Thursday, September 30, 2010

Drawing A Clearer Line - Some thoughts on the difference between a Christian and a person who talks about Jesus.

When I began to write this series on basic Christian living, I knew I would primarily address those who attended church or claimed to believe in Jesus, calling themselves Christians. For some, I hope this series gives them understanding on why Christians do and believe certain things like the Bible, the effectiveness of prayer, etc. I began with another goal for these essays, to draw lines between those who admire Jesus as a spiritual teacher and those who worship Him as God the Son.

Something stirred during the last few weeks while I continued to live in a home without internet access. A person left an anonymous comment on Back To Boardgames using language I have heard from people who believe in Universalism or what Francis Schaeffer called "Paneverythingism". It looks like a continuation of an earlier comment that for one reason or another isn't available.

But there you can see why I chose to draw these lines. This kind of thinking denies Jesus as God and His work of redemption, the foundation of Christian belief. In Romans 1, Paul introduces himself as one who lives to tell the gospel and defines it as the gospel promised through the Bible. He also makes clear this gospel deals with God's son, Jesus. In verses 18-20, Paul talks of evil men suppressing truth made known to them by God. Then, in verses 21-23, we read why wicked people denied the truth of God. "Although they know who God is, they do not glorify Him as God or thank Him. On the contrary, they have become futile in their thinking; and their undiscerning hearts have become darkened. Claiming to be wise, they have become fools! In fact, they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for mere images, like a mortal human being, or like birds, animals, or reptiles!"

One great definition of sin says we do so by worshiping, or glorifying, anything but God. It is to place anything above God. To think of something as more beautiful, trustworthy, or ultimate than God is to sin against Him. Satan's downfall came when he said to himself "I will make myself like the Most High" (Isaiah 14:14). He then planted the same lie in Eve's ear when he told her in Genesis 3:5, "you will be like God". Some claim that man's consciousness (whether the power of an individual mind, collective, vaguely defined spiritual "force", etc.) or thinking need only be corrected in order to achieve enlightenment. This kind of belief, and others like it, in one way or another conclude that we are, or are like, God. This kind of thinking is the very core of sin.

But these people who deny the God of the Bible must also deny the doctrine of sin. If we are our own gods, or if god is an impersonal force, than we have no outside standard from a perfect and unchanging God to which we must answer. If there is no sin, then Jesus had no need to die as payment.

My objective at this moment isn't to debate the existence of the biblical God, the reality of sin, or the redemptive work of Jesus. I want people to realize that they may sit in a church meeting next to people who agree with the kind of things said by my anonymous critic. They might sing the same songs of worship, recite words from the Bible, or help with community outreach.

But do not be fooled. Jesus did say He was God the Son. The Jews recognized this in John 5:18. He also made it clear that people had to believe in Him in order to gain eternal life when He said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me" (John 14:6). Jesus talked about Hell more than anyone else in the Bible, He said He was the Messiah (meaning He knew He would pay the price for man's sin), and He believed in the authority of scripture because He quoted the Tanakh (Old Testament) as such. Some people can say they believe in Jesus and yet miss His whole message.

If a person believes in Jesus as God the Son, then he will live a life of repentance and worship the God of the Bible alone. If he merely calls Jesus a spiritual teacher or a "good guy who set an example for us all", he should stop pretending to agree with Jesus and never refer to himself as a Christian.

I'm glad the person leaving the comment chose to remain anonymous because I want to attack the thought and not the person. My response to people like my anonymous critic, Wiccan neighbor, and Jehovah's Witness co-worker is to pray for them. I believe the Holy Spirit can turn their hearts to repentance by revealing both the ugliness of their sin and the goodness of God's grace. It's the reason I never addressed the critic directly. I do have an adversary, but he's not flesh and blood, and he's the reason I draw the line.

*Believe it or not, this experience has encouraged me to next write on why Christians need the Church. See you next month.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Is This Thing On? – A brief message on why Christians pray.

I knew at some point in this series on basic Christian living I'd have to talk about prayer. Christians do it all the time. But has anyone explained to you why? Haven't we all heard people describe feeling like their prayers hit the ceiling and fall splat on the floor like an undercooked pancake? Haven't we felt once or twice like our prayers don't do any good? Still, those who read the Bible and live by what it says can't ignore verses like Psalm 5:3. "In the morning, O Lord, you will hear my voice; in the morning I will order my prayer to you and eagerly watch." Not only should a Christian pray, but he should expect God to both hear and respond to the prayer.

