Category Archives: Reflections on Life

Should I follow the truth wherever it leads?

I often hear this phrase in academic circles: “You must follow the truth wherever it leads.” In a thoroughly post-enlightenment rationalist age where the life of the mind is considered the highest form of human activity, this statement makes perfect sense. From a thoroughly biblical perspective, however, it can be quite dangerous. The key question is what is meant by, “truth.”

The unstated assumption is that pursuing “truth” will always lead toward reality. But if postmodernity has taught us anything, it’s the fact that the idea of truth is value-laden. And I have watched far too many scholars, in the name of “pursuing the truth,” follow paths that clearly led them away from Jesus Christ, the One who declares Himself the truth (John 14:6) and reminds us that God’s word is truth (John 17:17).

In fact, our finitude greatly limits us, and sin infects every aspect of our being, including our intellectual capacity to find and discern truth. As a result, the pursuit of truth is never a neutral enterprise. We have unrecognized assumptions, vested interests, prior propensities, limited perspectives, and underlying commitments that skew our ability and desire to perceive, acquire, and properly apply truth. As James Spiegel puts it in The Making of an Atheist, “Sin corrupts cognition, which leads to more sin, which brings about a further corruption of the mind and so on. The overarching point [of Romans 1] is clear: immoral behavior undermines one’s ability to think straight, at least about certain issues.” As such, genuine truth-seeking requires more than intellectual capacity and curiosity. It also demands virtues of courage, rectitude, humility, and submission.

I have met some truly brilliant thinkers who think at a completely different intellectual level and with a far greater capacity than the rest of us. But the more I see truly brilliant people, the more grateful I am that God did not make me one of them. For all of its benefits and greatness, brilliance is also exceptionally dangerous. When you become convinced that you’re smarter than everyone else (even if it’s true), it’s a relatively small step to believe you are also smarter than God, or at least smart enough not to need or trust Him. Brilliance makes it easier to forget that you are not comparing yourself to other mere mortals but challenging the wisdom and knowledge of the omnipotent Maker, Sustainer, Lover, and Redeemer of the universe.

There comes a time in the life of every honest person when the ability to know is obviously outstripped by our sin-distorted perceptions of reality, our limited capacities of the mind, and the inherently complex and mysterious nature of a finite universe created by an infinite God. At this point, we would do well to demonstrate a certain level of humility and surrender to the incapacity of our finitude and the obfuscating influences of sin.

But like all other noble pursuits, we can make the pursuit of what we want to be true an end in itself, another idolatrous absolute detached from the One and only true source of truth: God made known through Jesus Christ. This detaches truth from its source, giving it an ambiguous independence that is grounded in nothing more than our perceptions of and desires about the way things really are. It essentially denies that truth is embodied in Jesus (Ephesians 4:21) and ignores the exceptionally distorting power of sin and the profoundly limited nature of our knowing. Instead, we desperately need the corrective aid of the incarnate Christ, God’s authoritative word, and His Holy Spirit who says He will guide us into all truth (John 16:13).

Enlightenment rationalism made an idol of human intellect. Postmodernism has made an idol of personal perceptions and desires. But this is nothing new. Back in the time of the New Testament, the Apostle Paul reminded us in Romans 1:18ff that we create idols whenever we suppress the truth in unrighteousness and refuse to give God the thanks and honor He warrants and deserves. We may deceive ourselves into believing we are following the truth wherever it leads when we are really only seeking after the things that we hope and want to be true.

As atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel once (in a refreshingly honest way) confessed in The Last Word, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God…. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

In contrast, for Christians, “following the truth wherever it leads,” takes on an entirely new significance and meaning. It entails becoming a Spirit-empowered disciple of Jesus Christ, a faithful and diligent student and doer of God’s word, and a person who loves, thanks, and worships God in spirit and in truth. That’s the only journey worth taking no matter where it may lead and what it might cost.

Leaving Behind a Lasting Legacy

Now that I am a grandfather twice over, I’ve been thinking more about the Christian legacy I will leave behind when my life is finally over. Who will carry the torch of Christ’s salvation to the generations that follow? What will the children of my children’s children care about and contribute to society? What kind of people will they be? Will they come to know, love, and serve the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Sadly, many people in our world today question the value of children. Perhaps they are only consumers who will produce a larger carbon footprint, an inconvenient and expensive drain upon the earth and our personal time and resources; or maybe they are just the unfortunate and unintended “product” of an erotic sexual act. In beautiful contrast, Solomon rightly calls children a precious gift and a blessing from the Lord (Psalm 127:3).

