Archive for March, 2009

Looking for a King

March 31, 2009

“Jesus is Lord”, “The Lord reigns”, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”, these are statements that attest to the kingship of our God.  God is given power and glory and honor, yet I don’t think most Americans have a clue what any of that means.  Stop for a moment, and try to think of a king who embodies the meaning of the word.

My family has been in the US long enough to have fought in both the civil and revolutionary wars.  As a result, I tend to think of British monarchs first.  From the perspective of royalty, the current royal family is a joke.  They have no power, they just have a lot of money and get to wander around from time to time making appearances.  They have no true authority.  King George, the guy who we fought around 230 years ago, wasn’t much better.  He was already losing power and making deals to stay “in charge”.

The truth is, I cannot think of a benign king that has embodied kingship within recent history.  There are, however, some fine, practical examples of less savory “kings” in recent history.  Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Il, Stalin, Hitler, and Fidel Castro are examples of people who seem to truly embody the concept of a king.  They have (or had) absolute power over their subjects.

A king has the ability to issue an edict and have it instantly obeyed.  The law is whatever the king says it is.  Rebellion is punishable by torture and death.  A king is intimately involved in everything of significance that is occurring.  To publicly speak ill of a king is to risk punishment or death.

There is an obvious difference between God and these types of kings, however.  God has no need to act out of paranoia or fear.  His rule is never in jeopardy.  He never need worry about rebellion, or anything else.  Most of all, God is love (agape).  He wants what is best for us, not what is most pleasurable for Him.  This is in sharp contrast with the tyrants who are love (eros) of selves, and care nothing for their people.

Take some time to consider the true authority God has as king, and then realize that sin means you are a rebel.  You may have sinned only once in your life (though I have sinned every day of my life, if not every hour I’ve been awake), but that is all it takes to make you an enemy.  At that instant, God is completely within His rights to have you tortured or killed.  Instead, he offers mercy.  God requires that payment for your sins be made, and he offers you the divine credit card, Jesus’s death, to make payment.  Accept payment, ask for mercy, and God will take you back.  Refuse the only payment, and you remain an enemy to God.  Hitler and Stalin killed people by the millions, yet God makes their power look like nothing.  You do not want to be the enemy of the king.

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Love Demands Justice

March 29, 2009

One of the most irritating things that happens when discussing the nature of God, is encountering someone who insists that God has to let most anyone into heaven because “God is love”.  The logic seems to go something like this:

  1. God is love
  2. I would never exclude someone I love from heaven
  3. Since God’s love is more perfect than mine, He wouldn’t either

The problem with the argument becomes apparent if you switch from English to Greek (or at least the key words.

  1. God is agape
  2. I would never exclude someone I phileo from heaven
  3. Since God’s agape is more perfect than my phileo, He wouldn’t either.

Can you see the difference?  God is focused on what is best for you, regardless of how it makes Him feel.  You, however, are focused on what makes you feel good, and seek to find a way to help those you phileo feel good with minimal personal discomfort.  The implied comparison is not valid, nor is the conclusion.

God’s agape love requires that he provide justice.  Think about children: if you have two children that are fighting, you have to discipline them.  It isn’t that you don’t love them, but that you do!  If you do not inflict justice on your children, then the fight will continue, and fights in general will be more frequent.  Sooner or later, at least one child will be seriously injured.  To not actively discourage fighting would be to not love.  Love demands that you bring justice, complete with punishment, to your children.

God is no different.  He has stated certain requirements to hang out with Him.  If we do not meet those requirements, we must “sit in the naughty chair”, to quote Super-Nanny.  The idea is basically the same as the Super-Nanny method: God/parent explains to human/child what the rules are, and what the consequences are.  Afterwards, the human/child chooses whether to operate within the rules, or accept the consequences.  Just as a parent must enforce the consequences to keep order and safety in the home, so must God enforce the consequences.

