Tag Archives: Jesus

Jesus, Justice, and the Social Gospel

There’s a lot of talk these days about social justice.  Caring about and correcting injustice has suddenly become fashionable and trendy in popular culture.  Many in the Church have jumped on board the social justice bandwagon.  Who, after all, is more concerned about societal justice than Jesus?

There’s nothing wrong with following a cultural trend that moves society in the right direction, of course. Who can seriously argue against the need to eradicate racism, abolish sex-trafficking, and advocate for fair wages and safe working conditions for the underprivileged?  Still, I as argued in previous posts, Christians must avoid being misled by false or inadequate definitions of justice.  They also need to discern what are the means and ways used to rectify such wrongs, unmasking and repudiating any use of ungodly and unhelpful methods masquerading as “social justice.”

But what about Jesus?  Was He a “social justice warrior,” or has the contemporary movement simply used His name and made Him into a caricature of the biblical portrait?  One of the primary passages cited to prove that Jesus was all about social justice is Luke 4:16-21.  Used by Jesus to formally inaugurate His earthly ministry, the passage mentions proclaiming “good news to the poor,” providing “liberty for the captives,” “sight for the blind,” and freedom “for those who are oppressed.”

Another popular passage is Matthew 25:31-46, which comes at the end of His earthly ministry.  Here Jesus lists the activities and criteria He will use to judge between the righteous and the wicked.  He puts it this way to the righteous: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

On the face of it, this looks like a program of social justice at its finest, and it would hardly be appropriate to question the value and importance of Christians caring for people in the situations Jesus mentions.  Christians certainly should be actively caring for the poor, needy, and disenfranchised!  This is inherent to God’s kingdom work on earth and should not be relegated to some sort of second or third-class concern.

Having said that, however, when Jesus begins His earthly ministry of social care and service, one looks in vain for any significant political activism, commentary, or critique.  This is not due to a dearth of potential material, of course.  The moral atrocities, slave system, oppressive racism, and socially sectarian Roman policies of Jesus’ time are well-documented.  In addition, Jesus’ followers fully expected and hoped for Jesus to be, as Messianic King, an expressly political figure (see, for example, Acts 1:6).  Despite many clear opportunities, Jesus unveils no formal political activist program to rectify the systemic evils of His time and place.  In fact, it is remarkable how utterly apolitical Jesus’ ministry of social justice actually is.

I highlight this to make a critically important point: Jesus did and does care about those who are oppressed, disadvantaged, and damaged by a sinful system and society.  But the solutions He offers, while endowed with supernatural power, are not especially political or external in nature.  Instead, they are mainly invitational, educational, and especially spiritual and moral.  And while many are manifest in clearly material ways, those solutions point beyond the material toward our need to first and foremost be reconciled to God.

In contrast, many contemporary Christians advocating for social justice tend to couch it almost entirely in political and systemic terms.  In their minds, social justice means the political reformation of societal systems and norms so that marginalized people can be empowered, heard, and taken seriously.  The unjust social systems are assumed to be the primary (if not sole) reason these people are marginalized.  What is often ignored or discounted is the individual problem of sin.  In this sense, marginalization is real, but the reasons for it are not merely political and systemic, grounded primarily in the sins of others.  There are intensely personal moral and spiritual problems here as well, and the means to providing genuine solutions must also account for our individual need to repent and be reconciled to God as well as to others.

I say this to demonstrate that when talking about Jesus’ brand of social justice and the gospel, the kinds of priorities and programs promoted by those passionate about social justice today often miss the primary problem of personal depravity.  If you disagree, consider the book of Acts.  Granted, in Acts 2:42-47, they “had all things in common.”  The picture presented sounds very socialistic and just, but it was an entirely voluntary kind of sharing and not governmentally mandated or coerced.  In addition, the rest of book says virtually nothing about these types of arrangements among Christians.  It’s not that they had or didn’t have them.  Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t.  That’s beside the point.  What’s important to notice is that they prioritized sharing the gospel, planting churches, and making disciples.  They pursued virtually no formal program for rectifying the overtly racist and unjust social systems of their time.

Instead, they directly ministered to the spiritually poor and blind as well to those who were materially afflicted in various ways.  As Matthew 15:14 and Revelation 3:17 make clear, the problems highlighted by Jesus in Luke 4 were not simply material, they were also deeply spiritual.  They had material manifestations, of course, but every physical solution He provides points beyond itself to the spiritual significance of His miracles.

