Do You Really Believe In Grace?

Some time ago a Christian friend came to me in distress. He and his wife had a pretty loud blow out – you know, one of those shouting matches for the ages – the type that all the neighbours heard. They’d known their neighbours for years. As far as he was concerned, he’d just blown several years of witnessing to them.

We have a prayer ministry offered every Sunday at the end of the service. We find that often people don’t take advantage of it because as one individual said, “I’d never use it. I’d hate for other people to assume that I had a problem.”

Both these incidents reveal an underlying condition in many of our churches. I’m not sure we really believe in grace. We do, in the sense that we teach it and assent to it in our orthodoxy… in our outward confession. But I’m beginning to think we don’t actually believe it based on how we express it (or don’t) in our orthopraxy.

 I wonder if it’s because of our mistaken attempt at Christian chivalry. What I mean by that is what we think it means to live for Christ. We think that we’re protecting Jesus’ honour by how we live as in: If I look good, then Jesus looks good. So, we hate the thought of not looking good and when we don’t look like shiny specimens of Christendom, we look bad for Jesus and so failed (at least we think that). The problem with that mindset however, is that our life becomes all about performance.

And so, we put on our best Christian masks before heading out into our community of faith. Soon life experiences such as parenting becomes about trying to perform well in front of the kids, working hard at making sure they only see the highest standard of Christian behaviour.

But this is a disastrous way to live or think because it always leads to hypocrisy. The simple fact is, we’re not good, and we can only keep up the façade for a little while before the mask slips off of our growing noses. It’s our kids who see it right away. They know what we’re really like and can immediately tell when we try to put a polished Christian spin to it.

And then we wonder why they don’t want to join us any more in our Christian fellowships. They certainly know that you, or they, are not exactly perfect and have made a mess of this Christian chivalry thing, maybe even feel that they (or you) have let Jesus down. The natural progression in this kind of thinking is that good church folks see this as failure.

We don’t support making Jesus look bad of course and so we must root out the bad apples in the bunch. After all, one bad apple will ruin the whole barrel. We might not say it, but the average Christian doesn’t feel supported in a community of faith when they do fail, so of course the last place they’d want to go to is a church.

Think about it. If we know we can’t begin to pretend things are together and church is the one place we’re supposed to look squeaky clean, then it’s probably just easier simply not to go because after all, it’s easier to keep the mess away from the holy gathering than it is to be as holy as we’re expected to be.

All this is a sign that while we may be professing grace, we’re not actually inhabiting a culture of grace. Truth is, we’re not meant to be Jesus’s image protectors, he can handle his own image. Instead we need to remember that we are broken people, and he is our Saviour. In other words, I don’t need to look good so Jesus can look good; rather, the truth is that I need to be honest about my massive spiritual need so that he can be seen and celebrated as all-sufficient. I don’t increase so he can increase; I decrease so he can increase(John 3:30).

 Imagine the difference this would make to our witness. Rather than thinking I have to constantly be looking less sinful than every non-Christian I know, I am instead liberated to be myself so that I can show that my confidence is not in me.

Please don’t hear me say that that we are free to sin with abandon. Paul dealt with that pendulum swing in Romans, What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” – Romans 6:1-2.

 So, no I’m not saying that we are freed up to sin, however we also need to realize that God is working in us, sanctifying us and we are a work in progress. It is what we do with those moments and how we receive others in spite of their shortcomings that make all the difference.

As an example. My friend and his wife who had that blow-up shouting match now have an amazing opportunity to be authentic witnesses for Christ – not by pretending they don’t have any sin, but by demonstrating what they do with it. If it’s about performance, then my friend really has blown it and will be too embarrassed to see his neighbours. But if it’s about forgiveness, then he gets to model repentance, to show brokenness about sin and sheer relief in a Saviour.

Imagine also the difference this would make to those looking in, and for that matter those already ‘in’ who continually feel that they don’t measure up to our particular standard. The assumption stops being “We have to be good to come here,”and instead becomes “This place is for the messy – like each of us.”

