Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Mental Disorder or Evil Heart Condition?

As I’m sure we’ve all heard by this point, a week ago, a teenager in Florida walked into his former high school and killed 17 people: 14 students and 3 faculty members.

When events like this occur, we all question why someone would do this. Why would someone decide to take the lives of lots of people? A common response to this question is that the person was mentally ill. This event was no different. According to the initial reports, the shooter has a history of mental illness. Is mental illness really what provokes people to kill other people? Or is something else going on that we’ve failed to consider because this something else is too hard for us to accept?

I’ll start by stating that I’m not claiming to know the answer to this question. I don’t know Nikolas Cruz any more than I know Donald Trump. So of course, I have no reason to believe I know what’s going on inside his head. Psychologists may test him as mentally ill.

But that’s not where I’m going with this article. Instead, I’d like to offer up another possible reason as to why Cruz killed 17 people that doesn’t have anything to do with mental illness. Rather, the solution I’m offering has everything to with what I call a “heart condition.” Let’s have a look.

A Social Science Experiment

In the 1970s, a group of social scientists from Stanford University conducted an experiment in an attempt to explain why prison conditions were such nasty places. They transformed the basement of a campus building into a make-shift prison and requested applications from civilians willing to participate in the experiment. Of the 75 applications they received, they chose 21 of the most “normal” people to participate. Then, they randomly selected some of the people to be prison guards and some to be prisoners. They sent the police to the houses of the prisoners, arrested them, indicted them with false charges, and placed them in the custody of the guards.

The first night, the guards woke up the prisoners at 2am to do push-ups, line up against the wall, and do other random tasks. The morning of the second day, the prisoners rebelled and the guards responded by stripping them, spraying them with fire extinguishers, and throwing the leader of the rebellion into solitary confinement. After 36 hours, one prisoner became hysterical and was released from the experiment. Four more had to be released shortly thereafter because of depression, crying, rage, or acute anxiety. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks but was cut short after six days.

Following the experiment, one prisoner said, “I realize now that no matter how together I thought I was inside my head, my prisoner behavior was often less under my control that I realized.”[1]

Based on their behaviors, it would appear that both the prison guards and prisoners were mentally ill. They were doing things we wouldn’t expect normal people to do. But prior to this experiment, they all checked out as being quite normal on psychological tests. What happened? Did they become mentally ill overnight? Or was there something else going on inside these people; maybe something that had been masked for many years, but quickly manifested itself when they found themselves in unfamiliar territory.

Seeing Our True Selves

Most of us live pretty comfortable, secure lives. Most days, we don’t wonder whether we’re going to have food on the table or a place to sleep for the night. For the most part, we don’t worry about where our next paycheck is coming from or whether our spouse is going to come home after work. Many people who live in first-world countries feel comfortable and secure. As a result, they feel fairly satisfied and act like normal, civil people.

But would happen if those comforts and securities were taken away? What would happen if we took someone who previously had all his basic needs met and threw him out on the street, or took him to a prison? Would he continue being the normal, civil person everyone thought he was? Or would he quickly become a person with whom even he would be terrified to cross paths?

This social science experiment demonstrated that normal, civil people could quickly become totally different people when those needs were no longer being met. I have witnessed this same phenomenon in my own life. When I feel hungry or tired, I can become a jerk. I become more impatient, more demanding, and less concerned about other people. Sometimes all I seem to be able to think about is getting my own needs met.

I’ve also witnessed this same behavior in other people. I’ve witnessed coworkers who are quite civil and fun to work with turn into total jerks who don’t care whether they hurt me or anyone else when they’re on the ice (playing hockey). I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being thrown under the bus by my friends when they feel backed into a corner. I’ve been on the receiving end of some very hurtful comments from my friends when they’re stressed out. We’ve all been on both the giving and receiving end of these experiences. Are these merely slip-ups that happen from time to time or are these responses giving us a glimpse into the true conditions of our hearts?

Honestly, I hate when I become a jerk to other people. I hate being impatient, demanding, and less concerned about my coworkers, friends, and family. I wish I didn’t respond that way when my needs weren’t being met. But no matter how hard I try to cover it up, I can’t. When I feel under pressure, my heart condition continues to show its ugly head through my horrific behaviors.

