Abraham, Isaac, and a Skeptic

In 1 Corinthians 2:14, the Apostle Paul asserts: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

I recently read an article about Genesis 22 and Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, Isaac. The author is a self-designated “skeptic,” and the article suggests that buried underneath the biblical account is an older, more authentic account, in which Abraham goes through with the sacrifice of his son. Speculation, not scholarship, fuels such suggestions, and articles like this occasionally surface, usually claiming that some ancient fragment of text, recently unearthed, may overturn previously held beliefs. The “evidence” rarely amounts to more than bald speculation.

This particular skeptic’s desire to find scraps of such evidence to bolster and justify his pre-existing unbelief was not, however, what fascinated me about the article. Rather the conclusion he drew testified to his blindness. He claimed that “people are willing to worship a god no matter how morally abhorrent.”

Ponder that for a moment. He acknowledges that in the biblical account God stays Abraham’s hand and provides for him a sacrifice in place of Isaac. To this skeptic, that God is “morally abhorrent.” He almost takes giddy delight in the notion that an older version of the story makes Abraham sacrifice Isaac, for it “takes a pretty despicable tale and makes it worse.” A despicable tale?

That supposedly despicable tale is nothing less than the Good News that God himself will provide the sacrifice necessary to cover your sin. It is the story of a God who is willing to kill his own Son that you and your son might live.

But spiritual things are spiritually discerned, and the blind man sees only night, even when the noonday sun is shining in his face. If the story of a God who will save your son at the expense of his own is a “despicable tale” then it maybe it is not God who is “morally abhorrent.” Maybe the darkness is in you.

Thy Will Be Done

Thy will be done.

Four little words. Only four. But they are hard words to pray if you really mean them. When I pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” I find it easy to ask that God’s will be done on earth per se, in a generic, non-specific way.

But I find it hard to pray for His will to be done in me.

Most often I struggle with this during times of pain, or when I don’t understand His will. During such times, I rarely pray for His will to be done. Instead, I pray for Him to alleviate my pain or to alter my circumstances.

And yet as I look back on crises past I realize that more often than not God intended to change me through the struggle, and the very circumstances I wanted Him to remove were His instruments for my growth in Christlikeness. It was not His will to remove me from difficult circumstances. It was His will to remove sin from me by walking me through difficult circumstances.

If I truly desire His will, then I must reckon with 1 Thessalonians 4:3, which says, “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” And if I pray for His will to be done, not just in the world in general, but in me specifically, then I should expect trials and difficult circumstances. God uses these for “the testing of your faith,” which “produces steadfastness,” and which makes the Christian “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Do you mean it when you pray, “Thy will be done?” Even if His will is to use difficult circumstances to refine you, to burn away the dross, and to sanctify you? Even if His will means that you experience pain?

When Jesus prayed for His Father’s will to be done, He meant it, and even during the greatest suffering any human has ever endured He desired His Father’s will above all else. And I am glad He did, for the Father’s will was for Jesus to die for my sin so that I might live for God. Had Jesus sought to escape His circumstances rather than obey His Father through them, then there would be no salvation. Eternal life itself depended upon Jesus’ submission to God’s will.

If Jesus pursued God’s will to the Cross for me, then surely I can pursue it for His glory.

Thy will be done, in me.

Soup without a Spoon

Christianity in America is a soup sandwich. Yes, you read that correctly. Coming from my days in the Navy, few metaphors more vividly conjure a genuine mess than the image of a man attempting to hold soup between two pieces of soggy bread.

Celebrity-ism, moral confusion, biblical illiteracy, political entanglements, juvenile worship, rampant materialism, gluttony, apathy, consumerism, and general shallowness plague the Church in America. The Church presents a sad picture, a veritable rogues’ gallery of sinners and scandals.

Why do so many wounds fester in the body of evangelical Christianity? Many explanations could be offered, but no silver bullet answers adequately.

What follows is just one observation that may—or may not—help.

Evangelicalism obsesses over cultural decline. Our Puritan forefathers viewed the nascent nation as a covenanted people, holy before the Lord, and therefore accountable to reform every aspect of society in light of Scripture. Our post-Revolutionary fathers carried forward that ethos, clothed it in representative government, and viewed America as a holy Republic, a burgeoning beacon for other nations. Still today Christians in America take public morality seriously. Since its birth, the American Church has therefore proven incapable of resisting a moral crusade, for the Church believes—to its core—that it is supposed to make the world moral. If it sees a sin in society, the Church must fix it. Never content for Christians to behave like Christians, the Church is convinced that the world must behave like Christians as well. Hence the obsession with culture.

Here’s the rub: The sequoia sized log in evangelicalism’s eye seems to offer no hindrance to the Church’s obsessive focus on the speck in society’s eye. Said another way, the Church in America is so busy trying to make the culture holy that she has forgotten to pursue holiness herself.