Which do you think sounds more inviting? Which is going to foster deeper confession and public repentance? Instead of feeling embarrassed about going forward to receive prayer, we can experience the joy and relief of knowing we’re all ultimately in the same boat. It fosters a sincere attitude where we repent often, forgive freely and extend grace continuously.

I love what John Newton said, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world – but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”

Living with this understanding, grace becomes not just an orthodoxy we know about in theory, but a deeply felt reality – a true orthopraxy that is expressed in the very being of who we are. Our testimonies are no longer, “I was a mess, then Jesus showed up, and now my life is perfect.” Rather the testimonies become, “I was a mess – and I still am – but I’m a mess who belongs to Jesus, a mess he is committed to cleaning up. And in spite of the mess, Jesus came to me, stuck with me, and continues to be my everything.”

How To Be A Christian On Social Media

How sober minded, self controlled and Holy are we Christians – really? I know we think we are, but have we really asked that about ourselves? I bring this up because I have a social media account, actually more than one. Before you classify me as a social media ‘hater’, allow me to say that as much as I dislike aspects of the social media ‘habit’ we seem to be living in today, social media does allow for connections and updates that are not a possibility without it.

I also like using social media for teaching points and reminders of connections, among a host of other benefits, so it can be a useful tool if used responsibly. Whatever you might think about it though, it is a medium that isn’t going away any time soon so we should learn to use it.

In the end, you need to know that I’m not a social media ‘Debbie downer’. My point for bringing this up though is that while it can be a good medium, we should also be aware that it allows us all to peek into each other’s’ minds and sometimes what we discover (I’m speaking to the Christian remember), is a lack of sober minded thinking.

What I mean by that is that some, not necessarily the majority (though enough to alarm me) of the discussion I see happening in our social media platforms, conforms more to the world’s philosophy of thinking and less to a Christ centred outflow.

From my observation, a ‘Drunken Christian’ is a thing, and more prevalent than we might like to think. I’m not talking about drunk as in too much alcohol – though that can be a problem too – but rather drunken in the ‘not thinking rationally’ way.

Regarding my social media observations, I’m not going to give specific examples, instead I think that we should each of us consider our own hearts and ask the questions (in both the cyber world and the real world) the following: “Am I sober minded or am I living the Christian life like a drunken sailor?”and “Are those observing my ‘life’ seeing Christ or do they see the world?”

In the first century, Peter wasn’t dealing with social media, but he was dealing with social interactions just the same. In his first Epistle he said the following, “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:13-16

A few summers ago, I visited Canada’s wonderland with my family and of course had to try out a few of the rides. The Leviathan is a giant roller coaster that both of my boys wanted to try out. I had been on roller coasters before and so for the most part I knew what to expect.

But this would be their first time and so as a good dad would do in this situation I didn’t tell them a thing to help them prepare. I wanted to see how they’d react. As we got to the top of the first hill, just before the top, I made sure to look over at them as we crested the hill and began the plunge downward. It was amazing, the look on their faces that is. One of them saying over and over again “Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh”the other’s eyes like saucers, holding on for dear life.

I’m ok knowing that you’ll probably never let me look after your kids. I’ve made peace with that. The point was that they weren’t prepared for what was coming and so were put into a bit of a panic.

Peter in the passage I shared, is telling us to get prepared. Why? Because of what he was giving us a heads-up about in verse 6. That we will suffer various trials for the name of Christ. He then goes on to tell us what to do. “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. – Vs.13 In other words, keep yourself mentally fit and morally sober to fight the fight of hope.

What comes out of 1 Peter, and the whole New Testament for that matter, is that the Christian life is supposed to be a lifelived inGod. We are supposed to be constantly aware of God, constantly submitted to God, constantly trusting in God, constantly guided by God and constantly hoping in God.

What amazes me is that when I look into the culture around us today however, the alarming reality is the complete insignificance of God. Christ doesn’t play into our culture except to be used as a swear word. And so, our culture has proven itself to be Christ-less which equals hope-less. Sadly, much too often we see (usually in the social media realm) the Christian world acting out or speaking up the same way as our none Christian neighbour.

