Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Real State of the Union - Why I Don't Do Politics

In no way am I intending to insult or offend anyone involved in or interested in politics. I am simply expressing my own opinion & viewpoint on why I'm not interested in them.

I hate politics. I really do. I don't watch CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC. I don't listen to Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or The O'Reilly Factor. I'm pretty confident in saying I never will.

It didn't always used to be this way. In fact, I used to be very interested in politics when I was in high school. But the more I paid attention & the more I learned, the more I realized just how corrupt it is - and it didn't take long for me to entirely lose interest in all things political. The prototypical politician is only concerned first with his or her own agenda & re-election; after that, maybe they skim through the concerns & interests of the people group they represent. To be honest, this is true of any form of government; whether capitalism, socialism, communism, or a monarchy - the inner pride & hunger for power always makes its way to the top & eventually dilutes the well-intended structure that was originally put in place. In all of human history, we have yet to create a form of government where this didn't eventually happen. It's the truth...and it's depressing.

Human government and politics are broken. While government is necessary to accomplish civilization, cultural order, and to uphold some set of legal code...politics can never truly solve any of our real problems. No matter how "big" or "small" our government becomes, it can never remove injustice (also known as: sin) from the world. In a sermon entitled, "Making Much of His Name," Matt Chandler said the following:
“Capitalism does nothing to transform hearts, it just creates the venue by which we will oppress & operate in injustice. It doesn’t eradicate oppression & injustice – it just sets the grid for how our wicked hearts will practice such things. And the United States – for all of God’s grace on this beautiful 50-state union – is not the light of the world.”
Here's why I don't "do" politics:

1) America is not the answer. Before you tell me to "love it or leave it," I assure you that I'm thankful to live in this country. I am very grateful for the freedom we have and for the sacrifice of so many to preserve that freedom. But here's the honest truth: America isn't God's program for today. The church is - and not just the American church. Jesus did not institute the church so that we could efficiently spearhead political reform and spread the word about the shortfalls of the government. He instituted the church to make disciples of Jesus and to make His name famous throughout the world.
I didn't watch the State of the Union address - I didn't need to. Things are bad and they are getting worse. But it honestly amazes me that there seems to be so much shock from within the church about the deteriorating morality of our nation - 2 Timothy 4:3-4 was a pretty clear warning of that taking place world-wide. It's undoubtedly scary, but it shouldn't be shocking. It should only increase our sense of urgency and our level of seriousness toward making disciples. Here's a hard truth for the most patriotic of Christians: God's plan to save sinners is not dependent on the status of the United States. Whether America thrives as a nation or becomes bankrupt, poverty-stricken, and even overthrown...Jesus Christ will continue to build His church & the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

2) Jesus was not a politician. When Jesus was on earth, the political scene was anything but peaceful. The world was far from being free of oppression & injustice. The rulers of his day were just as power-hungry, self-serving, and corrupt as any given time period. In fact, the Jews themselves were often the very victims of political oppression. But in all His teachings, sermons, and talks - He never went on a political rant. He never gave a rousing speech to the crowds that followed him around that they deserved a better king than Herod, or how corrupt Pontius Pilate was as a governor. He didn't bash the Roman emperor during the sermon on the mount. He basically avoided the topic of politics altogether, except to simply endorse obeying the laws of their day. Jesus knew that the Jews were looking for a political savior, but that's not why He came. Their cries of "Hosanna" (Lord save us!) were misplaced. Jesus came to save us from our sin & spiritual death, not from a political system or shortcoming.
When I look at how Jesus handled politics - corrupt politics - it honestly troubles me that some of the most potent, unapologetic hatred that is spewed toward the leaders of our country comes from within the church.
As frustrating as the direction of our nation is becoming, and as irritating as it is to catch any leader in a lie, it's imperative that we remind ourselves and come to grasp with the truth of Romans 13 - "...there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed..." God has put every leader in place for the purpose of somehow, someway carrying out His own sovereign plan in the world & receiving glory. This is incredibly difficult to understand, but it's true. (In his book Spectacular Sins, John Piper does a great job of explaining this truth). Instead of publicly bashing our government officials and worrying about what we want to see accomplished through might do us some good to privately pray for them and ask God to help us trust that He is somehow using them to accomplish His sovereign will. 

