?

Does it mean then that the gifts we exchange are to be shunned because some Druid somewhere in time offered a gift to his goat as part of some pagan ritual? And does that mean the church should discard all of the Christmas season, along with its lights, tinsel, Christmas carol re-runs and increasing commercialism?

There is no doubt that some of what we now refer to as Christmas traditions can be traced back, in some form, to pagan cultures and celebrations. In fact, December 25, which Christians now herald as Jesus’ birthday, was actually the date on which the Romans celebrated the birth of the sun god.

After the Roman emperor Constantine ‘converted’ to Christianity at the Milvian Bridge in 312, he combined the worship of the sun god with worship of Christ. Many of the Christian leaders at that time accepted Constantine’s conversion in a positive light, irrespective of whether he was sincere or converted for political purposes, and seized on the opportunity to celebrate the “Christ-mass” as a vital part of the process of converting the pagan world.

But even long before Constantine, Christians found ways to redeem local cultures and salvage elements in those cultures that naturally pointed to Christ, whether Hebrew, Syrian, Greek, or Roman. They denounced inhumane pagan practices, but at the same time took over pagan temples and converted them to churches. They replaced the old gods in popular devotion with heroic martyrs of the persecutions. And they replaced the holy days of paganism with festivals of the Christian year.

An example could be the early pagan ritual of lighting candles to drive away the forces of cold and darkness. The Christians of the time adopted that tradition making it their own. Today, is it highly unlikely that our hearts are drawn to those early pagans as we light our candles, rather we rejoice in our Saviour, the Light of the World as John speaks to in his gospel.

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” – John 1:4

As for the Druid offering a gift to his goat. I think it’s safe to say that instead of giving any credence to the history of idolatry, we instead remember, as we should, the gifts given to the Christ-child by the Magi. Jesus was the greatest gift ever given, and therefore his birth is worthy of celebration and gifts worthy to be shared as a symbol of God’s giving heart.

Facts are however, that the beginnings of many Christmas traditions are so obscure that reference books and internet sites contradict one another on the details. Some of our most popular and beloved Christmas symbols are in fact entirely Christian, and were never part of any pagan religion anywhere. At the same time, some Christmas traditions undoubtedly do have their origins in the pagan past.

So, what do we do – or not do? If you are like my friend and are fully convinced that you cannot, in good conscience, observe a particular Christmas tradition, then please, by all means do not observe it. If you are fully convinced that a particular tradition is too steeped in paganism to honour God in any way, by all means forsake that tradition. At the same time, if you are fully convinced that you can honour and worship God through a particular tradition, then please honour and worship God.

I believe that this is an example where the Romans 14 passage applies. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” – Romans 14:5

In the end, what is important is not the origins of traditions, but their significance to us today as believers in the Son of God. For Christians, we celebrate because of the significance seen in the birth of our Saviour, and the traditions remind us of that momentous event that changed the world forever.

But more importantly, the traditions we share help tell the Christmas story about God tracking us down to find us and reveal himself to a sin filled world because he wanted us to know him. Words weren’t enough and so he came to be with us because we could not get to him. He took the form of man, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ and lived among us to show us a better way.

Image that, God came as a baby who grew to be a man and walked, talked and fellowshipped with humanity in the person of Jesus – the prince of peace. And as the Prince of Peace we can finally be reconciled with God the father and enjoy peace with him as we were originally created to enjoy.

One final thought. December 25 was not mentioned in the biblical narrative as the day Jesus was born, and, as such, we can’t be dogmatic about it one way or the other. But even if the date is completely wrong, there is still the opportunity for thousands of people who wouldn’t go to church any other time of the year to go on Christmas day and hear the gospel of Christ.

That should count for something I think. That being the case…

Let the celebration begin!

Why Are Christians So Narrow Minded?

To be accused of being narrow minded is considered to be among the biggest and baddest insults which can be levelled at an individual in our Western culture. The thought is that being narrow-minded implies that one is not open to new ideas because you must obviously think you already know all there is to know. The common fear of having such a ‘rigid mind’ is that some believe that it means one is not open to change because of some deep seeded ignorance, which can only lead to fanaticism. But is this true?

