There is a thought that if God was not so hidden and so far off but was near to us, then everyone would believe in Him. But it is the Christian belief that He is not simply far off, but He came down to help us. And when He did so, He was not welcomed and accepted but rejected and crucified.
There was a song popular not that long ago that described God as watching us from a distance. One thing we can be thankful for this Thanksgiving season is that this is not the God of the Bible. God is not someone who sits up in His ivory tower deploring the state we are in and hoping we learn to do better. Rather, Scripture says that God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14) in order to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
When I was young my father used to like to take us out on old dirt roads to explore. And occasionally we would manage to get stuck. The area around where I grew up was loose sand, and once your wheels started spinning, they kept digging down until the truck was high-centered and you had to dig your way out. Now if someone stood on a nearby knoll and yelled down advice, he might be helpful. If it was useful advice we could even be grateful. But if someone grabbed a shovel and came down and helped us dig, we would be more grateful. But God comes down to where we are with a big truck and a winch, gets out of the truck and hooks the winch’s cable to our bumper, and pulls us out. (We can decide whether to let Him, but that’s another story). Therefore, we have a God who can understand us, for He Himself has been there and has come down to our level (except for sinning), that we might come boldly into the presence of God (Hebrews 4:14-16). And He promises to be with us through our problem,s not watching from afar off (Matthew 28:20; 2 Timothy 4:17).
But sometimes we as Christians, who have heard the story so many times, can start to take it for granted. We can forget how incredible it is that the One whose glory the heavens declare (Psalms 19:1), the One who created and sustains all things (Colossians 1:15-17), emptied Himself and took on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:5-11), that He might reconcile all things to Himself (Colossians 1:20-22). Let us not lose our sense of wonder as we remember this. And if we do not, we will have something truly to be thankful for.
There are mistaken ideas of what it means to forgive. We can believe that some things are forgivable and others are not. G. K. Chesterton in one of his Father Brown mysteries (The Chief Mourner of Marne) describes a group of people who are vehement about forgiving a man who killed another man in a duel. But they change their minds completely when they find it was really a murder. The idea is that some things are forgivable and others are not. But God forgives us even though we were hostile to Him (Romans 5:6-10; Ephesians 2:1-10; Colossians 2:13-15). He also forgave King David for adultery and murder (2 Samuel 12:13; Psalms 32:1,2; 51:7-13). And we are to forgive as God forgives and not as we want to forgive (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; Matthew 6:12).
Another mistake is to believe forgiveness means justifying or minimizing the other person’s actions. Now there may be cases where we have misconstrued other people’s actions and need to correct our impressions of them. But this is not forgiveness. In fact, if we have misjudged them there is no longer the need for forgiveness. But it is simplistic to think that every bad thing done to us can be explained away as an innocent mistake. But the fact that we cannot excuse something does not mean we should not forgive it. God does not condone our sinful behavior (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9), but He forgives us (Ephesians 1:7; Romans 3:24-26; Hebrews 9:12). It would not be surprising to find that people who have hurt us are less culpable than we think they are, but this is not the issue. Whatever their guilt is, we need to forgive them. Or this can get twisted the other way and we may hesitate to forgive someone because we are not really sure they did anything wrong. It is not required that we determine the level of another person’s guilt. Our job is simply to forgive, however much they may have wronged us. (There may be cases where, for other reasons, it is necessary to determine what really happened, but our forgiving must not depend on this. We may never know exactly what happened in every case.)
Nor does forgiveness necessarily mean we are obligated not to use reason. If a person repeatedly borrows money from you and never pays it back, you should forgive them, but that does not mean you are obligated to keep loaning them money. There may be a case where this might be the appropriate thing to do. But it depends on the circumstances. Our example here again is God. He loved us enough to paid a tremendous price to allow us to come to Him (1 John 4:9-11; John 3:16-18; Philippians 2:5-11). But He also requires just behavior from people (Romans 1:18; Acts 5:1-11; Matthew 18:15-17). Now how to balance the demands of mercy and justice in every instance may be difficult, but it is necessary.