In comparison, when we look into the Word we see that the most amazing and striking thing is that God is everything. Hope and holiness come only through a Christ-filled life. And we can’t live both lives – Sundays Christ-filled and then Monday’s to Saturday’s Christ-less. In person Christ-like and on social media culture-like. We have a choice to make. It’s one or the other. Either we live a Christ-less life or we live a Christ-filled life. Since we are called to be Holy the choice is clear. There is no halfway. It’s like a woman who says “I’m kinda pregnant”You either are or you’re not.

So, if you want to live a Christ-less life that’s easy – live for yourself, just be honest about it. But if you want to live a Christ-filled life then there are some choices that need to be made.

“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. – 1 Peter 1:13

Peter says that we need to prepare our minds for action, to fasten our seatbelts because it’s gonna be a wild ride. The picture we have here is of men girding up the loins of their minds. Very picturesque. In the East, men wore long flowing robes which slowed them down from moving too quickly. Around their waist they would wear a wide belt and when action was necessary they shortened the long robe by pulling it up into the belt in order to give them freedom of movement.

The modern-day equivalent of the phrase would be to roll up one’s sleeves or to take off one’s jacket. Peter is telling his people that they must be ready for the most strenuous mental endeavour.

Never be content with a flabby and unexamined faith; don’t become complacent. Don’t be lazy. We need to think things out and think them through. And he says to be sober minded, which means that we need to be rational in our thinking. Don’t allow yourself to become intoxicated with intoxicating thoughts, don’t get caught up in the bling. Be sober-minded, mentally alert, self-controlled.

When someone is drunk, not sober, they don’t make the wisest of choices – relationships and otherwise. A few years ago, I was visiting with a friend and I noticed a very crude, cartoonish, and ugly tattoo on his forearm.

I asked him about it and he told me hated it. He then shared with me the story. He isn’t a follower of Christ yet and so doesn’t make the same life choices I do, in this case the over drinking part. He had gone out drinking with a few friends and, let me say that he tends to drink much more than is recommended.

His dad had been in the navy and he wanted to do something to honour him, which is kinda ironic since his dad hates tattoos. I personally don’t have an issue with getting inked, though I do recommend to first ‘think through’ what you’re getting. (Check out my blog post on tattoos if you want to know more about my thoughts on the matter). In his case though, there wasn’t a lot of thought put into his adventure and he ended up getting the stupidest and ugliest one you could imagine.

In his mind and in his state of intoxication – not being sober, he got carried away with what he thought was the ‘next’ exciting thing to do. He wasn’t at that moment self-controlled in his mind. And now he has a daily reminder of that soberless choice on a daily basis.

It’s no different as Disciples of Christ in the spiritual realm. If we’re not self-controlled in our minds we can get carried away with the next sudden exciting thing, even if it’s a worldly philosophy that’s opposed to a Christ-like philosophy. Sometimes even getting so intoxicated with the newest craze in the Christian scene we think that it’s the most incredible thing ever, though it may be taking our minds off of Jesus.

Peter is saying to them, and to us, to keep the balance as Disciples who know what we believe, so that when weconsider our hearts and ask the questions (in both the cyber world and the real world) the following: “Am I sober minded or am I living the Christian life like a drunken sailor?” and “Are those observing my ‘life’ seeing Christ or do they see the world?” Others can answer with confidence that yes, they see sober mindedness and Christlikeness, and as a result God is reflected throughout our world.

6 Ways To Affair Proof Your Marriage

Infidelity is one of the most painful and devastating experiences that a married person can encounter! Around the world, it is universally accepted as grounds for divorce and is even a legally accepted justification for murder in some states and many societies. Secular movies, television and books often depict infidelity in a humorous fashion but people impacted by infidelity are invariably shaken to the very core of who they are!

The Bible warns those who are married against extra marital affairs and in fact it seems to be so important to God that he posts them in the ten commandments twice; in Exodus 20:14 & 17. “You shall not commit adultery.” (vs 14), and “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” (vs 17).