At this point you may conclude that I sound like nothing more than a normal human being, but what Nikolas Cruz did was far beyond the realm of something a normal person would do. Is it really? Throughout history and in other parts of the world today, people have and continue to kill each other over seemingly trivial matters. Heck, if you count the biblical records as historically accurate, you can see that humans were already killing each other by the second generation.[2]

Furthermore, let’s face it: Most of us have, at some point in our lives, wished that a specific person would die. We probably didn’t dwell on it at length nor did we act upon it, but the fact that it even crossed our minds demonstrates how evil our hearts really are. It’s not the devil who places those thoughts in there; it’s our evil hearts. If every thought we’ve ever had was laid out on the table in front of us, we’d all be declared mentally ill. Would you be willing to share every thought you’ve ever had? How about every thought you’ve had in the last week? I don’t know anyone who believes they have such pure thoughts that they’d be willing to share them with the rest of the world.
Is Nikolas Cruz mentally ill? There’s a pretty good chance that psychologists will deem him mentally ill. But I’m even more certain that if he was standing before the judgment throne of God, he would be deemed to have an evil heart condition. In my opinion, an evil heart condition is much more of a threat to society than mental illness. Someone who is mentally ill can be fairly-well contained in a mental institution. But there aren’t enough mental institutions to house everyone with an evil heart condition, let alone people to run them. This entire planet is one huge mental institution run by inmates. Do you see the paradox in which we find ourselves?

Yes, There’s Hope!

With all this apparent negativity, you may be wondering whether there’s any hope for us. Is there any way for our evil heart conditions to change? I think there’s certainly hope for me, you, and Nikolas Cruz. I’m not saying I’m all the way there and based on what I see, I’m not going to arrive at a place where I’m all the way there in this life, but I have been fortunate enough to experience some heart change. How, you ask? I don’t completely know. But here’s what I do know.

Jesus, a man who some believed was God and even more believe was a good teacher, claimed that he could and would change the hearts of his people to be like his heart.[3] What does his heart look like? It is loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, humble, faithful, forgiving, self-controlled, and compassionate, just to name a few things. No matter how hard I’ve tried, I haven’t been able to cause my heart to look like this. But thankfully, I’ve experienced the work of Jesus in my heart as he slowly changes it to look like this. I’ll be totally honest: the progress isn’t nearly as fast as I’d like it to be. I wish he would completely transform me right now and be done with it. But that’s apparently not the way he’s chosen to work.

Does that mean I won’t have evil thoughts anymore or not be a jerk to the people I love and care about? When I’m completely transformed into his image…yes! But since I’m not there yet, I continue to have evil thoughts and continue to be a jerk sometimes. I really wish I wasn’t. I hate that part of myself. But I’ve tried and tried to change it on my own and only experienced minimal success, which I’ve come to realize was nothing more than preplanning my behaviors based on given scenarios. Seeing as I am incapable of actually changing my heart, my trust is now in him to do it.

What does that mean for my life? It means I will experience lots and lots of fiery trials. Jesus works like a silversmith: He continues the cycle of sticking me in the fire, pulling me out, and then scraping off the impurities until he sees a crystal clear reflection of himself. This is the way he changes our hearts. I’m currently in the midst of a big fiery trial which is very painful, but I have hope that he knows what he’s doing and that I’ll come out on the other side looking more like him.

I want the same for you. As a matter of fact, I want to see Jesus transform the hearts of every single person on the planet, including the heart of Nikolas Cruz.

Simply declaring criminals as mentally ill and locking them up for the rest of their lives isn’t going to fix the mass shooting problem. Even putting more regulations on who can and can’t buy certain guns isn’t going to fix the problem. Some of these measures may curtail these behaviors a little bit, but the problem is still going to exist because we’re not dealing with what I believe to really be the (no pun intended) heart of the issue. Me, you, and every other person on this planet needs a complete heart transformation. This is the only way we’re going to be able to experience a world with no more mass shootings.

What are your thoughts? Do you think people kill other people because of an evil heart condition? What about your heart condition? Is it evil too or do you have a good heart? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2002), 152-58.
[2] See Genesis 4:1-16.
[3] See John 15:1-8, 2 Corinthians 3:18, and Romans 8:28-30.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Who Would You Choose to Be Your Pastor?

Imagine you’re on the team at your church that is responsible to hire a new Senior Pastor. Your team has met many times to get all your ducks in a row. You’ve reviewed the elder/pastor qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. You’ve discussed what type of pastor you think would be best for your congregation. And you’ve discussed the amount of money you plan to offer him. So you create the job posting, post it on a few websites, and wait for responses.

Your First Response

A couple days later, you receive your first response. It’s from an Iraqi named Abraham. So you begin to scan his résumé. The first thing you see is that he claims God has spoken to him on multiple occasions. On one such occasion, God called him to move from Iraq to Israel because God had promised him land there. On another occasion, God had promised him a son by his elderly wife, Sarah. And on another occasion, God called him to sacrifice this son. In all three cases, Abraham believed God would do what he promised to do.

