Wind, Waves, and Him Who is Not Afraid

Peter and Andrew, James and John, and possibly Thomas and Bartholomew (who was also called Nathaniel), were fishermen.

In Mark 4:37-41 the Bible records that Jesus and His disciples entered a boat in order to cross the Sea of Galilee, but that their crossing was imperiled.

A great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Men who had fished these waters since childhood were terrified. It must have been an incredible storm.

Jesus, however, was not afraid. He was, in fact, enjoying a much-needed rest, and His disciples had to rouse Him to action. When they did so, He spoke. At His word the wind ceased, the waves calmed, and the fear that had gripped the hearts of His disciples shifted. Whereas before they had feared wind and waves, now they feared Jesus, asking, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Too often preachers succumb to the temptation to ask congregants, “What is the storm in your life that Jesus can overcome?” Meaning well, they suggest that marital difficulty may be your storm, parenting may be your storm, or financial want may be your storm. But Jesus did not rebuke an empty bank account; He rebuked winds and waves that were so strong that veteran fishermen were overwhelmed and feared for their lives. Those who have suffered the brunt of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and those who are braced for the coming destruction in Florida, are not facing a metaphorical storm; they are facing winds and waves that carry the power to level homes and end lives.

As much as we might wish, Jesus did not calm the winds and waves in order to promise every future generation that in every future storm He would calm every future wind if only you would pray to Him. He displayed His power over the storm so that you would see clearly that the wind knows its Creator and the sea knows its Lord. They obeyed Him when He spoke them into existence; they obey Him still.

More than that, Jesus rebuked the wind so that His disciples would ask, “Who is this man?” He spoke peace to the sea so that they would eventually answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”

And He is.

Houston, Prosperity, and our Suffering Savior

Recently I read a brief homily written by a Roman Catholic deacon who was questioning the validity of prosperity preaching in the wake of the Houston flooding. After describing the theology of Joel Osteen, Paula White, Kenneth Copeland and others, which amounts to “God wants you to be happy, healthy, and wealthy,” he offered Theresa of Avila as a foil, teaching that God sanctifies His people—often by means of hardship and affliction—and suggested that the Catholic practice of venerating the suffering saints guarded against the prosperity lie.

I am so thankful for this man’s effort to inoculate his flock against prosperity deceptions, but I fear that mere veneration of saints is inadequate to equip God’s people to understand and to reject this “health and wealth” lie. Why are prosperity teachings deceptive? Moreover, how can we state positively the truth of what God does desire for His people?

Negatively, the Deception

Our answer begins in the Pentateuch. Moses described how life will work for the people of Old Testament Israel in Deuteronomy 28:1-6. He explained,

If you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.

Moses continued in verse 10, affirming, “The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give you.”

Unfortunately, the opposite was also true. In Deuteronomy 28:15-19, he warned,

But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.

What does this all mean? In the Old Testament, among the people of Israel, prosperity and poverty were linked to national obedience or disobedience. The Book of Judges provides a continuing illustration of this truth. When Israel followed the Lord under the leadership of a faithful Judge, the nation prospered; when Israel fell into idolatry, the nation suffered. When they repented and cried out to Him, the Lord sent another Judge to lead and deliver Israel and her prosperity returned. Rinse and repeat.

Prosperity preachers use this Old Testament pattern to say to contemporary people, “If you are faithful, God will grant to you material prosperity and physical health.” If you are not thriving, it is thus your fault, for God desires to bless you materially.

Our theological instincts tell us that this is not the whole truth, but many Christians struggle to articulate why their spiritual Spidey-sense tells them that prosperity preaching is wrong.

Positively, the Truth

Our answer begins in the Gospels. The New Testament presents a different pattern than the Old Testament. In John 9:1-3, John reveals that Jesus’ disciples viewed the link between physical hardship and sin according to the pattern of Deuteronomy 28. John writes,

As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

In other words, this man’s physical poverty was not a result of disobedience. Why the change from the Old to the New Testament?

The simple answer is this: On the Cross Jesus took upon Himself all the curses that our faithlessness earned. The physical blessings and curses promised to obedience and disobedience in the Old Testament were supposed to point God’s people to their need for His spiritual blessings—namely, salvation—and to caution them about His spiritual curses—namely, damnation. Israel’s inability to obey the Lord faithfully or consistently, which was evidenced in every foreign invasion, every famine, every drought, every lost crop, and every period of suffering, was supposed to point God’s people to their need for the very Savior that God had promised to Adam and Eve in Eden, whom He had confirmed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and whom He had foretold through Moses.

