Therefore, if you have received this gift from God of being more powerful, higher, more learned, nobler than others, then remember that he has commanded you to take this gift and serve your neighbor with it. If you do not, then you should know that even a poor shepherd boy, who compared with you, has no gifts or standing whatosever in the world, is far greater and far closer to heaven in the sight of God and the angels.
Martin Luther, 1483-1546, Sermons, At Torgau Castle Church, 1544 (translated by John W. Doberstein, Luther's Works, Helmut T. Lehmann, editor, Muhlenberg Press, 1959, Vol. 51, p. 349)
How can we avoid exalting people for their gifts rather than their love of others? What steps can we take in our own life to avoid this?
As well as being made in the image of God, human beings are made up of body and soul. We are connected to the spiritual and the physical realms. This was not a mistake; we were created to be this way (Genesis 2:7; 35:18; Matthew 10:28). Also, our goal involves the resurrection of our bodies (1 Corinthians 15:42; Romans 8:23; 1 Thessalonians 5:24). Therefore, our body, and how we use it, is important to God (Romans 12:1; 6:12-14; 1 Corinthians 6:13-20). This opens the door to all manner of interesting questions. Are we three parts: body, soul, and spirit, or two parts, spirit and soul being aspects of the same thing? What precisely is the state of the soul between death and the resurrection? These are interesting to speculate on, but are not worth contending or dividing over. But there is a more basic principle.
If the body is created by God, we are not able to dismiss the body and the physical world as simply evil. We should therefore avoid extreme moral positions based on harsh treatment of the body that is rooted in the assumption that matter itself is evil (Colossians 2:20-23; 1 Timothy 4:1-5; Titus 1:15). It also can result in a withdrawal from other people, which makes it hard to reach them (Matthew 9:10-12; Luke 7:36-50; 19:1-10). And if this is true, it is hard to believe that God could really become a man (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:9-18). Those who hold it therefore end up frequently denying either Christ's deity or His humanity.
Or we can go to the opposite extreme and see life as simply physical. This leads to a total focus on sensual pleasures (Colossians 3:15-7; 1 Peter 2:11; Jude 4). It results in conformity to the world and its practices (1 John 2:15-17, James 4:4; Romans 12:2). This can end up in the idea that we are a mere cosmic accident without any meaning or purpose. And if we are nothing but a glorified mechanism, then all our thoughts and actions are a result of our programing, and it is questionable that we can know anything.
What we are left with is a delicate balance that has traditionally been called being in the world but not of it (John 17:14-19). This is something that Christians throughout their history have struggled to maintain. It is an ongoing quest to find the right combination. But we need to avoid straying off the path on one side or the other.
One of the problems about dealing with suffering is that it has no easy, pat answers. And we want pat answers. The Bible repeatedly repels the idea that all suffering is based on what we deserve (Job 1,2; John 9:1-3; Psalms 73). There is a Biblical case for God disciplining sin (Hebrew 12:5-11; 1 Corinthians 11:31-32; Acts 5:1-11). But nice, neat, easy-to-understand suffering seems to be the exception rather than the rule. And I am convinced that without the clear revelation of God, we should be very careful of concluding in any particular case that suffering is discipline. Now God can use suffering in the life of believers to make them stronger (2 Corinthians 4:17,18; Romans 8:28; James 1:2-4). But that does not mean we will understand it while it is happening or even afterwards. Did Job ever understand the reason for his suffering? We do not know. I suspect that one of the points of suffering is that we do not understand. If we understood, we would not be forced to trust God. Also, with all suffering there is a choice. We can trust God through it, or we can reject God because of it. This is why the whole issue is so complicated. But I believe there is fundamental truth in the message of Christ that is worth living in mystery to hold onto.
It difficult for us to be willing to have our thinking challenged. I started out in the sciences, and I am convinced that one of the characteristics of good thinking is being willing to test our opinions by the facts. For the Christian, one of the basic sources of facts is the Scriptures. Now we all have backgrounds and traditions that can keep us from seeing things clearly. But we need to be willing to test what we believe. This can be a dangerous thing. I have been afraid that I will come up with such a combination of beliefs that no church organization would ever accept me. I have not ultimately succeeded in that, but there were times I have come close. But I believe the endeavor is worth it.
We need to be willing to think our positions through. This means being willing to think and to encourage others to think. It can mean going back to the beginning and working things out step by step. This can be hard, for we may have always understood certain Biblical passages one way. And we may find it hard to see them any other way. One thing that helps here is being willing to read or interact with people from different theological positions and time periods. This can be scary. But I believe a faith worth having will stand up to being challenged. And an unexamined faith will rarely stand up under pressure.
