Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Anne Rice on Leaving the Church

Earlier this year, the blogosphere was abuzz with the news that Anne Rice had re-departed the Roman Catholic church. The author, who is best known for her series of vampire novels, had a spiritual experience about 10 years ago which had led her back to the faith of her childhood. But she simply could not live with the contradiction between her most deeply held beliefs and the commitments that being an orthodox Roman Catholic requires. She broke up with her church in that most thoroughly classy, postmodern fashion, via Facebook:
For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always, but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. My conscience will allow nothing else.
Hours later, her "Dear Church" letter continued:
As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.
I read those words back in July and I have been pondering since then how I, as a Christian, ought to respond. My initial reaction is a bit prickly, especially with respect to her second post. It seems that her most significant reason for her departure from Roman Catholicism has to do with the fact that its teachings do not conform to the deeply held convictions of the Democratic Party platform or align with its talking points. She seems to lack any understanding of the fact that the Christ she claims to follow is the Christ who came to set people free from sin and death, and that some of those sins from which we need freeing are nevertheless currently popular. Being gay is not the worst of sins, but sin it remains. I do not see how opposing abortion and embryonic stem cell research gets you labeled "anti-life." I'm not sure what she means by "anti-science," though science does seem to me to be less a sure foundation for certain knowledge than many of its practitioners seem to believe. "Anti-feminist"? Well, I suppose it depends on what you mean by "feminist," but the Church is still the world's leading exponent of the idea of the dignity and equality of women, though it does recognize that women and men aren't interchangeable. And while I'm not a Democrat and believe that their policies, if followed, are disastrous for the future of the country, that belief isn't central, or even peripheral, to the Christian faith I profess. Nor is opposition to birth control. As far as secular humanism goes, I guess I'm not sure how to be both a Christian and secular humanist? That's like being a Buddhist Muslim. The two are competing ideas, not complementary ones. Understanding that not nearly all of these things are biblical ideas, or even accurate characterizations of the faith, I guess I wish she had the courage to allow her thinking to be conformed by the Scriptures rather than trying to do it the other way around. I'm sure that was a frustrating experience, but it isn't an unanticipated one for anybody paying attention to what the Scriptures actually call us to do.

On the other hand, a part of me resonates with her first post. I know what it is to be disappointed with the other people with whom I am in community in the Church. Within the Church I have seen its leaders fall into egregious sin, building for themselves personality cults, ill-gotten fortunes and even personal harems. I have been betrayed and abandoned by people I considered friends. I have seen raging conflicts, nasty divorces, severe addictions, and weird perversions. I have seen every one of the 10 Commandments broken in every way it is possible to break them. Moreover, looking back through history, there are episodes which bring me shame (the burning of Servetus, the witch trials, the 30 Years War, and so on).

But these things have never divided me from the Church. Why? Because within the Church there is also Christ, His Word, and His people. I'd be the last to say that the Church is full of perfect people. Far from it, in fact. To be a pastor as I am is to know that better than most. But in the midst of all the sinning, there also is the reality of the Gospel of the Jesus who came to save exactly such people from sin and death and Hell. The reality of life in the church, in other words, points out the truth of the things we profess: We are all sinners deeply in need of saving. Moreover, there is another side to Church life, which I have also seen more times than I can count, and which Ms. Rice seems to have either forgotten or deeply discounted. And that side is much better: Lives are really transformed, marriages really are healed, addictions are really recovered from, needy people really are served and loved, the Gospel is really preached as really Good News to all people-black, brown, white, rich poor, talented and disabled, Western and non-, to all people of every tribe, tongue, and nation. This is why the Church is worth it; because, despite her flaws, the Church and the Christ who rules as her head really is the only hope of humanity.

One final reaction, this one a question: Is it really possible to be a Churchless Christian? The New Testament seems to think that Leaving the Church = Leaving the Faith and Jesus with it. Are the Scriptures simply wrong at this point?

The Revolution: 5 Years Later

You have to give George Barna credit. He may not be the creator of trends within the wider evangelical church, but he is certainly an early reporter (and frequently cheerleader) of them. Five years ago, in his book Revolution, Barna reported (and cheered for) the phenomenon of self-identified born again people leaving the local church for something else. The book caused quite a stir, mostly because it put a name to a trend that lots of pastors had been seeing all over the country, of people who desired a sort of customized spirituality, devoid of the preaching of God's Word and the possibly uncomfortable parts of living in a community composed of fallen sinners like oneself, light on commitment and sacrifice, but heavy on ideas like being missional, emerging, serving the poor, and "being the church."