So the "real" state of the union is that the United States of America continues to head down a path of scary, questionable decision-making with many unknown future circumstances. There is little semblance left of any morality. Opposition to Christianity is growing every day. But should this "shock" us? No. It should drive us to the power, hope, and true freedom found in the gospel of Christ. A constant anxiety, anger, and uproar about the state of our government points to a misplaced trust. Politics cannot save souls. Government cannot eliminate sin. A new president cannot fix what is truly broken. 
"The Christian's trust is not in politics. Our hope for the future isn’t in the incumbent or the challenger, but in the God-man who promises that he will build his church (Matthew 16:18) and that his gospel will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations (Matthew 24:14). And his final instructions before taking to the air didn’t include a word about political activism, but focused clearly and concisely on making disciples. Christian, we have bigger fish to fry." - David Mathis

There is hope for America - but He doesn't live in Washington.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Are We A Safe Place for Suffering?

This is a blog post I wrote for my church website in January 2014 (High Pointe Church in Altoona, IA)
In this world, one thing is certain:  Everybody hurts. Suffering may take the form of tragedy, heartbreak, or addiction. Or it could be something more mundane (but no less real), like resentment, loneliness, or disappointment. But there’s unfortunately no such thing as a painless life.” – Foreword of Glorious Ruin by Tullian Tchividjian

If this statement is true, then it also means that our churches are full of hurting people. At any given time, there will be someone that we know that will be going through a season of suffering in their lives. The church - the body of Christ - should be the one place where one can count on to find rest. In fact, it should be the safest place on this earth for a suffering soul to find encouragement, support, and compassion. But unfortunately that is not always the case, and sometimes the church can be one of the scariest places for someone in the midst of a trying circumstance. All too often, we fail to remember that as a community of believers, we are called to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Instead, we choose to put on a weekly fa├žade of having it all together and expect others to just do the same. When it comes to following Romans 12:15, we’re usually pretty good at rejoicing with others…but can be downright terrible at the second part.

So, because it is true that everyone will face some form of suffering during their lifetime, and that as a church we are also called to “weep with those who weep,” I believe it is important for us to truly examine if we are a safe place for suffering. A good place to start is to gain a sense of what NOT to say or do when we encounter pain in the lives of others.

1. Do Not Minimize Suffering  - “Minimization involves any attempt to downplay or reduce the extent and nature of pain. Any rhetorical or spiritual device that underestimates the seriousness of suffering essentially minimizes it.” – Tullian, Glorious Ruin
“This too shall pass.” Have you ever heard someone say that? Have you ever said it to someone yourself? This is classic minimization of someone’s suffering. It essentially dismisses the situation as anything worth being concerned about, and (whether intended or not) ultimately causes one to feel shame for experiencing the pain they are in. In our attempt to comfort a hurting friend, “this too shall pass” tells them to place their hope in a false certainty that things will get better (which is never even promised in Scripture on this side of eternity), instead of offering any source of real biblical hope at all. Using a trite saying in attempt to “cheer someone up” will be received about as well as using a bucket of cold water to wake them up from a nap. (Proverbs 25:20 NLT)
Another way we minimize suffering is by comparing one person’s trial to another’s. While the intent is to help one gain perspective of their situation & realize that things could be a lot worse, the reality is that this also does more harm than good. For example, when our response to a couple’s struggle to have children is, “look on the bright side – you could have cancer,” we are not offering any level of encouragement. Instead, we’re only describing their struggle as unimportant and unworthy of the pain they are experiencing because things just “aren’t as bad as they could be.”
The book of 1 Peter is written specifically to believers who are facing various forms of trials and persecution. Peter mentions some form of suffering around 19 times in the book, tracing back to at least 5 different Greek words (one simply meaning “unpleasant experiences”). This shows me that suffering manifests itself in so many different ways - circumstances that might not seem all that terrible for one person may be completely heartbreaking for another. It is never our job to determine what suffering should look like in someone else’s life.