In this way, the need for physical healing ultimately points beyond itself to the need for spiritual help and healing.  As Jesus points out in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  Beyond a normal doctor, we need the Great Physician to spiritually heal us.  Our need for physical sustenance points beyond itself to our spiritual need for heavenly bread.  Thus, Jesus is our real physician as well as our “true bread” (John 6:32).  While we need healing from physical blindness, our deeper need is for spiritual light and guidance.  Thus, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

In light of this, the ministry accounts of Jesus’ early followers show that they were largely disinterested in much of what many today consider “social justice.”  Instead, they primarily focused on proclaiming the simple message of the gospel concerning our need to trust in the crucified and gloriously risen Christ for the forgiveness of sin and helping those who believed to grow together in their new-found faith.  But again, this does not mean that Jesus and His followers were unconcerned about people’s physical problems and needs.  After all, when there was a famine in Jerusalem, many churches took up a collection to help the poor and needy there (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-4), and Paul speaks about his eagerness to “remember the poor” in Galatians 2:10.  Not only this, Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 25:31-46 that Christians are supposed to feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, welcome strangers, cloth the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.

We cannot and must not ignore our Christian obligations to care for people in need.  There is no dichotomy between sharing the good news that Jesus Christ came and died to save sinners and meeting the social and physical needs of people made in God’s image.  But the ministry of the early church reveals that their primary mission was concerned about helping people be reconciled to God.  They met physical and social and educational and economic needs, but not through political action committees or any educational, economic, and social initiatives enforced by local, state, and federal governments.

Instead, while proclaiming this divine message of healing and hope, they also fed the hungry, gave drinks to the thirsty, healed the sick, visited the imprisoned, clothed the naked, parented orphans, educated the illiterate, prayed for their leaders, loved their enemies, and cared for one another.  And they did all of this at great personal and communal cost, placing no demands or expectations upon the governments of their time to rectify these widespread and on-going social injustices.  They understood that before Christ’s second coming, the “kingdom of God” was not, first and foremost, a political and material kingdom, but a spiritually powerful kingdom that in Jesus’ own words was “not of this world” (John 18:36).  As a result of this kind of ministry, they radically change the course of history and “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

I close with an acknowledgment and a warning.  First, I acknowledge that in democratic societies, Christians still have genuine opportunities to influence and encourage good governance, and they should take full advantage of that.  I also agree that political, educational, economic, and social institutions have an important place in helping to bring about a more just society for everyone, so long as they are willing to hear wise counsel and enact genuinely just policies.

My warning, however, is this: When something (like social justice) becomes vogue in the broader culture, the church should be wary of uncritically jumping on board the populist bandwagon.  Given many of the openly hostile and anti-biblical assumptions of contemporary culture, it is no accident that some brands of “social justice” openly embrace things like abortion (touted as “women’s healthcare and reproductive rights”) and the LGBT+ lobby (touted as “justice for the marginalized and oppressed”).  In this vein, you can no longer be anti-abortion, question the wisdom of sex-change operations, or consider sexual intimacy outside the context of heterosexual marriage immoral and still be “standing on the right side of history” or an advocate for genuine justice.

I am reminded of the dire reprimand in Isaiah 5:20-21: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!  Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!”

Only when Jesus returns as the conquering King will social injustice and sin be completely eradicated and everything rectified.  It is to that eschatological political vision that Christians must continuously look while seeking to bring the healing and hope of Jesus into the midst of a crooked and perverse generation where we are to “shine like stars” in the face of so much moral injustice and spiritual darkness.

Giving Up and Giving Out: Reflections on Lent

I grew up in what many call a “low” church tradition.  Besides Christmas and Easter, we did not follow the rhythms of any traditional annual liturgical calendar.  I thought that sacred seasons like Lent were only practiced by more “rigid” and “ritualistic” denominations.  For my classmates attending such churches, Lent was a time to complain about all the things they wanted but couldn’t have because they had to “give it up for Lent.”  Consequently, the practice held little attraction for me.  I enjoyed the spiritual freedom of eating, drinking, and doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. 

It was only after moving to Singapore that I began to hear and think more seriously about the meaning, practices, and significance of Lent.  I learned that because Easter is celebrated toward the beginning of spring, the word “Lent” comes from the old English word that means to “lengthen,” referring to the time when the days getting longer in the northern hemisphere.  In addition, I realized that Lent is linked not only to the Easter event, but also to the 40 days of fasting Jesus experienced in the wilderness at the onset of His active earthly ministry.