As you continue reading, you see that the rest of his résumé isn’t quite so flattering. On one occasion, he moved to Egypt and told a fib that his wife was his sister because he was afraid the Egyptians would kill him to get to her. Apparently he didn’t learn his lesson on this matter because he did the same thing again when he was back in Israel. As you continue reading, you see another red flag: he has multiple wives. Not only was Sarah his wife, but he also married her servant, Hagar, and had a concubine, Keturah. Remember that “belief” Abraham had in God about which you already read? Well, you find out that when God promised Abraham a son and things weren’t working right with Sarah, he married Hagar in order to have a son with her thinking this might be the son of the promise.

Based on his résumé, would you choose Abraham to be your next Senior Pastor?

Your Second Response

A few more days pass and you receive another résumé, this time from a Middle Easterner named Isaac. So you begin taking a look at his résumé. The first thing you notice is that his résumé is much smaller than Abraham’s résumé, which means there’s probably a lot stuff hidden in his life. As you begin scanning it, you see that like Abraham, Isaac claims to have spoken directly with God. But this appears to be the only mention of God in his résumé. How deep do you really think his relationship is with God?

Furthermore, as you continue reading, you begin finding some dirt on Isaac. First, he consummated his marriage with Rebekah before he had even gotten a chance to get to know her. Second, he pulled the same stunt as Abraham one time by lying to a king saying that his wife, Rebekah, was his sister. Third, although his two oldest sons were twins, his choice of which son would be heir of the promise God made to him was different than the one God chose.

Based on his résumé, would you choose Isaac to be your next Senior Pastor?

Your Third Response

Before your posting expires, you receive one final response from another Middle Easterner named Jacob. Having not been super impressed with the first two applicants, you were hoping maybe Jacob would be a better candidate. So you began looking at his résumé. To start with, you see that Jacob claims to have met with God face to face and that during this encounter, God changed his name to Israel. That’s pretty significant! Then you see that Jacob is a hard worker and a good shepherd. All great qualities to have for a pastor!

But then as you continue reading, you find that Jacob has more dirt on his record than the other two combined. When Jacob was a teenager, he tricked his twin brother into selling him his birthright as the oldest child. A few years later, he deceived his ailing father by pretending to be his brother so that he would receive the best blessing. Because his brother was angry with him, he went to live with his uncle’s family in Syria who worship a different set of gods than Jacob. On the way there he tried to bargain with God.

When he arrived at his uncle’s place, he fell in love with his cousin, Rachel, and asked for her hand in marriage. He and his uncle made an agreement for Jacob to marry Rachel, but his uncle deceived him by giving him his older daughter, Leah, instead. A week later, Jacob also married Rachel. After Leah was bearing children but Rachel wasn’t, Rachel gave Jacob her servant as his wife. When she bore children, Leah also gave Jacob her servant as his wife, meaning Jacob has four wives.

After living with his uncle’s family for a while, Jacob decided to go back home to Palestine. So he packed up his family and stuff and left his uncle’s family without saying “Goodbye.” On his way out the door, Rachel stole her father’s household gods, meaning that she doesn’t worship the same God as Jacob.

Jacob has twelve wild sons with his four wives. His oldest son slept with Leah’s servant, the one who was Jacob’s wife. His second two sons killed every male in a local city all by themselves when their sister was raped by the prince of the city. His fourth son slept with his own daughter-in-law thinking she was a prostitute and had twins by her. And some of his sons sold his favorite son to a band of traders who sold him as a servant in Egypt.

Based on his résumé, would you choose Jacob to be your next Senior Pastor?

Meeting with Your Team

Prior to meeting with the rest of the team, you decide to do a quick evaluation of the applicants. What do you think about Abraham? He does appear to have a lot of faith. What do you think about Isaac? He has the least amount of dirt on his résumé. Or what do you think about Jacob? He is the father of an entire nation. Would you choose to proceed forward with interviewing any of these guys for the open Senior Pastor position?

Now that your team is together, they read together the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. After deliberating for a little while, they conclude that they can’t justify interviewing any of these candidates because they all fail the tests. None of them are above reproach. Two of them have multiple wives. None of them are really all that respectable. Two of them are unable to keep their children submissive. There’s little evidence of faith in one of them. Only one of them seems to know more than a couple attributes of God, making them disqualified to teach. And none of them are thought of well by outsiders, hence the reason why they must’ve lied so much about their wives. Time to go back to the drawing board!

God’s Perspective

Based on their résumés, I don’t know a single church in this country who would entertain the idea of hiring one of these three men to be their Senior Pastor. All three of them led pretty messed up lives.

Yet, these are the men who God associates himself with throughout the Bible; he claims to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham is cited over and over again as a role model for faith. Jacob is cited over and over again as the father of the nation of Israel. And his twelve sons are cited over and over again as the twelve tribes of Israel.