Five years on and it seems that revolution is deader than the leisure suit. The Emergent/emerging church is dead. It is now buried under the weight of its own pretentiousness, pseudo-intellectualism, and fundamental unwillingness to actually commit to anything larger than feeling coolly superior to the rest of us benighted members of traditional churches. Even the die-hards among them are starting to realize that two guys having coffee at Starbucks or drinking dark, boutique beer while talking about Jesus and how cool they are doesn't make for much in the way of lasting spirituality.

But what I find distressing is this idea, of a customizable, "feel good about yourself for doing good deeds while not being part of a real local church" version of Christian spirituality retains its appeal for a lot of people. Perhaps it's because we live in the post-iPhone world, such that people now think that all of life should consist of a series of infinitely customizable "apps" and that the local church is an "app" which as as obsolete as Windows 3.1. But whatever the reason, I think that people who take that approach to the Christian life are in serious danger. For the Christianity of the Bible is not one which adapts to suit personal preferences or which it is possible to faithfully live in isolation from the church. Moreover, "being the church" is simply not possible without "going to church," any more than it is possible to consider yourself married to someone with whom you do not live.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Does Prayer Work?

That's the question a friend of mine asked me this week. Well, at the risk of sounding like a certain hillbilly former president, it depends on what the means of "works" is. That is, if by "works," you mean something like "Will God give me whatever I ask for if I pray?" then the answer is pretty clearly "No." Anybody who has ever prayed and not received their request knows this without even consulting the Bible. But does it "work" in the sense of God speaking to us through it and sometimes giving us the things for which we have prayed? The answer to that question is just as surely "Yes." But it's still a little more complex a "yes" than it might first appear (I mean, you even find this question being asked within the text of the Bible itself-just read the Psalms, or Job, or Ecclesiastes). Here's a summary of how to understand the Bible's "yes" answer:
  1. We are encouraged to ask God for what we want. The Bible contains a host of bold statements about prayer, many on the lips of Jesus himself, such as "And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith" (Matthew 21:22).
  2. Persistence is encouraged. Jesus tells two parables that emphasize this, the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8), and the Persistent Neighbor (Luke 11:1-10). Paul also reminds us of the same idea in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, "Pray without ceasing."
  3. Sometimes, God says "No, my grace is sufficient." Even Paul the Apostle didn't always receive what he asked for. Though there is debate as to the specific nature of Paul's "thorn in the flesh," it's pretty clear that it was a painful situation from which Paul prayed for deliverance. Yet according to Paul's account (read 2 Corinthians 12:7-10), despite his persistent prayer, God's answer wasn't simply "No," but also "my grace is sufficient for you." Paraphrasing a bit, that means something like, "I will be with you through this; I won't take you out of it." Which might not be what we want to hear, but is still a magnificent promise all the same, as Paul learned.
  4. We must believe and not doubt. Even in those places where we have a magnificent promise of God giving us what we pray for, faith remains a qualification for actually receiving it. Look at Matthew 21:22 above: even in an otherwise unqualified statement, we still read "if you have faith." The same qualification is given in James, "But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways" (1:6-8).
  5. God's timing and ours are not the same. That is, even things about which God has made unequivocal promises, His timing is "different," to say the least. Consider Abraham: Promised a land, great blessing, and a nation descended from he and his wife. Yet at 100 years old and with a 90-year-old wife, there is still no son, never mind a mighty nation numbering "like the stars or the sand." Even after the child of promise, Isaac, is born, it's hardly an auspicious beginning. Sarah dies a few years later, and all Abraham has is his wealth (such as exists for a nomad in a tent), a cave at the end of a field as burial plot for his wife, paid for at exorbitant cost, and the solo son of promise, whose wife also has a fertility problem. In the same way, Hebrews 11 reminds us that "These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen them and welcomed them from afar..." (11:13; cf. 39). God kept his promises, but not in the timing that the people to whom He made those promises expected. Consider Abraham again: Did a nation of millions ever descend from Abraham? Did they receive the Land that God promised? Were Abraham's descendants a great blessing to all the nations of the earth (not to mention, One in particular)? Yes, yes, and yes. But God's timing wasn't Abraham's, nor was it that of the others of Hebrews 11, nor is it ours.
  6. God's perspective and mine aren't the same. As a pastor, I've lost track of the number of people I've visited in hospital rooms. I've similarly lost track of the number of people with serious and/or terminal diseases for whom I've prayed. I always pray for healing, but a whole bunch of these people have still died. Yet in many of these cases, I believe that God healed. How is that possible? Well, I think we assume that in order for God to heal, he has to heal the person temporarily, as in He must postpone his/her eventual death a bit longer. Yet that isn't necessarily best for the person. Revelation 21 and 22 make it pretty clear that there is no more "mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (v. 21:4). Which is better, to be permanently healed and live in God's presence in a world without pain, or to temporarily healed, only to die again later, as all of us must? Permanent healing is obviously better. So is "departing to be with Christ," as Paul phrased it (Phil. 1:23). Yet that's not how we think of it. I think the same is true of more "mundane" prayer requests too. God's perspective isn't ours, nor are His ways our ways (Isaiah 55:8).