When our Savior finally came, He took on Himself all the curses of our faithlessness, and gave to us all the blessings of His perfect obedience. We receive these by faith. Right now each Christian possesses “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” and when Jesus returns, we will inherit every physical blessing as well, for we are co-heirs with Christ of the renewed Creation (Ephesians 1:3). Meanwhile, Jesus already has taken every physical and spiritual curse for our sins on the Cross.

If these curses have been taken, then why must we still suffer? The Bible offers two complementary answers. The first is that this world is still a world of sin. Injuries happen; illnesses spread; earthquakes shake the ground; floods deluge the earth; men wage war. Rape, pestilence, disease, and death shall reign until Jesus returns to lift the curse from the Creation and put sin itself to death. Just as the man in John 9 was not blind due to any fault of his own, so also the victims of the recent flooding in Houston did not do anything in particular to deserve it. Those who lost everything did not lose it because they lacked the faith to “name and claim” their blessings. They suffered because this world is fallen, and bad things happen and will continue to happen until Jesus returns to renew all things.

The second answer pertains specifically to Christians. We who will enjoy glory with Jesus must first participate in His sufferings. Our Catholic brother had it right in that regard—God does sanctify His people, and it usually happens through trials, suffering, hardship, and want. These burn away the dross as God forms in us the image of His Son. Not only will faith in Jesus fail to make you wealthy and materially prosperous and happy—it will often mean that you, like your Lord, will bear a cross, as Jesus transforms you from one degree of glory to another, using one degree of hardship or another to accomplish the transformation.

The Sum of the Matter

What then does God desire for you? “This is the will of God, your sanctification,” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). That means that God is far more concerned for your eternal holiness than He is for your worldly happiness. It means also that prosperity and poverty are no longer tied to obedience and disobedience. Prosperity preachers are simply lying to you, and they are asking you to trade eternal blessings for earthly blessings, an eternal mansion for an earthly house, and a resurrection body for earthly health. In short, these men and women promise that you will avoid the very suffering that your sanctification requires, while at the same time blinding you to the true blessings that your Savior offers. Do not forfeit your spiritual birthright.

Instead, trust Jesus, not for mere earthly prosperity, but for eternal blessings, for He will grant to you all the wealth of His Father’s house, and the health of an eternal, incorruptible, sinless soul and body with which to enjoy it—and Him—forevermore.

I, Reactionary

I tend to react. When I read bad theology, I react. When I hear falsehood promoted within the Church, I react. When I hear someone suggest that it is appropriate for a Christian to support the Yankees, I react. Reacting against error is a good thing, but it cannot be the only thing.

Throughout Church history, theology has been defined over against error—the Church has reacted. When theologians recognize error they counter it, set the record straight, and help God’s people to think and act biblically. Error has often served in the providence of God to sharpen the Church’s understanding and explanation of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

At the same time, the Church and her pastors must also strive to offer positive truth. In 2 Corinthians 4:2 the Apostle Paul taught that he and his fellow missionaries ministered “by the open statement of the truth.” The Church cannot content itself simply to oppose error; such a posture has the effect of making Christians sound shrill, reactionary, and negative. Throwing darts at everything that is wrong, we become theological naysayers, pointing out specks and straining gnats, while failing to state the beauty of biblical Christianity in positive terms.

I find that I am better at analyzing faults than offering Christ. It is a tendency I hope to remedy, and I have begun a self-imposed course of study and prayer to ground myself in a biblical, historic, and confessional understanding of the Church, her mission among the nations, and the distinction between her primary calling and her secondary duties.

In short, I want to react less and lead more, making an “open statement of the truth” more than I make a critique of perceived errors.

Will you join me?

All That Jesus Began to Do

When you think of the Book of Acts, what comes to mind? Do you imagine the Holy Spirit, descending as visible tongues of fire, empowering Jesus’ disciples to speak in the many languages of the earth? Do you think of Peter and John defying the Sanhedrin, obeying God and not man? Do you think of Stephen’s scourging indictment of the apostasy of God’s people and his subsequent martyrdom? Do you think of the blinding light that apprehended Saul on the road to Damascus? Or Peter’s vision that led him to count the gentile God-fearer, Cornelius, as a brother in Christ? Does the folly and death of King Agrippa grip you, or do the great missionaries journeys of Paul, Barnabus, and others capture your imagination? Could it be that the nobility of the Bereans or Paul’s last word to the Ephesians elders or the prophetic pleadings of Agabus fill your mind’s eye? Maybe the roiling seas and shipwreck on Malta captivate you. Do you imagine Paul in Rome, preaching the Gospel under house arrest?

