Today is a national day of thanksgiving in the United States. And it brings up the question, can the two go together? Should a nation give thanks? Should we give thanks for our nation? And on the deeper level, is patriotism a good thing? Have not people done evil things in the name of their country? Is there a good type of patriotism that can be kept without endorsing the bad?
To separate the good from the bad, we must start by separating loving our country from necessarily endorsing its government's policies. I think we need to start, as G. K. Chesterton suggests, with the idea of the love of home. The place I grew up in, the place I belong. Chesterton makes this suggestion, not just with a nation, but with the world as a whole. It is the person who loves something, not just because it is good but because it is theirs, who will work to improve it. The person who sees a place with rose-colored glasses will leave it as it is. The person who sees it as messed up but is indifferent to its fate will leave it as it is. But the person who sees something realistically, with all its faults, and loves it anyway, that is the person who will work to improve it. That is how God deals with us (Romans 8:6-8; John 3:14-18; 1 John 4:9,10). And it is how we should deal with the world around us. We should see it as a world created by God, inhabited by people who are created by God (Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-28; Romans 1:19,20) and are presently in rebellion against Him (1 John 2:15-17; Romans 3:23; 1:18). And it is our job to love and reach out to that world of people (Romans 13:8-10; James 2:8; Galatians 6:9,10).
But there are certain people we have a special connection with and responsibility for And while we have a higher citizenship (Philippians 3:20,21; 1 Peter 2:11; Hebrews 11:13), we are to honor the authorities we are under (1 Peter 2:13-17; Romans 13:1-7; Matthew 22:15-22). It seems to me that within this context, the case for a reasoned love of country may be made. Not a blind patriotism that endorses everything without question. Certainly not one that cannot stand up, if it is required to, based on principle (Acts 4:19,20; 5:29; Daniel 3:17,18). Or one that, when required to, will not stand up and rebuke wrongdoing ( 1Kings 21:17-21; Amos 7:10-17; Matthew 14:3,4). But I also think there is value in loving a place that is home, with shared experiences and traditions, as long as this means working to make that place better rather than mindlessly accepting its policies. Therefore, I think it is appropriate for us to give thanks for our nation and to give thanks for its blessings. If it is seen in the right context.
If we find God's will for our life, will we be successful? I do not here necessarily mean successful as the world sees success. I do not necessarily mean we will have wealth, fame, and power. It is possible to look at success from a spiritual viewpoint. That we will have a congregation that is growing, a family that is living for Christ, a nice, relatively comfortable life full of friends, neighbors, and good times. I mean, does not the Bible say we will prosper (Joshua 1:7,8; Psalms 1:3; Isaiah 40:31) and be victorious (Romans 8:37; 2 Corinthians 2:14; 1 John 5:4)? This should not be taken simply financially (1 Timothy 6:6-10; Matthew 6:24; Colossians 3:5). But it must mean something.
I am convinced that prosperity and victory here are from God's perspective. That when we stand before Him we will be able to look back and see what the point of it all was. But we do not always see it at the present time. There was Elijah, through whom God worked impressive miracles, but the people refused to permanently change their ways. There was Jeremiah, who cried tears over Jerusalem, but his ministry could not bring the people to repent. We are called not to pass judgment on our labors, but simply to continue in faithfulness (1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Philippians 1:6; Romans 8:28-30). Now I am not intending to oppose intelligent taking stock of whether we are doing the right thing in the best way. But I am speaking against that persistent nagging doubt that stalks those whose life has not turned out as they hoped it would. And it is here we need to trust God, even if we do not know where our path is leading us (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127:1,2; 37:3-6).
When love and justice collide, the product is grace. And the place of this collision is the Cross. There is a fundamental problem here that needs to be solved. There needs to be a moral center to the universe. A basis for saying what is good and what bad. And for believing that good deserves to be rewarded and evil deserves to be punished. God is that moral center (Romans 2:16; Matthew 25:31-46; 1 Timothy 5:24,25). But justice without love is not truly good. It leads to a brittle and austere kind of morality that looks down with contempt on others. And if God had that kind of attitude we, being sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9), could not avoid ending up under certain judgment (Romans 6:23; Hebrews 9:27; Revelation 20:11-15).
But God, being love, was not willing to simply leave the situation that way, but sent His Son to save us (1 John 4:8-10; Romans 5:6-8; John 3:14-18). He did this by paying the price for our sins so we could be forgiven (Romans 3:24-32; 1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14). This is important, because it upholds the principle of morality while pardoning the offender. And it manages to do both by being very specific in what it does. This will not work with just generalized benevolence. Either it will do too little, leaving severity with only a tinge of mercy. Or it can become simply indulgence, which does not uphold any moral principles.