Also, we need to be willing to admit that we do not have all the answers and may never have all the answers. We can get the idea that we need to have dogmatic answers to every question. But sometimes it is better to reserve judgment or to hold to an answer tentatively, rather than feeling we need to have solved every problem. I have found that meditating on a question over time often leads me to better conclusions than I would have come to if I forced myself to reach an immediate conclusion.
Also, we need to get past the stained glass barrier. We can see the Bible through a false pious veneer which keeps us from understanding it. We can see Noah and the ark as a boat full of cute little animals. But the flood certainly was not cute. Or we can read the Sermon on the Mount with vague veneration, rather than being overwhelmed by what it requires. Sometimes it might help to go back and ask how we would react to something if we met it for the first time. But this also can be hard to do.
It is worth facing the difficult issues and working your way through them. As C. S. Lewis points out, progress is only made through resisting material. He says it is just the part of the Christian faith that I do not understand that contains the truth I most need to know. And we should not evade dealing with it.
By the death of One the world was redeemed. For Christ had He willed, need not have died, but He neither thought that death should be shunned as though there were any cowardice in it, nor could He have saved us better than by dying. And so His death is the life of all.
Ambrose of Milan, 337-397 AD, On Belief in the Resurrection, Book II of On Decease of His Brother Satyrus, 46 (translated by Rev. H. De Romestin, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, Second Series, Vol. X, p. 180)
How does Christ's death bring life? How does that affect our understanding of death?
Sometimes the best person to have in charge is the person who does not want to be. Such a person was Ambrose of Milan. The church of Milan was having trouble choosing a bishop. It was divided between those who affirmed the deity of Christ and those who denied it. There was danger of a riot. A secular official named Ambrose came down and made a powerful speech in favor of harmony. And the people decided Ambrose should be the next bishop. He, himself was reluctant to accept the position; he was still in the process of preparing to be baptized. He accepted baptism, but the Emperor Valentinian had to urge him before he would be bishop. But once he was chosen, he took the position seriously. He studied, preached, and wrote hymns. He was serious about his duties and was a competent administrator. He was known for ministering to the poor and needy and teaching new converts.
Ambrose shows up most of all as a man of principle. He stood up for the deity of Christ, even against the Empress Justina. He deprived Maximus, a claimant to the throne of emperor, of church fellowship until he repented of murdering his predecessor. He did the same to the Emperor Theodosius when, in response to a riot in Thessalonica, Theodosius put to death many innocent along with the guilty. With Martin of Tours, Ambrose opposed the use of force against heresy. He so impressed Augustine of Hippo that it led to Augustine's conversation to Christianity.
Ambrose was not an exceptional theological thinker. He was eclipsed in the defense of the deity of the Christ and the Holy Spirit by the Cappadocians: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzens, and Gregory of Nyssa. He was eclipsed in theology in general by his pupil Augustine of Hippo. He did have too great a tendency to honor the martyrs of the past, which helped lay the foundation for the idea of saints.But in general, this reluctant leader was a strong bishop who stood firm under pressure. Sometimes the best person for the job is not the one who puts himself forth.
There is no Biblical virtue so commonly caricatured today as meekness. In fact, it has become so bad that many modern translations refuse to use the word. But in changing the word, they end up changing the meaning. Therefore, it seems to me better to use the word, but to define it. Especially since I suspect that in losing the word, we are in danger of losing the concept. Today meekness is commonly connected with cowardice. It is people who do not defend themselves because they are too scared to. The basic idea is that everyone should stand up for themselves, and if you do not, it is because you lack the will. This is not at all the Biblical definition. The Biblical definition is people who refuse to retaliate or seek their own from restraint and trust in God (Romans 12:14-21; Matthew 5:43-48; Philippians 2:3,4). We see the ultimate example of this in the Lord Jesus Christ, who became a Man and died a criminal's death for our sake (Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:9-18; 1 Peter 2:21-25). He could have defended Himself, but chose not to (Matthew 26:53; Luke 23:34; Isaiah 53:7). But nowhere do we see any signs of cowardice or weakness. Now I do believe there are times when we need to act in defense of others or ourselves. What is advocated here is an attitude. One that is rooted in trust in God (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127:1,2; 37:3-9), rather than standing on our own rights. It is in this spirit that we are to understand turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-42). An eye for an eye was originally a legal enactment, but it had been turned into a lifestyle. The first response to a wrong done to us should not be to retaliate. This is something that is not done from a position of weakness, but one of strength.
