Author Archives: lewinkler

About lewinkler

I am a professor of theology and ethics at the East Asia School of Theology in Singapore.

Did Jesus get it wrong?

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In a world that worships power, pleasure, possessions, beauty, intelligence, talent, and fame, I am continually struck by the profoundly counter-cultural nature of the Christian faith. Jesus reverses the field in almost every arena in which human beings naturally hope and long for.

Jesus got it wrong if He was trying to make everyone love and serve Him in an overwhelmingly impressive or subtly coercive sort of way.  Instead, He quietly came to live in the Galilean backwater village of Nazareth and lose His perfect life on a simple wooden cross, so that we could gain his life and be reconciled to God.  That is a love that breaks the mold of all our expectations and confounds the wise, the strong, the powerful, and the rich, so that even the fools, the weak, the insignificant, and the poor could actually inherent the earth and live forever.

In short, Jesus loves the unlovely, the unloving, and the unlovable.  He makes the poor rich and the rich poor.  He exalts the lowly and humbles the exalted.  He makes the simple wise and makes simpletons of the wise.  He makes the strong weak and the weak strong. He makes losers out of winners and winners out of losers.  He asks His followers to lose everything in order to gain everything.

It doesn’t make for much of a marketing campaign to invite all who wish to follow Him to come suffer and die.  That sounds more like a cult for masochists.  But here is where the great irony of God’s economy in Christ comes into play: Those who suffer are blessed and will be comforted; those who die in Him will rise and live forever.

Of course, the opposite is also true: Those who are unrepentant and comfortable in this life will wind up uncomfortable in the next; those who hold tightly onto to things will lose them all; those who try to save their own life now will lose it for all eternity.

No, Jesus did not get it wrong, but we do—constantly.  Instead of loving people and using things, we love things and use people.  Instead of loving righteousness and spurning wickedness, we hate the good and love what is evil.  Instead of giving thanks to God for His goodness and wisdom and patience, we ignore, defy, and spurn Him—and then blame and rage against Him when our lives fall apart.

Despite our magnificent insignificance, overweening pride, and astounding indifference toward the One who created and sustains us, He still loves us with an everlasting love. He patiently and persistently offers forgiveness, grace, and eternal life in Christ for all who will believe and trust in Him.  He, and He alone, can take our every wrong and forever make us whole and right again.

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Who am I trying to please?

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I want to be popular. Most people do.  Only masochists want to be reviled, ridiculed, and rejected.  I put on a good show and try to appear like I don’t care what others think about me, but deep down inside, I desperately want to be liked and respected.

Before my time, people tried to be “hip” and “groovy.”  Growing up, the goal was to be “cool.”  Years later, everyone wanted to be “bad.”  About that time, I lost track of (as well as significant interest in) the ever-evolving latest term for being “relevant,” “popular,” and one of the “in crowd.”

Once upon a time in America, being a Christian did not automatically disqualify you from being acceptable to others.  There were enough people around who thought Christians weren’t so bad, even if they weren’t Christians themselves.  Many of the social norms and expectations revolved around some of the basic moral (but often distorted) teachings of the Bible.  People were not afraid to identify themselves as Christians, even if their understanding of that term was nominal at best.

These days, it’s not so easy to identify as a genuine Christ-follower.  It’s no longer “cool” to defend and promote a traditional view of marriage (for example) or to suggest that sincere faith in Jesus Christ is the exclusive and only means to know and spend eternity with God.

Almost 2,000 years ago, it was not popular to identify oneself as a follower of Jesus either. It was much easier to “go with the flow” and not cause trouble by condemning sexual immorality or refusing to syncretize and compromise one’s religious faith.  In fact, refusing to follow the crowd could even get you imprisoned or killed. It was not an easy time to claim and proclaim the name of Jesus Christ.

In this respect, contemporary attitudes toward certain aspects of our faith place us in a long and storied history of being ridiculed and rejected for believing in Jesus.  And this should come as no surprise.  The Bible never said it would be easy or fun to follow hard after Christ.  God never assured us that we would be loved and accepted by others for following Him. Instead, 2 Timothy 3:12 provides us with this precious and magnificent promise: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

And 1 Peter 4:1 reminds us that since Christ suffered, as his followers, we should be ready to suffer as well.  Peter goes on to say we should not be surprised when we suffer for our faith, but rather, we should “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. . . .  If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”

Jesus makes a similar promise in Luke 6:22-23 when He states, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!  Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven.”