I also began to appreciate how Lent was really a privilege and gracious invitation to grow nearer to Jesus Christ through acts of identification and participation in His sacrifice and sufferings on my behalf.  Jesus willingly left His heavenly position of power and prestige to live the humiliating life of every man (Phil 2:5-8; Heb 2:14-18), endure hardship, temptation, and weakness (Luke 4:1-13), and ultimately give His life as a faultless and sufficient sacrifice for sin (2 Cor 5:21).

In giving up His life, Jesus simultaneously gave us His moral righteousness, divine position, and eternal life, by forgiving us, raising us from the dead, and seating us with Him in the heavenly places the moment we placed our faith in Him (Eph 2:4-9).  As we think deeply upon this unwarranted kindness and grace of God in Christ, we should be overwhelmed by His undeserved, sacrificial, and immeasurable love.  It should compel us to ask, “How can I thank you, Lord, and how can I more deeply appreciate all that Christ has done for me?”

Leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection at Easter, Lent calls us to a time of voluntary hardship, reflection, and thanksgiving to help us to enter more fully into His sacrificial life, humiliating death, and glorious resurrection.  We do this in two primary ways: giving up and giving out.  By giving up, we willingly sacrifice something important and pleasurable to us; a beloved food, a favorite TV show, a special drink, an entertaining activity like being on social media.  This “What?” must be decided upon between you and the Lord, but the idea is to suffer the loss of something you love and enjoy as a concrete reminder of all that Christ lovingly sacrificed for you.

But Lent is not meant to be merely a call to give up.  Just as Christ gave up many things, He also gave out—offering us forgiveness, holiness, honor, hope, and eternal life through His giving up.  Thus, Lent also calls us to give out in our giving up.  As we sacrifice something for the season of Lent, we are also encouraged to think of it as a time to give to others what we don’t typically or easily give.  It might be the offer kindness and forgiveness to someone you would rather remain angry with.  It might be the gift of food or drink or money or time or service.  Again, the “What?” is something to discern from the Lord.  But as you live in sacrifice through Lent, you are also called to live in generosity and joyful thanksgiving for all that God has given you by sharing those gracious blessings with others.

In the end, there is a certain mystery to Lent.  When done for the wrong reasons, it can become prideful, misdirected, and nothing more than a dead or legalistic ritual, devoid of any real meaning or benefit.  But when done with the right attitude through the power and love of His Holy Spirit, profound spiritual growth and Christian maturity results, and God is both pleased and glorified.

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.

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.

Are all religions alike? Responding to Religious Pluralism

I heard it again the other day.  Someone confidently stated that all religions are basically the same and that all roads ultimately lead to God.

On the face of it, the statement has contemporary plausibility, if for no other reason that it’s been said so frequently in popular culture, it no longer sounds strange or untrue.  The basic claim is that all religions are roughly equal in terms of their truth content (metaphysics), moral ideals (ethics), and overall purposes and goals (teleology).

What does sound wrong and offensive to contemporary western ears is this statement: “I believe that my religion is the only true and accurate one, and that all others are false and misleading in critically important ways.”  How can we evaluate the claim of religious pluralism that all religions are roughly equal?  Can we still cling to the conviction that our religion is actually correct and that some religions are closer to the truth and exhibit greater moral goodness than others, or is this hopelessly naïve and out-of-date?

There are a number of ways to proceed from this point.  Any fair and comprehensive defense of a specific religious viewpoint is a massive undertaking and one that cannot be provided in a simple blog post like this. What can be done, however, is a simple comparative look at some of the central claims of five major world religions.  This will help us see more clearly how similar—and dissimilar—they really are.  This is necessary because many religious pluralists are happy to state and hold to their ideology but have seldom taken an honest and accurate look at the actual claims and tenets of the major world religions.