It is dangerous to evaluate churches and ministries simply by numbers. Now much of church growth is simply sheep trading. It is a result of Christians switching from one church to another. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on the individual case. In some cases, people may be moving to a place that will genuinely help them to grow in Christ. In other cases, they may simply be looking for a better show. But it is debatable is whether this necessarily furthers God's work as a whole. It also has the bad effect of seeing other churches as the competition. But the real question is whether people are being genuinely encouraged to grow in Christ (Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 4:11-16; Colossians 1:28,29). And this can be more difficult to measure.
But we can ignore overall size and focus on converts. For we are required to share God's truth with those who do not know it (1 Peter 3:15; Acts 1:8; 2 Timothy 2:24-26). But we are also told that it is God who adds people to the church (1 Corinthians 3:6,7; Acts 2:47; Matthew 16:18). There was Jonah, who had a whole city repent and went out and pouted because he wanted the city destroyed. But Jeremiah, who wept over the fate of Jerusalem, got few results. It also should be noted that the gospel is a stumbling block and that one way to win more converts is to tell them what they want to hear (1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 2 Corinthians 4:3,4; 2 Timothy 4:3,4). This does not mean it is wrong to have a lot of converts; there are cases where God has clearly done such things (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 18:9,10). And we need to be seriously concerned with reaching people. But we should be very careful at jumping to the conclusion that numbers of converts prove something
The question than comes, how do we judge? And the ultimate answer is that we should not. We are called to correct specific acts of disobedience (Galatians 6:1; Matthew 18:15-20; Jude 22,23), but we are not to make a broad overarching judgments of another's spiritual state or even our own, but should leave that up to God (1 Corinthians 4:3-5; James 4:11,12; Romans 14:10). Now I do think there is a place for an individual or a congregation to honestly and prayerfully examine themselves to see how they can improve (Psalms 139:23,24; 19:12-14; 26:2). But this should be based on God's standard, not comparison with others. If we do, two questions we should ask are: Are we growing in Christ and reaching out to those outside? And what can we do to improve? Now I am not saying it is bad to be a big church. Nor to I think it is wrong to try to pick up useful ideas from other congregations. But we must be careful not to be so blinded by the numbers that we forget the substance.
On the other hand, I did not proceed to Ireland of my own accord until I was almost giving up, but through this I was corrected by the Lord, and he prepared me so that today I should be what was once far from me, in order that I should have the care of—or rather, I should be concerned for—the salvation of others, when at that time, still, I was only concerned for myself.
Patrick, 390-461 BC, Confession, 28, (Christian Ethereal Library, p. 12)
How important is our attitude in serving God? How can we acquire the right attitude?
A man on a journey came into a town near the end of the day, looking for a place to stay. But the further along he went, the more perplexed he became. The houses and streets seemed to be flung about every which way. While he saw the occasional well-built house, many seemed slapped together. But he saw among the hovels vast artifices made of costly materials, but with grotesque shapes. There were also fences painted various colors, dividing the town into sections. And as he walked, he noticed that the people were all wearing bandanas that matched the colors of the fences. He also noticed in the very center of the town a huge tower, large as a skyscraper, that rose with a strict, though complicated, pattern, a model of order compared to the rest of the town.
"Are you a stranger?" said a man with an orange bandana, walking up to him. "You need to pick your party if you want to be welcome here. May I suggest joining us Oranges."
"What are the parties about?" asked the man.
"They are about anything. We are not Scholasticans after all. They are just your party. But you better come along; it is time for the siege."
All of a sudden, as if on cue, the inhabitants of the town left their occupations and gathered at the center of the street to march toward the tower. Many carried torches, and some, pitchforks. The man, not sure what else to do, allowed himself to be swept along.
As the crowd gathered before the tower, a man in a blue bandana, obviously a leader, was haranguing his followers. "The Scholasticans are the greatest enemies of true service to the King. They are cold and rigid and lack true zeal for the King's service. They are proud and think they know it all and will not come down to help us with the work."
"Their knowledge is nothing but book knowledge," said a green-wearing man nearby. "Their heads are in the clouds, and they know nothing of real life. I caught my son reading a book once, and I saw that he caught it hot."
"They produce division and lack of love," said a red-wearing man, trying hard not to stand too close to a yellow-wearing man next to him.
"Look what great things we have accomplished since we shut them up in the tower!" said a man wearing purple, pointing to one of the large artifices nearby, which looked sort of like a tilted, lopsided mushroom.
"They use all sorts of big words only they understand," remarked a man wearing brown. "They want to make us dependent on their interpretation so they can enslave us."