The Book of Acts is often called the Acts of the Apostles, but that is something of a misnomer. When Luke writes in Acts 1:1 that his earlier account of Jesus’ birth, life, miracles, death, and resurrection—which we know as the Gospel of Luke—represents “all that Jesus began to do and teach,” he helps us rightly to interpret that which follows. All that Jesus began to do and teach in person before His ascension into heaven, He also continues to do and teach—by the power of His Holy Spirit—through the ministry of the apostles. The Book of Acts, when properly understood, is comprised of Jesus’ continuing activities. Jesus saves. Jesus converts. Jesus grows His church. Jesus tears down spiritual strongholds. Jesus empowers ministry. And Jesus’ disciples—which includes you and me—are privileged to participate. Jesus chooses to use “jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

All the praise for the miraculous acts of the apostles goes to the Lord and Savior of the apostles alone.

Transgender Troops and the Civil Rights Red Herring

If persons who identify as transgendered are forbidden to serve in the United States’ military, have they been deprived of a civil right?

The asking of the question—which the media is not so much asking as asserting—betrays something of a misunderstanding. War-fighting is not a sphere of activity that has traditionally concerned itself with egalitarian ideals, personal expression, or diversity quotas. It is concerned with combat readiness, and that concern produces rules that proscribe participation.

If you are too young or too old you cannot serve. If you have a history of drug use or mental illness you cannot serve. If you lack a high school diploma or GED you cannot serve. If you are too fat you cannot serve. If you lack a bachelor’s degree you cannot commission as an officer. If your eyesight is weak you may not train as a pilot. If you fail to promote, you must eventually leave the military and your career ends. Once you reach a certain age you must retire. The list continues.

These rules determine who serves, the capacity in which they serve, and their length of service. Such rules exist not to deny any person his or her civil rights, but to ensure military readiness. When political correctness, the claims of egalitarianism, or identity agendas attempt to redefine the rules, however, the conversation is often framed in terms of civil rights.

Is it really about civil rights? If it is, then refusal to allow morbidly obese persons to serve is also a civil rights issue, for it represents unwarranted government discrimination against overweight people. The mandatory retirement age for officers is also a civil rights issue, for it represents government-sanctioned ageism. Every rule that determines who serves, for how long, and in what capacity can be seen as a civil rights violation, but only if a civil right is defined as my right to do what I want when I want for as long as I want in whatever institution I want—including the military. Simply because I desire to serve, is it my inalienable right to do so? Historically, our answer has been No.

That answer is now changing. From opening combat roles to women to opening military service to those who identify as transgendered, it is clear that combat-readiness is no longer necessarily the driving concern that governs our rules of military service; political correctness that defines self-expression as a civil right now drives the bus.

In Joshua 8:3 “Joshua and all the fighting men arose to go up to Ai. And Joshua chose 30,000 mighty men of valor and sent them out by night.” Note those whom Joshua did not take into battle: women, children, the aged, or the infirm. He took fighting men, and even distinguished those who were merely physically capable of fighting from those who were trained and proven warriors—the “mighty men of valor.” Joshua’s decision made sense from a military standpoint, while it also precluded women, children, the aged, and the infirm from participating in armed conflict.

President Trump’s transgender military ban will likely suffer judicial overthrow, and even if it does not a subsequent President will reverse his policy. The dye is now cast, and our society has transitioned from one that makes military decisions based upon war fighting concerns to one that makes decisions based upon politically correct concerns, which are conveniently—if not erroneously—framed in terms of basic civil rights.

Simply put, military service is not a civil right. It is a privilege.

Our nation has—without public protest—denied that privilege to various segments of its own citizenry for years. Sometimes, as in the case of refusing black men the right to fight for their country on equal terms with white men, that denial has been grounded in raw prejudice rather than military necessity. Some will argue that the same is true in reference to transgender troops. If so, then they should make the argument that transgender troops will not adversely affect war-fighting capabilities, rather than making the disingenuous claim that a transgender military ban violates a civil right.

It does no such thing, and to assert so is to offer a red herring.

Various Shades of Nonsense

Common sense has died in the United States. In its place stands a suffocating political correctness, in which nonsense reigns.

An Asian sportscaster named Robert Lee is forbidden from announcing a University of Virginia football game because Robert E. Lee was a Confederate general. Clearly, this Korean-American is a danger, and is secretly hoping that the South will rise again.

College students riot for freedom and against hatred by calling any person with whom they disagree a hater, while forbidding him to speak freely on their campus. Evidently, freedom of speech requires silencing free speech.

The same people who insist that no government can control a woman’s reproductive rights insist with equal vehemence that the government must control her carbon emissions. It is too bad that an unborn child is not comprised of glacial ice; maybe then they would value it.

