Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Five myths Christians believe

Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/116/11668/11668-64117.mp3

I used to believe that as long as I was “doing the Lord’s work,” God would protect me from physical harm with some kind of magic force field whenever I visited overseas mission fields.

Historical ignoramus that I was, it didn’t dawn on me until years later that countless faithful believers have died through the ages from sickness, accidents, attacks or persecution while serving the Lord. Was I supposed to get a special exemption when they didn’t?

I still occasionally rely on the magic force field idea to help me get through turbulent plane flights. It’s not faith; it’s a mental trick to keep me from running up and down the aisle screaming, “We’re all gonna die!”

Lots of otherwise reasonable Christians depend on various shortcuts, myths and spiritual distortions to get through the day. Often we buy into such counterfeits to avoid trusting God and obeying Him. California pastor/author Larry Osborne addresses some of them in his book, “10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe” (Multnomah, 2009).

At least five of the myths Osborne identifies affect how we respond to God’s call to take the Gospel to the world:

* “Faith can fix anything.”

Faith in an ever-faithful God sustains us moment by moment as we follow Him. But it doesn’t “fix” everything the way we want it fixed. Nor does God. He is concerned with accomplishing His will, not ours.

Faith is not “an impenetrable shield that protects us from life’s hardships and trials,” Osborne writes. “It’s not a magic potion that removes every mess. It’s a map we follow. … It’s designed to guide us on a path called righteousness. Along the way, it doesn’t promise to fix every flat tire.”

That applies to daily life — and to missions. Missionaries get a lot of flat tires. Cross-cultural ministry entails endless frustrations, hassles, confusion, misunderstanding and discouragement. The payoff might not come for years, even generations. But it will come. The Word of God does not return void.

* “God has a blueprint for my life.”

A blueprint contains detailed instructions for building an entire structure (i.e., life). God gives us guidance for today and asks us to trust Him for tomorrow. Thinking too far beyond that brings little but anxiety.

“The starting place for finding God’s will is obeying the commands and instructions we already know” from His Word, Osborne reminds his readers. “The pathway of obedience always leads to further light.”

If God tells you to go to a strange, possibly hostile place or culture with no guarantee of success or safe return — no blueprint, in other words — how will you respond?

* “Christians shouldn’t judge.”

How convenient. If we redefine Christ’s command not to condemn sinners (when we are sinners ourselves) to mean that we cannot call good and evil what they are, we have surrendered to evil.

Osborne: “Underlying the idea that we have no right to judge the beliefs and moral standards of others is another widely held belief. It’s the dogma that truth and morality are relative. … If we refuse to label the behaviors Jesus called sin, sin, we’re disagreeing with Jesus, not following Jesus.”

We’re also undermining His mandate to make disciples among all peoples. If the world isn’t lost in sin, what’s the point of preaching the Gospel of salvation?

* “A valley means a wrong turn.”

“Most of us understand that hardships (even long-term hardships) are a natural part of life,” Osborne acknowledges. “But something fundamentally changes when the deep and lengthy valley is our valley. The truths we so easily accept in theory and so quickly apply to others become difficult to fathom in our own life.”

Valleys, especially ones that pass through the shadow of death, force us to trust God or despair. In missions, deep valleys often come before mountaintop breakthroughs.

* “Dead people go to a better place.”

Really? All of them? Jesus spoke of the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth for those who reject God. He spoke of the narrow path to heaven and the wide highway to hell.

“To our modern-day sensibilities, the exclusivity of Christ, the reality of hell, and the need for salvation that includes personal piety have all become passé, if not downright offensive,” Osborne says. “And it’s not just our culture that rejects these ideas; so do many Christians. …

“The cross and salvation are central to the Gospel. Once we lose any real concept of hell, the natural consequence is more than just putting us at odds with Scripture; it eventually devalues the cross, redefines salvation, and turns obedience into an extra-credit spiritual add-on.”

The Bible is a hard book to read in our day. It contains judgments, absolutes and non-negotiable commands — as well as the words of the Lord’s abounding grace, love and mercy.

It’s not the message we want to hear. It’s what we need to hear.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Meeting Jesus for coffee

Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/116/11606/11606-63700.mp3

A young guy rushes into a coffee shop and joins Jesus Christ at a table. Jesus has been waiting for Him — apparently for quite a while.

Jesus breaks into a smile, but as He rises to offer a greeting, the young man says, “Hey, Jesus, sorry I’m late. Work was crazy today. No, don’t get up. I just got a little behind.”

“That’s no problem, Chuck,” Jesus replies. “I’m just glad that …”
“I’m glad I made it, too,” Chuck interjects, pulling a legal pad from his briefcase. “Listen, let’s get down to business. I have a lot of work here, lotta requests, OK?”

Jesus, used to the drill, hides His disappointment. He dutifully listens as His distracted friend races through page after page of petitions, peeves and random thoughts. When Chuck finally finishes, Jesus leans forward to respond. Before He can speak, Chuck looks at his watch and blurts, “Hey, look at the time! Gotta get going, Jesus. I’m just gonna wrap this up and say amen. It’s been a pleasure praying with You. I’ll be in touch. Have a good day!” He grabs his stuff and takes off, leaving Jesus alone at the table, sipping coffee.

That’s the storyline of “Coffee with Jesus,” a funny video produced by Church Fuel that you can find at GodTube.com (http://www.godtube.com/featured/video/coffee-jesus). Funny, but sad.

In an age of continuous, pointless distraction, we approach the Lord the way Chuck does more than we want to admit — to ourselves or to Him. Would you treat your friends this way? Not if you want to keep them. We rely on God’s patience, but how must His heart hurt over each little (and large) rejection?