A few years ago, there was an interview between Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise about Scientology. Oprah was clearly skeptical of Cruise’s religious beliefs, but she then asked the million dollar question: “You don’t believe Scientology is the only true religion, do you?” 

Of course Cruise answered the question as Oprah would expect, denying that Scientology claimed to be the only true religion, (apparently only conservative evangelical Christians are foolish enough to make such a claim). After making that clarification, it was obvious that Oprah’s tension immediately lessened.

It’s taboo in our modern culture to say that another person’s alternate lifestyle, religion, or different perspective is wrong. However, one exception to that rule seems to stand out, which is that It seems perfectly acceptable to be intolerant of those who claim they know the truth, in particular, evangelical conservative Christianity.

However, whenever you accept one idea over another, you’re simultaneously closing yourself off to that other idea by consequence. Happens all the time and it happens to everybody. In fact, for someone to claim that Christians are narrow minded is in itself a narrow minded view because that individual making that claim believes it to be true and so rejects the counter view that christians are open minded. See the irony? So if I say that 2 + 2 = 5 and you come along and say that no… it equals 4, are you narrow minded? 

Imagine that researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton Canada this very week discovered the ‘pill’ that could instantly cure all forms of cancer, painlessly and 100% effective every single time it was administered. I couldn’t imagine anyone accusing them of hatred or bigotry or of being “cancerphobic” if they made the claim that this was the final and only treatment for cancer that anyone would ever need.

Or imagine you and I in a deep conversation while standing 50 feet away from the edge of an 1500 foot cliff with no guard rails. Suddenly we see a blind boy of about 10 years of age walking slowly toward the edge with no idea of the danger he is in. What if he called out and asked, “Which way should I go?” And I answered, “It doesn’t matter, go any way you like?”

I know for a fact that you’d call me an idiot. If I care about him even in the slightest (as I would because he is a fellow human being), I’d yell at the top of my lungs, “Please stop! Don’t take another step. I’ll come and get you.” And then I’d run over as fast as i could, take him by the hand and lead him to safety. Love compels me to speak the truth and act it out.

Even knowing this, we can tend to get defensive when someone calls us ‘narrow minded’, because it suggests that we aren’t open to ‘new things’, that we are closed to ‘new and innovative’ ideas and as such we are the ‘ignorant ones’ of society.

I think though, that what most people consider being narrow minded is in reality being closed minded, the two often being confused with each other and used interchangeably as though they are the same thing. However, they aren’t the same thing. In fact we should be open minded when it comes to ‘questions’ and to ‘new ideas’, and we should be scientific in much of our approach to life. We are to search things out and to seek out truth. But if those new and innovative ideas lead to wrong choices, or hurtful consequences, or simply a wrong answer (as on that math test), then I’d suggest that being narrow minded is actually the best place to be.

I am not saying that Christians are better, smarter, nicer, more deserving, chose better, or anything else in and of themselves compared to non-Christians. They are Christians only because Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, has given them new hearts of flesh, renewed minds to understand, and new and true eyes to see Jesus for who he is. As a result, It then is natural for those Christians to accept the narrow way that Jesus laid out.

And Jesus’ ways and his words are always narrow, because he never changes. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.  And even when his ways and his words make us feel uncomfortable with our broad ways of thinking,  that should bring us back to focusing all of our attention on him.  Once we have done that, and have been brought back to a place of narrow focus, he opens the eyes of our hearts and we begin to see more broadly (from an eternal perspective) than we ever have before.

So are Christians narrow minded? Absolutely! Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” – Matthew 7:13-14.

If you want to find your way to God, you have to travel the one and only course Jesus laid out for humanity. Other roads might look attractive and might seem like shortcuts, but only one ‘narrow’ road leads to heaven and brings us into a right relationship with God. And the truth is that the Love of Christ should then compel us to let the world hear about our narrow point of view, because in the end, it opens us all up to so much more of what God wishes us to know.

Legalized Pot – What Should Be The Church’s Response?

Following up on the news that Canada would be legalizing recreational marijuana use, I was asked by a friend what I believed the Christian’s stand should be. I didn’t have a ready answer and so ended up immediately going to my safe place ‘position’ by stating that the answer is something we, the church, need to wrestle with.