I recognize that these three men were never in the running for a pastoral role at a church to shepherd the flock, so you could say that I’m not comparing apples to apples. You’re right, I’m not comparing apples to apples, but for a different reason.

Which currently presiding Senior Pastor is ever going to have his story told in the Bible for all generations of people to read? Not a single pastor living today is going to have his story told for generations and generations. But people have been hearing the stories of these three guys for about 3,500 years. They were shepherds in their own ways while they were living and continue on as shepherds even though they’re no longer on the earth. Yet, God chose these three guys to be the fathers of his people.

What’s the Application for Us?

I could cite many people throughout the Bible who God chose not only to belong to him, but to lead his people, who wouldn’t have met the “qualifications” for elders/pastors. Look at Moses. Look at David. Look at Paul. None of them met all the criteria listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, yet he chose them anyway.

God doesn’t choose people to be his followers based upon their merits. If he did, none of us would qualify. Even the Pharisees who dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” weren’t righteous enough for God to choose them. As a matter of fact, Jesus passed right over them when he chose twelve men to be his disciples.

God saw Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as righteous because God imputed that righteousness to them which he was able to do because of Jesus’s death on the cross, not because of anything they did to earn it. In the same way, God sees all of his chosen people today as righteous, not because of anything they did to earn it, but because Jesus’s righteousness is imputed to them. It doesn’t matter how bad your résumé is; God can still choose you and make you righteous.

I’m challenging us to rethink what Paul intended when he wrote 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Did he really intend for us to only allow people whose lives look like the ideal person mentioned in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 to be pastors/elders? Or did he intend something else? How do we marry these two ideologies, one which shows that God chooses whomever he wants regardless of their qualifications and one which appears to indicate that we should only choose people who meet a certain set of qualifications?

I welcome additional discussion around this topic.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Why I Read the Bible Every Day

For the past seventeen years, I’ve read at least a chapter of the Bible, and most of the time two or more chapters, every single day. In that time, I’ve been able to read it cover to cover more than a dozen times (I lost count a long time ago). What is so significant about this huge book that would cause me to read it over and over again? Do I think I’m gaining brownie points with God for my dutiful commitment to reading it? Do I think it offers me guidance for my life? Or do I like reading so much that I devour any and every book I can find?

I don't read it for any of these reasons. Reading the Bible doesn't earn me any favor with God. At times, I do find that it offers me guidance for my life, but that’s definitely not one of the top reasons I read it. And although it may seem to others that I like to read, reading is not really one of my hobbies; I’d much rather spend my time doing something active than sitting in a chair reading a book.

So why do I choose to set aside a chunk of time every day to read the Bible? I can think of three main reasons which I'll unpack in this article.

It’s the Word of God

Have you ever thought to yourself or maybe even said out loud, “I wish God would speak to me”? I’ve had those same thoughts many times. Sometimes I wish he’d speak to me like he did to Abraham, Moses, Elijah, or one of the other Old Testament prophets. After all, isn’t God a personal God who desires to have a relationship with us? Yet, my prayer times seemed like nothing more than me doing all the talking and him doing all the listening. I’d even pause sometimes waiting for a response…but I’d hear absolutely nothing.

Although God doesn’t choose to speak to me or you audibly, he has chosen to leave us with everything he wants to communicate to us; he’s given us his Word via the Bible. In order to hear from God, I read the Bible. If I want to hear him audibly, I read it out loud…haha just joking! The Bible is God’s revelation about himself to us, both his character and his actions. Since I love God more than anyone or anything else, I read the Bible in order to get to know who he is and read about some of the ways he’s brought glory to his name throughout history.

It Focuses Me on God and His Glory

Maybe you’re much better at this than I am, but for some reason, I have a really hard time staying focused. I’ll be focused on something and then…SQUIRREL! I get distracted pretty easily. Of course I have a desire to worship God all day, but it doesn’t seem to take much for me to get distracted from that focus. When I first started reading the Bible every day, I would read it at night before I went to bed. In the past year, I’ve changed my reading time to the morning because I’ve noticed that the refocus every morning is much more helpful to my highly distracted mind.

As a normal human who tends to lose my peripheral vision and only see what’s going on in my own little world, the daily refocus on God enables me to recognize the bigger picture of who God is, what he is doing in the world around us, and see that it all serves to bring him glory. I seem to forget that all the time. For some reason, I wake up every morning thinking that my purpose is to bring myself glory. But it’s not. My purpose is to bring God glory. And apparently I need to be reminded of that every day. When I read the Bible, it’s hard to miss this point because it shows up on seemingly every single page. It’s literally everywhere!