What does it mean to have faith in Christ for our salvation? People have funny ideas about faith. Some see faith as believing what you know to be untrue. Others see faith as some kind of a leap in the dark against reason. Still others see it as simply affirming a series of facts. (This is the kind of faith even the demons have; see James 2:19.) Real faith is trusting in the promises of God. In Romans 4:17-21 it gives the example of Abraham, who in spite of the physical impossibility of having a son, nonetheless trusted God, and God fulfilled His promise. You see, the real enemy of faith is not reason but sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). We may be able to believe intellectually that God can accomplish something; it is another thing to genuinely trust Him to do it. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for faith is related to the word for pillar. The underlying meaning is “to be firm.” A pillar is firm to hold the roof up. We must regard a building’s pillars as being firm (have faith in them) before we will enter it. In the same way we must regard the promises of God as being firm in order to have faith in them. Or to use a modern example, an individual may be absolutely convinced an airplane can fly but be afraid to actually get in the airplane and fly in it.
God says that when Jesus died on the cross, it paid the whole price necessary to redeem us from sin (Romans 3:24). God also says that if we will have faith in what Christ has done, we will be declared righteous in the courtroom of God. (“Righteous” or “justified” are judicial terms; they refer to the verdict of a court; see Deuteronomy 25:1.) This results in our possessing eternal life (1 John 5:11-13). The problem is we do not now see any of these things. Now I am convinced, though I am not going to cover it here, that there are good reasons for believing this is true. But the issue is: Can I rely on this being true, even though I do not now possess it? God comes to us and says, “I will give you forgiveness of everything you have ever done wrong, eternal life in My presence, fullness of joy forever, but there is one catch. You need to trust Me for it.” It is not enough to simply affirm that such things are theoretically true; we must genuinely stake our eternal destiny on God’s promises. Not on what we can do, but on what Christ has done. And for those of us who have done this, we need to be willing to trust God with the rest of our lives. It seems ironic that we can trust God with our eternal destiny, but we may not trust Him to provide the money tomorrow to pay the bills. But I know from my own experience it is so.
(In response to whether baptism given by a man pretending to be a priest is valid.)
If baptism comes unimpaired to the person receiving the gift, even though it was given by an adulterer or a thief, why does it not therefore stand unimpaired and without need of repetition when some worldly fellow, pretending for I do not know what reason to be a priest, has offered it?
Nicolas I, 820-867 AD, Answers to the Questions of the Bulgars, Chapter XV (translated by W. L, North, MGH Epistolae VI, edition of Ernest Pearls, 1925, Letter 99, from Internet History Sourcebooks, Medieval Sourcebook)
What is the validity of the ordinances based on? Does it matter who administers them?
The next major pope after Gregory, Nicolas I, had an important part in asserting the authority of the papacy. He took a definite view of his administrative authority and his ability to be the final judge of appeals. In defending this he used the Pseudo- Isidorian Decretals, now generally conceded to be forgeries. These include a number of items, real and forged, including the spurious story of the Donation of Constantine. This narrative claims that Constantine the Great donated to Pope Sylvester the popes' temporal power and possessions. Nicolas I used his authority to rebuke Lothaire II, king of Lorraine, one of Charlemagne's descendants, for abusing and divorcing his wife and marrying his mistress. Nicolas corrected Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims, for deposing a bishop without sufficient reason. But Nicolas' great controversy was with the eastern church.
The heart of this controversy was who was the boss, the pope or the patriarch of Constantinople, who, both contrary to the admonitions of Gregory I, were claiming the title universal bishop. Also, based on the idea that the church descended from the apostles could not err, it was thought that the traditions of the church were authoritative. But the western and eastern church had different traditions. Involving such things as the date of Easter, the strictness of clerical celibacy, whether communion should be celebrated with leavened or unleavened bread, and how many times a widowed individual could remarry. There was also the abstruse and dubious doctrinal question of whether the Spirit descended only from the Father or from the Father and the Son. Though part of the issue was that the western church added the phrase "and the Son" to the Nicene Creed, which the east believed should never be changed. Also, there was the question of whether various newly arrived and converted people in Eastern Europe should be under the eastern or western authority.