I believe we need to wrestle with this new reality right now. Especially given that if you’re a Canadian pastor, you’ll now be able to ‘legally’ fire up a reefer at your next staff retreat. Should that be acceptable? Some of you will be celebrating that news, while others will be recoiling in horror.

In the past, the answer to this issue was easy enough by simply pointing to the legality of it. We simply made mention that we must obey the law of the land. After all, whether we like it or not, God calls us to obey the authorities. conversation over – a sweet moral trump card for pastors.

However, in Canada at least, the trump card is gone. That being the case do we accept the ‘law of the land’ as our determining factor? Maybe then accept it and view it as an opportunity to evangelize? Imagine with me the hip pastors, free to spark a bowl with the lost in order to be “incarnational” because after all it is now ‘ok’ to use according to the law of the land.

The problem with that is that we can’t use the law of the land to determine the Christian’s measurement of freedom. I could be an alcoholic, adulterous, deceitful, prescription-abusing, manipulative, hate-filled connoisseur of grotesque pornography and still be OK, legally and socially. The government’s stamp of approval doesn’t mean I should partake.

Since that initial conversation, I have spent considerable time praying, pondering, and discovering what I ultimately feel will allow me to offer a much more intelligent response to the next person who poses that same question to me. Here are four questions to ask ourselves as we step into this new age of legal marijuana.

Does Scripture Give permission?

Pat answers to the question of recreational marijuana use are often unhelpful. Responses without nuance will not best serve the church in the long run. To say that alcohol is permissible, and weed isn’t, because “Christians drink beer and wine for the taste, but people only smoke pot to get stoned,” just won’t do.

Let’s be honest. We don’t drink beer and wine only for the taste. Even moderate drinking, which is biblically permissible, has lubricating psychoactive effects. From a biblical perspective, this lubricating effect can be acceptable. While drunkenness is clearly prohibited throughout scripture, God has given “wine to gladden the heart of man” – Psalm 104:14-15.

However, evangelical churches sometimes have prohibited the use of alcohol among members because the Bible forbids drunkenness. This is a mistake because the Bible warns us against such extra biblical prohibitions, “…Who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” – 1 Timothy 4:3

Scripture actually permits the moderate use of alcohol, when it can be enjoyed in faith, even though it has psychoactive effects. But is marijuana permitted? I don’t believe it is. I’ll share my reasons as we move on. But I think a good starting point for my hypothesis is because Alcohol and Pot are not the same, much like comparing apples to oranges.

Firstly, unlike alcohol, marijuana has many different effects on an individual due to its complex chemical makeup. There are at least 113 different chemical compounds (cannabinoids) inside the cannabis plant that combine to cause a variety of effects on an individual when smoked or ingested. As well, cannabis has not been a staple in cultures all around the world for use in celebrations and ceremonies, whereas alcohol has been, as seen at the wedding in Cana found in John 2. Further to that, we can easily see in culture as a whole that unlike alcohol, cannabis has been a cultural symbol of rebellion for a large part of the last century.

Keeping with the cultural theme, we see that it wasn’t cannabis used but wine (yes it was fermented) that was used by Jesus in his Last Supper, a Christian cultural event which is to be regularly commemorated by the church.

Some may claim that the only reason we don’t see a prohibition of cannabis in the bible is that the writers of the scriptures, didn’t know about or didn’t see the need, to address it. However, if you hold to the truth that these same writers were inspired through the Holy Spirit and that the Word is meant for all generations and cultures, then we should not take lightly what we see written – and not written. So, the fact that the Bible gives us clear and direct permission for the moderate use of alcohol while never directly referencing other psychoactive compounds such as marijuana should be a strong clue to aid us in reaching our conclusions.

Is It a Healthy Choice?

Paul said, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything. Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food – and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So, glorify God in your body.” – 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Now before you say it, I already know that the context is not specifically about harming the body, however the clear implication is that we are not to intentionally do things that hurt our bodies (among others, one of the reasons for not getting drunk).

A recent study by the Journal of Neuroscience demonstrates that even casual marijuana use changes the brain and can lead to mental illness (see USA Today and Journal of Neuroscience). While heavy drinking (alcohol abuse) has also been linked to mental health disorders, moderate drinking has not.