Multimillionaire sports figures dishonor the flag of the very nation whose laws protect their right to dishonor the flag, and which has provided them with the opportunity to prosper beyond their wildest dreams. We should all be so afflicted.

Antifa—which stands for Anti-Fascist—is a fascist organization. Maybe that is more indicative of irony than nonsense, but you get the point.

Christian, Jesus has told you that you dwell “as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” While Bible-believing Christians have often majored in dove-like behavior, the day has come in which we must also pursue serpent-like wisdom, for our nation is fleeing common sense and is running headlong into the arms of various shades of nonsense.

Common sense has died in our culture; let wisdom rise in our Churches.

The Great Evangelical Shibboleth

Derived from an Israelite conflict recorded in Judges 12, a Shibboleth is a belief, person, or practice—or even a word pronunciation—that distinguishes one group from another. A Shibboleth is thus a watershed; it divides.

Evangelical Christianity in America has long been wedded to and has sought to influence culture through political power. In recent years the union of the Republican Party and the evangelical Church has been nearly complete, and evangelical leaders have found their latest champion in an unlikely man: Donald Trump. The support that evangelical Christians offered Mitt Romney—who is a Mormon—made sense. Though not a Christian, Romney is a moral man. The evangelical love affair with Mr. Trump, however, raises the question: When will President Trump cross the Rubicon into territory—political or moral—into which evangelicals will not follow?

Candidate Trump’s two divorces did not dissuade evangelicals from supporting him; his noted philandering and Access Hollywood groping comments did not dissuade them; his compulsive, unrepentant lying did not dissuade them. In the same way, President Trump’s comments on Charlottesville have not dissuaded his evangelical supporters. What will?

Mr. Trump’s own people cringe in visible discomfort during his interactions with the press. He is a proverbial loose cannon whose Twitter account is a juggernaut of self-inflicted reproach. He denigrates members of his party—and his own political appointments—for perceived incompetence, while at the same time prevaricating on the moral evils of racism. While former presidents did not condescend to bandy petty words with a North Korean sociopath, President Trump appears purposefully to taunt Kim Jong Un, openly inviting ill-advised military action. When Mr. Trump is displeased with an unflattering piece of journalism or a fact that might challenge him, he dismisses it as “fake news,” while his own words provide fact checkers with unassailable job security. None of which appears to have lessened his support among evangelicals.

Mr. Trump’s economic advisory council has abandoned him; his evangelical faith advisors have not. Republican Senator, Robert Corker, has recently questioned the President’s competence, while the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal has predicted that Mr. Trump will resign his office before year’s end; Jerry Falwell Jr., however, is standing firm in his support, spinning the President’s post-Charlottesville comments into a palatable albeit politically incorrect rejection of white supremacy. A recent commentator questioned the President’s mental health, suggesting that he suffers from a personality disorder; evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress, however, thinks that the President is the right man to control a nuclear arsenal.

I do not blame Donald Trump for being Donald Trump. I pray for him daily, as all Christians should. In fact, I am thankful for him. He is exposing the emptiness of the evangelical movement, for he is revealing the lengths to which evangelicals will go to sanitize and support him, and—by extension—to promote their own political interests.

I love the Church and want to see her thrive, and I feel as though I am watching the death throes of American evangelicalism. Donald Trump is revealing the extent to which evangelical Christianity in America is enslaved to the allure of political power. If evangelicals leaders continue to hitch their wagon to Donald Trump—and to hopes of a legislated moral revival through him—they will self-strangle the last vestiges of spiritual authority the evangelical movement possesses at the very moment in time when our nation most needs spiritual leadership. Offering repeated excuses for Mr. Trump’s folly and immorality, while turning a blind eye toward his manifest lack of Christian character, evangelical leaders are sabotaging their own credibility.

If the evangelical Church hopes to represent Jesus faithfully and to promote His Kingdom, then she must forego her political ambitions and return to her spiritual mission of disciple making. Evangelicals have long ceased to identify as a sojourning people—a people who are not at home here—and have sought to transform this land into the Promised Land through political activism and legislated moral engineering. The evangelical Church has traded her birthright for pottage, and it is time for her to acknowledge that her house is a wreck. She has forgotten her first love.

Churches and leaders that continue down the path of political entanglement will eventually die the spiritual death of a thousand moral cuts. Think of Al Sharpton. Who considers him a faithful representative of Jesus? He is a shill for political liberalism. And yet evangelical leaders seem to believe that they will avoid the same perception. They will not.

There is still time to repent, to return to the work of the Great Commission, and to pursue spiritual Kingdom-building as ambassadors for Jesus, but that time is fast fading.

The great evangelical Shibboleth has arrived, and the Church must choose her allegiance.