At His last meal with the disciples, Jesus said, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15b, NASB). The King James Version translates the first part of the verse this way: “With desire I have desired … .” We’ll never understand the magnitude of His yearning at that moment, but it was deeper than tears. During His lonely agony in Gethsemane later that night, when He needed Peter and John the most, they fell asleep. He asked them, “What, could ye not watch with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40b, KJV).

It’s a mystery to think that God, the Creator of all things, intensely desires the love of such as us. Yet it is why He created us. Every once in a while, we need to remember why we are here.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5, NASB) is God’s great commandment, repeated again and again in Scripture. All the rest of the Law and the prophets depend upon it, Jesus said, along with loving our neighbor (Matthew 23:40).

When Israel chased after idols, it not only angered the Lord, it broke His heart. The Book of Hosea recounts the tragic story of a prophet who marries a harlot. He briefly feels the ongoing pain God experiences over the unfaithfulness of His people.

Returning to God means seeking Him alone — and no other. “When You said, ‘Seek My face,’ my heart said to You, ‘Your face, O Lord, I shall seek,’” David prayed (Psalm 27:8, NASB). When we seek Him, He confronts the selfishness that permeates even our faith. We are not here just to enjoy His blessings, but to bless Him with our thoughts, words and actions.

“Do you love Me?” Jesus asks us daily, repeatedly, just as He asked Peter after His resurrection. Love of God in action is obedience. Love of God expressed is worship. And God wants worship to rise toward Him from every nation and people.

No one has explained the relationship of worship to missions for the contemporary church better than pastor/writer John Piper:

“Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever. Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal of mission … . The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God … . ‘Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee. O let the nations be glad and sing for joy’” (Psalm 67:3-4a, KJV).

What about evangelism, sending missionaries, preaching the Gospel to the ends of the earth, making disciples, starting churches? These are all means to an end. The end is that His name shall be exalted, that every tongue shall confess Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father.

Some folks like to think about the heavenly mansions and the streets of gold. But the true joy of eternity with God will be seeing Him face to face and singing praises to Him forever.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Messing with our minds

Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/115/11561/11561-63403.mp3

Suppose you could plant an idea in someone else’s mind — and make them think it was their own.

That’s the premise of Inception, one of the most interesting summer blockbusters of recent years. The sci-fi movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, a mental thief-for-hire who specializes in “extraction” of ideas from people’s brains via their dreams. When a high-powered corporate chief offers him an irresistible payoff to do the reverse — to sneak an idea into a competitor’s mind — Cobb organizes an elite team of dream commandos and springs into action. Lots of cool special effects ensue.

But the film isn’t just another collection of digital gimmicks. It raises serious questions about the nature of reality. Are there different levels of reality, or different realities altogether, in our minds? Are they so “real” that we can become trapped in them? If consciousness and reality are malleable, what about truth? These questions have been asked for ages by mystics, theologians and philosophers — not to mention computer gamers.

Postmodernism questions the existence of all absolutes. So Inception plays to popular culture’s ambivalent relationship with truth. My beef with the movie, however, is its suggestion that planting an idea in someone’s mind is more difficult than removing one. In the real world, the opposite is true.

Getting an idea, especially a false one, out of some folks’ minds is almost impossible. Ignorance often plays a role. But plenty of well-informed people don’t let facts interfere with their views, as several recent studies confirm. One such study, by University of California researcher Jonas Kaplan, analyzed the centers of the brain that stimulate emotion. He found that people tend to form political opinions first, then invest all their mental and emotional energy “making themselves feel good about their decision” — regardless of the conflicting data presented to them.

Two Stony Brook (N.Y.) University scholars discovered that highly educated people are even less open than others to new facts that challenge their existing perceptions. Their factual knowledge in some areas “makes it nearly impossible to correct [other areas] on which they’re totally wrong,” according to an article on the findings in The Boston Globe.

You can see this phenomenon demonstrated daily (and loudly) by TV talking heads, political bloggers and the like. You probably see it around your kitchen table or the office water cooler.

Planting an idea in someone’s mind, on the other hand, is relatively easy — for good or ill. Good parents and teachers use methods as old as Socrates to encourage young people to “discover” the right answers for themselves. Advertisers convince people every day that they can’t live without things they don’t even need. Propagandists and gossips entice people into believing lies by constant repetition.

The unsurpassed master of mental manipulation has been at it for a very long time. He convinced Adam and Eve that they didn’t need to heed God’s tiresome commands, that they could become “… like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5, NASB). Humankind’s long history of self-deception and self-destruction began with an insidious idea planted in our minds: If we can be like God, we can be God. Then we don’t need to obey or worship Him. As a practical matter, He no longer exists.

The devil plants plenty of bad ideas, but this might be the worst: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1a, NASB). A lot of really smart people believe that one. If there is no God, the saying goes, all things are permissible — murder, genocide, you name it. Recent history gives many blood-soaked examples of godlessness as state policy.

Sin, the process of rebellion against God and worship of self, is an act of the will. But it begins in the mind. Only one idea is more powerful: the Gospel.

That an all-powerful God would enter our reality, live among us, die at our hands and rise again — all to express His love and mercy to those who rejected Him — is the most revolutionary idea in history. If it is believed, if it is accepted and acted upon, it changes everything. God uses it to renew our darkened minds so we can worship Him in spirit and truth. Then we can transmit this great idea to others, which is the mission of the church in the world.

Plant the Gospel idea in a few minds — and see what happens.