Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Judgment As a Marriage Proposal

My roommates recently told me about this preacher. He’s on television. His church is massive. His books become bestsellers, I guess. I’ve never read them. Like I said, I just heard about this guy. The roomies said he was on Larry King Live so I watched a few clips on YouTube. The guy didn’t want to offend anyone (any potential readers, maybe?) so he wouldn’t say whether or not anyone would go to Hell. His whole message is thick with positivity. He insisted that he believed in Jesus. Jesus, and some good deeds. When asked if Jews or Muslims would go to Heaven without believing in Jesus, he said, “It’s not my place to judge”. He said that other faiths “love God” and are very sincere, so he didn’t want to impose his beliefs on them.

A lady from Minneapolis introduced me to the term “Easy Gospel Church”. This kind of church is the feel-good, non-confrontational, theatrical sort of place. Lots of people come, but many of them don’t have a strong relationship with Jesus. I wonder if the preachers don’t want to offend anyone by saying a judgmental thing like “Jesus alone brings salvation to mankind.”

What do you say we talk about the gospel today? Let’s start with John 3:16, a well-known verse thanks to people with poster board signs at stadium events. But instead of leaving it with the one verse, I’m going to tack on verses 17 and 18. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

The word judgment, in a religious sense, gets a bad rap. We’re told not to be judgmental. Don’t judge lest ye be judged, and all that. If you take John 3:16-18, judgment is given objectively. Jesus is asking, “Do you trust me or not?” God didn’t do this to bring condemnation, but offer the choice. He allows people to accept or reject Him and then people are objectively held to their choice. In one sense, that is easy, and it does appeal to seekers. Circle “yes” or “no”, right?

A woman once told me, “I can’t believe in a God that would send people to hell.” I replied, “Think about it like this. God wanted to spend the rest of eternity with a person. Jesus was kind of like the marriage proposal. If the person accepted the proposal, then he and God would begin to develop an ongoing relationship. But if that person rejects the proposal, God honors that person’s wishes and remains separate from him. And separation from God is Hell.”

That’s the true “easiness” of the gospel. It’s not about a good feeling or the show, or even the eternal security. It’s about putting your trust in Jesus and developing a relationship with God through that trust. But that decision is crucial, and if we don’t present the gospel as such, then what are we doing?

Let’s go back to the mega-preacher. I wrote a post several weeks ago about people who preach the message of Jesus for selfish reasons. I’ll ask the question again. Wouldn’t it be great if that preacher heard his own gospel message and came to really know Jesus as the only Son of God? Instead of image and sales and a feel-good ministry, what if he used his gift of influence to spread the truth?

It’s needed more now than ever. There is a highly debated statistic that predicts 4% of teenagers will be Bible-believing Christians by the time they reach adulthood. Those numbers may or may not be accurate, but it wouldn't surprise me to find that Christianity is dwindling among young Americans. I have to wonder, has the feel-good ministry approach worked? Have the stadium signs brought droves of people to Jesus? Are the safe answers and non-confrontational messages enough? Or are kids starting to see that something doesn’t line up? But what if we developed that deep relationship with God through Jesus, then lived it, and then told people about it?

If that makes you nervous, don’t sweat it. God’s the one proposing to them, you’re just His messenger. Or maybe you’re like the glass of champagne with the ring inside of you. If the person rejects the proposal, you haven’t imposed judgment on them for it. Judgment, like the wedding ring, was theirs to accept or deny.

Friday, June 13, 2008

God's Backup Guy

Even though I’ve known how to hear God’s voice for over a decade, I didn’t listen regularly until about five years ago. Dad and I had begun work on our book, Stark Raving Obedience, and I wanted to immerse myself in listening prayer. It was practice, research. I’m not sure if I knew how screwy a life of obedience could appear both to me and others. Every once in a while, God would ask me to go somewhere. Sometimes He’d send me to a park or a cafĂ©, usually a public place. When I would arrive, I’d sit for a while, looking around to see why God wanted me there. Pastors and teachers had often talked about “divine appointments”, where God put people in place to do His work. I would ask, “What’s going on? Am I meeting someone here? Is there a baby about to fall out of its high chair? A fire I have to put out?” And all I would ever hear in reply was, “Wait.” After a while, He’d say, “Okay, you can go.”