Nicolas became involved because the emperor of Constantinople had deposed and banished the patriarch of Constantinople, Ignatius, with little reason and had replaced him with Photius, a scholarly layman who had to be moved up quickly through the clerical ranks in order to become patriarch. Nicolas ruled in favor of Ignatius. Photius retaliated, bringing up the disagreements between the east and the west. This resulted in a long and inconclusive struggle that alienated the two sides. Later, as a result of a political struggle, the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, and Pope Leo IX ended up excommunicating each other. While there were various attempts to reconcile, the rift grew deeper over time, resulting in two churches, the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox.
A case could be made for the correctness of Nicolas's particular judgments. But claiming excessive power, even in a good cause, is a dangerous thing. In this case it ended up dividing the church over minor things and laying the foundation of the authoritarian papacy. I am forced to wonder how many of our current church divisions are really over issues or over who gets to be in charge.
The question has been asked, if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, why do we need to pray? Could not God give us everything we need without our asking? But I am convinced this misses the point of prayer. The point of prayer is not to get us the things we want, as if God’s only purpose was to cater to our selfish desires. God does not want to produce spoiled brats. Rather, prayer is to help us understand and remember our dependency on God for everything. It is intended, not primarily to get us what we want, but to build a relationship. Now Scripture does say that God, to a degree, bestows good things on everybody , even those who reject Him (Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17; James 1:17). He also will deny prayers when it is required by His own higher purpose (Luke 22:42-44; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; 1 Chronicles 17:1-15). But between these boundaries there are things God has said He will give us if we ask (James 4:2; Matthew 7:7-11; Ephesians 3:20,21).
One of the great pitfalls we face that can create distance between us and God is pride (Proverbs 16:18; 26:12; 1 Corinthians 3:18). And the humility that God wants us to have, the humility of a little child (Matthew 18:3,4; 1 Peter 5:5,6; James 4:10), is not easily produced in us. But it is only through this humility that we can come to fully trust in Him (Proverbs 3:5-7; Psalms 127:1,2; Isaiah 40:31). This is something that cuts against the grain. For just when I think I have forced pride away from the front door of my life, it comes sneaking in the back. Just when I think that I am starting to be humble, I develop pride in my humility. To overcome this I need something beyond myself. I need the power of God (John 15:5; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13). This in itself is humbling and one more thing that can be difficult to swallow. So I am convinced that one reason God requires us to ask in regard to other matters is to remind us of our need of Him. I know for myself it is often so easy to ignore Him till I get in over my head, and then to turn to Him only when the storm is raging and I feel the boat is sinking. So I strongly suspect that if God just gave us everything ,or everything He was willing to give us, without our asking, we would be tempted to go through life blithely ignoring Him. For the point of the whole procedure is not to get us what we want, but to teach us to recognize our dependence. That we might not center our lives around our needs, but His Person.
To Thy grace I ascribe it, and to Thee mercy, that Thou hast melted away my sins as it were ice. To Thy grace I ascribe also whatsoever I have not done of evil; for what might I not have done, who even loved a sin for its own sake?
Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 AD, The Confessions, Book II (translated by E. B. Pusey, Barnes and Noble Books, 1999, p.31)
Is it by God's grace that we have not committed whatever sins we have not committed? How should that affect how we approach life?
One of the great dangers is listening to the crowd. One of the most difficult thing about walking on water can be ducking rocks from people still in the boat. I am convinced that one of the great barriers for many of us in reaching out to share Christ is worrying about what the people around us think. Jesus was always being looked at askance for being too friendly with tax-collectors and sinners (Luke 19:7). We can have a fear of people saying the same things about us. "Look at who that person has for friends." Or sometimes we can have the opposite fear--that people will think we are some kind of fanatic if we tell people about Christ.