Just then one of the large windows in the tower opened, and hot water came pouring down, forcing the crowd to draw back. "You ignoramuses!" came a voice from above, "You want to serve the King. but you have no idea what that service involves. If you would stop and think for a moment, you would realize you are wasting all manner of energy and accomplishing nothing."
At this point the man could not take it any more. He stood in the midst of the scene and yelled, "Do you not see that you are all citizens of the King and all have a place in His service? You need to put aside your enmity and work together. You need to do the King's work, rather than fighting each other."
There is a danger in the over-emphasis on demons and their activities. So why consider them at all? I have maintained that many of the things to be used against demons are the same things that Christians should use in general to deal with difficulties (for instance prayer and the Scriptures). Why are we even told about demons? We are told that we need to on the alert and trust in God's resources to meet the challenge (Ephesians 6:10-20; 1 Peter 5:6-9; 2 Corinthians 10:3-6). If we are not on the alert, we are more likely to be blindsided. We are more likely to be complacent and not watch ourselves carefully (1 Corinthians 10:12-14; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22) and less likely to be aware of possible traps (2 Corinthians 2:11; 11:14,15; 1 Timothy 3:6,7). If we are not on the alert, we will we be more likely to be surprised when people oppose us (2 Corinthians 4:3-4; John 15:18-21; 16:1-4). There are also particular cases where dealing directly with the demon involved may be the best way to handle it. Now Christ has defeated Satan and his minions on the cross (Colossians 2:13-15; 1 John 4:4; Luke 10:19). It is important not to make the demons so powerful that we go about in continual fear of them. But neither should we let our guard down and forget that we have an enemy.
Environmental issues have often been characterized by extremes, both for and against. And it is therefore easy for those on each side to stereotype the other. It does not help that environmentalism has gotten caught up in our modern apocalyptic mentality. Ecological disaster is second only to the atom bomb as being the potential source for the end of the world. It also can be a source of extreme legalism. It is ironic that many who have deserted traditional morality have found here the basis for a new moral code, often more strict then the traditional one. Whenever I see something plunging toward severity or panic, it puts up warning signals. But we do not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater and ignore legitimate concerns.
The Scripture does give human beings a stewardship over the earth (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:15; Psalms 8:3-8). Now in Scripture, any sort of authority is to be exercised for the benefit of those subject to it (Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:24-27; Ephesians 5:22-33). Nor are we permitted to simply pursue our own benefit and monetary gain with no concern for the consequences (1 Timothy 6:5-10; Matthew 6:24; Colossians 3:5). There does, nonetheless, seem to be a real distinction made in Scripture between human beings who are made in the image of God (Genesis 5:1,2; 9:6; James 3:9) and the rest of creation. But being made in God's image should inform how we treat the things under our charge. We also must remember that God is separate from His creation and that nature is not God (Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 40:18-25, 66:1,2). This must inform how we see our relationship to nature.
But once we lay down the basic principles, we are left with a bewildering variety of questions. It is often difficult to decide dogmatically what the answer is to all of them. But we should steer clear of the extremes. We should not see ourselves as simply working for our own profit and benefit, with no concern for the long-term consequences. Nor should we allow ourselves to panic or be pushed to extremes. Both greed and legalism are destructive in the end. And in all this, we must put science in perspective. Science is a useful tool, but it is just that, a tool. It enables us to do things more efficiently, both good things and bad things. It is a poor god, but it is not the devil, either. And I suspect that the tendency to vilify science comes from its failing to be the total solution to all human problems. The truth is, it cannot ultimately overcome the curse on creation that came as a result of sin (Romans 8:18-25; Genesis 3:17-19; Revelation 22:3). But it can be a useful servant in the present age to help improve our lives. If we use it responsibly.
Those who transgress frequently in very little things are to be admonished to consider anxiously how that sometimes there is worse sin in a small fault then a greater one. For a greater fault, in that it is the sooner acknowledged to be one, is by so much the more speedily amended; but the smaller one, being reckoned as though it were none at all, is retained in use with worse effect as it is so with less concern.
Gregory the Great, 540-604 AD, Pastoral Rule, Part III, Chapter XXXIII, (translated by Rev. James Barmby, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, Second Series, Vol. XII, p. 65)
Is there a tendency to be led gradually into sin? How can it be avoided?
We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26,27; 5:1,2; Psalms 139:13-16). What does this mean? And how was it affected by the Fall? This has been a matter of considerable speculation. Scripture does not go into that in detail. I believe the basic idea is that we have the ability to make moral choices. I also believe it means we have the ability to act on them, to, in our limited way, create things. But this is just my speculation.