But the concept of paying the price allows God to offer pardon freely, based on faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). However, it still can call us to a life of growth in following Christ (Titus 2:11-14; Philippians 3:12-16; Hebrews 12:1,2), without watering down the standard (Matthew 5:48; James 2:10; 4:17). Then it turns around and gives us the power to make that change (2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Peter 1:3; Colossians 1:29), based on our response to His love for us (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Romans 12:1,2). It even makes faith possible by reaching out to us (John 6:44; Acts 16:14; 13:48), who would not, if left to ourselves, come to Him (Romans 3:11; 7:18; 8:8). This is grace (Romans 11:6; Galatians 2:21; Titus 3:5,6). It reaches out to sinful women (Luke 7:36-50; John 4:7-26), tax collectors (Matthew 9:9-13; Luke 19:1-10), dying thieves (Luke 23:39-43), and persecutors (1 Corinthians 15:9). It is the answer to the question of how sinners can be pardoned in a black-and-white universe. It is what we need.
And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Clement of Rome, ?- 99 AD, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 32, (The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Philip Schaff, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001, p. 23)
How important is it that our salvation is not based on us? How should it affect how we live?
There are those who say miracles must must be rejected because they do not fit our ordinary experience. They say extraordinary events require extraordinary proof. But does this hold up to examination? One factor to consider in examining an event is whether it fits in with our past experience. But to make this the only or chief criterion for evaluating things leads to serious problems long before you get to miracles. David Hume, who invented this test, admitted that by it the man who lived all his life in India (presumably southern India), would be justified in not believing in snow. A test that leads to a contrary-to-fact conclusion is clearly suspect. The truth is, there are many things that exist in the world which I have not personally seen. Should I reject them because I have not seen them? Now in modern times, one can try to get around this by referring to television or other media and claiming they can supply the place of actually being there. But I have seen Vulcans and Klingons on TV. I need something beyond merely seeing it on TV to evaluate if a thing is real.
There are also many events in history that are unbelievable by our normal experience. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 would have seemed nearly impossible to someone back in the 1960s. That an obscure German monk could start a Reformation that would break the power of the Roman Catholic Church seems incredible in retrospect. But it is in science that this idea meets its biggest check. Take the Theory of Relativity or Quantum Mechanics. That objects change in mass or in the rate at which time passes when they are in motion relative to each another does not fit my normal experience. Nor does the idea that something could be a wave and particle at the time or pass through any barrier that is less than infinite. But I do not feel justified in throwing out basic scientific theories based on this.
There is also the problem of how common miracles are. There are those who claim that miracles occur on a regular basis. I am myself somewhat cynical of this. I suspect that clear-cut miracles are somewhat rare but cannot completely be discounted. But I have known personally of events that are hard to explain naturalistically. Before you can judge whether miracles are common or rare, you have to decide what miracles you believe in. Now a person who desires miracles may see them when they do not happen, but a person who is adamant that they do not happen may refuse to recognize them when they do. I agree that we should require more proof for the unusual than the commonplace. But if we require the kind of extraordinary proof they are seeking before we believe it, we will never find that proof. However we must ask if, by putting the bar too high, we are not cutting ourselves off from reality.
It is common to ask, why do the righteous suffer? But the psalmist in psalm 73 struggles with a different problem. Why do the unrighteous get away with it? If we look at the evil things done in the world. At vicious dictators who amass large amounts of money in Swiss bank accounts while their people starve. At criminals who commit brutal crimes against innocent victims. It is easy to ask, why does God not strike them down with a lightning bolt? Now the simple answer is that God is gracious and has allowed them time to repent (Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; Luke 13:1-5). But underlying this is the idea that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6) and are all in need of God's grace (Romans 3:24-31; Ephesians 2:8,9; Philippians 3:4-11). This is why Scripture forbids us to stand in judgment on ourselves and others (Luke 6:37; Romans 2:1; 1 Corinthians 4:3-5). Now it does call for loving correction where that is warranted (Galatians 6:1; Matthew 18:15-17; Jude 22,23). But we need to do this with the realization that we ourselves could not stand before God without His forgiveness. Now God will ultimately judge sin (Romans 2:16; Matthew 25:31-46; 1 Timothy 5:24,25). We may ask why God does not more quickly judge some people. I do not claim to know the answer. But we might also ask why He does not immediately judge us. The basic answer is that He is gracious.