Against the growing contemporary resistance in some parts of the world to having children, the push for progeny in many parts of Asia is so strong it can even overshadow the significance of God’s greater purpose for our lives. Part of this push is the ancient social security system ensuring that parents are cared for in their old age. But it is much deeper than mere pragmatics. The passion to pass on one’s bloodline and family name suggests that I can somehow live forever vicariously through my physical progeny. This assumption and drive can eclipse other much more important factors for determining whether or not one’s life is well-spent.

I’m grateful that my parents gave me physical life, but infinitely more grateful that they imparted spiritual and eternal life by sharing and living out before me the gospel of Jesus Christ. And as grateful and delighted as I am that God blessed us with children and now grandchildren, they did not come into the world to justify my significance or pass on my DNA and family name. Nor did they arrive to ensure I am cared for when I’m old. In fact, their purpose is far greater.

Like my parents before me, my highest hope and prayer is to leave behind a legacy that runs deeper and longer than mere flesh and blood, a legacy recognizing that the family of God transcends material genetics and has an unbreakable bond that holds fast for all eternity. Our adoption into God’s family demonstrates that spiritual offspring are infinitely more important than merely physical ones.

The lasting legacy I want to leave behind is one where people come to know, love, and serve God well because I knew, loved, and served Him well. Thus, while physical progeny are glorious gifts from God, leaving behind an everlasting heritage of passionate followers of Jesus Christ is by far the greater privilege, higher calling, and deeper desire. May He use us powerfully for this much loftier and lasting legacy.

The True Measure of Human Flourishing

It is sometimes said that no one can tell anyone else what they can and cannot do.  There’s significant self-referential irony in the statement, given that the claimant is telling the hearer what they cannot do.

Of course, the real assumption here is that claiming some choices are morally better than others is arrogant and judgmental.  In short, it’s immoral to tell others that some things are immoral.  No one has the right to deny someone else the freedom to pursue personal fulfillment, self-determination, and happiness in any way they want.  This is especially true for those seeking the opportunity to marry and have sexual relations with whomever they wish, whether male or female.

One of the problems (there are many) with this argument is that you cannot measure human flourishing with the yardstick of present and momentary feelings.  Nor can you measure it through the limited categories of individual (or even communal) human perspectives.  From a purely sociological point of view, human flourishing has to be measured by at least three things: the demonstrated character of the person, the ongoing interpersonal engagement of that person with other persons, and the ultimate well-being of all those impacted by such practices over the course of a significant period time.

In general, people with reliable and loving character are better off and more beneficent than those who consistently make poor and selfish choices.  You can always find exceptions, of course—someone who has bucked the general system by (for example) chain-smoking and drinking heavily for 60 years, but is still able to make lots of friends, hold down a job, never get lung cancer, or have a DWI conviction.  But this is an exception precisely because it is rare and unusual.

The rapidity with which our society has flung open the doors to same-sex marriage, widespread drug use, overt sexual experimentation, celebration of transgenderism, and government-funded medical and chemical sex-change procedures, even performed on adolescents and children, doesn’t just sadden me; it greatly alarms me.

Bald internalist expressions of self-generated ideas of what it means to flourish are deeply problematic because they cut themselves off from the corrective and collective wisdom shared in and with other humans (not to mentioned God Himself) long before any of us came onto the social scene.

I fear we are only just beginning to see the long-term damage and fallout of a contemporary society that has embraced individualistically (im)moral positions that will lead to lasting and long-term psychological dysfunction and societal destruction—ironically, all in the name of greater psychological health and human flourishing!

In the past, people had these same thoughts and did many of these same things, but they entertained and did them in the face of a social consensus which considered them abnormal, harmful, immoral, and anti-social.  Even these people often considered them to be self-destructive and wrong but felt like they just couldn’t stop themselves.  Now, such expressions are celebrated and promoted as the best and greatest means to human flourishing.  As a result, we live in a society that is more suicidal, unhappy, dysfunctional, and drug-addled than at any other time in its history.

But far worse and more dangerous than this, these lifestyles also drive people away from the One who made them for a better and more meaningful purpose in this life.  It also endangers any opportunity they might have to enjoy intimate fellowship with Him for all eternity.  Against the pursuit of happiness in this life, God beckons to us to surrender to and be reconciled to Him through faith in Jesus Christ, and then follow hard after the arduous but deeply rewarding pursuit of His holiness instead.

Jeremiah 6:16 puts it this way: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”  Similarly, Jesus says in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

God has given us paths to take and yokes to shoulder so that we might genuinely flourish in this life as well as in the life that is to come.  But at the same time, the second part of Jeremiah 6:16 is tragically telling: “But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”  As a result, the nation of Israel, and all who were part of it, suffered significantly.