Finding God's Will: God's Directive Will

Now I suspect that many of you have been reading up to now and thinking, “Yes, yes, that’s all true. The Bible does talk about God’s will that way. But what about God’s will for my life?” And if you’re asking that question, then you’re asking about the third category, what I’ve labeled God’ Directive Will. God’s directive will isn’t so much His will about right and wrong decisions as it is about right and left decisions. Does God have that kind of specific will for each one of us? My answer is a qualified “Yes.” It’s a qualified yes because we don’t see very many New Testament examples of God giving specific direction for individual situations. There are a few times when that happened; for example, when Paul had his vision of the man from Macedonia who urged him to come share the Gospel there, and when Ananias had his vision telling him to go see Paul. But remember that these are unusual circumstances, even in the lives of people involved. God doesn’t, as far as I can discern from Scripture at least, normally give people visions about more mundane things like which car to buy, which person to marry, or which school to attend. Having said that though, I do think that God does provide us with his leading for our lives, but that some conditions have to be met for us to have it:
  1. We must not be seeking God’s will about things which He has spoken clearly. Should I attend church? Should I give to church? Should I marry a non-Christian? Should I start dating again, even though I'm already married? These things (among thousands of others) are things about which God has already told us.
  2. We must have a willingness to obey. If we ask God to lead us in making a decision about something, either big or small, we need to ask while being willing to actually do what He tells us. As James says in chapter 1 of his letter (vv. 5-6), “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” You can’t be asking God to do something you don’t actually intend to do anything with. What would be the point of giving it you then?
  3. “Seeking God’s Will” must not be an excuse for laziness. Believe it or not, there are some people who don’t so much want God’s will as they want an excuse for doing nothing. The Christian author Kevin DeYoung put it this way: “our search for the will of God has become an accomplice in the postponement of growing up, a convenient out for the young (or old) Christian floating through life without direction or purpose. Too many of us have passed off our instability, inconsistency, and endless self-exploration as “looking for God’s will,” as if not making up our minds and meandering through life were marks of spiritual sensitivity.” What those things are is the mark of a lazy, immature person who is using “finding God’s will” as a spiritual sounding way of refusing to obey what God has already said to them in His word. So when you ask them to serve, even if they aren’t doing anything else, they say, “Let me pray about it and see if it’s God’s will.” And amazingly, even though God’s word says that each person has received a spiritual gift they are to use in serving others, God never seems to tell them that they should say “Yes” and start using theirs.
  4. We must remember that sometimes, God does give specific leading through His Holy Spirit. God does reveal his will in our circumstances and through the counsel of others. Sometimes He speaks to our hearts directly, and we get the very strong sense that He wants us to make a particular choice. When we have that, we need to follow it and obey it.
  5. God’s directions may not be as clear as we sometimes wish they were. Let me give a couple examples. In 1 Corinthians 7, we find God’s most explicit instructions about finding a mate. He says, first of all, that not getting married is also a good choice. Then he says, that getting married is a good thing, and a person who wants to get married should “marry whom [he/]she wishes, only in the Lord.” In other words, even about one of the most life-altering decisions of life, we have tremendous freedom. God doesn’t say specifically to me if I should marry Betty or Sue, or if a woman should marry Ken or Bob. We get to marry anyone we like, as long as we are marrying an opposite sex Christian person. We are also free to choose to be single, so we might serve the Lord unencumbered by family responsibilities. In the same way, in Acts 15:28, we get this marvelous statement by the Jerusalem Council: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” which I take to mean that they had searched the Scriptures, prayed, and then decided to do what seemed wisest and best, recognizing that the Holy Spirit is working through their decision-making and desires to enact His will.
  6. Remember that God is good, and won’t punish us for making a “wrong” choice when it’s a right or left decision. He doesn’t sit in heaven saying, “Well, if you had married Sue, you’d have had a happy marriage, but since you married Betty instead, you’re condemned to a life of misery. God is good and loves us. Our freedom is real freedom, not an excuse for God to play some sort of cosmic, sadistic, whack-a-mole.
  7. Remember that following God does not mean that there will never be pain or struggles. Just because something winds up painful, does not mean it wasn’t God’s will. How else, but through pain, could we be transformed into the likeness of His Son?