Even without studies, there is a reason that marijuana has long been associated with the couch, a bag of chips, and a television remote, and has never been associated with engaged parenting. It’s because we all know that regular marijuana use causes disengagement, dulling individuals into a long-term, slow, and subtle numbness. Studies have actually shown a high correlation between regular cannabis use and the clinical diagnosis of Amotivational Syndrome.

Recreational marijuana use is not consistent with anything the Word of God tells us about the Christian life. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, not by the deadening of our minds. We are to be sober-minded about the devil’s schemes, not so stoned that we don’t even care. We are to be filled with the Holy Spirit, not baked/blasted/wasted by what is undeniably a harmful drug.

The health implications are by no means a secret. And the detailed scientific study demonstrating the effects of marijuana use on the brain was probably unneeded. Even simple observation demonstrates that marijuana deadens the brain, resulting in laziness and an inability to concentrate or think clearly. So, very similar to using tobacco and abusing alcohol, the recreational use of marijuana should be avoided due to its adverse effect on health especially given that marijuana is addictive (see Psychology Today).

Does It Help Us See Clearly?

Our trajectory as Christians, our aim is to seek the reality of God’s glory. But sin has distorted our vision and corrupted our world. Ever since sin first entered the world, all of us have been born spiritually dead, unable to discern the true glory of God. When we experience the redemptive work of Christ through the Holy Spirit, we are awakened to the reality and beauty of God. But until we see him face to face, we still see his glory as through a glass dimly.

As redeemed believers, we are on a journey to knowing him without obstruction. Therefore, we do not want to distort reality; rather, we aim to know him as he really is. We want to see things as they really are. With that understanding, the Christian use of any kind of psychoactive substance should always align with this gospel goal of looking to see things clearer. We do not want our vision of reality distorted.

Inevitably the coffee and alcohol arguments are used in this discussion. So, I’ll bite. First of all, why do people drink coffee in the morning? To help them to see things as they really are, rather than through the fog of grogginess. The right and proper use of this God-given substance helps us see things as they really are.

But how does this principle apply to alcohol? At times, moderate lubrication in Godward celebrations can be in keeping with the reality. People don’t drink wine at funerals, which are a reminder of the curse and consequences of sin. If someone drank wine at a funeral, I would wonder whether they have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

But people do drink wine at weddings, in which we celebrate the profound parable being played out before our eyes: the great Bridegroom coming for his bride, the church! And wine (clearly) will have a God-given role at the final consummating celebration (Mark 14:23-25). In this way, the proper and moderate use of alcohol used in the way God intended, can be a clarifier, not a distorter as it points us to the joy, fellowship, and celebration of the great coming feast.

 The question though is whether or not there is a proper and moderate use of marijuana that can actually serve to clarify and point to biblical realities like coffee does and alcohol may in certain circumstances? Or does the recreational use of marijuana always distort?

Research concludes overwhelmingly that recreational cannabis distorts reality and numbs people to the ability to experience life as it truly is. Even a relatively small amount puts the infrequent user into a fog. A larger amount can potentially cause paranoia.

As Christians, our goal is knowing and experiencing the full and undistorted reality of the glory of God in our resurrected physical bodies. “For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” – 1 Corinthians 13:12

What Should Be Our Response?

Now I know that there is a difference for smoking marijuana for health reasons and smoking for recreational reasons. Most of us understand the difference. We’ve all been given prescriptions by our doctors for certain purposes, but then don’t turn around and use the fact that we have been given the prescription for our cure as an excuse to use recreationally – that’d be lunacy.

However, it’s the recreational use of cannabis that seems to violate the Christian value of sobriety. As our culture celebrates the casual use of cannabis today, and does so increasingly in the coming days, we should be vigilant not to be deceived as a church. We should not idly stand by as we watch brothers and sisters who profess faith in Christ enter into a mind-numbing, reality-distorting cloud.

We should encourage one another to peer through the dim glass and discern the glory of God with all our might as the Day draws near, “Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” – Hebrews 10:25

Having said that, it is worth saying that we should also be careful not to make the same mistakes that churches have made in the past with regard to alcohol (some churches even with coffee), adding extra prohibitions to God’s revealed word. Instead we should be quick to engage with individual members who we may discover are using marijuana, asking them questions while seeking to understand, being ready to exhort and rebuke in love if it becomes apparent that they are violating the biblical standards of sobriety and integrity.