2. Do Not Use Scripture With a “Quick-Fix” Mindset –I am not suggesting Scripture is unhelpful, powerless, and useless to a hurting soul. Obviously we know the exact opposite is true. But my point is this – throwing Bible verses around as a “quick-fix” method hardens a hurting heart more than it heals (yes, even the most applicable, hope-filled passages). Unless you have been walking through a trial with someone on a personal, intimate level; unless you have taken the time to weep with one who is weeping…lobbing out Romans 8:28 in passing with a smile is not a source of comfort.

3. Do Not Avoid Suffering – It’s probably safe to say that this is the category most of us fall into. We’ve all been there:  “I just don’t know what to say.” So in our attempt to avoid any awkward silence, we avoid the topic of suffering or the person involved altogether. Let me offer a source of relief:  When I’m in the midst of a difficult trial, I don’t expect – or even hope– that everyone I come in contact with will share some profound, mind-blowing revelation to me. I imagine the same is true with anyone facing difficulty. We don’t have to offer a perfect, Holy Spirit-inspired message or solution to our hurting friends. But we do need to offer our listening ear, our shared sorrow, and our compassionate response – even if that response is expressed only in tears. Don’t just tell them you will pray for them – take the opportunity to pray with them in that moment.

All 3 of these “methods” reveal our heart when it comes to helping those who are suffering. When someone close to us is hurting, it makes us uncomfortable too - so we immediately try to figure out how to solve the problem. But is this truly motivated by a desire to help them, or by a desire to erase our own feelings of discomfort? It is much harder & more time-consuming to walk through the valley with someone, so instead we choose to throw them a self-proclaimed lifeline. “Here – use this to climb out of your valley & join me.

But if the church is the body of Christ, shouldn’t we aim to follow His example? The gospel is not only comforting to those who are in the midst of suffering, but it is a guide for those of us seeking to minister to a suffering friend. Jesus was uninterested in His own comfort when he left the glories of heaven to put on human flesh. Jesus was indifferent about His comfort level when he bore the burdens of our sin as a substitute on the cross. Jesus didn’t just throw us a life-line from heaven & tell us to climb out of our spiritual death. Instead He humbled Himself by taking the form of a bondservant, and He met us where we were.  (Philippians 2:5-8)

If the King of heaven could humbly step into the world He created and suffer for us, why can’t we humbly walk through the valley of suffering with each other? Maybe if we showed Christ’s love to someone during their darkest days, they would be much more inclined to then listen to us tell them about how Christ’s love can be an anchor through their storm.

Are we a safe place for suffering?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Don't Be a Hero

This is a blog post I wrote for my church website in September 2013 (High Pointe Church in Altoona, IA)

“How many times am I going to have to learn the same lesson?”  Ever been there?  You feel like you’re plugging along, only to catch yourself falling in the same area of temptation again. You find yourself drowning in worry, stress & anxiety again. You realize you’re doubting that God will provide for you again. I don’t know about you, but there are times where I find myself in these moments, and my heart just sinks. I feel like such a failure, and I wonder why God continues to be so patient with me. I convince myself that He is so ashamed and disgusted with my inability to learn from my mistakes & avoid them. In these moments, it’s almost as if I’m picturing Him as a frustrated teacher, slamming a ruler on my desk & raising His voice at me, “When are you ever going to learn?!” And it’s when I assume God is ashamed of me that I seem to distance myself from Him even more, telling myself the last thing He wants to hear is another broken-record confession from this slow learner. Am I alone, or can anyone relate?

While I have often found myself in the midst of that very cycle, only recently have I realized just how backwards that mindset is! Our inability to go on a “perfect streak” of following the commands of Scripture shouldn’t drive us down into a pit of guilt & shame. It shouldn’t cause us to consciously distance ourselves from God, fearing only to receive a harsh reprimand from Him. Instead, it should immediately push us to the gospel. But why doesn’t that happen?