ReligionFounderGodJesusProblemSolution
HinduismN/A
3,000 B.C.
Brahman
Many gods
Just a ManSamsara
Ignorance
Good Works
Knowledge
Devotion
BuddhismSidhartha
Guatama
583 B.C.
Irrelevant
Nirvana
Just a ManSamsara
Ego-centered
Desire
8-fold path
to Nirvana
Good Works
JudaismAbraham
Moses
2,000 B.C.
MonotheisticJust a Man or
Even a False
Prophet
Impurity
Alienation
from God
Repentance
Observe the
Divine Law
(Good Works)
ChristianityJesus ChristMonotheisticThe God-ManRebellion
Sin
Separation
Trust in the Life
and Death of
Jesus Christ
Free Gift/Grace
IsalmMuhammad
AD 570
MonotheisticA ProphetDisobedienceSubmission
5 Pillars
Good Works
Comparing Five Major World Religions

I could pursue several other lines of interest including moral, teleological, and eschatological claims, but the aforementioned aspects are sufficient to show that while there are some similarities, the major religions are, at their root, fundamentally at odds with one another, especially with respect to Jesus and the meaning and way of salvation.  All attempts to reconcile them either fail to represent them faithfully or tend to ignore or paste over these essential disparities.  In short, all religions definitely do not teach the same things.  They are frequently and fundamentally at odds with one another at numerous foundational points. We may try to become an advocate for the truth and goodness of this or that religion on the basis of evidence, life-change, historical significance, personal preference, or some other set of rationales.  We may even deny the efficacy and truth of all religions, looking to some other source and means for our hope and well-being.  But one thing we cannot sensibly continue to claim is that all religions are roughly equal and generally teach the same things.  They decidedly do not!

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.

Am I a disciple of Jesus?

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I just watched the film, “Tortured for Christ,” and many years ago read the book of the same title.  It’s about Romanian pastor, Richard Wurmbrand.  Opposing the Communist regime, he was imprisoned for fourteen years and repeatedly and brutally beaten for his refusal to forsake his Christian faith.

In his own words, “It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners.  It was understood that whoever was caught doing this received a severe beating.  A number of us decided to pay the price for the privilege of preaching, so we accepted their [the communists’] terms.  It was a deal; we preached and they beat us.  We were happy preaching.  They were happy beating us, so everyone was happy.”

While watching the film, I was deeply convicted that I have suffered almost nothing in order to follow Jesus Christ.  When Jesus told us to make disciples, He did not tell us to build large buildings and put on entertaining services so that we could fill them with passive pew-sitters.  He told us to go and make disciples everywhere we went.  And before that, He called us to be disciples ourselves, not considering our lives as precious, but giving them away and pouring them out in service of Him for His greater honor and glory.

I have to ask myself often and honestly, am I really and truly a disciple of Jesus?  The reality is, being His disciple, as well as making disciples, is extremely difficult.  It is backbreaking, heart-rending, self-effacing work.  And following Jesus involves more than theoretical sacrifice.  It involves making concrete commitments and costly choices to follow that might result in becoming uncomfortable, being fired, straining relationships, and losing popularity.  For some, it could even mean far more—a significant loss of freedom and/or the forfeiture of one’s life.

When Peter and the apostles were arrested and questioned by the Pharisees for sharing the good news about Jesus, Acts 5:40-42 tells us that the Pharisees “beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.  Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.  And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”  They were willing to suffer and even die for Jesus because they trusted, loved, and wanted to honor Him.  Any difficulties endured for His sake were a privilege to thank God for, not a hardship or humiliation to be avoided at all cost.  And as they obeyed Him, they experienced deep and genuine joy.

While I know in theory (and by limited experience) that there is great joy and fulfillment in following Jesus, no matter the risk or cost, I am still constantly tempted to make my life more comfortable, less arduous, and inoffensive.  I often love the world more than God, because I do not really believe he deeply cares for me and is a loving, gracious God.  I constantly think I know better how to live my life because I do not really believe God is wiser than I.  I repeatedly give myself over to sin because I do not really believe that the holiness of God is what I was designed to reflect and exhibit in this world.  And ultimately, I continue to fear hardship, suffering, and death because I love the things of this life more than the eternal things of God.  I don’t really believe that heaven will be magnificently, indescribably better than even the sweetest and most joyous moments in this life.

Am I a disciple of Jesus?  In the broadest sense of that term, I hope I can answer yes.  But in the concrete daily struggle to be faithful, I must admit, I am a continuous and consummate failure.  And yet, in His grace, He still offers the promise that He is with me always, even to the end of the age.  For all my foibles, failures, fears, and faithlessness, He remains faithful and promises that He will never leave or forsake me.  He is still in the process of making me His disciple and, praise God, the journey toward joy is only just beginning!

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.

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.

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.