Paul also reminds us in Galatians 1:10 that our goal in life is not to be accepted and well-liked by everyone around us.  Rather, we are to seek to please God by fearlessly and single-mindedly serving Christ.

Of course, we do not intentionally seek to be odd or offensive for Christ.  But the goal of our lives is not to be cool, but to be clear, clear about the sometimes offensive simplicity of the gospel—that Jesus died to save sinners like you and like me, and that apart from Him, there is no hope of salvation in this life or the next.  If we face suffering for saying so and living our lives in light of it, we can rejoice, just as the disciples did in Acts 5:41, and thank God that He counts us worthy to suffer shame for His name.

The Longing to Be Whole

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The Best Years of My Life?

I was often told by well-meaning adults that the years of my youth would be the best of my life.  But in many ways, these years were anything but wonderful.  Although things at home were Christ-centered, stable, and supportive, life at school was positively miserable.  I remember vowing to remember what it was really like when I was young.  Life was full of formidable hardships and hurts.

Now that I’m older, it is much clearer that every life-stage is filled with tests, trials, and tribulations. They are inherent to the fabric of life within a fallen world.  For many, however, it is all too easy to see the past through rose-colored glasses, only recalling the joys and few, if any, of the sorrows.  In retrospect, the years of youth particularly seem like a time filled with wonder, strength, and beauty.  We long to be young again.

The Price of Wisdom

Part of this longing, I think, is produced by the physical reality of aging.  Herein lies a study in contrast.  On the one hand, with age comes wisdom.  And for this reason, I would not want to return to the foolish naiveté of youth for anything.  But wisdom comes with an unavoidable price—the price of both physical and emotional injury.  And while the emotional toll is immensely important, it is to the physical my thoughts have turned lately.

With time comes decay. Eventually, our bodies wear out and stop working well.  Ever since the fall, physical pain and death are an inevitable part of life.  In some way, shape, or form, we all experience the debilitating effects of sin and our bodies start “giving up the ghost.”  For some, that relinquishing comes sooner and exacts a greater cost.

Properly understood, this can help us contemplate the fleeting and fragile nature of material existence.  My early-onset deafness and chronic back and neck pain (for example) have forced me to face my mortality.

The Longing to Be Whole

In the midst of it all, we often find ourselves longing for the bodies of our youth when we heard and saw with unaided clarity, when we woke up without a morning backache and aching joints, when we had rock-hard stomachs and baby-soft skin.  In short, we long to be strong and young and whole again.

The world also has this God-given longing, but without any real prospects for a permanent reformation. The best they can hope for are more painkillers, a shot of cortisone, a botox injection, a tummy tuck, and a facelift.

The Source of Real Hope

In blessed contrast, believers are given “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . ., an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, reserved [for us] in heaven” (1 Peter 1:3-4).  There, we will see without glasses, hear without microcircuits and air-zinc batteries, and live without pain.  There will be no more death, agony, or aging.  Thank God, we will finally and unceasingly be whole.

Betting on Jesus

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The older I get, the more I see family and friends facing their mortality.  We are not as young and healthy as we once were.  And since I’m unlikely to live beyond 100, well over half my life is already passed.  The many doors of opportunity that stood wide open in my youth are either shut or quickly closing.

And yet, of all possible lives I might have lived, the one I am in is infinitely better and more interesting than I could ever have dreamed of or imagined.  I am also well aware that many people my age cannot say that about their lives.  Instead, they feel regret, disappointment, bitterness, and pain.  Of course, I have done plenty of things to make me feel these ways, but overall, the forgiving and magnificent grace of God, alongside the indescribable life He has given, have been nothing short of fantastic.

Pascal speaks of making a wager.  He notes that in view of the possible eternal benefits, believing in God is wiser than the alternatives.  Many have criticized his wager as being foolish and naïve.  We should, after all, only believe what is true, no matter how bitter or discouraging that reality might prove to be.

However, while marveling at the grand adventure of my life, it strikes me full in the face: even if none of it is true, even if there is no God and at death I simply ceased to exist and fall into “the big sleep,” I would prefer this life to any other I might have lived.  Seeking after and following Jesus has been one incredible and undeserved adventure after another.  It has been so much richer and better than anything I might have conceived of, sought after, or accomplished on my own.  I am overcome by a profound and immense sense of gratitude.