Finding God's Will: God's Desired Will

Another of the other ways that the Scriptures talk about God’s will is in the way that I have called His desired will. God’s desire is that we, as His creatures, would obey Him and walk in His ways. Yet God has also created us as creatures with a will, and it does not always align with God’s will, does it? 1 Timothy 2:4 says that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Yet not all men are saved, are they? This is where the human responsibility side of the divine sovereignty and human responsibility side of discussion enters in. God has a plan and purpose which will be fulfilled, yet we can, and do, choose to either obey or disobey His desired will.

Now when it comes to the Christian life in particular and not just humans in general, we have a huge number of commands from God. The whole Bible is saturated with them, isn’t it? Why? Because God wants us to know His desired will for our lives. If we will obey them, we will not only avoid sinning, we’ll also experience growth in Christian maturity, and all the blessings that come from experiencing the fellowship with God for which we were made. So, just to cite a few examples, God tells us in Exodus 20, “Do not worship any other gods…do not misuse the Lord’s name…do not murder... commit adultery... steal... lie... [or] covet.” There are hundreds of other places, both Old and New Testament that give God’s will in all kinds of moral matters like that. But there all also commands that have to do with how to faithfully live life as a Christian.

We have commands that apply to us all on an individual level. In 1 Peter 2:1-2, Peter writes “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” In other words, if we want to live faithfully as Christ’s followers, then we have to take in God’s Word. We’re also to seek the Lord and trust Him in all our circumstances, just like Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” The intake of the word, by which God speaks to us, and prayer, by which we speak to God, are the basics of the Christian life.

But of course Christianity isn’t a solitary belief system is it? According to the book of Hebrews, we must “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…” (10:25). In other words, being a Christian necessarily includes being part of a church family and being with them regularly. And of course, there are also instructions about what we’re to do as part of a church family. In 1 Peter 4:8-10, the apostle writes, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” We’re to love one another from the heart, and let our love for one another smooth over the difficulties that we encounter in relationship with each other. We’re to demonstrate that love in opening our homes and lives to each other. We’re to use our spiritual gift or gifts to serve each other. And this relationship we have with others even includes our financial commitments, as 2 Corinthians 9:7 says: “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

And of course, God has a desired will for our family life too. In Ephesians 5:22, He tells wives to submit to their husbands and then in the next verse tells husbands to love their wives like Christ loved the Church and died for it. In 6:1 of the same book, God says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” To summarize then, there’s no area of life about which God has not expressed his will about how we should live. And since He is the Creator and designer of life itself, it seems to me wise that we should listen amen?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Finding God's Will: God's Decreed Will

One of the questions I've been asked most often is this one: “How do I find God’s will for my life?” If the old Campus Crusade tract is true when it says, that “God loves [me] and has a wonderful plan for my life,” then just how do I go about discovering what that plan is?

Well, I'm glad you asked. As you look at the Scriptures and study them, you’ll see that there are really three ways in which Scripture talks about God’s will: His Decreed Will, His Desired Will, and His Directive Will.

God’s Decreed Will is the term we can use to describe those thing in the Scriptures which God has decreed in advance will happen. It’s the term for God’s eternal plan and sovereign purposes. Whether everybody knows it or not, God is completely sovereign, and there is not one maverick molecule in the entire universe. God is the Creator, the King of Kings, and all beings and things in the universe must and do bend to His will. The Prophet Isaiah says it best in chapter 46, verses 9-10: Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.

In the same way, in Genesis 1, God says over and over, “Let there be…” and those things appear out of nothing by God’s sovereign power and word. God says, “Let there be light” and there is light. “Let there be an expanse to separate the water in the ocean from the water in the atmosphere,” and the sky came into being. God said, “Let the water be filled with fish,” and the water had more kinds and varieties of swimming creatures than we can count. And so it goes, all the way to the end of the chapter, when God says, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (1:26). So all these things came into being, including people. Why? Because it was God’s will that it be so.

Moving forward in salvation history a bit, to after the Fall, God speaks of the Messiah's coming (either in the future or the past) in terms of His Will. In Isaiah 53:10, we read about the Messiah that “it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” because the Lord had made his life a guilt offering. Peter picks up that same idea in Acts 2:23 in his great Pentecost sermon, when he says, “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” And again, John says about Jesus in Revelation 13:8 that he is “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” In other words, why did Jesus die? Because it was God’s will. Even before God made the world, He knew that humanity would fall into sin and need redemption. And so even before the world was created, the Son, Jesus, was planned to come and die and rise again for you and me.

God has also planned the end of human history. In 2 Peter 3:10, Peter writes, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare…But in keeping with his promise, we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.” There will be an end to all wickedness and wicked people, along with the heavens and the earth in which wickedness occurred. And then there will be a new creation of a new heavens and a new earth, in which redeemed people will dwell face-to-face with God. God’s will is carried out before creation, in creation, in the redemption of fallen creation, and in the new creation. From the beginning of history to it’s end, nothing that He has planned to happen will fail to take place.