God MUST, out of love, enforce justice.  That justice demands punishment for sin.  God allows us one out: Jesus’s payment of that sin.  If we do not accept His payment, then we must accept it, and go to Hell.  To do less would be for God to be unjust, which is an unloving thing to do.

Love…thyself?

March 26, 2009

Matthew 22:37-40 (ESV):

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

English has this irritating property: “love” is a very poorly defined term. I have heard a variety of definitions offered for it, and most of them are justified, based on how we use it.  In Greek, however, there are four distinct words that we translate as “love”: agape, phileo, storge, and eros.  In the passage above, the love spoken of is “agape”.  There is also a condition: “..as yourself.”  Christians are required to love others in the same way they love themselves.  Unfortunately, I know of several Christians who do not effectively agape themselves.

So, what does “love thyself” look like in each possibility?  Agape is perhaps the easiest.  Agape is a sacrificial, unconditional love.  In personal finance, this would manifest as things like “no credit cards”, “retirement savings”, “big purchase savings”, “emergency funds”, etc.  This is the person who delays gratification so that money works for, not against, him or her.  This is a person who appreciates the truth that “no relationship” is better than “a bad relationship”.  It is better to be single than abused.  It involves using discipline to look out for oneself, dealing in truth rather than idealistic fantasies.

Eros will tend to be the opposite: it is a fleshly, carnal love.  It is not entirely bad, but it needs boundaries (from agape).  Unbridled eros of self would be destructive instant self-gratification.  Massive debt with no savings, one night stands, binge drinking, drugs, anything to give an instant dose of pleasure.  This is a destructive, selfish, unhealthy “love”.

Phileo is an affectionate love.  “Brotherly” love is the love where you are at peace with yourself.  You keep yourself comfortable and happy.  It doesn’t imply the potential excesses of eros, nor the self-discipline of agape.  This is tender and affectionate.  You truly like yourself and feel good about yourself.

Storge is sort of a neutral “family” love.  This is the love you have with family, just because they are family.  Applied to self, it implies taking care of yourself, some minimal efforts.  You are content in your own skin, but may or may not be happy.

ALL of these forms of love are important!  In marriage, for example, you want to treat your mate right (agape), have affection (phileo), get some (eros), and sometimes just hang doing your own things side by side (storge).  The same is true of self, you need to take care of yourself in both the long and short term (agape), like yourself (phileo), allow yourself some pleasure (I’m partial to video games and board games), and be comfortable with yourself.

If your love of self is unbalanced, however, your love of neighbor will be too.  I know people who do not agape themselves.  That is bad enough, but that translates into not agapeing their spouses, friends, children, etc.  They are loving their neighbor as themselves, but the net result is destructive for everyone.

Character

March 24, 2009

Character is one of those strange things that is hard to define and harder still to find evidence for. I have sat in church with people who seem to have it all together, but when you catch them at the mall, a different side is revealed. I have known people who were wonderful people, but sickness struck and suddenly their zest for life went with it.

The result of these things is that I am forced to agree with James: character is revealed in times of trouble far more than in times of blessing.  James 1:2-4 (ESV) says “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  We are matured and revealed when we go through trials.  Our defects are revealed, and we gain the ability to see the weaknesses in our lives.  Hard times show us where we need to grow.

Are you a faithful steward of the blessings God has given you?  The question is answered in trials.  Job was faithful when he lost everything.  Jesus was faithful when His life blood was pouring from him.  Noah was faithful when people laughed at his woodworking project.  Will you be faithful when the stock market dips?  Will you be faithful when your health starts to fail?  Will you be faithful when people laugh at you for questioning scientists?

I watch a paraplegic pray faithfully while a tired man hides in bed.  I see one couple hold together through a miscarriage, while another fights bitterly over finances.  One man is healed, while another remains in pain.  Which is the greater blessing?  Is it better to walk in healing or grace?  Which would you rather have?