It Satisfies My Soul

I’ve written quite a few articles which focus on God satisfying us completely in a way that no one and nothing else can do. Reading the Bible is the primary means through which I get a chance to experience his all-satisfying power.

When I wake up every morning, I’m hungry. So the first thing I do is eat two large bowls of cereal for breakfast. After my stomach is full, I feel ready to go for the day. In the same way, reading the Bible fills up my spiritual stomach every morning. After reading the Bible, I feel refreshed and ready to take on the challenges of the day. As one of the biblical writers once wrote, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”[1]

Strategies to Get You Started

I’ve heard lots of people express an interest in reading the Bible more regularly, but for one reason or another, they don’t do it. Maybe the thought of reading a thousand-page book is too overwhelming. Maybe they don’t know where to start. Maybe they struggle to understand what it’s saying. I can relate with all those struggles because I’ve experienced them too. If you have a desire to read the Bible but feel like one of these barriers is standing in your way, I want to help you overcome that barrier. Therefore, I’m going to address each of these three barriers and provide some strategies for overcoming them.

It’s Overwhelming

Is the thought of reading a thousand-page book overwhelming to you? It can definitely be a daunting task to the person who doesn’t make a hobby out of reading War and Peace or Les Miserables. No one can read the entire Bible in a day. Personally, I find it helpful to break it down into smaller, manageable chunks. For me, these chunks are chapters. If you haven’t regularly read the Bible before, maybe a great place to start would be to read a chapter a day. As you continue reading every day, you may find that after you’ve finished your chapter, you want to keep reading the next chapter and the one after that. In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t take that long to read a chapter. Bible chapters don’t take nearly as long to read as chapters in a normal book. It typically only takes me about 5 to 10 minutes to read a Bible chapter. If reading the Bible seems overwhelming, I have two words of encouragement for you. First, break the Bible down into chunks that are manageable for you to tackle rather than trying to do what’s most manageable for your spiritual giant friend who’s been reading the Bible every day for thirty years. Second, read every single day at the same time of the day rather than trying to do it whenever you have free time because more than likely, you’ll find that your free time will get eaten up with other things that seem much more important at the time.

Where to Start

Do you struggle knowing where to start? I’m a fairly logical person, so when I started reading the Bible, the most logical place to start seemed to be the beginning of Genesis and then I continued reading until I reached the end of Revelation. Over the years, I’ve tried different reading orders such as reading the New Testament first and then reading the Old Testament, reading one chapter from each of the Old and New Testament, and reading the Bible in chronological order. All of these variations have worked and have been helpful to my understanding of it, but the simplest solution I’ve found is to read it straight from Genesis to Revelation. Why do I suggest reading the whole Bible and not just the New Testament? Because the whole Bible is important and applicable to our understanding of who God is. There will be parts you won’t understand the first, second, and third time you read them. Even after reading it more than a dozen times, there are still parts I don’t understand. But over time as the Holy Spirit continues to open our spiritual eyes to understanding what’s in there and as we become more familiar with the grand narrative being told throughout the Bible, we’ll began to understand the previously non-understandable parts more and more.

It’s Hard to Understand

Does it seem like the Bible is hard to understand? It is. It’s not always as straightforward as we’d like it to be. Some parts of it are pretty cryptic and other parts are just flat out impossible to understand unless we understand the cultural context behind it. A good place to start might be to read a version of the Bible that’s easier to understand such as the New Living Translation or The Message. My hesitation with these translations is that there’s a lot interpretation done on the part of the translators which may or may not be theologically accurate. However, these translations phrase the wording in such a way that it’s much easier to understand. I’ve read the whole Bible using the New King James Version, The Message, NIV, and ESV, but the version I now read almost solely is the ESV because I think is pretty easy to follow, yet holds fairly true to the original languages and sentence structures used by the biblical writers, leaving less room for interpretation on the part of the translators. Another helpful resource available to us are Bible commentaries. These resources provide a lot of the context behind the writings and connect passages scattered throughout the Bible to one another. The one I would highly recommend is John MacArthur’s commentary. Another one which seems to be pretty theologically sound is the Crossway ESV Study Bible. Whatever resource(s) you decide to use, I would encourage you try one and stick to it for at least a few months. If you’re serious about trying to make sense of it, I’m pretty sure you’ll get a lot out of it.

Do you read the Bible every day? If so, why? If you want to start reading the Bible every day but haven't done it yet, what barriers are standing in your way? I’d love to walk alongside you to overcome these barriers, so feel free to share in the comments section below, on social media, or by dropping me an email. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

[1] Psalm 119:103.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

For years, I was baffled about why we have two political parties (in addition to a few smaller ones) that can’t seem to agree on anything. It seems like in congressional vote after congressional vote, the majority of people in the Republican Party vote one way and the majority of people in the Democratic Party vote the other. In Presidential elections, the majority of people who claim to be Republican vote Republican and the majority of people who claim to be Democrat vote Democrat.