I believe that we get caught up in a “heroes of the faith” mindset too often. We read & learn about characters of the Bible like Noah, Abraham, or Moses. We read about them in Hebrews 11 – the “Hall of Faith” – and see all of the incredible things they accomplished. We focus on their triumph & forget about their trials, and incorrectly our application is to “be like them.” But when we place people on a pedestal, and our aim is to “dare to be a Daniel,” to “be a hero of the faith like Moses,” or to “confidently slay our giants like David” – we only set ourselves up for extreme frustration when we can’t live up to the hype. When we read this passage and our application is focused on joining the “heroes of the faith” by emulating people, we completely miss the big picture of it all: The Person.

The common tie between all the characters of Hebrews 11 is that all of their accomplishments were made possible “by faith.” But what is faith? Was it their will to succeed? Was it that inner quality to put their heads down, grind it out, and find a way? Faith is only as good as the object it rests in. We can’t rely on “our faith” if it only rests in some inner desire to be good. Instead, their faith was an active trust; securely anchored, grounded, and placed in the subject of the entire book of Hebrews – Jesus Christ. The Great High Priest, who is better than the angels, better than the prophets, and yes – better than Moses. His once and for all sacrifice for sin did what the daily sacrifice of bulls and goats could never do (Hebrews 10:11-14). He is the one and only mediator between God and man, making peace by the blood of the cross. And when our faith is grounded in Him, we can victoriously claim Romans 8:1 – “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

So yes, I’m a slow learner when it comes to keeping all the commandments of Scripture. I fail miserably, and often. But so did Abraham – he had a lying problem. So did Moses – he couldn’t follow directions on whether to hit or talk to a rock. So did Paul, the guy who wrote most of the New Testament – he called himself the worst of all sinners! The thing is, we’re all slow learners, and we’ll never live up to the standard…but that’s the point! Instead of feeling defeat & shame, may it drive us toward the gospel & the grace of Jesus Christ! When we catch ourselves in the midst of anxiety or doubt, we shouldn’t feel like Jesus is rebuking us for “not getting it” – we should view it as a gracious reminder: that He is faithful in our unfaithfulness. He is perfect in our imperfection. He is strong in our weakness. Our identity & position before God the Father is based on the finished work of Jesus. It is a done deal – just as we can do nothing to earn it, we can do absolutely nothing to change it. “God accepts us on the basis of Christ's perfection, not our progress.” (Tullian Tchividjian)

In his book Glorious Ruin, Tullian also gives this encouragement to those of us who get discouraged when we fail:  “God doesn’t give us advice about how to overcome; in the gospel, Jesus has already overcome! …  Jesus is strong, so we’re free to be weak; Jesus won, so we’re free to lose; Jesus was a somebody, so we can be a nobody; Jesus was extraordinary, so we are free to be ordinary; and Jesus succeeded for us, so we are free to fail!”

Let’s abandon the defeat & discouragement found in the “heroes of the faith” mentality, and cling to this hope: Jesus is THE hero of the faith, so we don’t have to be one.

“…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

The Hidden Treasure in our Trials

This is a blog post I wrote for my church website in August 2013 (High Pointe Church in Altoona, IA)

“The unknowns.” We face them every day. Technically, that’s a glaringly obvious statement, isn’t it?  Who really knows for sure what’s going to happen during the course of any given day - even the very next hour or minute? But I’m not talking about our obvious inability to see the future. I’m talking about the twists & turns that the road of life takes us on – the curveballs. If there’s one thing that can truly shake our faith as a Christ follower, it’s the circumstance that blindsides us out of nowhere that we have absolutely no control over.

The magnitude & manifestation of these circumstances can vary, but the amount of anxiety surrounding them always seems to be large. Trying to sell a house, facing sudden unemployment, working through a marriage in jeopardy, receiving a devastating diagnosis, grieving the loss of a loved one & wondering how to move on without them – the list of unknowns we face can go on & on. The brutal realization that we can’t control or immediately fix what we’ve suddenly been thrown into can stare you in the face every morning and never leave your mind throughout the entire day. As hours pass by, the “why’s, when’s, and how’s” can grow from a seed of worry to a tree of doubt and defeat. It’s tiring. It wears you down.