The details and nuances we’ll encounter will be complex, but Jesus’s church, holding fast to his word, led by a team of wise pastors, will be up for the challenge. God will have new opportunities for us to be salt and light as we walk together by faith in this age of legal marijuana.

Five Ways to Respond to the Horrific Church Shooting in Texas

On November 5th 2017, 26-year-old Devin Kelly burst into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, and killed (at least) 26 people and shot approximately 20 more. The youngest victim was reportedly two and the oldest was in their 70s. The pastor’s 14-year-old daughter was also murdered. This little town near San Antonio is reeling in agony. For them, this tragedy is Apocalyptic in scale.

Families were decimated, an entire community for the rest of time will be remembered as the place where it happened. No doubt, this little hamlet of civilization has been flooded with news agencies from around the world, agents with the FBI and ATF, ambulance-chasing opportunists of the worst varieties, and well-meaning helping hands (who often get in the way). Whenever schools resume, they will need an army of people trained in crisis therapy. Life will not get back to “normal” in this town for a long, long time – if ever.

I don’t know if anyone is able to tell us the real motive behind the shootings yet. We don’t know with certainty if it was religiously motivated or not, but if it is an attack on Christianity,  is it to be expected?

Whatever the reasons, we do know one thing… It’s evil. How do we (Christians) respond in the face of evil? As disciple’s of Jesus we need to go to our master to find out. Jesus said in John 15:18, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated me before it hated you.”

Tertullian, one of the 2nd century Church Fathers wrote that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”. This implies that the church grows as others see the way Christians respond to death. The martyrs’ willing sacrifice of their lives leads to the conversion of others. Could we see the beginnings of a regrowth of the church through the blood of martyrs?

Last year was the worst in the past 25 years for the persecution of Christians, according to Open Doors, a non-denominational mission supporting persecuted Christians in more than 60 countries.

It was just two and a half years ago that nine people were murdered during a Bible study at a church in Charleston, S.C.  How did Christians in Charleston react in the face of evil? They said to the shooter, “I forgive you.” This is not natural. It is supernatural. But it’s what Jesus commanded, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you…” – Matthew 5:44

Persecution doesn’t just come from a person bent on murder. We have recently witnessed boycotts and even legal actions taken against Christian bakers who refused to bake a wedding cake for same sex couples. I’ve personally witnessed anti-Christian graffiti on church walls, employees being fired for pro-life stands, subtle and not so subtle undertones of intolerance in the media, or outright abuse of power in the government.

In the June 21st, 2014 edition of the National Post, journalist Rex Murphy wrote an article that spoke to a very troubling issue with regard to the suppression of personal choice based on conscience, religious or otherwise. Rex said, “Elected Liberal MPs are under Justin Trudeau’s direct order that, in any legislation that touches on the abortion issue, they must — mindless of their faith, their previous professions on the subject, or their conscience – vote the “pro-choice” dogma. Pro-abortion is the party line. And it is the only line allowed.” – full article can be found by clicking on the following link: http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/rex-murphy-in-justin-trudeaus-world-christians-need-not-apply

My question is how are we Christians supposed to respond to the growing anti-Christian sentiment and in some cases the growing outright persecutions?

I am convinced that what we are seeing are events in our world that we, as Christians nearing the return of Jesus Christ to this earth, need to understand will increasingly become an expectation rather than an exception.

That being the case then, just how should his followers respond? In answer to those who say we need to protest or seek revenge I would like to point us back to the words of Jesus himself, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” – John 18:36

So… what is our response to the horrific shootings in Texas? There are many more, but allow me to share five.

1) PRAY

No matter how frequently such persecutions occur and increase, our first response should always be the same: turn to God in prayer. After the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting in 2012, Scotty Smith provided a model for how to pray in the midst of pain:

“Dear Lord Jesus, we abandon ourselves to you tonight—we come running with our tears and our fears, our anger and our anguish, our lament and our longings. We collapse in your presence, with the assurance of your welcome, needing the mercies of your heart. Some stories are just too much for us to absorb; some evil just too great to conceive; some losses beyond all measurability. We need your tears and your strength tonight. That you wept outside the tomb of a beloved friend frees us to groan and mourn; that you conquered his death with yours, frees us to hope and wait. But we turn our thoughts from ourselves to the families who have suffered an unconscionable violation of heart and all sensibilities. Bring your presence to bear, Lord Jesus, by your Spirit and through your people. May your servants weep with those who weep and wail with those who wail. Extend your tear wiping hand—reach into this great tragedy with an even greater grace.”