I often wondered what would happen if we were somehow able to split this country in two by separating out the Democrats into one country and the Republicans into the other. Would our disagreements be extinguished? Would the people in each country actually be able to live at peace with one another?

Then I began to recognize that the divisiveness of this country isn’t merely drawn on political party lines; our divisiveness runs a whole lot deeper than that. We are divided over race, gender, social class, and athletic teams, just to name a few of the prominent ones. Could we apply my plan to separate people out further and further until we reach a point at which every little subgrouping could live at peace with one another? For example, let say we took all the Caucasian, male, upper class, Buckeye, Republicans and put them in a country together. Would they be able to live at peace with one another? They’d have so much in common; how could they possibly be divided?

You and me and everyone else I know would love to live in a world where we could cut the divisiveness and live at peace with one another. But is peace attainable? And if it is, how do we get there?

What Would a Peaceful World Look Like?

Here’s my vision of what a peaceful world would look like. It’s a world where there aren’t any wars; a world where there’s no crime; a world where there’s no threat of terrorism. We could go about our days without fear that someone is trying to hurt or even kill us.

It’s a world where diverse people get along with one another. The diversity of people on this planet is a great asset to humanity. It would be a place where no one person or group of people are valued more than others based upon one of their characteristics or merits, but a place where everyone’s characteristics and merits are valued equally.

It’s a world where the thought of competing against one another to see who’s the best doesn’t even cross our minds; it’s a world where decisions are reached by consensus; it’s a world where the love we all have for one another outshines both our differences and our insistence on getting our own way.

What’s your vision of a peaceful world? Would you add or subtract anything from mine?

On the whole, we probably all have pretty similar visions of what a peaceful world would look like. So why haven’t we attained it? Why haven’t we reached a point where we are all living at peace with one another?

Can We Attain Peace?

As many of you reading this article know, my go-to authority for dealing with life is the Bible. I have yet to find a life struggle I’m facing that isn’t addressed in the Bible in some way. If you’d like a challenge, I encourage you to come up with a life topic that’s not somehow addressed in the Bible and then send it my way. I’m more than willing to take you up on the challenge.

Let’s take a look at the Bible to see what we can find in there relating to peace and division.

According to Paul, the writer of Galatians, one of the fruits of the Spirit is peace and one of the fruits of the flesh is division.[1] What does he mean by fruit? A common metaphor used throughout the Bible when referring to people is that they are plants. All healthy plants bear fruit. An apple tree bears apples while a pear tree bears pears. You wouldn’t expect an apple tree to bear pears or a pear tree to bear apples. In the same way, the biblical writers claim that people who are truly disciples of Jesus will bear a certain kind of fruit, the fruit of the Spirit, while people who aren’t disciples of Jesus will bear a different kind of fruit, the fruit of the flesh.

According to the Bible, when God first created human beings, they were made as trees which bore fruit of the Spirit. But when they sinned against God, their trees were transformed into trees which only bore fruit of the flesh. The bad seeds were passed along to their children and their children’s children and so on.

After “the fall,” it didn’t take humans long to begin creating divisions amongst themselves. In the second generation of humans, when there were only a small handful of people on the earth, one of them was a farmer and another was a shepherd. The farmer got angry because his brother, the shepherd, seemed to have more favor with God than him. So he rose up against his brother and killed him.

Humanity has a long history dating all the way back to the first humans to walk on the face of the earth of divisiveness amongst one another rather than peace. Certainly there have been times throughout history when peace was attained to some degree or another amongst large groups of people, but it only lasted as long as these groups had a common enemy, an enemy with whom they were not at peace. At no time in history has the entire world been able to experience peace, even for a second.

Is world-wide peace attainable? Only if the fruit of the flesh and its passions are completely destroyed and replaced with the fruit of the Spirit. As long as there is sin and sinners on the earth, we’re going to experience divisions.

How about amongst the small groupings of people I once proposed putting together that had so much in common? Would they be able to experience peace, even amongst themselves? I don’t think so. I think they’d find something over which to divide themselves.

To be super blunt, I have absolutely no hope in humans to attain peace amongst ourselves. We’d have to rid ourselves of all pride and egotism to make it happen. Good luck with that one!

But I still hold out hope for both seeing and experiencing the type of peace I envision.

Where Can Peace Be Found?

How could I possibly have hope for seeing and experiencing peace if I’ve concluded that world-wide peace is unattainable? Great question! I’m glad you asked.