God’s offer for true flourishing remains, but the choice to surrender to Him and pursue it is still ours to make.  Above all the din and clamor for a more “progressive,” “open,” and “free” society, God calls to and beckons us back into the safe confines of an eternal love relationship with Him.  He offers His biblically-revealed ancient paths and ways to genuine and everlasting human flourishing, and He shows us that we were created to embody and reflect His holiness, experiencing and enjoying His sweet fellowship in the midst a world deeply distorted, marred, and broken by sin.

Do you want to truly flourish?  Take up the yoke of Jesus and walk in God’s ancient paths by the power of His Spirit and you will experience His ultimate and enduring rest in this life as well as eternal life in the one that is to come.

Regarding Reparations (Part Four): Is giving reparations helpful?

Injuries

In the first part of this four-part series on reparations, we explored some of the biblical foundations for why reparations might be an important part of bringing hope and healing to the racial issues of our time.  In the second part we raised the questions of rightness as well as who should receive reparations for the injustices of the past and why.

Part three explored questions surrounding the practical application and fulfillment of any program of reparations.  In this fourth and final post, the question of whether or not giving reparations is actually helpful will be examined.

Is giving reparations helpful?

Are reparations truly helpful for rectifying injustices and facilitating genuine restorative change?  Does it actually help rid society of injustice?  Does it create new injustices?  Do the costs incurred offset the benefits rendered?  And how does the idea of “helpful” get determined in the first place and adequately assessed in the aftermath?

In short, is it genuinely helpful for society as a whole, especially for those receiving the reparations, or does it merely perpetuate dehumanizing dependency, creating another generation and class of state wards?  Are reparations truly empowering or are they little more than peace offerings to ease the uneasy consciences of those in positions of power and privilege?

Given this, I think at least two critical additional question arise.  First, why do we want to give reparations?  The question of motivation matters because if we claim to be acting from moral obligation and a genuine concern for others, when in reality we are only trying to assuage a guilty conscience and/or create another voting block of financial and emotional dependents, our dangerous and devious duplicity should be exposed for what it is.

Second, and more practically, how, exactly, do we give reparations?  For example, how much is appropriate and what form (or forms) should reparations take?  Vouchers?  Training institutes?  Tuition reductions?  Tax breaks?  Advancement incentives?  Affirmative action?  Quotas?  Goods and services?  Cold, hard cash?  All of the above?  Some of the above?  None of the above?

Most advocates agree that whatever form reparations take, they should include some way to empower the recipients as well as provide a fair and workable system of accountability.  People are not ennobled if they simply receive something without any expectations to take what they are given and use it to rise up, grow, develop, and give back to others.  When we give people something without really expecting anything of them in return, we encourage dependency and ultimately belittle them as creative and productive persons who are made in God’s image and meant to contribute constructively to society.

Many current discussions about reparations revolve around questions of payments and affordability.  In short, most people are asking: How much?  Who gets it?  How will it be distributed?  How are we going to pay for it?  Those are important questions, but they do not hit at the heart of the issue in terms of lifting descendants of oppression and racism out of the cycles of dependency and poverty that continue to plague them and their progeny.  Reparations without long-lasting social changes remain part of the problem rather than a road to resolution.

In many ways, these are problems of the heart, attitude, and mindset.  This is why these issues will never be solved by materially political, educational, and economic solutions alone.  These God-ordained social and political institutions can certainly help (or, unfortunately, also hinder) the process, but the problems are deeply spiritual in nature and require wholesale reorientations of entire communities, from top to bottom, as well as everywhere in between.

Only God through the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring about those kinds of radical and enduring transformations.  But I suspect it will require a radical reordering and fundamental change in the values and practices of the Church as well as each and every Christian to bring about such change.  It may sound cynical, but I honestly wonder if we as the Church are really willing.  We may not want to openly admit it, but perhaps we prefer it the way it is because it keeps us relatively comfortable, safe, and unscathed.  We do not have to face the messiness and inconvenience inherent in being directly involved in the generational sins (and their consequences) of others.  Neither do we have to come face to face with or confront the insidious sins of our own greed, indifference, self-reliance, and self-satisfaction.

In Conclusion

To sum up and conclude, contrary to the claims of some, we are not directly guilty of past wrongs, even those committed by our immediate ancestors.  But simply affirming we are not guilty of past evils in this way does not mean we have nothing to grieve over or confess to God and others on their behalf.  Neither does it mean we are innocent (even through ignorance) of personally benefitting from such systems at the cost of the well-being of others.  Through mere inaction and indifference alone we may have helped perpetuate injustice in our society.  Consequently, we are certainly not absolved of a biblical responsibility to try and rectify all contemporary wrongs and work toward a more just society in our time.

As such, it seems like some form of reparations (even if we do not call them that) are an appropriate means to this end.  Ultimately, we must recognize wrongs, past and present, for what they are—wrongs—and seek to set them right as much as we are able, even at the cost of our own comfort and safety.  Anything less is an abdication of our Christian calling and a perpetuation of sin.