Don’t get me wrong.  There have been many tough times and bitter disappointments along the way.  Life is hard, no matter which path you choose.  But I would not choose a different life, even if promised the world in exchange.  The money, things, fame, pleasure, and comfort that so looked so enticing in my youth now seem increasingly petty, fleeting, and insubstantial.  Life with Jesus really is better than anything or anyone else.

I also want to say that I have thoroughly and repeatedly investigated and examined the overwhelming evidences for the truth of Christianity and am more convinced than ever God is real, and that Jesus really did die for my sins and rise again.  I have experienced rich and undeniable intimacies with Him at numerous times in life, and am utterly confident that because of Christ’s righteousness, I will one day stand in God’s presence holy and blameless, with great joy.  But even if, on some incredible fluke of reality, Christianity turns out to be false, my life lived within it has been indescribably better than any other possible lifestyle or viewpoint.

Pascal was right.  There are eternal benefits for betting on Jesus. But beyond this great hope, living for Him now will produce the grandest and most incredible adventure you could ever imagine.  That’s bet worth making for this life and the next.

The Significance of Sacred Space

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I said goodbye today to the office I occupied for more than twelve years.  Much-needed renovations mean the school is moving elsewhere for now.  Faculty offices will be reconfigured, and the old ones all demolished.

After all the boxes were packed and the desk emptied, I took some time to reflect on all that had happened and been done in this place.  I thought of conversations with students, faculty, and staff, the many books and articles read and digested, the countless class sessions created and prepared for, the mass of papers and assignments read through and graded, the meals eaten, the times of prayer, worship, and contemplation where I heard from, talked, pleaded, wrestled with, and even raged against God.  I cried, laughed, prayed, listened, and sang here—alone and with others.

In the midst of my musings and grief, it suddenly struck me: Through the years his humble little corner had become a holy haven, a sacred space.

Because of dangers and abuses, Evangelicals often avoid designating some spaces more sacred than others.  We don’t want them to become idolatrous places, distracting and distancing us from God’s genuine presence.

In our protective zeal, however, something important gets lost.  We can forget to pause and remember that God was actually in this place, doing things only He could do.  In this sense, certain places can provide meaningful memorials and reminders of His goodness and faithfulness.

One of the most obvious areas where such places can be found is the so-called, “Holy Land,” where Abraham sojourned, David reigned, and Jesus lived, died, and rose again.  When the Israelites entered into this land by miraculously crossing the Jordan River on dry ground, God directed stones from the riverbed to be erected as a memorial to what He had done there.  It was intended to be an important teaching tool for future generations to remember His powerful kindness.   Such commemorative spaces can help us recapture, reenact, and reimagine all that God has done, reminding us to give Him thanks and praise.

But we also must remember that Moses only stood on holy ground because God was there, not because of any holiness inherent to that place.  Spaces do not become or remain sacred in-and-of-themselves.  They become sacred when God sets them apart by His presence and power.  This was especially the case with respect to the Holy of Holies, the temple’s inner sanctum.  It was only holy because God was there.  And as a result, it was not to be entered without holy fear and humble reverence, lest that person be struck down by God’s righteous indignation.

Sadly, this sacred space would itself become an idol.  God’s people began taking Him for granted, repeatedly rejecting and rebelling against Him.  Eventually, when God had finally had enough, He left the Holy of Holies.  He allowed it to be desecrated by foreign invaders and permanently dismantled by the Romans in AD 70.  It was not sacred in-and-of-itself.  It was only sacred because God chose to dwell there in a very special way.

Similarly, there’s nothing inherently extraordinary about the 10’X10’ fourth-story slab suspended by concrete and rebar that constituted my office for over twelve years. Nevertheless, I thank God for visiting and using this blessed little cube in the sky for His greater glory.  Much more than this, I long for and look forward to living in that place Jesus promises to prepare for us, a space that will always be sacred and never taken away since we will dwell there for endless days in His magnificent and marvelous presence.

Is it really worth writing? Thoughts on Great Christian Literature

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There aren’t many truly great writers in the world today, and fewer still are Christians.  In any given generation, very few genuine classics are written, and this kind of literature is more often determined by history and the generations that follow than by those in which it was produced.  Magnificent authors are rare indeed and worth their weight in gold.

In contrast, above average and good writers are much easier to come by and abundant in every generation. But given the fact that the vast majority of Christian writers in our age will never write an authentically enduring work, does that make them unimportant?