We may read this and not think that it is of any consequence to us, and yet statistics indicate that in the coming years many of us will be involved in affairs ourselves; either as the one betrayed or the betrayer.

Studies vary regarding the percentages who cheat ranging everywhere from 10% to over 75% but no matter the percentage the truth is that anything over 0% is too high. The actual percentage probably falls somewhere around the 25% – 30% range, and the Christian community is not immune. Carol Botwin, author of Men Who Can’t Be Faithful says: “Although some earlier studies indicated that men who were religious were more likely to remain monogamous, other, more recent studies have shown that religious men are as apt to have affairs as those who never enter a church. That goes for some religious leaders too.”

Charles Mylander, evangelical pastor, and author of Running The Red Lights says: “Christians may fall into extramarital affairs even when they are not looking for them. Too often well-meaning believers make unwise moves and suddenly realize they are in love with someone other than their spouse. The revelation…’If only I had known what was happening…’ dawns too late.”

Reasons for infidelity range all over the map. We can have unrealistic expectations that our relationship will always be the way it was in the early days of marriage and so cease to work at it. Or there is the belief that ‘if my spouse really loves me, he or she will know what I want without my needing to ask.’ Maybe there is extraordinary work stress or possibly one partner is going through a midlife crisis. Then there has been the increased opportunities for men and women to be alone together, as in work related scenarios. Studies have empirically shown that when persons of the opposite sex are in constant contact, such regular exposure enhances interpersonal attraction and tempting situations naturally increase.

We also have seen an increase since social media has become commonplace with the reconnecting of old flames. Seeing an old friend or flame from years ago on Facebook followed by a pleasant interaction is not wrong in and of itself, however if, because you are old ‘friends’, you feel it’s ok to meet several times alone… (after all it’s only a coffee), that is a recipe for disaster and often leads to more. We also have seen a rise in sexual addiction, especially since there is so much available online. And these are only a few examples, there are many more ways that affairs can start.

So how can we affair proof our marriages? The following five action steps are not fool proof nor are they a cure all for affair proofing a marriage. However, if they are followed together as a couple, your marriage will definitely be made stronger and put in a healthier place so that you can work on any other deep seated issues you may have.

 1  Foster a deep ‘friendship’ love

This is vital to a healthy marriage . A lot of people marry on the basis of romantic feeling (eros – love), but the core of a good marriage is not romantic feeling, but deep friendship (philia – love). The only way you will know if this sort of friendship is a possibility is by spending time together.

Couples do this fairly well before they’re married, it’s called dating or just hanging out or being together. But after you’re married don’t stop. Continue to build on that friendship through-out your marriage relationship. Learn to have fun together and commit to ongoing date nights and the occasional weekend away. Allow your marital friendship to grow such as determining that your spouse should come before your extended family, friends, hobbies and career. Certainly, we all agree that a career is important because it helps to supply the family material needs. However, there are times when a career can become a sort of ‘mistress’ itself. A career is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

And commit to the understanding that your spouse should come before your kids. It is so easy to focus strongly on our kids and yet studies have shown that children feel safest in a family when the husband-wife relationship is the core of the household.

2  Communicate from your heart consistently

Learn to listen to your spouse. Lack of communication is the major problem cited by both men and women impacted by affairs. How can you discover what your spouse really feels and where they are emotionally if you don’t listen to their heart? And how can you expect to resolve conflicts without truly listening? Listening helps to avoid many of those issues to begin with.

The late Harriet Pilpel, who practised family law in New York said, “I have seen a number of women whose husbands, according to them, have simply ‘walked out on them without any warning.’ When I talked further with them it turns out there were serious problems in the marriage. But the (wife) did not confront these issues, no less ask (her) partner to confront them with (her).” Oh, and just in case you’re wondering guys… listening is not just for your wife, that goes for you too, possibly twice as much because most of us guys are naturally poor listeners to begin with.