For far too long, the Church has looked to the government to solve social problems we are better suited, situated, and solicited by God, through the power of His holy Spirit, to solve.  As Dennis Hollinger reminds us in Choosing the Good, “To make justice the domain of government alone is to negate personal responsibility and to expect too much of this necessary but fallen institution.”  Our calling and strength come from God, and we must not shrink from the obligation and opportunity to show Christ’s love and concern for the poor and oppressed in our time.  As Proverbs 14:9 powerfully reminds us, “Fools mock at making amends for sin, but goodwill is found among the upright.”

When the Mighty Fall: Reflections on the Ravi Zacharias Scandal

With the recent Ravi Zacharias scandal, many are sharing their thoughts and laments about his improprieties and sexual sins, so I wanted to add some brief reflections.

Our trust is in Jesus and the truth of His gospel.

For many, Ravi was something of a spiritual mentor and hero, instrumental in leading them to Christ and/or helping them strengthen their faith in the face of opposition and doubt.  But because Ravi claimed to represent Jesus and be living out his Christian walk with moral integrity, his double life and godless infidelity has served to strain the gospel’s credibility and deeply shaken the faith of some.

Whether we like it or not, the credibility of the message (not necessarily its truth value) is often directly related to the credibility of the messenger.  That credibility increases or decreases depending on whether or not the life of the messenger matches at the claims of the message.  This is why Paul repeatedly calls believers to live lives worthy of the God and the gospel (Phil 1:27; Eph 4:1).  At the same time, Paul makes it clear that even if the gospel is preached pretentiously by people with selfish and impure motives, as long as the message remains the gospel, he is glad it’s being shared (Phil 1:15-18).

Thus, despite the deep disconnect between Ravi’s personal life and his gospel message, we can still depend upon the truth of the gospel.  Why?  Because its persuasive power and transformative nature ultimately and finally rest upon the trustworthiness and perfection of God in Jesus Christ—and nothing and no one else.  He alone is the guarantor of the gospel’s reliability.  As Romans 3:4 reminds us, God and His gospel are dependable even if everyone else is a liar.

All sins are not equal: Some sins really are more egregious than others.

In the aftermath of Ravi’s indecencies, some have claimed that “sin is sin,” and that Ravi was, like all of us, just another “sinner saved by grace.”  While this may be true, putting it this way so soon after the revelations downplays the truly despicable nature of his sin.  Yes, everyone sins, but certain sins produce far greater social and moral impact and damage than others.  While all sins are wrong before a holy God, alienating us from Him, it’s not hard to see that the sin of murder (for example) has a far greater impact on one’s conscience and society as a whole than stealing a pack of gum.

Suggesting that Ravi was “just another sinner saved by grace” profoundly minimizes the tremendous authority and power he possessed.  It also dismisses the ways in which his deceitful abuse and misuse of these in order to gratify ungodly sexual desires makes the ramifications of his sin that much greater.  This is precisely why James 3:1 warns, “Do not become teachers in large numbers, my brothers, since you know that we who are teachers will incur a stricter judgment.”  It is also why in the Old Testament some sins incurred greater consequences than others—sometimes even death, because they had a much greater societal and moral impact on the horizontal level.

Saying Ravi was “just another sinner” also suggests that what happened to these sexually abused women should just be “forgiven and forgotten” so we can just move on and get it over with.  That’s easy for the unaffected to say but shows little concern or care for those (including Ravi’s immediate family) who have been profoundly hurt and damaged by his deceit, misuse of funds, sexual duplicity, and predatory behavior.  While we recognize the power of and need for God’s forgiveness and grace, when serious and egregious wrong has been done, we must also make real restitution and provide genuine care for those who have been wronged.  We should not use flippant calls for “grace” and “forgiveness” to undermine or minimize the horrific nature of what has been done and try to avoid any responsibility to make proper amends.

Was Ravi actually a Christian?

I’ve heard the question raised, “Was Ravi a true believer or a wolf in sheep’s clothing?”  For some, even asking this question is shocking and inappropriate.  Given his repeated claims to be a genuine believer in Jesus alongside the powerful ways God used His ministry, the answer might seem obvious: “Of course Ravi was a true Christian!”

But before we rush to make such definitive conclusions, I think it’s fair to admit there is some conflicting evidence here.  By all outward appearances, Ravi’s faith was sincere.  However, the ongoing level of deception, the despicable nature and extent of the sin, as well as Ravi’s complete lack of public or private remorse and repentance—even when facing his impending death, means that ultimately only God, the perfect and righteous Judge, knows if Ravi was sincere or was merely “peddling the word of God” (2 Cor 2:17) for his own selfish ends.