Early in the drafting process of Stark Raving Obedience, Dad and I added a Lily Tomlin bit somewhere in the text. "Why is it when a person talks to God it's called prayer, but when God talks to a person it's called schizophrenia?" The first half of our book deals with the reality of God speaking to people. I could easily rattle off the verses we cite about God speaking, people hearing His voice, the verbal guidance of the Holy Spirit, and so on. When I thought about verses talking of God hearing people, I had a harder time coming up with examples.

I mean, it's in there. The Bible definitely talks about God hearing prayers. In my search for good examples, I went where anyone would go: The Beginning. Nobody makes an explanation of prayer in Genesis. No, "Adam heard the Lord and called out, 'Who said that?' And thus did Adam speak the first prayer unto the Lord." Nope. People and God talk to each other as if that sort of thing happened all the time. Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, all sorts of people. It doesn't even sound like prayer was anything different than simply talking to God until Genesis 4:29, "At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord." I don't think this means God couldn't keep up with all the people trying to talk to Him at once. Prayer isn't like Santa's workshop, receiving millions of letters and sorting them based on importance and a naughty/nice list. It would make more sense to see this text as people realizing just how much sin had caused separation in their relationships with God. Maybe they felt like their prayers hit the ceiling and it freaked them out.

As my research went on, I found lots of passages where God hears the prayers of Kings and Prophets. In 1 Kings 9:3, God tells Solomon he heard the King's prayers. When King Hezekiah finds out he'll probably die of a particular illness, he prays for God to heal him. God tells Hezekiah in Isaiah 38, "I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will add fifteen years to your life." The leaders of Jerusalem asked Jeremiah to give them a word from the Lord and Jeremiah, knowing they had wrong motives, responded, "I have heard you. Behold, I am going to pray to the Lord your God in accordance with your words; and I will tell you the whole message which the Lord will answer you. I will not keep back a word from you." I can relate to Jeremiah's frustration. Why didn't the rulers just pray to God themselves? In another passage, Ezekiel tells the people of Edom that God hears more than prayers when he says in 35:12, "Then you will know that I, the Lord, have heard your revilings which you have spoken against the mountains of Israel." In Micah 7:7, the prophet says with straightforward confidence, "My God will hear me."

But those men had special distinction. They were recognized Prophets and Kings. Of course God would hear their prayers. Then I reread a verse in Habakkuk 1. The Prophet feels like his prayers hit the ceiling, too. You can hear his confusion in 1:2 when he says, "How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and you will not hear? I cry out to you, 'Violence!' Yet you do not save." Once in a while, even men of spiritual distinction ask God, "What the eff?" This passage should give us some comfort. God never promises to answer our prayers quickly or in the way we expect.

Isn't that great? I spent all of July talking about the authority and need for the Bible because it lays a foundation for our understanding of a relationship with God. The Bible doesn't just say God will hear and prayers and respond to them, it also says we'll sometimes feel like He's not listening. But that's just how we can sometimes feel. Scripture is clear. God hears us. This is why He laid out the plan of redemption. It makes Him happy when we pray.

As for God talking back to us, I feel like I've written at length on that topic already. Suffice to say for now the Bible also tells us we'll hear from God. I bring up July's discussion on scriptural authority because some people have expressed concern over the topic of listening prayer. One lady told me I was playing a "dangerous game" listening to voices in the spiritual realm. "How can you know it's really God and not something evil?" She wasn't trying to put me in my place. The look on her face told me she genuinely cared about my soul.

I tried to explain, as I often do, "Everything spoken from God has to line up with the Bible."

She didn't seem comforted by my response. "I know you mean well. Just be careful with that sort of thing."

As long as I'm talking about prayer, I may as well attempt to clear this misunderstanding. God will only say things that confirm what He said in the Bible. Listening prayer, hearing from the Holy Spirit, isn't new revelation. It's just personal. It's as if the Holy Spirit was telling you a personal application of the Bible in a way that doesn't feel like a freakin' Sunday School lesson. The more a person reads the Bible, the more they recognize the voice of God because it agrees with what He said in scripture. It might even help us to get over that ceiling-effect. We'll always hear God respond to our prayers in the Bible, even if it's just to say, "Don't worry. I hear you."