Communication involves speaking the truth in love and stating clearly and fairly your understanding of the issues as well as how you are feeling about the situation. Never speak with the intention of ‘getting even’ or with the attitude, ‘Wait till I give you a piece of my mind.’ Instead the goal is to open lines of communication, share as clearly as possible, and understand both sides of an issue as best you can.

Speaking the truth in love is really the fairest way of communicating because internalising your feelings hurts you because you are unheard and therefore not honoured. But also remember that keeping your feelings inside hurts your spouse as well; if they don’t hear from you, they are unable to respond (remember, we are not mind readers!).

Don’t avoid the tough or painful issues because the facts are that tough stuff is a reality in everyone’s lives. That’s hard to do because the natural tendency is to avoid hard situations and the pain that comes when we hurt. But the problem with avoidance is that it can cause a lot of other problems, because the pain comes out anyway and only ends up attacking each other. So, it’s better to communicate openly and face the issue and the hurt head on and in unity. This will build your relationship rather than tear it down.

3  Pray with each other often

According to FamilyLife USA, less than 8% of couples surveyed pray together on a regular basis. A Southern Baptist Convention’s poll in 2001 discovered that of Christian couples who actively pray together, the divorce rate is less than one percent. This begs the question: How often do you pray with your spouse? I mean really pray. Don’t include saying grace at supper, that doesn’t count.

The most important communication tool in a healthy relationship is prayer together. Intimacy and openness grows between a couple who are vulnerable enough to honestly spend time in prayer. A couple who prays together – stays together.

4  Mutually fulfill sexual needs

Research finds that an unfulfilling sexual relationship places men in high risk of having an affair. In fact, the number one need of men is sexual fulfilment. Sex is a beautiful gift from God reserved for the couple to procreate along with the mutual pleasure of each other. And by the way, research also shows that the sexual need for men does not diminish with age, in some cases it increases… just saying.

5  Remember your first love

Reminisce often about how and when you and your partner met. What were some of the activities you did together? What was it about your spouse that caused you to fall in love? Get a baby sitter and have a regular date night… just the two of you. Take at least one weekend a year away from everyone and re-engage alone as a couple to explore your love for each other and what that means and how you can grow more in love each year.  “May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.” – Proverbs 5:18

6  Learn anti-temptation strategies

Identify personal areas of vulnerability and honestly examine yourself and your relationships to discover those areas which are your weakest link because after all, awareness is half the issue. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” – Psalm 139:23-24

Along with learning anti-temptation strategies make an explicit commitment to fidelity by developing personalised statements that both partners make to each other outlining your love for each other along with your commitment only to each other and then reviewing these commitments often.

Be aware of the high cost of infidelity. Think about the loss of relationship with spouse. trust totally gone, children would be without a mom or dad, reputation is gone, damage to the church and the name of Christ, major financial loss, you can add many more…

But still, the best strategy to guard against temptation is to develop a biblical conscience. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honour.” – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4

The Bible is very clear regarding affairs…it is sin, but don’t be discouraged if you have ever been unfaithful to your spouse. There is hope for redemption with our father because after all we serve a loving God who offers forgiveness if we humbly come to him and seek repentance.

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Can I Love Jesus And Not Love The Church?

Over the years I have heard the following sentiment being expressed. “I love Jesus, but I don’t love the church” or “Church folks are just too messy or too hard to deal with.” …or something else along those lines. “I can go it alone”, is the meaning behind their words.

But Paul suggests that it’s a lie to think that anyone could go it alone – “Just me and Jesus” and have the kind of firm, living faith in Christ that is able to resist the enemy. We must gather together in our pursuit of Jesus and his vision for us if we can expect any success. Alone, we are all too vulnerable to discouragement and prone to the believable, but deceptive arguments thrown our way and easy pickings for that lion called the devil.

 “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, inwhom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” – Colossians 2:1-5

Being knit together in love speaks to three things… A united community, an authentic community and a loving community.

A United Community

All through the New Testament there is this plea for Christian unity, but its more than a plea; it’s really a declaration that no man or woman can live the Christian life unless in his or her personal relationships he or she is at unity with his or her fellows; and that the Church cannot be truly Christ-like if there are divisions within it.