At the very least, passages like Matthew 7:21-23 and 23:25-27 should be sobering reminders to us all that even successful and seemingly righteous religious leaders can actually be wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15).  We should not be too shocked or devastated when respected religious leaders who have thriving ministries and who may even look morally impeccable on the outside (just like the Pharisees did in Jesus’ time) turn out to be filthy and ungodly on the inside.  Ravi’s life is one more reminder that we should not be too enamored by someone’s giftedness and ministerial success.  Just because someone is brilliant, exceptionally talented, and powerfully used of God does not prove they are right with Him or living a holy life.

Ravi was not given adequate accountability, and we are also susceptible to such sin.

The many ongoing failures of the RZIM ministries to provide appropriate accountability structures for Ravi give a sobering and gravely negative example that every Christian and ministry organization can and should learn from.  But because we might be legitimately outraged and angered by what Ravi did, we also need to be very careful here.  The great temptation is to look at Ravi or the ministry and be disgusted and judgmental without realizing that we need to take a hard and honest look at our own hearts.  As humbling as it is to admit, none of us are immune from the possibility of becoming just like Ravi—or even worse, if we fail to put moral safeguards into place.

I suspect that Ravi’s life and ministry started out well enough.  Over time, however, small and secret sins crept into his life, sins which remained unrevealed and unconfessed.  These eventually and progressively became larger and more horrific.  As he simultaneously became increasingly powerful and popular, more was at stake and there was greater temptation and pressure to hide his mounting moral struggles and failures.  Over time, his conscience was seared, and his heart became callused and hard.

Instead, we need to be utterly honest about and constantly seeking to eradicate even the so-called “little sins” in our lives, sins that could easily lead us down a similar path of destruction and moral degradation.  Are you hiding something out of fear and shame?  Don’t let it remain hidden!  Bring it into the freeing light of confession with a trusted friend and let the power of that secret sin finally be broken (James 5:16)!

At the end of the day, the lesson is clear: We need God’s daily grace, a deep desire for humility and holiness, as well as close friends and genuine accountability structures to help us avoid suffering the same fate as Ravi.

What will your legacy be?

My final challenge is to carefully consider the legacy you are leaving for the generations that follow. Everyone is an example.  What kind of example are you setting for others, a good one, a bad one, or perhaps somewhere in between?  And when you are gone and people sift through the hidden aspects of your life, what will they ultimately find?  What do you want them to find, and how will you make your public and private life coincide with each other?

It’s too late for Ravi, but so long as you are living, there’s still time to turn your heart toward the gospel of our Savior Jesus Christ and through confession and repentance experience His cleansing power to forgive and redeem any and all sin, public or private, known or unknown.

Finding Hope and Joy at Christmas

I have many fond memories of past childhood Christmases as well as those spent with our own children (now grown and on their own).  Children possess both a joyous anticipation and an enduring sense of wonder over the Christmas season.

Of course, not all this wonder and anticipation grows from the soil of pure motives.  Getting as many gifts as possible always lurks just below the surface.  And yet, many much more important things helped point our hearts in the right direction, bringing a genuine sense of joy and true anticipation: the spiritual rhythms of advent season at church, the Christmas eve candlelight service, the singing of carols, rituals of tree acquisition and decoration, special indoor and outdoor ornamentations, extended times of fun and fellowship with family and friends, cookie baking and eating, special meals, foods, and movies, the reading of the Christmas story, and so much more.  These holiday traditions afforded a deep sense of Christian grounding and identity in a world filled with bitterness and fear.

Too often in my adult years, however, the only sense of anticipatory joy is born of the hope that Christmas will soon be over so a “normal” pace of life can be restored.  Somehow in the rush to make Christmas memorable, I often forget to make it meaningful in all the right ways.  That sense of wonder and hope, so prevalent in childhood, is often nearly lost.

Not only this, the challenges of life in a fallen world keep forcing me to come face-to-face with the realities of living a world marred by sin.  More importantly, they continually reveal the many ugly and dark aspects of my own soul.  I find it harder and harder to escape the obvious sins, scars, and dysfunctions that seemed much easier to brush aside in youth.  But while the demands of the Christmas season can easily make us jaded and cynical in ways that push away any deep sense of joy, wonder, or hope, it is still possible to experience these things once again.

When Simeon took eight-day-old Jesus in his aged arms, he offered thanks to God this way: “My eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.”  Simeon’s faith-filled and joyous hope helped him see that God’s coming salvation for the whole world was somehow bound up in this holy Infant.  Reading the rest of the astonishing story, we see this truth ever more clearly, that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.

Hope and joy may be in short supply these days, but when we take Jesus in our arms and gaze amazed upon Him once again, we can recapture that sense of joyous hope that our gracious God will wondrously save and restore all who hope and trust in Him.