We need to be willing to share Christ, even if the crowd may not like it and even if the people we try to witness to reject us. Now I am not saying we should not consider how to best present God's truth, and I am certainly not saying we should be obnoxious or unloving. Nor should we be deaf to all helpful correction. But I am saying we should not let fear paralyze us and keep us from sharing Christ with those who desperately need to know him. To do this, we need to have our eyes firmly fixed on God, not on the crowd. Elijah the prophet courageously stood for God in his time, predicting drought and calling fire down from heaven. But after this he made the mistake of looking at the crowd and feeling he was the only one following God. (God later corrected this misconception). He fled into the wilderness and went into a state of depression until God confronted him and brought him out of it. (For the whole story see 1 Kings 17-19.) Therefore, if we want to carry out Jesus' mission to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10), we need to focus on God, not on what the people around us will think.
There are many methods put forth for dealing with demons which involve elaborate attempts to identify particular demons and their relation to other demons. This can involve dealing with the demons at work in a specific person's life. It also can be used for evangelism, by attempting to identify the specific demon in charge of certain geographic areas. All this can be good fun, but I am forced to wonder if there in any real spiritual point to it. I certainly do not want to discourage prayer for the assistance of others or for the work of evangelism (Ephesians 6:18-20; Philippians 4:6,7; 1 Timothy 2:1-8). Nor should we forget the fact that we have adversaries who would like to hinder us and who we should stand up against (Ephesians 6:10-13; 1 Peter 5:8,9; 2 Corinthians 10:3-6). But there seems to be no place in Scripture that encourages us to make detailed inquiries into demons' names and relationships. (The one case where Jesus inquired about a demon's name seems to be an attempt to determine how many demons were involved; Mark 5:9.) Inquiring after the names and relationship of demons can become a gimmick to avoid emphasizing trust in God and perseverance in prayer (Proverbs 3:5,6; Isaiah 40:31; Luke 11:5-13). And these are the real issues.
One of the pieces of bumper sticker wisdom of the 1960’s was “Question Authority.” It portrayed the options as mindlessly following human authority and never questioning it, or seeing all authority as arbitrary and tyrannical and an unreasonable imposition on the individual. The choices were totalitarianism and anarchy, with no reasonable middle ground. This attitude has sneaked into the Christian church. There are those who want to abolish any organized authority in the church. Others, who go to the opposite extreme of telling people not to ask any questions but simply do whatever the leadership says. What is the Scriptural position?
Scripture says authorities are created by God and should be obeyed (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; Matthew 22:15-22). It also says that leaders in the church are given by God and should be followed (Ephesians 4:11; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12). Further, the purpose of the Christian church is to build people up in the faith, and this cannot be done if there is no relationship of trust between the people involved (Ephesians 4:12-16; Matthew 28:18-20; Colossians 1:28,29). But we have to oppose human authority when it conflicts with the truth of God (Acts 4:19,20; 5:29; Daniel 3:16-18). There is also a place to test the leadership in the church as to whether they are true to the teachings of Scripture (Acts 17:11; Galatians 2:11-16; 1:8,9). But neither of these should be undertaken easily or lightly, but only with careful and serious consideration. And we need to ask the question, “Am I doing this because this authority has violated what is right or just , and not merely because I personally do not happen to like it?” For this to happen there has to be a higher authority by which other authorities must be judged; this is the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16,17; John 17:17; Isaiah 8:20). This is important, because we should not oppose legitimate authority based on our personal preferences but based on principle.
This is crucial, because what we have developed out of the philosophy of the 60’s is a soft view of authority. “I will follow it if it does not conflict too much with what I want and if it is not too inconvenient.” Which is better than pure anarchy but creates serious problems. It makes it hard for any authority to function, because it has to only make the decisions people already endorse or try to find some way to entice people to go along. In the church we have the further complication that there are a multitude of other congregations out there, and if I do not like what this church is doing, I can go to the one down the road. What we need here is a change of attitude. An attitude that supports leadership until there is a clear Biblical reason not to. For it is hard to accomplish anything if we are just a batch of squabbling individuals, each wanting their own way.