You can imagine how this frustrated me. I mean, I guess I wasn’t very busy. I’d been kicked out of college, left my job, been dumped, and so on. I wanted answers from God. He should have guided me back into a stable life, given me peace and comfort, or something. So those times where I felt like God told me to take up space made me a little angry. Then, for a while, we moved on to the peace and comfort part. He brought people into my life who helped me through those hard years. He stopped asking me to “go here and there” to sit. I assumed my lesson was to obey even when it didn’t seem to have a purpose.

About a year ago, He told me to walk to a library. I sat in the main room and waited. Nothing. “Stop playing games, God. I thought we were past this already.” Then He said, “It’s time to go.” After this little episode, I had a conversation with my friend Bob. He told me about God sending him to divine appointments. Sometimes, he would sit in one place until God pointed out the person who needed to talk to him. Other times, God would show him other people He had sent to take care of the situation. If that person didn’t follow through in obedience, Bob would have to step in and do the job instead. I said, “So you’re saying that sometimes God needs a backup guy?”

At that moment, God reminded me of all those times He put me in a place and said, “Wait.” In those days when I needed answers and comfort, God wanted people to speak to me. Sometimes they didn’t obey. Others did obey, and they were the ones who prayed with me and encouraged my trust in God during difficult times. And then later, at the Library, after my trust in Him had strengthened, He needed me to help a person in case someone else didn’t obey. I was God’s backup guy.

It took some time adjusting to the idea that God has a bullpen, people in place and ready in case the starting pitcher leaves early in the game. But then again, it also gave me comfort. There are times when God asks me to call someone or pray for a person or give money to a guy, and for some reason I don’t obey. When I realized that I failed to obey God, I’d feel searing condemnation. It never occurred to me that God’s will for mankind would rest on more than my obedience. He’s got backup. Even if I totally miss my opportunity to further the work of His kingdom, I haven’t ruined His plans. And what about those times when I did obey and nothing seemed to happen? Maybe it was a matter of corporate obedience, like a secret team effort where a few people had to obey at precise times. Does God refuse to bless me because some other people didn’t listen to Him? No, it just means He has to call in other people who will take orders.

One of my favorite stories from the Old Testament takes place outside of a city called Kadesh-barnea. God wanted to give the land to His people after their time of wandering. In preparation for battle, Moses sent twelve spies into the city as reconnaissance. When the spies returned in Numbers 13 and 14, Caleb and Joshua said, “let’s go! The land is amazing, and God has promised it to us.” The other ten spies kept talking about giants and fortresses and convinced the Israelites to back off. God told the people that they wouldn’t enter the land and forced them to wander forty more years. Of that entire generation, only two were allowed to live in the Promised Land: Joshua and Caleb. And they lived out their years receiving God’s full blessing. The disobedience of others didn’t ruin God’s plan for their lives. He brought in another generation to take the Promised Land with them.

In Judges 4, several decades after the time of Joshua and Caleb, Canaanites had taken control of the Promised Land. A prophet named Deborah tells a man named Barak to gather an army and fight their oppressors. Barak says, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Because he wouldn’t step into the authority God had given him and deferred to her, Deborah tells Barak, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the LORD will sell Sisera (the Canaanite general) into the hands of a woman.” The Israelites are victorious in battle, but Sisera flees into a politically friendly area. A woman there takes him into her tent and gives him something to drink. When Sisera falls asleep, she drives a tent peg through his skull. Sometimes backup comes from unexpected places.

All of this makes me wonder if Jesus wanted God to find a backup guy for the cross. Maybe that’s why He prayed in Matthew 26:39, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” It was a part of Jesus’s humanity that He should desire to live. When He understood that no other person on earth could bring salvation to mankind, His willingness to obey under duress was the first part of His sacrifice.