Do I love God on His terms or mine?

We live in an age of extreme individualism and self-worship.  Traditionally, idols were concrete physical representations of “gods” made by our own efforts and in our own images.  In the contemporary world, our idols are often not external to ourselves but nothing more than the enthronement of our own ideas and (especially) desires.  We give ultimate homage to whatever we think and want and feel.

As Christians influenced by this culturally-encouraged and popularly-celebrated narcissistic idolatry, we can be tempted to serve God, but only on our own terms.  If God reveals or asks something of us that does not coincide with our own thoughts, feelings, and expectations, we are tempted to ignore or even reject God’s leading as unreasonable, uncomfortable, unimportant, and therefore (Dare I say it?), ungodly.

At some level, we want to live for God, but only to a certain extent.  We want the adventure, joy, and security of living our lives in God, but we’d rather bypass the discomfort, difficulty, and detriment that may well be part of obeying all that Christ commands.  We want a crown without a cross, exaltation without humiliation, and resurrection without death.  We want God, but only when it’s convenient.  He tells us to take up our cross and follow Him.  Instead, we want Him to take up His cross and follow us.

When God reveals His expectations, He does not invite us to come to Him on our terms.  Instead, He enjoins us to plunge into the thrill of His resurrection life through the crushing and humiliating experience of death—death to self and all that we hold dear.  That is the great and loving invitation, as well as the unfathomable and unshakeable hope, that through this ministry of dying to self and living wholly for God, we will rise again.

I Want an Easy Life

I want an easy life.  For all my blustering claims about being willing to “sacrifice all for Jesus,” at the end of the day, I long for ease and comfort.  I suspect most do.  Christians seek comfort rather than Christ because we do not really believe He is worth any amount of suffering and sacrifice in this exceedingly fleeting life.

It’s one thing to want an easy life from God, but another thing entirely to expect and demand it.  Philippians 1:29 reminds us that we have been granted to not only believe in Christ, but also to suffer with and for Him.  This means that it is a gift and a grace to suffer for the sake of the gospel!  Later in chapter 3 of Philippians, Paul goes on to say that knowing Christ is, for him, better than anything or anyone else.  But in so saying, he expresses his longing to be like Christ in every way, including the way of His suffering and death.  Why? Suffering is the path to maturity and growth, and death is the path to resurrection life.

It is also inherent to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ—He suffered and died for us.  We are therefore called to complete His self-sacrificing suffering as the church, His body (Colossians 1:24).  We suffer because we are different than and hated by the rest of the world—insistently, incessantly, and explicitly so.  And we suffer because Jesus suffered, giving an example for us to follow (1 Peter 2:21).

I’m not saying that persecution is a wonderful thing, but at the same time, God is not averse to letting it happen—in some cases to a shocking degree, even unto death.  We may at times stand aghast at the depths of evil God allows in a world marred by sin and where a genuine degree of human freedom has been granted.  But we also have to guard against the secular humanist claims that given the chance, human beings will naturally be kind to one another, and that the goal of life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

In the end, people are often willing to suffer for something or someone they believe to be worthy of great hardship and sacrifice.  In our church here in Singapore, for example, when one of our attenders became a member, his family literally held a funeral for him.  He clearly understood that knowing Jesus now and being a member of God’s family for all eternity was in this life worth the complete loss (for now) of his earthly family.

As Christians, we must honestly wrestle with our willingness to experience difficulty and hardship for the sake of His greater honor and glory.  Even a cursory look at 1 Peter makes it clear that suffering for the greater glory of Jesus Christ is both normal for and expected of the believer.  In fact, as Acts 5:41 makes clear, it is a glorious honor.

Jesus promised that our lives would be troubled and difficult precisely because we are His followers (John 15:18-20).  As such, we should not sell people a false bill of goods when sharing the gospel with them or calling them into genuine discipleship.  Quite frankly, if you want to follow Jesus, you’re asking for trouble in this life, but you’re also promised His presence and peace alongside eternal life with Him in the life that is to come.

It is only in the light of eternity that we can appreciate the true nature of our sufferings here for Jesus’s sake.  That is why Paul calls them “momentary and light” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  They are real enough, but they pale in comparison to the magnificent things God has in store throughout eternity for those who have come to know, love, and trust Him now.

I want an easy life, but even more, I want Jesus to be glorified in and through me, and that means experiencing suffering for His sake.  What kind of life do you want?

The Happiest Place on Earth

In a recent study (and contrary to the hopes and claims of the Disney corporation), Finland was recognized as the “happiest place on earth.” It is, incidentally, also one of the least religious places on the planet. While nominal Christianity is widespread at around 70%, only 8% of the population attends church services on a monthly (or more) basis and only 3% attend weekly.