A common complaint of church leaders is that the people are not committed. So they preach fervently about commitment. And nothing major seems to change. Now I am not not against preaching commitment; it is a genuine biblical theme (Romans 12:1,2; Galatians 5:16; Titus 2:11-14). Though I do believe that beating people over the head with the rules is counterproductive (Romans 5:20; Matthew 23:4; Galatians 3:21,22). But even apart from that, if it is not working, I have to ask if we are doing the wrong thing.
What do we mean by commitment? Too often we are thinking of commitment to an organization or a program rather than Christ. But the purpose of the church is to introduce people to Christ and build them up in Him (Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 4:11-16; Hebrews 10:24,25). The organization exists to facilitate this. We also may have a stereotype of a committed Christian that we expect people to live up to. This often involves ignoring the various gifts in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:3-8; Colossians 2:19). And it is easy to question those whose gifts do not fit our expectations. Now we need to correct clear-cut sin (Galatians 6:1; Matthew 18:15-17; 2 Thessalonians 3:14,15), but we should be careful of judging others based on a perception of lack of commitment (James 4:11,12; Romans 14:4; 1 Corinthians 4:3-5).
Now in any congregation there are those who are not serious about following Christ. This is what sermons on commitment are for. But there are also those who are discouraged because they do not fit into a particular stereotype or program. And by forcing them into an agenda they cannot embrace, we discourage them from doing what God has planned for them. They should be told that God is at work in them to accomplish their particular purpose (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6; Colossians 1:28,29). But the main reason sermons on commitment bounce off the majority of the congregation is that they believe they already are committed. They believe if they are moral people who are involved in church work, they are committed. They need to be reminded that they are sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6), saved by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). The result of this is that God is at work to change their lives (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 3:12-16; Galatians 5:16,17). But this is a process, and they are not there yet. Commitment is frequently posed as a yes or no question. Therefore, if the individual does not have obvious spiritual problems, they are unwilling to admit that they are not committed. But if growth in God is seen as a process, we should never be satisfied with where we are, but press on to what we are becoming. Real commitment is to a process of change. Not to look for a fictitious plateau to stop at.
And do you be watchful and destroy not
your long discipline, but as though now making a beginning, zealously
preserve your determination. For ye know the treachery of the demons,
how fierce they are, but how little power they have. Wherefore fear
them not, but rather ever breathe Christ, and trust Him. Live as though
dying daily. (As quoted by Athanasius)
Anthony, 251-356 AD, Life of Anthony by Athanasius, 91 (edited by Archibald Robinson, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clarke and Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing, Second Series, Vol IV)
Is this the right way to look at demons? Why or why not?
Anthony was, by Athanasius' account of his life, not the first monk. But he was there at the beginning of the movement. And he used his prestige to help back up Athanasius in defense of the deity of Christ. Now the whole history of monasticism is hard to pin down. This is perhaps aided by the fact that it is a controversial subject, and those on both side would dispute the chronology to support their point of view. It probably started with those within the congregation who took vows of celibacy, poverty or both. This, as a choice, may be argued as not clearly contrary to Scriptural teaching (1 Corinthians 7:7-9; Matthew 19:10-12; Mark 10:21,22). Provided you do not try to impose it on others. But it is easy to slip from there to thinking you are better than other people because of that choice.
Anthony was one of the first, though probably not the very first, to push these things to a new level. He chose to leave all human society and live alone in a cave in the desert. This was his way of separating himself from the world. There were others who took up his example and also sought solitary places. Others, not quite ready to live in total isolation, formed groups that lived together in isolated places apart from normal human society. This kind of dedication impressed people and encouraged them to follow their example. Athanasius was sufficiently impressed by this and by Anthony personally to promote it. It may be that one reason people embraced this was in a reaction against the nominal Christianity produced by the actions of Constantine. Martyrdom was frequently not available, and people wanted something they could do to show the depths of their commitment.
Now being a monk did show dedication. And there were good things done by monks and nuns in caring for the sick, preaching the Bible, and other positive actions. There was also the danger of self-righteousness. It was easy to believe that yourself to be holier than others for making an impressive sacrifice. Even if it was not one God explicitly commanded. But there is a more important problem. This course tends to shield you from the corrupting influences of the world (Romans 12:1,2; 1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4). But it does so by separating you from other people, making it difficult to reach out to those in need (Galatians 6:9,10; Matthew 25:31-46; 1 Peter 3:15) . This act of consecration can, in some cases, produce people who are willing to reach out to others. But it can also result in an attitude of indifference to others in pursuit of your own personal holiness. Therefore, we need to beware of the attitude that we can follow Christ by doing something that involves hiding from all contact with others. And we should avoid applauding things that look impressive but are not what God commands. But should concentrate on the things that God does command.