Since there are goods so innumerable, whose great diversity we experience by the bodily senses, and discern by our mental faculties, must we not believe that there is some one thing, through which all goods whatever are good?
Anselm, 1033-1109, Monologium, Chapter 1, (Prologium; Monologium; An Appendix on Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilon, and Cur Deus Homo, translated by Sidney Norton Deane, Open Court Publishing Co., 1926, p. 41)
Does this position make sense? Does the existence of good in the world imply an ultimate source for good?
Joyce Sheldon felt desolation wash over her as the keel of the boat scraped the sandy beach. She and her husband, Paul, had been on the deck of the small touring boat when it was rocked by an explosion. Jim Stern, a member of the ship's crew, herded people into a life boat with help from George Clampton, an elder in one of those fundamentalist churches. Clampton had insisted they wait as long as possible before leaving the area, but they saw no other survivors.
"We must make our goal survival," stated Stern the next day. "We must not let any other considerations get in the way of it."
"I disagree," stated Clampton. "We must be concerned for what is just and for the welfare of the others."
"We must be pragmatic about this," said Joyce. "We should consider our current needs, not hoary conventions." Paul nodded in agreement.
"I agree," said Matt Peterson. "That stuff is outdated anyway."
Stern built a signal fire and insisted it be watched, especially at night when it was more likely to be seen. Clampton hiked around, looking for useful plants. Stern rigged a net to fish from the boat in deeper water. They began to built a hut. They had taken an extra oar and beaten the metal blade into a shovel shape to dig holes for posts to support the hut.
Four days later Paul told Joyce, "Mr. Clampton is dead." His body lay under a large rock, rolled down from the cliff above while he was looking over a plant nearby. But Joyce wondered why the rock had fallen just then. She told Paul of her doubts about the death that evening, but he shrugged it off.
One day, soon after they finished the hut, Paul had spend all day cutting wood. That night Stern found him asleep beside the fire, which was burning low. "That fire must not go out," proclaimed Stern to the whole group. "If anyone falls asleep again, there will be punishment.
A few days later Joyce was bringing a lunch to Stern, who was out in the boat fishing. Approaching, she saw the boat overturned in a shallow cove. Running up, she saw Stern's arm sticking out under the boat. It took exasperating moments to drag the boat off him. He was long dead. As she examined the body, she saw the skull was crushed in from the back, but could not see anything that could have caused it. Then she saw a trail where the sand was swept flat, leading to a medium-sized rock half buried in the sand. She lifted it and found on the bottom what she most feared, bloodstains.
She ran away from there as fast as her legs would carry her. Back toward the hut, toward Paul. And, she hoped, safety. As she neared the hut, she saw that the wood pile had fallen over. And underneath it lay Paul, dead.
As Peterson came around the corner, Joyce screamed, "You killed them, you killed them all."
"So you finally figured it out," replied Peterson calmly. "All of you fine reasonable people saying you would do whatever it takes to survive. But you never really meant it. I meant it. I had to get rid of Clampton; his morals would have been a hindrance. But the rest of you were useful for doing the work. Then Stern began taking charge, and I had no intention of letting him."
"Are you going to kill me too?" she asked, backing away toward the hut.
"Not unless you make me. I do not want to kill you. I want you." Peterson drew near, a glint of hunger in his eyes.
Joyce reached behind her, and felt the handle of the make-shift shovel. She grabbed the shovel and smashed it into his face. Almost compulsively, she hit him again and again. When the shovel finally fell limply from her hand, he lay dead on the ground.
It was almost a month later they found her staring out at the sea. On the hill behind the hut they found four graves. When they asked her about them, she just cried and cried.
We hate to wait. In the hustle and bustle of modern society, few things frustrate us so much as having to wait. Yet it seems like we are constantly being put in the position of having to wait for things. We can take that baggage and carry it over into our being required to wait on God. And the Bible makes it clear that we are required to wait on God (Isaiah 40:31; Psalms 62:5-8; 123:2). We are also called to trust in God, even if we do get the thing we are waiting for on our time schedule (Proverbs 3:5,6; Hebrews 11:6; Psalms 46:10). Moses was a shepherd for forty years before God called him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Acts 7:23-35). Paul stayed a number of years in Tarsus before God put him into the ministry he was called to do (Galatians 1:21-2:1). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob dwelt many years in the land of Canaan without seeing the promises (Hebrews 11:9-10). Joseph had to live many years in slavery before God delivered and exalted him (Acts 7:9,10). God also calls for us to wait for Him to do what He wants to accomplish in our lives.