So, when we hear in verse 2 Paul’s urging to being knit together in love, we know he is echoing Jesus’ words along with other scripture. Paul is saying in essence, “join hands together.”

The chain is only as strong as its weakest link and to make the rest of what I’m about to tell you work, we need unity first. James McDonald uses a phrase that is appropriate in this context: In essentials, Unity. In non-essentials, Liberty. In all things, Love.

When we look at God we see that he values loyalty and harmony in our relationships. He hates those who sow discord among brothers. “God hates… one who sows discord among brethren.” – Proverbs 6:19

If that be the case, I think it behooves us as his image bearers to strive for unity with the brethren. However, unity won’t last if it’s not authentic.

An Authentic Community

What is authentic community?
Authentic Community has three components: :

  • Communal past
  • Communal proximity
  • Communal potential

A communal past helps to establish a sense of identity and belonging. Communal proximity allows a particular group to be with one another over time to creating meaningful connections. Communal potential allows for a sense that we’re all going in the same direction.

That is what we see in the early church. “On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.” – Acts 4:23

 In Acts 1:14 we read that “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer.” In chapter 2:46 it says, “day by day attending the temple together”.

Chapter 5:12 “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together.”

The effect of the persecution that was happening in Acts was to bind the members of the community together and in this case binding them together so that there was a common desire to pray. And this because they shared communal past, proximity and potential.

Finally, it is love that is the crucial component to unity. Paul includes it as a part of the instruction given. “being knit together in love…”

A Loving Community

With all the focus the world has on love we really do a poor job at living it out. I will love as long as I’m loved back. I’ll love as long as it’s on my terms. And when you don’t love back well I won’t either, I’ll love only if you love but I’ll sure hate if you hate.

But then Jesus comes along and says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another…. By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” – John 13:34-35

John believes it’s so important, this love each other thing, that he speaks with unmistakable definiteness and with almost frightening directness. “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer” – 1 John 3:14-15

And “If anyone says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar” – 1John 4:20

The simple fact is that love of God and love of man go hand in hand; the one can’t exist without the other. The simplest test of the reality of the Christianity of a man or a Church is whether or not it makes them love their fellow-men.

True love, as the bible teaches us, always involves sacrifice and it involves giving away of self, in spite of and even though you may not be able to love back and even if you hate, the power of God’s love loves through.

I think it’s good to recognize that we could be like Peter and offer words that affirm our love for God and our love for people, but if the people don’t have names, do we really love them? If we don’t love ‘authentically’ how can we show our love of God?

Granted, sometimes connecting in a community of believers feels like it’s a lot more trouble than it’s worth. But Jesus whispers in the background, “If you love me, you’ll love them.”

Question we need to ask is, “Do I love Jesus?”

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.

How Might We Influence Current Culture?

If you visit the front page of the Westboro Baptist Church’s website, you will be bombarded with all kinds of hateful messages. ‘God hates fags’ to ‘Thank God for 2 more dead soldiers’. I don’t know about you but it makes me sick looking at the hate being displayed towards those they should be loving. Most of us are well aware of their protests and many have seen the photos of them holding up signs proclaiming disgust for the sinner along with a glee of their impending doom. They come across as hateful, self-righteous and hypocritical to a watching world. Most of us would agree that their methods are way off target, and in fact are making enemies of those they claim to be reaching with Christ’s love instead of building relationships. I think it’s safe to say that they are doing more harm than good.

But I wonder about how the ‘rest’ of us come across to a hurting world? An issue comes up that gets our Christian community all worked up, and we go on the warpath, protesting on social media, demanding boycotts of this movie, that book, or some political figure. I have been guilty myself of ‘protesting’ on social media in the past and found myself acting like a jerk, building walls instead of bridges. Are we justified in our ‘methodology’ often acting like jerks while we decry ‘Westboro’s’ practices? Whatever our position is (on anything), if we can’t communicate it in love, we’re nothing more than a clanging cymbal and our message is worthless. (1 Corinthians 13).