What is clear is that, because of this, God cares about us and how we treat each other (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9,10; Psalms 8:3,4). We are also given a responsibility over the created world, to care for it and manage it (Genesis 1:28; 2:15; Psalms 8:6-8). Now human beings did lose some of that image due to the Fall, and need to be renewed in it (Colossians 3:10; Ephesians 4:24; Psalms 17:15). And our goal is to be remade in the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:29,30; 1 John 3:2). But it is clear that God is still concerned, even for those who have rebelled against Him (Matthew 5:44.45; Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-28). Also, even those in rebellion against God show within their hearts some desire to do what is right (Romans 2:12-16; 2:25-29; James 1:17). Now it should be noted that there are other beings who are also involved in voluntary obedience to God (Revelation 5:11,12; Isaiah 6:2,3; Hebrews 1:7). Scripture does not say a great deal about angels, perhaps due to the danger of our focusing on them rather than God (Colossians 2:18; Revelation 22:8,9; Galatians 1:8). But while our relationship to angels is complicated (Hebrews 1:14; 2:16; 1 Corinthians 6:3), I think it helpful to recognize that there exist beings who are older and more powerful than we are.
I would conclude from this that we should see God as our pattern for proper behavior ( Matthew 5:48; Ephesians 5;1,2; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). In this, Christ is the revealer of God and what He is like (John 1:18; Hebrew 1:3; 12:2). We should treat other people appropriately, because they are made in God's image. We should also treat His creation appropriately, as good stewards of that creation. And we can know we are not just a grand cosmic accident but have a place and a purpose. Even if we have become alienated from our Creator, we can be reconciled to Him. And that puts the rest of life in perspective.
Humility is a forgotten virtue in our culture. We tend to be about self-promotion and self-assertion. But God commands humility (Romans 12:16; James 4:6,7; Mark 10:43-45). Now humility is not putting ourselves down; it is putting ourselves in right perspective before God. It is recognizing that we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6), saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). The result is that, rather than putting ourselves down, we are building others up (Philippians 2:3,4; Romans 12:10; Matthew 7:12), based on confidence in our relationship with God (Romans 8:31-39; Galatians 4:4-7; 1 John 3:1,2). But pride is destructive (Proverbs 16:18; Galatians 5:15; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Nowhere is this more clearly seen then in community. And it can be very subtle. We can convince ourselves that we are defending what is right or what is best for the congregation when what we are really concerned about is defending our ego. It is often difficult to have the right perspective on this, but the first line of defense is to realize that humility is right and pride is wrong. For until we do, there is always a danger of pride wreaking its havoc in our midst, with nothing to hold it in check.
The easiest way to mess up a simple thing is to complicate it. Prayer was originally meant to be a simple thing. It is just talking to God. But many things have been added to complicate it. It is claimed that there are certain previously-written prayers that must be used. It is also claimed that you must not use any prayer that is not spontaneous. It is claimed that the best way to communicate with God is to speak in tongues. It is also claimed that to genuinely communicate with God, you must not speak in tongues. We must pray the Lord's prayer. We must not pray the Lord's prayer. And none of these rules is found in Scripture.
Scripture does clearly say that prayer should not be done to impress other people (Matthew 6:5-8; Mark 12:40; Galatians 1:10). I am not saying that all the problems come from this, but I think many of them do. For we get caught up in trying to impress those around us, and we use certain methods to do so. Now I am convinced there is a legitimate place for different approaches to prayer. The real issue is the heart. But what we need to do is watch our heart, that we are simply talking to God. And we need to be careful of judging others for how they pray (James 4:11,12; Romans 14:10; Romans 2:1). I am not saying that there could never be anything done which needs to be corrected. But we should be very careful of our grounds before we do so, and should do so with gentleness (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 2 Thessalonians 3:15).
Now God gives us serious encouragement to pray (Matthew 7:7-11; Philippians 4:6,7; 1 John 5:14,15). But we have a natural tendency not to. We want to believe we can handle things ourselves and do not need God's help. But one thing that stands in the way for many is the belief that it has to done following a certain pattern. I am not opposed to a pattern if it helps someone to pray. The problem is when it becomes a barrier because people believe they have to do things in a certain way or God will not hear. I am in favor of aids to pray; I am opposed to hoops you need to jump through to get to God. The Lord's prayer is a simple prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), asking for basic needs. It gives us a picture of what prayer looks like and the things that should go into it. We can also get a picture of what prayer is like from the psalms. The picture I get is of an ordinary person speaking to their Father. Anything that facilitates that is good. Anything that hinders it is best avoided.