If peace is a fruit of the Spirit, then a place full of the Spirit and devoid of the flesh would be a place where peace is attainable. Is there such a place? Yes, there is: heaven, the place where God dwells. I hold out hope for finding peace with God.

But that’s not the end of the story. I also believe that since the Holy Spirit is in the process of transforming our hearts, I can find peace with some people while I’m here on the earth. This peace will not be found in community with people who share a common enemy, but will be found in community with people who share a common hope: a hope in Jesus. It’s here that our love for one another, a love which comes from God, will be so powerful that it outshines all the little things over which we could be divided. It’s here where we will get a chance to catch a glimpse of the everlasting peace we will one day experience when we are finally able to be with God for the rest of eternity.

[1] For Paul’s lists of the fruit of the flesh and fruit of the Spirit, see Galatians 5:19-23.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Who Are the Poor, Needy, and Oppressed?

Whether you’re a Bible-reading person or not, most of us have heard reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus told this parable because someone asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Although an initial glance at this question may lead us to believe it was a stupid question, I think it was actually a very intelligent question. When someone uses a word in vague terms, such as in this case when we were commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, it can be extremely helpful to clarify the intended definition of the word. In response, Jesus told a story to provide the man with his definition of a neighbor.

In the Gospels, Jesus spoke quite a bit about poor, needy, and oppressed people and the role he’s called us to play in serving them. At the onset of Jesus’s ministry, he stated:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[1]

Jesus obviously believed he was commissioned to serve poor, needy, and oppressed people. And he called his disciples to do the same. In Matthew 25, Jesus said:

“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For 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.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we [do all these things]?” And the King will answer them, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”[2]

It’s intriguing, though, that no one asked Jesus to define these terms for us. No one followed up by asking the question, “Who are the poor, needy, and oppressed?”

Who Is My Neighbor?

If you’re familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan, do you remember the definition Jesus gave for the word “neighbor?” Was it the same definition you had of a neighbor? If you’re unfamiliar with this story, I’ll briefly share it using modern-day terms.

Let’s say you’re an avid Ohio State Buckeye fan and you’re traveling north on SR23 through Ann Arbor. As you’re going through Ann Arbor, your car breaks down along the side of the road. You pick up your cell phone to call a tow-truck, but as you try to turn it on, you realize the battery is dead. So you have no choice but to try to flag down someone to help you.

About fifteen minutes later, as you’re looking off into the distance, you see an Ohio State bus coming down the road. What are the chances of that, especially in Ann Arbor? As fellow Buckeyes, surely they’d stop to help you. But the bus driver doesn’t skip a beat and continues driving the bus right on by you. About a half hour later, you see a tow-truck with Ohio license plates coming your way. Wow! Could this really be happening? So you wave your arms in the air trying to get the tow-truck driver’s attention. But just like the bus driver, he doesn’t skip a beat and continues driving right on by.

Now you’re getting pretty discouraged. The drivers of two most-promising vehicles didn’t even pause for a moment to try to help you. Overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and paralysis, you open your car door, sit down in the seat, and put your head in your hands. A couple minutes later, you hear someone call out, “Hey, you need some help?” As you turn around, you see a rough-looking guy wearing a navy blue hoodie with a big yellow M on it standing behind your vehicle. Behind him is a beat up, rusty vehicle from the 90s which you can only assume belongs to him. Having no other choices at this point, you agree to let him help you. He calls for a tow-truck and has your vehicle towed to the nearest mechanic shop. But he’s not finished yet; he then proceeds to pay the entire repair bill for you, even after you insist that you can cover it.

In this story, which of the three people acted most like your neighbor? The Ohio State Buckeye bus driver, the Ohio license-plated-tow-truck driver, or the avid Michigan fan? I know, it hurts to say it doesn’t it? The Michigander proved to be your neighbor, even though you live in different states and cheer for archrival sports teams.

Was this the definition you were expecting? When I picture my neighbors, the first people that pop in my head are the ones who live next door and across the street from me. But that’s not the way Jesus defined neighbors. He opened up the definition to be inclusive of anyone, even of Samaritans and Michigan Wolverine fans.

If someone would’ve asked Jesus to define “poor, needy, and oppressed,” how do you think he would’ve defined it? Do you think he would’ve defined it the way we define it, or do you think he would’ve defined it differently? Although no one actually asked Jesus this question, I will take a look at a passage of the Bible which points to the definition I believe Jesus used when he discussed serving the poor, needy, and oppressed.

Who Are the Poor, Needy, and Oppressed?