It is easy for goodness to degenerate into a cliche.The goodness described in the fruit of the Spirit is a positive goodness. There are various words for good in Scripture. This word describes the goodness that gives good things to others. The example of this is God, who gives good things even to those who oppose Him (Matthew 5:44-48; 7:11; 20:15). It goes beyond kindness, which can be understood as being somewhat passive, to giving positive benefits. One who is good produces good things that benefit others (Luke 6:45; Acts 11:24, Galatians 6:10). It is frequently used of good things done for the poor or unfortunate (Acts 9:36; Luke 1:53; 2 Corinthians 9:8). There is an idea that the way to relate to people is to be kind and not interfere. It says the best thing you can do for people is leave them alone. I certainly have some of this idea. Goodness goes beyond this to ask how can I positively help people.
There is a cartoon in Charles Schultz's Peanuts where Lucy comes across Linus paging through a Bible. "What are you doing?" she asks. "Looking for a Bible verse to support my preconceived notions," he replies. Too often this can be our approach to Scripture. But God calls us to start with beliefs based on Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16,17; 2:15; John 17:17). This is difficult to do. We all have ideas that we have been raised with or taught that we find difficult to question. There are also the general assumptions of our culture that we find hard to put aside. But Christianity is meaningless if it has nothing in it to challenge our own presuppositions. However, to undertake this there are serious fears that need to be overcome.
1. There is the fear that it must be left in the hands of the experts. But the Bible was written by ordinary people for ordinary people. There are things in it that boggle the mind, but they boggle every mind. In my opinion, there are an excess of technical terms used by experts that could be dispensed with, and though some of these may still need to be understood, they do not require great expertise. It is not an impossible task.
2. There is the fear that if we examine our faith, we may lose it or at least end up with a set of beliefs no church organization will accept. This is a real fear. But I believe that God will stand up to examination and that it is worth it to know what the truth is. I know there is a danger in examining our faith. But an unexamined faith will always be superficial.
3. If we attempt to figure things out for ourselves, we might lose some cherished belief. I have faced this many times. Sometimes to have the belief confirmed. and other times to find it will not stand up to examination. But I would rather have God's truth than stay in my comfort zone.
4. We may worry that we will go off on tangents or get caught up in bizarre ideas. This again is a real danger. We need to consider the message of Scripture as a whole and not go off based on some detail. We need to be familiar with the teachings of others, not as an unquestionable authority, but as something to compare our views with. And sometimes we need to honestly ask whether we alone have all the answers.
Often the concern is not just for ourselves. If we are leaders, it can be fear for the people we lead. We may be afraid to encourage people to think for themselves for fear they will get the wrong answers. But an unexamined faith is often a faith which collapses when challenged. I therefore feel it is worth the risk to encourage people to think their faith through. And we need to trust God with the results (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127:1,2; 37:3-6).
All the glory that passes from fallen man to God, so as to be accepted of him, must go through the hands of the Lord Jesus, in whom alone it is that our persons and performances are, or can be, pleasing to God. Of his righteousness therefore we must make mention, even of his only, who, as he is the Mediator of all our prayers, so he is, and I believe will be to eternity; the Mediator of all our praises.
Mathew Henry, 1662 - 1714, Matthew Henry's Commentary, Romans 16:25-27, II, 2, (Fleming H. Revell Company, Vol. VI, p. 504)
What difference does it make that Christ is our mediator? What impact does it have on our life?
Sam Stout checked out his assault weapon carefully before flinging it over his shoulder. He also made sure his pistol was in his concealed holster in case he needed a back-up. He pinned his clan badge on his beret and prepared to go out. The USAPs were coming, and something had to be done about it.
No one knew precisely where the USAPs, United Society of Amalgamated People, (a loose translation of their own name for themselves) came from. The Travelers said they seemed to come from somewhere in the vicinity of Old Europe, but it was not clear where. But you had to be careful about believing the Travelers. Normal people did not travel much; it was too dangerous. Travelers made it a lifestyle by being well-armed and not carrying much of anything else worth stealing.
He stepped outside and made sure all the alarms and locks were in place. He did not want anyone trying to get to his family while he was gone.
It was ironic, Sam thought, that theirs was once the mightiest nation on earth. They had possessed weapons so powerful that no one dared invade them. Sam wondered where those weapons were now. But the stronger the nation grew, the more powerful the government became. Legend said you could not even build a house or start a business without wading through tons of red tape. Finally, all the common-sense people revolted and started a society based on the idea of the less government, the better. Some local rulers tried to keep some order, but it pretty much failed. Once the clans got started, they helped. It made a difference if people knew that if they attacked you, they faced a vendetta by the whole clan. But there was a period when life was very dangerous, though it was better now.