Maybe Christians should expect unregenerate people to act like unregenerate people. Maybe we should expect the world to act like the world and concentrate on the Church behaving like the Church. Instead of engaging in social moral engineering, the Church could strive to remove the sequoia, and model holiness. If evangelicalism pursued its own holiness half as vigorously as it morally polices society, the Church might find itself healthier and more influential.

Or she could continue eating soup without a spoon.

Holiness is Easy with Coffee Creamer

When Christians think of sanctification, we tend to think of “getting better,” or of becoming more and more like Christ. And it’s true. The Holy Spirit progressively burns away the dross, such that we “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.”

But we often overlook another facet of sanctification: seeing just how needy we truly are. I want to believe that my walk with the Lord displays consistency, and that no matter the circumstance, I will behave as becomes a follower of Christ. I want to believe that, but if I’m honest I can’t.

Give me chronic pain—something as innocuous as a stiff neck—and my behavior deteriorates. Add gray weather and my attitude suffers. Deprive me of sleep and it’s over. All my pretensions of holiness melt away when I run out of creamer for my coffee.

A Christian is not simply one who recognizes that salvation comes by the grace of God. Christians also understand that we need His grace all day, every day in order to walk in a manner worthy of the calling we have received. I am weak and needy beyond my imagining.

And coming to that realization is a part of my sanctification. Because holiness is easy with coffee creamer.

Seasoned Speech

Addressing President Trump’s history of crude comments about women, former Vice President Joe Biden recently stated that he would have “beat the hell out of” the President had he and Mr. Trump attended high school together. Mr. Trump has fired back that Biden “would go down fast and hard, crying all the way” were the two to scuffle.

This is statesmanship in America in 2018.

Proverbs 15:1-2 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.” Each of us has spoken both wisdom and folly. Rashness overtakes every kind mouth sometimes, while even the worst of us occasionally stumbles upon a soft answer. I regularly pray that my words would more often represent wisdom and less often represent the fool who lives just below the surface.

I am reminded that Jesus said in Matthew 12:34-35: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.”

If it is true that my words reflect my heart, then my heart has a long way to go, and I rest in the knowledge that Jesus is in the business of transforming hearts. Even as the Prophet Ezekiel foretold, Jesus has removed “the heart of stone” and has given “a heart of flesh.” Moreover, Christ has promised that “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven” to those who seek Him in faith. Forgiveness is a good thing.

But I also am increasingly aware that if I desire for American political and social rhetoric to improve, I ought to begin with myself. If society collectively cringes when septuagenarian politicians sling around the empty bravado of locker room bullies, how much more so when Christians speak this way?

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt.”

Religious Freedom (from consequences)

Christians in America fear the loss of religious freedom.

But to be more precise, we fear the loss of easy faith. Right now we follow Jesus without fear of suffering unpleasant consequences.

Let me explain.

Do Christians in North Korea have freedom to practice their faith? Yes. A Christian can walk into the street and begin preaching the Gospel. He is free to do so. He is not, however, free from the terrible consequences that would follow.

No government can take away freedom of religion. It can only impose consequences. The question every believer must ask is, “Will I bear the consequences for Jesus who first bore them for me?”

Now, I’m not suggesting that every Christian in North Korea rush into the street proclaiming Christ. To do so would be to engage in a form of suicide by preaching. Wisdom dictates that believers in such circumstances preach the faith quietly, in private homes with curtains drawn, carefully teaching the next generation. May God one day grant believers in North Korea the ability to proclaim Christ from the rooftops without fearing the consequences of an anti-Christian regime!

Not unlike our persecuted brothers elsewhere, American Christians enjoy the freedom to follow Jesus. Unlike our persecuted brothers, our only hindrance to proclaiming Christ is our willingness to bear the relatively mild consequences of social disapproval.

We have the freedom. We also have—for the time being—freedom from significant consequences.

Only our fear of losing the latter can prevent us from using the former.

A Poor Trade

Psalm 146:3-5 cautions:

Put not your trust in princes,                                                                                                              in a son of man in whom there is no salvation.                                                                    When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;                                                                          on that very day his plans perish.                                                                                              Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,                                                                                  whose hope is in the Lord his God.

After reading yet another article in which an evangelical celebrity urged Christians to secure the Kingdom of God on earth by voting Republican—no, he didn’t say it that bluntly—I think we need to amend Psalm 146, producing the American Evangelical Republican Version of the Bible. It goes like this:

Put not your trust in Democratic princes,                                                                                       in a socially liberal son of man, in whom there is no economic salvation.               When his presidency ends, he returns to Chicago;                                                                       on that very day his policies perish, but his judicial appointments endure.                Blessed is he whose help is the God of Republicans,                                                                        whose hope is in the Lord his God’s preferred political candidates.

Is this really the hope of the Bible? Is this what the Church is called to offer to the world? Political promises and fear-based pleas to vote for particular candidates? The advance of the Church on earth through legislation?

What a poor trade.

Jesus is building His Church. Our power lies in the faithful use of the Word, Sacraments, and prayer, not in the voting booth.