When we think of poor, needy, or oppressed people, we typically think of homeless people, people in Africa with no food or water, or people who are being trafficked as slaves. Certainly these people are poor, needy, and/or oppressed. There’s no doubt about that. But if Jesus was to answer this question, I think he’d approach the question from a different angle than we approach it.

A couple years ago, a group of my friends formed a team for a day-long service project in Findlay called Backyard Mission Trip. Throughout the day, we worked on projects for two different local homeowners. The first homeowner was an elderly widow who lived by herself and struggled to get around. The second homeowner was also an elderly widow, but she was much more mobile and had two of her grandkids living with her. While recapping the day, one of my friends said he really liked helping the first homeowner because it seemed like she really needed the help. But he didn’t like helping the second homeowner because it seemed like she really didn’t need the help, not to mention that her two grandkids sat there all day watching TV while we did all the work.

A few months later, I was chatting with a friend about volunteering at Habitat for Humanity and he proceeded to tell me about an experience he had with Habitat during college. He said he was volunteering his time one Saturday to help build a Habitat home in his college town when the homeowner drove up in a really nice vehicle, much nicer than the vehicle my friend owned. You can imagine how my friend felt; he had volunteered because he wanted to help people less fortunate than him, not people who had it better than him.

I share these stories to demonstrate a common mentality we, as Americans, have towards helping poor, needy, and oppressed people. None of us want to be thought of as poor, needy, or oppressed since that’s not the American sign of success, but we’re willing to help poor, needy, and oppressed people by giving a little of our money, time, and energy to help them. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to serve people, but doesn’t our attitude convey quite a bit of arrogance? We’re basically saying, “I want to help you but I won’t allow you to help me.” We’ll give our money or volunteer our time if we think it’s being used to feed homeless people, but we won’t offer to help our neighbors across the street, our friends, or our families. This isn’t the way Jesus approached people at all.

Jesus approached everyone with loving compassion, regardless of their apparent needs. He approached the rich young ruler the same way he approached people in desperate situations: he had compassion on them. He recognized that they were “harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.”[3]

His final message to the church came in the book of Revelation. At the beginning of the book, Jesus delivered individualized messages to the church in seven different cities. One such message was delivered to the church in Laodicia which is located in modern-day Turkey. At the time of this writing, the city of Laodicea was the wealthiest in the region and was known for its banking, wool, and medicine industries. In an outward sense, the people appeared to be very well off. As he said, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing...”[4] Does that statement sound familiar? It sounds like something Americans would say. We thrive on the ideal of achieving wealth and autonomy, reaching a point where we are completely self-sufficient and don’t need anything from anyone.

Meanwhile, here’s how Jesus finished his sentence: “not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”[5] How could Jesus say that about them? They weren’t poor; all of their basic needs were met. They weren’t blind; they could all see clearly with their eyes. They weren’t naked; they were all well-clothed. They weren’t terrible people; they were probably all pretty good citizens. Jesus wasn’t claiming that they were physically wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked; he was claiming that they were spiritually wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Physically they had it all together, but spiritually, they were bankrupt.

Based on this knowledge, how do you think Jesus would respond if someone was to pose our question to him today, “Who are the poor, needy, and oppressed?” Do you think he would define these people as the physically poor, needy, and oppressed? I don’t think so. I think he’d define these people as those who are spiritually poor, needy, and oppressed.

How Does This Definition Impact Us?

Understanding what the biblical writers meant when they talked about poor, needy, and oppressed people has completely changed the way I approach life. First, as an average American who sought to achieve great success in life, I spent many years striving to become completely self-sufficient. I never believed I was poor, needy, or oppressed. Yet, God has shown me that I fit all of those categories. I was (and still am to some degree) spiritually poor, spiritually needy, and spiritually oppressed. I was spiritually dead, but God has raised me to life in Jesus. I was spiritually oppressed by the devil, but God has set me free from it and continues to set me more and more free every day. And I am still spiritually needy in that I need God’s love, grace, and strength to make it through every day of my life. I hoped I would never have to say this and now here I am saying it: I’m a needy person.

Second, to one degree or another, everyone is spiritually poor, needy, and oppressed. Recognizing my own condition allows me to feel love and compassion for all the people around me. I no longer discriminate against serving certain people based upon whether I think they fit into my man-made categories, but choose to serve people every single day regardless of their physical condition.

Before reading this article, what was the definition you thought Jesus had of poor, needy, and oppressed people? Now that you’ve read this article, have your thoughts on it changed? Or do you think my claim is way off base? How does this definition of poor, needy, and oppressed people impact you and the way you live?

[1] Luke 4:18-19.
[2] Matthew 25:34-40.
[3] Matthew 9:36.
[4] Revelation 3:17a.
[5] Revelation 3:17b.