When I began walking more closely with Christ in college, I was told that people without Jesus were, deep down inside, unhappy. It didn’t matter how easy their life was, how much money and things they possessed, or how happy they appeared on the outside. If they didn’t know Jesus, they had to be miserable. Perhaps they were dishonest about their misery, rushing to allay and cover over the existential sadness with money, sex, fame, power, experiences, and relationships. Or perhaps they were somewhat unaware of and blind to their inner turmoil, needing to be shown the bankruptcy of their life apart from a right relationship with God. Regardless, they simply couldn’t be happy without Jesus.

I believed this assessment largely because it was true in my own experience: When I wasn’t walking with God, I was deeply dissatisfied with life. The longer I’ve lived, however, the more I’ve come to realize that while there are many unhappy non-Christians in the world, there are also a fair number who appear to be genuinely happy and self-satisfied.

Does any of this fundamentally challenge the significance, truth, and power of the Christian gospel? In fact, in some ways, it reinforces it, because it demonstrates sin’s blinding power and how the world can deeply deceive those who love it and want nothing more than what it has to offer. As Lennox and Gooding point out in The Definition of Christianity, people who have worldly power, wealth, and respect have a strong vested interest in maintaining their place in this world. In short, “The world, as it [is, is] good enough for them. They [cannot] see all that much wrong with it.” This also shows how much human beings can put their hope in vain and worthless things, oblivious to or in direct denial of the dangers that await when their lives are ultimately called to account by a holy, just, and all-knowing God.

For struggling Christians, it can be easy to forget the fate of unbelievers, particularly when their lives seem filled with joy and ease, when they appear to be in control, and especially when they arrogantly and openly deny and disdain the God who made them. But as Asaph points out in Psalm 73, there is more to the story than first meets the eye. After seeking the Lord and regaining his perspective, he concludes, starting in verse twenty-five, this way: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.”

To be sure, there are many unhappy pagans in the world searching high and low for something or someone greater, better, and more meaningful. May they find the one and only God who can bring true joy and satisfaction in their quest! But for those like the Finns who seem genuinely satisfied with their life apart from God, the real reckoning may not come in this life.

One day God will judge the living and the dead and inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth. All who trust in Him will know and experience the everlasting hope of being intimately loved by the One who gave Himself as a living sacrifice. Only then we will live in the fullness of joy. And only then will we realize that all other so-called felicities pale in comparison. On that day, and forevermore, we really will be living in the happiest place in heaven and on earth.

Why can’t we be colorblind?

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In 1992, Michael W. Smith released the popular Christian song, “Color Blind,” claiming “we could see better” if we’d all be colorblind.  The idea sounded noble enough.  After all, according to Martin Luther King, Jr., we were supposed to judge a person by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.  But even way back then, something about the notion of colorblindness bothered me.  Of course, in one sense, this points to the notion of equality.  I get and affirm that.

However, trying to ignore ethnicity tends to discount the significance of a huge part of our embodied humanity.  Contrary to the “melting pot” theory, the solution to race relations is not racial denial, abolition, or fusion.  Pretending we see no colors is both dishonest and unhelpful.  The colors are there, and they are beautiful in God’s sight.  They can be beautiful in ours as well when we openly and honestly celebrate our rich ethnicities and variegations.  We are not monochromatic but polychromatic.  To extend the metaphor to sound, we are not monophonic but polyphonic.

So far, so good.  But inevitably, some criterion or criteria must be used to determine what constitutes a beautiful symphony and a great work of art.  Postmodernity suggests that the unrestrained celebration of radical diversity is the only way to find our identity and live well in community.  There is a suspicion toward all who would suggest some sort of evaluative meta-principle or overarching narrative that might lead to and support exclusion or inequality.

Historically (and, I believe, intrinsically), human communities naturally form around standards of similarity and resemblance.  We tend to become tribal and exclusive when we simply do what is most comfortable to us, instinctively gravitating toward those who look, talk, think, and act like us.

This kind of “tribalism” was actually the default mode for most of human history.  Groups of similar people banded together for the sake of protection, survival, and general wellbeing.  But it was almost always on a small scale unless some great totalizing leader or movement fought against the natural slide toward fragmentation.  In ancient times, these were the Romans, the Ghengis Khans, the Alexander the Greats of the world.  They sought to actively impose their vision of the good life and what it means to be human upon the conquered and subjugated as well as those who willingly agreed to submit.

But this was not a blended harmony and mosaic masterpiece.  It was hegemonic domination and imposition of one cultural and ethnic vision over all others.  Similarly, many modern nation states seek to overcome small-scale tribalism by means of enforced and educationally indoctrinated nationalistic values, rituals, languages, and laws to promote unity, revenue, and power.