I would argue no.  Like all contemporary cultural products, such works represent a wide spectrum of both quality and influence.  Some have great initial influence but are quickly left behind for the latest and greatest production.  Others have little initial impact but grow in influence over time as their significance and importance become increasingly acknowledged.  Still others are immediately recognized for their exceptional nature and outstanding quality.  Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example, was quickly (and rightly) hailed as one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, not merely in Russia, but throughout the world.

There are, of course, cases where magnificent literature is only recognized for what it is much later in time.  It’s influence and quality are only appreciated posthumously.  Pascal’s Penseeswere not found and published until after his death.  The writings of Thomas Aquinas were initially condemned by the Catholic church until, over a period of several generations, their value and brilliance became undeniable.

The vast majority of Christian works, however, find themselves in the category of being neither very noticeable nor influential.  They may have some value and meaning for their authors and the few who read them, but they do not bear the marks of magnificence and significance that truly great writings possess.

And yet, this rushing flood of what we might call “normal” Christian writings has a crucial place in the creation, maintenance, sustenance, and transformation of culture in our time.  Very often it’s the “average” and “mundane” things that we read and think about each day which ultimately mold and shape us most powerfully over time.

Consequently, most Christian writers write, not necessarily to make money, influence the masses, or produce magnificent works of literature that will be read and appreciated for generations to come.  Rather, they write because it is, in many ways, a divine calling and vocation.  God has given them something to say and a way to say it, even if only a precious few will take any notice.

I like the way Anne Frank put it in her now-famous dairy: “[I]t seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old school girl.  Still, what does that matter?  I want to write. . . .”

Perhaps the “unbosomings” of most writers—Christian and otherwise—will not be preserved in the museums, publishing houses, or churches of future generations in any concrete way.  They will, however, be read, absorbed, and creatively appropriated by some in their own time.  Perhaps a few will be passed on to those who come after by private collection, recollection, word of mouth, and way of life.  In the end, if God is in the writing, such an outcome is more than enough.  It is for this rather unremarkable Christian writer, anyway.

Would I suffer and die for Jesus Christ?

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Worldwide, many contemporary Christians are experiencing persecution and even death for their faith. I have listened with sadness and admiration to accounts of those who risked their livelihoods, lives, and families by refusing to deny their faith in Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:29 makes it clear that as believers, it has been granted to us to suffer for Jesus’ sake. It is, in fact, a gift.  And while we don’t always want every gift we receive, in God’s wisdom, He knows exactly how to give us what we need.  Suffering is a dreadful but necessary grace.

While preparing to teach church history, I read some older accounts of Christian martyrdom and persecution from the first three centuries of the church.  As a result, several things struck me, but two stand out the most.

First, it’s easy to admire the courage of these Christians with an abstract appreciation for their faith in the face of torture and death.  It’s far harder to picture myself and fellow family members standing before the examiner and facing the choice between forsaking Jesus or suffering torture and death.

When I first started walking closely with the Lord, I was convinced I would die for Him.  Thirty-plus years later, I am much more acutely aware of and honest about my cowardice and strong attachments to the things and consolations of this life.  For all my prior blustering braggadocio about being willing to “sacrifice it all for Jesus,” I now have to admit, I want a tranquil and comfortable life.

Would I really suffer and die for Jesus if offered the choice?  With all of my heart I want to say yes, but I’m also honest enough to admit it would not be easy.

In the end, I suspect I could only do so if the Lord granted grace if and when the moment arrived.  Meanwhile, I am still trusting God to help divest myself of inappropriate and inordinate affections for anything and anyone other than the Lord Jesus Christ.  Perhaps that is an admission of faithlessness, but I hope it is more a recognition of weakness and desperate need for His everlasting mercy and grace.

The second thing that struck me is closely related.  It occurred to me how grossly unprepared most professing Christians—myself included—are to suffer for their faith in any serious way.  Most (but certainly not all) Christians I know have been led extremely sheltered and comfortable lives compared to the hardships of many contemporary and historical Christians.  I certainly have.

Of course, if this has been the case, it is not necessarily something for which we should be ashamed. It is a privilege to be able to turn our freedoms and resources into opportunities to serve and care for others for God’s greater glory.  And many have done just that.  Lord, let us be legion!

But those who have lived in relative safety and ease of comfort should pause to consider: If life ever became much more difficult precisely because we are Christ-followers, would we, like the believers of yesterday and today, be willing to suffer and even die for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? Would you?  Would I?  God grant us the grace to live humbly and boldly for Your glory, whether in life or in death.