What, then, should we do when we are in a situation of waiting on God? First, we should not give up hope (Galatians 6:9-10; Hebrews 11:13-16; Psalms 42:11). Now when I say this I need to add that sometimes we can be mistaken about what God wants to do in our lives, and we may need to reevaluate the direction we are headed. What we should not give up on is God accomplishing the purpose He has in mind for us (Ephesians 2:10; Romans 8:28; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6). We should not be discouraged by the setbacks we encounter on the way to God’s delivering us from our current situation (Luke 8:40-56; Genesis 39:19,20; 40:23). We need to realize that our specific prayers may not be granted, and we need to go on with God in spite of this (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Matthew 26:39; Jeremiah 7:16). We need to avoid trying, in our impatience, to accomplish God’s purposes in the wrong way (Genesis 16:1-4; Isaiah 31:1; Numbers 14:39-45). We need to continue on with the task God has given us to do while we are waiting. Whether this is watching sheep (Exodus 3:1) or doing the work of a slave (Genesis 39:4-6) or preaching in custody(Acts 28:23-30), we are to do those things we are called to do well, as unto God (Colossians 3:23.24; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Romans 12:11). With that, there also needs to be an examination of our lives to see if there is something there that is preventing God from doing what He wants to do in our lives (Psalms 139:23,24; 1 Corinthians 11:28-32; Hebrews 12:12-13). But most of all, we should not give up waiting on God and trusting Him with our lives.
Have you ever wanted to make someone believe in Christ? I know the feeling. Do we believe there is a heaven and there is a hell? (I do, although sometimes I wonder it I really believe it strongly enough.) If we do, it can be frustrating when we talk to people and they refuse to listen. I have passed out tracts, done the Campus Crusade thing of sharing the Four Spiritual Laws, preached at Rescue Mission services, and gotten into discussions in com-boxes of blogs, and I have encountered many interesting people. I have discussed things with determined atheists, determined members of churches whose teachings I cannot accept as Biblical, communists, and an individual who claimed Jesus was a space alien. And you start to wonder, “What can I do to get them to see the truth?”
It is here that many seem to turn to some form of manipulation or even trickery to get people to accept what we say. The problem is that if we manipulate someone into believing, are they really believers? The Scriptures say real faith is the result of God working in someone’s heart (1 Corinthians 3:6; John 16:8-11; 6:44). (I do not wish here to open the whole can of worms of Calvinism versus Arminianism , but whether we hold salvation is our choice or God’s choice, it does not depend on the manipulation of the evangelist.) Now do not get me wrong. I am not against presenting the gospel in a persuasive manner or giving good arguments, but in the final analysis, the issue is not our clever argumentation (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 2:3-5; 2 Corinthians 2:17). We are called to be witnesses and to present what we know, but they must make their decision regarding it (Acts 1:8; 1 Peter 3:15; 2 Peter 1:16).
Another pitfall we fall into is trying to win an argument. This is because our ego becomes involved and we are more interested in proving we have the answers than leading others to the truth. But the Scripture also condemns this approach (2 Timothy 2:23-26; Colossians 4:5,6; 1 Peter 3:15). Many times this is the result of thinking it is our job to convince people. When they are not convinced, our pride kicks in.
I am writing this because I think one reason people are reluctant to share their faith is they think it is their job to make people believe in Christ. If we can reach the point of recognizing we are just the messengers and it is God’s work to convince people, for me, at least, it takes a lot of the pressure off. I think we sometimes set people up by giving them the impression that everyone will be receptive to what we have to say. They may not be, but God still calls us to be faithful in delivering the message.