I want to be the guy who obeys. I want to see the blessing God has promised to those who obey Him. But if I miss my opportunity, I know that God is bigger than my failures. This also means that I have to find patience in those times when His commands don’t make any sense. Who knows? I just might be God’s backup guy.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Light Armor

In the first book of Samuel, we find the people of Israel in conflict with the Philistines. A giant man, a seriously large dude, named Goliath proposes a challenge during a face-off on the battlefield. “We’ll save the energy and people by avoiding a battle. Let’s just see if any of you can beat me in one-on-one combat. If you win, we’ll become your slaves. If I win, you’ll become our slaves.” Goliath’s got a reputation. Saul, Israel’s king, knows about this guy’s military history. Everyone remains silent while their hearts sink to their sandals. And then this scrappy shepherd boy named David gets pissed and accepts Goliath’s challenge. He even tosses a little defiance into his reply.

This story is so well known that it’s a part of the public lexicon. Every underdog movie is a “David and Goliath” story. A lot of focus is put on the small boy defeating a giant warrior. The little guy wins. My favorite part about this story is how David prepared himself for battle in 1 Samuel 17:38-40. “Then Saul clothed David with his garments and put a bronze helmet on his head, and he clothed him with armor. David girded his sword over his armor and tried to walk, for he had not tested them. So David said to Saul, ‘I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.’ And David took them off. He took his stick in his hand and chose for himself five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in the shepherd's bag which he had, even in his pouch, and his sling was in his hand; and he approached the Philistine.”

The armor should have suited him. I mean, the king gave David his own armor, the best armor. He should have been fit for a battle against a giant warlord. But David took it off and used the tools with which God had trained him as a shepherd. The armor was too heavy to be effective.

Another famous Bible passage is found in Ephesians 6:13-17. “Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, HAVING GIRDED YOUR LOINS WITH TRUTH, and HAVING PUT ON THE BREASTPLATE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, and having shod YOUR FEET WITH THE PREPARATION OF THE GOSPEL OF PEACE; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take THE HELMET OF SALVATION, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Portions of the text are in capital letters because they refer to Old Testament scripture. Paul, trained as a Pharisee, had learned scripture in the rabbinical style. Rabbis often used a technique in their teachings called “Remez”. This Hebrew word means that the rabbi mentioned one part of a scripture as a reference to the whole passage.

In Isaiah 59:17, God clothes Himself with the Breastplate of Righteousness and the Helmet of Salvation. But why? The whole chapter of Isaiah 59 speaks of mankind’s separation from God. He saw that no one would intercede and stand up for justice or righteousness, so He came to bring salvation Himself. The feet prepared with the Gospel of Peace refers to Isaiah 52. In this prophecy, Israel has been released from slavery and oppression. God has restored Himself to His people. Isaiah says in verse seven, “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” The Belt of Truth is derived from Isaiah 11:5, “Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness the belt about His waist.” Bible scholars call this passage “The Peaceable Kingdom”. It’s a picture of the Messiah’s rule over the world.

So let’s look at these three passages, Paul’s three remez. First, God comes to bring salvation to the world. Then, people are sent out to proclaim God’s salvation. At the end, we have the hope of the Messiah’s kingdom. One could see the armor of God as an allegory of the Gospel. If this was Paul’s intention, then the armor takes on a meaning far different from how I had always perceived. Teachers focused on the different parts of the armor, detailing how each piece applies to our lives. If we didn’t have the whole armor on, then we were susceptible to the enemy’s attack. There was a time when I tried to “pray the armor on” every day. It took so much time, and even then I still felt spiritually attacked. But how about daily living in the knowledge and truth of the Gospel? When I began to look at the armor this way, it felt like I had taken off the heavy armor and picked up a slingshot. But that’s all it took to kill a giant.

Revelation 12:10-11 describes how this new, lighter armor defeats the enemy. “Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.’”

Armed with our trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus and with our stories of God’s work in our lives, we wield a different kind of power than what the world expects. The message of the cross is powerful enough to move hearts, face adversities, and advance the Kingdom of God. Clothed in light armor, we can face the giants in our lives and proclaim, “Look at what God has done!”