Healing

March 19, 2009

I go to church at the Vineyard. One of the things we believe is that God can and will move in the world through miraculous acts. When reading the book of Acts, we see clearly that the model Jesus provided is continued in his disciples. Healing, knowledge, leadership, and many other gifts are demonstrated over and over.

Some Christians believe that all that has stopped, and point to the lack of miracles as evidence for it. This is, at best, disingenuous. There are entire denominations, such as Assemblies of God, that do practice miraculous gifts and see them occur on a regular basis. Unfortunately, some of those same churches are plagued by what I would consider to be poor teaching. The same set of messages is preached over and over, where the variation comes from the verses used, rather than the message itself.

Why should I have to choose between solid biblical teaching and the truth that God still moves in power, is still Lord of creation, and still acts in miraculous ways to save and encourage His sheep? The short answer is: I don’t. I go to a church that has both.

I didn’t always believe in miracles, mind you. I spent a lot of time as an atheist/agnostic, later got into the occult, and finally got saved. As a mathematician, I have a very scientific, analytic approach to things. Miracles, for most of my life, were not a reality. While in the occult I conducted “double blind” experiments that convinced me of the reality of the supernatural. I have spent time since then in churches that both did and did not support the idea that God performs miracles today.

Seeing one of those miracles is a little different, however, from “believing” in them. I don’t see a lot actually happening around me. Recently, however, I have been prayed for and had a chronic pain in my spine relieved (scoliosis bites). I have prayed for others and seen their pain relieved. I have also prayed for some people where nothing happened (the Vineyard Bible Institute has classes that explain why healing doesn’t always occur). Last Sunday, however, was perhaps the most impressive event I have seen to date.

For background: Saturday night, SybilRowan (my lovely wife) ate some food that just didn’t agree with her. Her stomach got so upset that she ended up sending the entire meal back via the toilet. She had pain in her side (I didn’t know about), and was generally miserable. The next day, she had white stools. I’m no doctor, but a quick check on the internet told me that is either bad, or very bad. I didn’t know it, but the pain in her side was continuing. By Sunday night, we were both scared.

I felt prompted to pray for her. I don’t recall the details of the prayer, but when I pray a healing prayer that will be answered, the only way I can describe what seems to happen is that I don’t pray, God prays through me. This is what was happening. I talked about how God created all life, how He breathed life into us. I didn’t know where it was going, but after a bit of praying like this, praising God and speaking about how he is the author of life, I leaned close to Sybil’s side and breathed on it. I think I said a couple closing things and the prayer was done.

The next day, I found out two things: 1) Her side had been hurting until the moment I breathed on it. When I did that, the pain stopped and she felt a cooling sensation go through her where I breathed. 2) Her stools were brown again. You wouldn’t think a brown stool would be cause for excitement and joy, but it was.

My personal belief, given that we never had a diagnosis, is that something was going on with her liver, and that it was healed. What I know for sure is that she feels much better, and wants to take care of herself moving forward. Healing is real, and God is prepared to bless you.

Good Greed

March 16, 2009

The truth is that people function out of greed and self-interest. If you find that statement offensive, I challenge you to carefully compare the general happiness of the people of two nations: the United States and Cuba. The United States has an economy that was founded on the simple idea that every person had the right to work for his or her living. If you wanted money (for food, shelter, etc) then you got a job. The more valuable the work you did, the more money you got. The economic wealth of the United States grew, and millions of people came to the US seeking the opportunity to make money.

Contrast this with Cuba, or the USSR, or any nation attempting to function under purely communist principles. Everyone is poor. A Ph.D. will drive a cab for tourists in the hopes of getting tips that will increase his or her salary beyond teaching or performing research. Think about that, people will perform menial work, work that anyone can do, for a chance at money. Communist nations require a dictatorship to force people to do work, and people are not productive. China is becoming capitalist in economic policy, even if it is repressive in all other respects.