Over this last year or more, it seems as if I’ve continually jumped from one giant unknown in my life to another. Each one completely different, but all have been a clear test of my faith. Maybe it’s just my natural instinct as a man, but my first reaction to any predicament is to immediately search for a solution – to try and fix the problem & make it go away. But when you are suddenly dropped into a trial that cannot be remedied with a quick fix, you really begin to learn a lot about yourself. But far more important than that, I believe that I’ve learned the ONE thing that we are ALL supposed to learn through the unknowns we face in life.

Searching for, finding out, and ultimately knowing the “what’s, why’s, and how’s” isn’t really the point. I have wrestled with those questions at some point throughout every unknown I have faced, and I’m always left frustrated & confused. What God truly wants us to search for, find out, and ultimately know during our time of unknowns is what He has already clearly & completely revealed to us:  HIM. Yes, the situations & circumstances that define our unknowns are important – sometimes very important (and God does care about the details of our lives) – but here’s a hard truth: finding out the origin or the end result of our unexpected trial will not bring us satisfaction. When we come to the end of ourselves and surrender our desire for control of the situation over to God, we will start learning how to completely trust Him as He reveals His character & proves Himself faithful. We experience comforting truths like the ones found in Psalm 23:6, Psalm 34:17-19, Isaiah 43:2, Isaiah 26:3-4, Matthew 11:28-30, and so much more! Fighting through that process not only brings a peace that surpasses all understanding, but that is also when we can finally “count it all joy when you meet trials,” as James writes.

I can’t help but think of the book of Job; the account of a man the Bible describes as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” He had everything. 10 healthy children, an over-abundance of livestock, multiple servants, and unimaginable wealth; so much that the Bible adds that “he was the greatest of all the people of the east.” But Job was thrown a curveball – an enormous twist in the road – and he found himself in the midst of a greater unknown than most of us can imagine. On the same day, in a matter of minutes: ALL of his livestock were either killed or stolen, ALL of his servants were killed, and to top it off ALL of his children were casualties of a giant wind storm. He later falls into great sickness, his wife and friends hurl insults & condemning words at him, and some even tell him he deserved worse. Talk about riches to rags. Talk about facing “unknowns.” (Spoiler alert: things work out pretty well in the end for Job). But do you know what Job never finds out? The “why.” Even though he has conversations with God Himself, Job is never told that all of his trials were actually the result of his righteous life. That Satan accused him of only being faithful to God because he had great wealth. That God allowed Satan to take everything away from him except his life, to test his faith. Those facts are never revealed to Job. Why? Because if God would have told him all of the “background info” – the answers to the “unknowns” – then Job would have never been able to learn about who God is; he would’ve never realized the power & sovereignty of our Almighty God that was explained to him by God Himself in chapters 38-41. If God would have given Job the answer to the “why” of his situation, Job would have never experienced God the way he did, and he never would have said, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You.” (Job 42:1-6) God wants to give us so much more than just answers – He wants to give us Himself!

Recently, we were introduced to a new song at HPC called Great Reward by Tim Timmons (you can listen to it here). God greatly used this song to solidify what He was trying to teach me through my many unknowns this last year. Read these lyrics:

I won’t demand to know the reasons for my suffering
These open hands will trust Your wisdom beyond what I can see
Help me to know that You are God, I am not
Remind my soul You’re in control

Praise to the Father with every breath I take
In joy and sorrow, all for Your kingdom’s sake
Be Thou my vision, Be Thou my hope restored
Now and forever – You are my Great Reward

My prayer is for God to help me change my focus and purpose when I find myself in the midst of the unknowns of life! Instead of demanding to know the “why’s, when’s and how’s”; instead of searching only for solutions and answers, I pray that I will run hard after Christ – our Great Reward!