I am not saying that we don’t warn other Christian brothers and sisters by shining the light of God’s word on the dangers in the culture, especially dangers that might hurt our children or the little ones (new believers) within our care. I am not even saying that we should never prayerfully ‘protest’ and or ‘boycott’ as we sense the Holy Spirit’s prodding, such as when the medical system is brutally murdering unborn children, when assisted suicide is becoming mainstream, when paedophilia is being championed as normal by some in the psychiatry world. The gospel tells us that God is concerned for the relief of poverty, hunger, and injustice. Obviously, there are times when we can’t remain silent and we have to step up and make some noise.

But here’s a news flash… our culture doesn’t care what we think about the evil creeping into our world. In fact, the culture is already evil, has been for a long time, ever since a couple named Adam & Eve. Honestly, what do we think the world thinks when we stamp our feet and tell them we’re upset with them for not acting like Christians? Think about that for a moment. Here’s the point – they aren’t Christians. That being the case, why do we expect them to act like Christ?

The thing is that we are called to be influencers in our culture. The question however is just how do we live and act to be those witnesses we have been called to be? If we truly believe that we must be influencers in our culture, as I do, allow me to share five ways that I believe will make a difference.

1) Intentionally become involved in the lives of those we live with

“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14

Since Jesus stepped into our culture and journeyed beside us, working to renew us, I believe that it be-hooves all Disciples of Christ to commit to becoming a part of the lives of individuals who make up the culture around us to see them transformed to live for Jesus.

That means then that we must be a part of the shaping of, engaging in & participating with culture to see it renewed. We’re not called to be taken out of the world but to use the things God has given human culture in order to bring glory to him: things such as music, movies, artistic expression, technology, etc. It is our privilege to redeem it to his glory – personal and cultural renewal through the gospel of Jesus.

More specifically, I believe that the local church needs to be equipped to be an outpouring of our relationship with Christ in our communities by identifying the needs of the community and then using the gifts at our disposal to meet those needs. This can only truly be done as relationships are created with the surrounding community otherwise all we become is a program machine instead of a place where mission meets needs.

2) Sacrificially love the neighbour we come in contact with

In the book of Jeremiah, we read about how the Israelite nation had been destroyed by the Babylonian empire, and were now relocated to that great city of Babylon. How should they react to this strange new foreign world and culture? What was their attitude supposed to be now that they were living there as a part of it?

Possibly they could just keep to themselves, stick their heads in the sand and have nothing whatsoever to do with it. Maybe they could just make lots of noise to point out their case whenever something they didn’t agree with came into view. They could have, but God said something to them that spoke to a unique way.

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” – Jeremiah 29:7

God was saying that they were to put their energies and their focus into making Babylon a great city (culture) to live in. We’re not talking about a prosperity gospel thing or a social gospel thing, rather we’re talking about a societal welfare through loving others thing. In other words, his approach for them is to serve their neighbours – even though their language is different and have different morals and they don’t believe what they believe.

God wants them to pray for the city and people, which really means to love them. Love them, pray for them, and look for ways to help them become a prosperous, peaceful city, to become the greatest place to live. God’s campaign platform was “Make Babylon Great Again!”. In other words, God was calling them to a totally different approach than what we might have expected.

3) Humbly serve the people in our sphere of influence

Jesus was the perfect model for gaining influence through humble service and unconditional love. How did he respond to his enemies? He didn’t call down legions of angels to fight them, instead he died for their sins, and even as he was dying what did he do? He prayed for them!

Jesus must be more than just a good example for us, he needs to be the ‘heart beat’ in how we actual live out our faith. In other words, if that is his fallback position, that needs to be our starting point too. “If at the very heart of your worldview is a man dying for his enemies, then the way you’re going to win influence in society is through service rather than power and control.”[i]

Jesus certainly got upset at the religious elite for hypocrisy and selfish nonjudgmental-ism, but we never see him getting ‘upset’ at sinners for acting like sinners. The religious leaders saw the average person (sinner) as losers. Jesus on the other hand viewed them as ‘lost’. He cared deeply about them with an unfathomable depth of compassion. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:10 When we view people as ‘losers’ there is always contempt, however when we see them as Jesus sees them, as ‘lost’, there is compassion.