As a Christian, I believe in the doctrine of human sin and depravity.  It has been said that historically, it is the most easily verifiable doctrine of Christianity.  People, when given the unrestricted opportunity, will more often than not use power to oppress (rather than empower) others, especially those who are different from themselves.  As the old adage states: power corrupts, and absolute power (when possessed by anyone other than God), corrupts absolutely.

So, how do we respond to racial and social differences and the inevitable tensions they create?  First and foremost, we have to be in genuine dialogue with one another.  People who are very different from each other are less apt to depersonalize and vilify one another if they try to become friends, or at least have ongoing conversations with one another.  Looking to governments and programs to create racial harmony is only effective when individuals and groups of citizens are committed on a smaller and more personal scale to try to understand and appreciate each other.

There’s a catch, of course.  We all know that close interpersonal conversations are no guarantee of peaceful relations.  Dysfunction and hostility are not just found between insiders and outsiders.  They are frequently intercommunal and interfamilial.  This points us back to the reality that small is not inherently better unless the small is informed by and infused with more transcendent and godly values and concerns.  Again, as a Christian, I am convinced (against the postmodernity) that there are shared human values which are both transcultural and trans-temporal.  These values are grounded in and revealed by the character and purposes of God as well as His divine image stamped upon every human being.

Notions of transcendent values and the image of God lead to a second requirement for promoting racial harmony: We need some legitimate and thoughtfully arrived at reference points for interracial justice.  For example, how can we genuinely care for one another?  How can we empower and protect minorities?  How can we check and limit the powers of the elite?  And how can we do this without destroying a significant portion of everyone’s dignity and freedom?  Such ideals cannot be based within human communities (or powerfully persuasive individuals) alone.

Any notions of justice that are solely grounded in human conversations and conventions are destined to fail because they lack (and sometimes even deny any possibility of) transcendent resources for producing enduring unity in diversity.  Apart from the guidance of overarching ideals, human conversations consistently digress into shouting matches and power plays since no one can refer to anything outside of the community (or the self) to substantiate notions of goodness, fairness, and justice.

Because we all bear God’s image, every human being possesses an inherent moral sensibility and intuitive notion of justice.  These are often skewed and misaligned by sin, but by God’s grace, they are nonetheless still present.  Consequently, a lot of historical accord concerning these overarching moral principles is evident.  Still, they must be grounded beyond the physical realm in order to be truly binding and compelling.  In short, they need what philosophers and theologians call a metaphysical basis.  Unfortunately, we live in an era when metaphysics and transcendent theology has fallen on hard times.  Not many want (or are even willing) to believe that some things are trans-temporally and transculturally better for a community as a whole, especially when they might oppose and make it harder for some inside and outside that community.

In the postmodern context, I am deeply pessimistic about coming to any real consensus of shared human values.  Everyone wants to believe that paying greater attention to minority and marginal voices is a sufficient condition for finding real agreement, but it cannot (and never will be) in view of sinful human tendencies.  What makes racial and interpersonal harmony possible are enduring values like selflessness, generosity, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, and compassion, alongside prudence, self-control, and a conviction to protect the downtrodden, disregarded, and distressed.  These ideals require supportable and well-grounded definitions alongside living examples that can only be adequately applied on the basis of a moral source beyond the material realm.  Many in the contemporary context will howl and scream foul at this point, but inevitably someone’s will and moral vision will be promoted and enforced.  The only reasonable concerns here are: Which vision?  Whose will?  And why?

Contrary to what some would claim, Christianity’s devotion to the Bible firmly grounds its commitments to racial reconciliation, respect, equality, and harmony in the transcendent character of God as love and His divine image within each human being.  Against some recent revisionist histories and the “new atheists,” Christians have a long and proven (though certainly not infallible!) history of elucidating and successfully applying viable and time-tested communal virtues that create, promote, and sustain flourishing societies with more harmonious and respectful intercommunal and interracial relations.  As Jürgen Habermas (an atheist) reminds us in his 2005 book, Time of Transitions, “Egalitarianism from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life of solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. . . .  To this day, there is no alternative to it.”

Even more than this, far from being colorblind, the polychromatic vision and polyphonic symphony Christians hope in and look toward comes to us from beyond not only our world but also our time.  Revelation 7:9 tell us about a magnificent future when “a great multitude that no one [can] number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, [will stand] before [God’s] throne” offering a multiethnic concert of unbridled praise to the One who created, unifies, and rejoices in this delightful diversity of difference.

This grand gathering is both the source of and continued inspiration for our longing to see every human being appreciated and respected for what they are: divine image bearers beautifully expressing their uniqueness in multifarious unity under the loving Lordship of our glorious and gracious Savior, Jesus Christ.