Sam walked warily past the barbed wire fence that marked the boundary of the Fox clan. They lived up to the reputation of their namesake from sneakiness. Now would not be a good time to fall into one of their traps. But Sam passed without incident.
For a while they had been safe from invasion. Maybe others remembered the old, powerful weapons. Maybe they just had their own problems. But now the USAPs had come. And they were everything the locals detested. They were rigid, disciplined, unquestioning followers of their leaders. They had not been observed to show any traits of individuality. And they seemed bent on expanding their territory and integrating everyone into their structure. Rumors had it that in those areas that had already been captured, you faced an ultimatum: fit into the USAP's system or die.
Sam approached the old meetinghouse that had become the gathering place for the clans. He saw people streaming in from every direction. They sported the badges of different clans and seemed to be mingling together randomly, ignoring all the protocols for a meeting of the clans. As they entered the meetinghouse they saw Tom Riley from the Eagle clan standing in the front.
"We all know the situation," began Tom. "We face the danger of being run down and then gobbled up by the USAP machine. Individual and clan efforts to stop them have proved ineffectual. To successfully oppose them we need to organize, perhaps even find the old weapons. Therefore, as distasteful as we may find it, we need to put our feelings aside and bite the bullet. We need to form a government."
They all looked around in horror, realizing that he was right.
One of the dangers of the Christian community is a tendency to enforce conformity. Church organizations can require uniformity on a large number of issues. Now Scripture does speak of unity (Ephesians 4:1-6; Philippians 2:1-4; Colossians 3:12-14). It also says there is a need to correct those who have violated that unity by their actions and beliefs (Galatians 1:6; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Jude 22,23). However, it says that Christ's body is diverse, having many different types of members, all of which are important (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:3-5; Ephesians 4:14-16). Further, it says that there is room for disagreement on minor issues (Romans 14:1-12; 1 Corinthians 8:1-3; James 4:11-12). The picture we get is of a broad unity with a wide allowance within for diversity. This is not what I see in the Christian church today. I see churches divided based on spiritual gifts, methodologies, or even personalities. We have evangelistic churches and teaching churches. Emotional churches and unemotional churches. Formal churches and informal churches. And where these different types ought to be together, rubbing the rough edges off each other, they tend to gather with those of a similar mindset which will not challenge them. Now it might be said that it is dangerous to try to build a congregation which reflects this kind of diversity. It is easier and safer to produce conformity. This is true. But I believe real diversity is what God requires.
Some see one key source of theological belief as the agricultural cycle. This is connected to the idea of a living and dying god. This god is then seen as personifying the life and death of the crops. Jesus is therefore regarded as just one more example of this theme. How should this be looked at?
There is a worldwide idea of a god or hero who is involved in a battle with death. It is found in wildly different forms. It includes Orpheus, who tries to save his wife Eurydice and fails. Rama conquers, and his followers, who consist in talking monkeys, are resurrected. Balder is killed and comes back to life again. These seem to have nothing in common except the bare idea. There is also the very common idea of some kind of sacrifice, generally an animal, to pay for sin.
Now the Scripture says that God spoke to human beings from the very beginning. Therefore it is not surprising that the first events are found, in some form, in a number of cultures. But God also promised that there would be One who would be the seed of the woman, who would crush the head of Satan the bringer of death, but would do so by suffering a wound of being crushed on the heel (Genesis 3:15). There was also the early idea of the need of sacrifice (Genesis 4:3-5). I suspect there was more told to people than was actually recorded. We are not informed how they knew to bring an offering or the difference between clean and unclean animals (Genesis 7:2). But we have a broad picture of a god or hero of abnormal birth, who would at some cost to himself conquer death, and an idea of sacrifice. It is not surprising that this was connected to the harvest cycle. I am convinced that in the seasons God intended to offer a picture of death, burial, and resurrection. The cycle of Jewish festivals was based around the harvest cycle. Jesus was resurrected on the feast of firstfruits and is the firstfruits of those redeemed from death, and their salvation is the firstfruits of the future life (1 Corinthians 15:20-23; Romans 8:23; James 1:18).
But Jesus is more than just another clone of the corn king. He appears in the full light of history, not in some long ago and far away or even imagined country. He brings together the ideas of death, sacrifice, and resurrection by being the One who pays the price for sin so that we might live (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13-15; 2 Corinthians 5:21). He accomplishes this by being God who becomes Man to carry these things out (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:9-18). He brings all the pieces together and makes them make sense. If the whole world is expecting the coming of the One who will conquer death, should we be surprised when He arrives?