2) GRIEVE

As Christians, we are called to weep with those who weep. That was one of the identifying markers of Jesus. “Jesus wept.” – John 11:35. Yet in times of tragedy we just might be tempted instead to try to explain away and justify rather than to simply be silent and grieve with those who are grieving. When a friend or co-worker is weeping it’s hard to say, “I don’t know, I don’t understand.”

The truth is, we want to know. We want to bring comfort and we want to “fix it.” But in our attempts to “fix it” we can forget that there’s a real person in deep sorrow. Your friend, coworker, or relative is not a project to be fixed – they are real people who at those moments just want and need love. Most often without words… more often only with your presence. A hug along with the words, “I’m so sorry” can be the most therapeutic and amazing words and actions that your friend needs at that moment.

3) LOVE

The death of anyone should lead to grieving, whether they were the victim or the perpetrator. Loving is not easy especially if it for the ‘murderer – the offender. It’s a sacrifice, but we need to remember that Jesus did it for us. When he came to rescue us, we were all lost in sin. We were “risky” for him, even to the point of crucifixion. Yet he entered into a world filled with filth, and willingly laid down his life in love. This is how we share Christ with those desperate for saving grace.

4) HOPE

I think that we Christians should certainly support certain policies and solutions that we believe can foster peace, however we should also be realistic about the root cause and the ultimate solution. We need to always be quick to recognize that the root cause of violence and hate is sin. The shooting of these folks is First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs TX, is a heart-wrenching reminder of the devastatingly painful and absolutely brutal result of sin. At its most fundamental sense this tragedy is rooted in a rebellion from God. The fact that people had to die in this church is a testimony to the vicious recourse of sin. The Scripture is clear that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

Knowing this should cause us to look away from superficial hope during these times of tragedy.The Scripture tells us of Jesus who himself being God became a man with the expressed purpose of defeating sin & death by disarming sin of its power. It is Jesus Christ, the Son of the most-high God, who is Sovereign and good, able to save sinners from the deadly enemy of death. It is Jesus who gave his life as a sufficient sacrifice to pay the death penalty due to rebels like us. He died upon the cross and rose victoriously from the grave. His resurrection from the dead is the proof that death and sin have been defeated.

5) MEANWHILE…

Yes, we continue to live in a fallen world where evil flourishes. However, one day when the Lord returns, evil will be defeated forever. And that is the hope Christians have. Meanwhile, let us pray for those who are persecuting the church and for those who are controlled by evil. And let us live so that others may know Jesus who sees with the eyes of compassion and gives us all a hope for a future where there will be no death or evil. 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” – Matthew 5:43-45

To Judge Or Not To Judge – What Does The Bible Say?

Probably the most widely quoted saying of Jesus, and often quoted not only by many Christians but from those who don’t even believe in the scriptures is “Judge not, that you be not judged.” – Matthew 7:1

Frequently it’s used in a context such as: “Yeah, she left her husband, but who am I to judge? After all, Jesus said, ‘Judge not, lest you be judged.’” or “Don’t judge me, Jesus said you’re not supposed to judge”. The idea of being non-judgmental is used as a defence against any assertion that a given person’s behavior is wrong.

Basically, the meaning being presented is “You don’t have the right to tell me I’m wrong.” Ironic given the fact that those who are themselves condemning condemnation are judging others for doing what they themselves are doing – judging someone for being judgmental. In other words, they are ‘judging’ me for ‘judging’ them (or vice-versa).

But let’s get real for a moment. In a sinful world, no community can exist for long where nobody is ever held accountable; no teacher would grade a student’s performance; no citizen would sit on a jury or call a failed leader to account. Modern Canadians however suffer from a fear of judging. Passing judgment on the behavior of fellow human beings is considered an act of barbarous, savage, and uncivilised intolerance.