Again, look at socialist nations. In France, for example, people could not be fired from their jobs. Americans laugh at the inefficiency of the Federal Government, but imagine if the entire economy had the inability to fire someone that the Federal Government currently experiences. There would be no way for businesses to remain lean and competitive.

This isn’t a pro-capitalism rant, however. I believe in the power of capitalism, and the things that it brings. My point is that people are inherently motivated by greed and self-interest. Now for something radical, however. Wealth production is not anti-Christian, debt is. Read Proverbs 6: 1-11. Verses 1-5 deal with the plight of a man who has gone into debt to his neighbor. He is exhorted to do whatever it takes to work off that debt or get it forgiven. Verses 6-8 extend this message, exhorting the reader to not simply avoid debt, but to store up for lean times. Finally, verses 9-11 laziness is rebuked and poverty is revealed as a shameful, unfortunate end to those who are lazy.

To be poor due to laziness is unchristian. To acquire wealth is a reasonable Christian pursuit. Then what is the purpose of this wealth? In chapter 6, one of the reasons is listed: as security against lean times that will come. In the current economy, everyone is aware that people lose jobs from time to time. Losing your job can be a devastating thing, especially if you have a mortgage on your house or car. You will view the experience quite differently if you are always on the edge of being broke, versus having a year’s worth of income saved up.

There is another purpose, however, that is revealed in Proverbs 3: 27-28. If you have acquired wealth, you can be a blessing to those around you. Not everyone is as wise or talented as you may be. You can hire someone to do work. You can give the widow food. you can take in the orphan. You can give to your church. If you acquire wealth, the purpose is not to lord it over others, or get yachts, or other things. The purpose is to protect your family’s well-being, and to be a blessing on those around you.

To acquire wealth, all Christians must acknowledge the first great economic principle: people seek to maximize perceived value. I.e.: people are greedy. You do this every time you engage in a financial transaction. I will go to a movie matinée, rather than the late show. Why? Because to me, the latest Hollywood offering is worth $6, not $8. Trading $6 for the opportunity to watch the movie is increasing my perceived value. $8 for the movie is a decrease. Many movies will wait until they come out on DVD before I see them. A $2 rental is all they are worth to me, even if I don’t get the theater experience.

We make these decisions all the time. I enjoy video games. The sweet spot for me on video games is $20. I will consider almost any game at that price, and am prepared to buy about a game a month at that price. $30 is reserved for only the very, very best games. $50 is simply not something I will pay more than about once a decade. At under $10, games enter the impulse-buy zone: I’ll pick up a game that may suck if it’s less than $10 and not be upset if it does suck. Perceived value.

$3/pound chuck steak, or $6/pound prime rib? I buy the chuck steak. We choose in the grocery store as well. I buy a lot of generic foods. Sometimes name brand matters; often it doesn’t. I shop in used goods stores. New cloths versus used: $5 versus $50. I’ll happily buy used if it saves me 90% on the price. I’ll even donate back the cloths, books, and movies that I no longer use.

As Christians, we should seek to encourage an economic environment that promotes wealth production. Low taxes (the government isn’t good at spending money), limited oversight on business, enforced contracts, and transparency in dealings. Government should facilitate honest dealings between businesses, individuals, etc. It should provide for safety. However, a thriving economy means that the poor don’t have to stay that way, and there is enough money for people to directly work with the homeless and help them. If the government takes $20 for the poor, $10 will go to pay someone to give $10 to someone who may or may not be responsible. If I give $20 to the poor, I can at least look to how it is being spent. Government enforced giving is not charitable giving, it is theft, and limits the ability of people to practice charity.

OK, maybe this was pro-capitalism, but it’s the only way for Christians to acquire wealth and server their fellow man.

A Bit More Truth

March 12, 2009

One of the things that has bothered me for a while is a profound disinterest or disrespect for truth.  I see it almost everywhere: in media, in news, in churches, in laws, and in philosophy.  The reality is, the truth is, that if we do not deal in truth, we will not have good philosophy, we will not have good laws, we will not have good politicians, and we will not make good decisions in our lives.