The average person in first century Israel saw their religious leaders as unapproachable, judgemental and contemptuous. On the flip side, many of the same people saw Jesus as completely approachable, and as someone who genuinely cared about them.

What about us? We say everyone is welcome in our churches, but do we really believe that? If a transgender person walked into your church service this Sunday, would you genuinely reach out and show hospitality (maybe invite them for lunch) and display sincere love? Remember that a transgender man or woman is a real person trying to discover who they really are, and they, as we, can only find our identity in Christ. Do you have compassion like Jesus enough to commit to walk with them through that journey?

Here’s the thing, people will only trust us when they see that we’re not only out for ourselves, but out for them too with a sincerity in our compassion. It’s when they begin to recognise the attractiveness of our sacrificial love, that we’ll have real influence.

 4) Actively live out the gospel to reach the culture

I came across something I read in a book by Martyn Lloyd-Jones that speaks to the church being the church…

“I am certain that the world outside is not going to pay much attention to all the organized efforts of the Christian church. The one thing she will pay attention to is a body of people filled with the spirit of rejoicing… If you really do feel what you say about the daily evidence in the newspapers of the moral rot that is setting in in this country, if you feel that we are facing ruin economically and industrially, because people are worshippers and lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of god, if you really believe that and mean it and feel it, then it will be your duty to become a person such as is depicted here, because this is the only thing that is going to persuade men.  They say, ‘Oh we know your teaching and preaching, we have had it all before,’ but when they see it in operation they will listen because they are miserable and unhappy.  When they see this quality, they will begin to pay real attention.”[ii]

The truth is that outside of the Holy Spirit’s convicting work, the greatest and best invitation to the gospel is a community of disciples living out the active and breathing gospel to the world. Christians who live under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in obedience to Christ, instead of making demands on a world who simply doesn’t understand or agree with those demands, will inevitably influence the world for good.

5) Shine brighter in contrast to the darkness of the age

Jesus said about us, “You are the light of the world” – Matthew 5:14. What does light do? Wherever there is even the least bit of light, darkness disappears. You can be in the darkest place imaginable and just a tiny light has the power to drive away all that black, oppressive darkness. That’s what we do. The presence of a Christian in the world is supposed to be like a light in the darkness, not only in the sense that the truth of God’s Word shining a light into the darkness of humanity’s heart, or as a beam of hope into a despairing soul, but also in the sense that our good deeds can’t help but be seen.

A flashlight can be like a glorious light in the darkness of a mining tunnel, but that same flashlight in the middle of the brightest day and it would be hardly visible. Here’s my question, where do lights shine the brightest? The answer of course is in the darkest of places. So, I wonder, for the witness of Christ to be truly effective, would it not then make sense that the world be dark?

“And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” – Acts 4:29

I find it interesting that the early church asked for boldness and not for the tribulations they were facing to be taken away. I wonder what would happen to our world if we prayed that we shine brighter rather than asking for the dark days to disappear? After all there is nothing like meeting a Christian who is reflecting the light of Jesus. That person is a thing of beauty in a dull world. That is how Jesus lived and this is what every one of us needs to aim to be like.

Finally…

“Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.” – Philippians 2:14-15

Let’s strive to be just like stars that don’t draw attention to the individual pinpoint of light, but rather draw their ‘oohs’ & ‘ahhs’ because of the expansive majesty of the night sky. We aren’t to draw attention to ourselves but instead put all the focus onto the majesty of Jesus, while we influence our ‘Babylon’ by praying for it, serving with everything we’ve got and by being so sacrificially loving that the people around us, who don’t believe what we believe, may soon come to a place where they can’t imagine this world without us.

[i] Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, (Dutton Redeemer, New York, NY 2011) pg. 149

[ii] Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable (Harold Shaw Pub, Wheaton, IL, 1984) pgs. 102-103