Why? Because, our culture tells us, we are all flawed, and people with flaws have no right to judge other people’s flaws. Furthermore, the modern westerner does not believe that there are objective standards by which to judge anyways. And where there are no standards, there is nothing by which to measure behaviour.

So, we (society) then seem to agree on a value of allowing everyone to do what is right in his or her own eyes, each person deciding for himself or herself what is right or wrong, telling each other through our social media’s to “tolerate” (which in their minds essentially means “celebrate”) sinful activities. In fact, the sentiment today is that if you don’t ‘celebrate’ a particular sin, you are then automatically condemning those who are. Those who take seriously the biblical warnings against sin and dare speak out against evil are written off as religious fanatics, and ironically “judged” as being “judgmental.”

So the average westerner now walks through their lives telling themselves (and anyone else who will listen) that they’ve evolved to a place of non judgmentalism. And because they are now so enlightened, they have risen above the need to commit the sin of judging others.

The reality though is that you’re only lying to yourself when you say that you don’t judge people. Yeah, I get it, you have Tupac’s “Only God Can Judge Me” tattooed on your upper back, but I guarantee you judge people more than you think. Everyone does it, so let’s stop beating around the bush and stop acting like we’re not engaging in the guilty pleasure. Let’s not judge others when we deem it necessary on our part, and then hide behind culture’s politically correct mantra to not judge others.

When Jesus said not to judge others, he didn’t mean that no one can identify sin for what it is. In fact, Jesus gives a direct command to judge in John’s gospel, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” – John 7:24. Ok… so it appears that Jesus says not to judge but then he gives instruction about judging correctly. What to do? To Judge or not to judge? Taking this verse from John and some others in their proper context’s, what we discover is that it’s not the judging that is discouraged, rather it is the type or motive behind the judgement.

1) Hypocritical Judgement 

Jesus follows up his warning against judgment in Mathew 7. “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you”. Matthew 7:2

That means then that if we can’t hold to the standard we use, we have no business applying that same standard to others. Jesus spoke about hypocrites in Matthew 6 before he subsequently followed it up by a warning against hypocrisy. “Why do you see the splinter in your brother’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.” – Matthew 7: 3, 5

When we point out the sin of others while we ourselves commit the same sin, we only condemn ourselves “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” – Romans 2:1

2) Self-righteous Judgment

“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” – John 7:24. Simon the Pharisee passed judgment on a woman based on her appearance and reputation, but he could not see that the woman had been forgiven; Simon drew Jesus’ rebuke as a result of his self-righteous judgment (Luke 7:36-50).

Self-righteous judgment is wrong. We are called to humility, “God opposes the proud” – James 4:6 and remember that, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”  – Isaiah 64:6

3) Harsh Judgment

The thing is we don’t want to be a society of push overs, do we? If life’s tough for us, should we not make it tough for others? Why should they have a free ride? Challenge – isn’t that what life’s all about? As I go down that path, I invariably get caught up short with words like mercy, love, grace, forgiveness, kindness. That’s what everyone wants. Then there’s King David – as tough as they get. To survive in those days and then excel was no small feat. And yet as he lays on his bed he says, “O Lord, please help me … listen to my prayer for mercy.” – Psalm 28: 1-2

It is the merciful who will be shown mercy, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”. – Matthew 5:7

I hate being judged unfairly and harshly – I much rather be shown a bit of mercy. That being the case I need to remember to extend mercy to others, first. As we judge we must remember that harsh, unforgiving judgment is wrong. “Always be gentle toward everyone” – Titus 3:2

4) Right Judgment

Yes, we’re warned against judging others when it’s done unfairly or unrighteously, but Jesus extols “right judgment” “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” – John 7:24.

Truth is, the Christian must “judge” or discern between good and evil, “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” – Hebrews 5:14

There must be spiritual evaluations made of the words and behavior of others, not to find fault, but to effectively guard our hearts against error and sin. In fact, Jesus warns his disciples to, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.” – Matthew 7:15-16

In the end do we judge, or don’t we? Yes, we do. But the true disciple of Jesus, judges in love. Love requires that we gently confront those in error with the truth about their sin with the hope of bringing them to repentance and faith, “Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death.” – James 5:20