As you may have guessed, I believe that truth is essential for discerning goodness.  This also reveals a bias I have: Good and Evil exist.  Of course, this bias is based on years of experience.  I have spent years dealing with all manner of things, such as suffering, abuse, etc.  I’ve suffered many of the same pains as others.  There is one inescapable conclusion that I have come away with in life.  People have a tendency to hurt each other.  People have a tendency to pursue self-interest over what will help those around them.  People have a tendency to pursue short-term goals despite the obvious long-term consequences.  In other words, people have a tendency to sin.

This flies in the face of what we hear on a daily basis: that people are basically good.  You can see this when you observe people talking about world events.  People want to “negotiate” with people like Kim Jong-Il or Ahmedienejad.  The assumption behind these negotiation attempts is that they are basically good people who are simply “misguided” and that if we reason with them, they will realize the error of their ways and stop getting the note from the UN, “doesn’t play well with others.”

It fails to recognize that Kim Jong-Il has total power over a nation.  He is, more than likely, of the mindset that he should be allowed to do whatever he wants with “his” country.  His reaction would be similar to yours if one of your neighbors told you you can’t put in a bed of flowers in front of your house.  You would be incensed if someone told you not to plant a rose bush in front of your house, or that your azaleas had to go.  This is the same attitude that Kim Jong-Il has towards nuclear and missile programs in North Korea.  Negotiation cannot work because he views it as being none of our business.

Ahmedenijad is working from a different perspective.  He is a devout Muslim.  I do not know enough about Islam to be able to say whether his beliefs are mainstream or not, but he has stated that he believes Israel has no right to exist as a nation.  This isn’t, as far as I can tell, a political belief, but rather a religious belief.  My understanding is that he believes that ALL people should follow Islam, just as I believe that ALL people should be Christians.  The difference, however, is that some Muslims (I believe this includes Ahmedenijad) believe that it is acceptable to use force as a means of convincing others to convert.  Despite what has happened in the past, I know of no Christians currently living that would advocate using force as a means of convincing others to convert.  Because Christianity is defined in terms of a loving relationship between a person and Christ, it doesn’t even make sense to “force” someone to become a Christian.  The result is that Ahmedenijad appears to view it as a religious duty to reclaim territory once held by Muslims, and that non-Muslims occupying it have the choice of converting, leaving, or dying.  I have no choice but to view such an attitude as a sinful one.  He seeks to steal the property of others, and is willing to commit murder to do so.  He may be willing to commit murder because they disagree with him about the nature of God.

With these two examples in mind, it becomes clear that some of our international conflicts are based, not on misunderstandings, but on irreconcilable differences.  Coming closer to home, the US political scene is seeing the same conflicts.  Obama has called out Limbaugh.  The funny thing is, Limbaugh is being called out for making some observations about Obama’s policies.  This is called “freedom of speech” and is protected by the US Constitution.  So, what are the observations Limbaugh is making?  Simply that Obama’s policies have been tried many times before, and have never worked.  Moreover, when the opposite policies have been tried, they have always worked.  To me, this is a simple matter of objective truth coming against wishful thinking.  I wish I had a million dollars in the bank.  If I start shopping as if it were true, I’ll quickly get in trouble.  Obama wishes government intervention and regulation and spending was the key to fixing the US economy, and he is leading the US economy into a downward spiral.  Don’t poop in one hand and claim it’s the hand you wished in.

There is a key truth we have to embrace, and fast.  People are not, fundamentally, good.  That includes me, you, your neighbor, my pastor, everyone.  I sin daily, despite every desire in me not to.  I would say I sin hourly, but I think I’m OK while I’m asleep.  I seek to follow God’s will, and to obey His direction.  God is good, I am fundamentally flawed.  If I am fundamentally flawed, I have to realize that others I deal with are as well.  That means the more important the interaction, the more caution I have to exercise in it.  That is one of the truths of life.