Subscribe by Email

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Taking Revenge

My freshman year of high school, I was chosen to be the starting pitcher for my high school baseball team. I wasn’t actually that good of a pitcher; it just so happened that I was the only one in our high school of 100 people and team of 13 who could consistently throw strikes.

A few games into the season, my team faced Miami Valley School, another team in our conference. I was called on to take the mound. They must’ve eaten their Wheaties that morning because they came ready to play. In the first two innings, they scored 11 runs on us including a multi-run homer. With one out to go in the second, my coach finally came to my rescue and pulled me from the mound. My confidence was so shaken from the massacre that I refused to pitch for the rest of the season claiming that my arm was hurting.

My sophomore year, I decided not to play. My junior year, we had a new coach and he didn’t ask me to pitch, which was just fine with me. My senior year, we got yet another new coach. Instead of asking everyone what positions they played, he had every one try out for every position. I was still so scarred from the Miami Valley experience that when it was my turn to try out for pitcher, I purposely sabotaged my tryout and didn’t throw a single strike. Needless to say, he decided I wasn’t going to be one of the team’s pitchers. Meanwhile, I was still harboring a great deal of bitterness against Miami Valley for what they did to me in that game three years previously.

By the midway point of the season, our team was in trouble. All of our pitchers had sore arms and needed to save them for the games, so we didn’t have anyone to throw balls for batting practice. As the team captain, I decided to confess to my coach that I could actually pitch and made an agreement with him that I’d pitch during batting practice if, and only if, he never asked me to pitch in a game. He agreed and batting practice started.

As we got near the end of the season, I looked at the schedule and noticed that we were playing Miami Valley School for our last game. What better chance to get even than in my last career high school baseball game. So I approached my coach and asked him if he’d let me pitch in that final game. After giving it some thought, he agreed and I was set to make my season debut on the same mound in which I had made my last debut three years earlier.

As I walked to the mound, a flood of emotions came back. Like a tape from a bad dream, I could vividly see the previous game replay in my head. After allowing myself a couple moments to cope with my nightmare, I gathered myself together and began what would become the best pitching outing of my career. We ended up winning the game by a large margin and I walked away with a standing ovation from the crowd. It was what some would call, “sweet revenge.”

The Biblical Perspective on Revenge

If I was faced with the same situation today, I don’t think I’d respond the same way I did as a senior in high school. First, I don’t think I’d sit around for three years waiting for an opportunity to seek revenge against a team that scored double digits on me. And second, I don’t think I’d feel the same desire to get even with them. It’s not that I have some higher moral code that I adhere to today that I didn’t back then; I just don’t operate that way anymore. Sometimes I talk like I operate that way, but when it comes down to it, I can’t bring myself to take revenge on someone. And I don’t see that as a bad thing.

Many years ago, there was a shepherd boy named David who won the hearts of the people after defeating their arch nemesis, a nine-foot giant by the name of Goliath. The only problem was that he wasn’t the king; a guy by the name of Saul was the king. Saul, feeling that David was a threat to his kingly position, sought to kill David.

Twice, Saul tried to impale David with a spear. David, recognizing that Saul was out to kill him, fled. And Saul pursued him time and time again. During one of Saul’s pursuits, David and his men were hiding in the back of a cave and Saul, not knowing they were there, entered the cave to take a dump. When David’s men realized it was Saul, they encouraged David to kill him. But David wouldn’t do it. Instead, David stealthily approached Saul and cut off a corner of his robe. Saul finished his business and left the cave, not knowing anything of what David had done.

After Saul was heading on his way, David came out of the cave and called to Saul, showing him the piece of his robe that had been cut off. He then said to Saul, “May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you.”[1]

How would you have responded in that situation? Would you have taken the opportunity to kill Saul so that he wouldn’t kill you? Or would you have let him go scot free like David did?

That’s probably a hard question to answer. So let’s put it in modern day terms. Let’s say you’re in a meeting with your boss and a group of high level managers. And let’s say one of the managers asks your boss why something didn’t get done correctly and instead of taking ownership of it, he decides to blame it on you and throw you under the bus, even though it wasn’t your fault. I imagine most of us would be bitter towards our boss and be actively searching for an opportunity to get revenge.

But that’s not what David did. He didn’t attempt to get revenge on Saul because he didn’t see vengeance as something that belonged to him; he saw vengeance as something that belonged to God: “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay.”[2] That’s a starkly different way of looking at it than the way in which most of us are accustomed. Most of us think it’s our responsibility to get even with people who wrong us. That was the approach David’s buddies took. They were ready for him to seal the deal and get his revenge. But David trusted God as the righteous judge, not himself. Therefore, even when he had an opportunity to take revenge, he didn’t do it.

Up until a couple years ago, I would’ve been in the same camp as David’s buddies. If I was David, I would’ve killed Saul, reasoning that God had given my enemy into my hands to do with him whatever I wanted. But now, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to do it. Even if it was something much less life-threatening like my boss throwing me under the bus, I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to do something in order to try to get even.

Here’s the problem with seeking revenge. First, we elevate ourselves to the spot of a judge; we believe it’s within our power to issue punishment to someone based on the wrongs they’ve done to us. As the biblical writers tells us, we aren’t judges; God is the judge. If one of us has been elected or appointed to a position of a judge, that’s a different story. These people need to give righteous judgment. But most of us aren’t in that position, so we have no right to elevate ourselves to that position. And second, in the end, revenge accomplishes nothing productive. It may offer a miniscule amount of instant gratification, but in the long run, the only thing it does is create a larger relational chasm between you and the other person. Is it worth it?

Are We Called to Be Pushovers?

At this point, you may be wondering if that means God calls us to be pushovers. I don’t think so. Jesus wasn’t a pushover. And I don’t think we’re called to be one either. So here are my thoughts in answer to this question.

Although getting even with someone is not appropriate, I think it is appropriate to send a message to someone who is trying to push us around. And I think there’s a stark difference between the two. I’ll give you an example. When I was in sixth grade, there was a kid in my class who randomly enjoyed picking on me. Most days I tried to ignore it, but one day I decided I’d had enough. While I was trading books at my locker, he walked by and shut my locker on me. With only four minutes between classes and three numbers to cycle through on my combination lock, I didn’t have time to waste opening my locker for a second time. So instead of fiddling with the locker, I followed him out of the locker bay, positioned myself in such a way that he was between me and the wall, and then I gave him a full on body check into the wall. I wasn’t trying to get even; I was trying to communicate a simple message: Stop messing with me. I’m pretty sure he got the message because that was the last time he picked on me.

As an adult, I don’t suggest body checking people into walls as a way of communicating a message. I’m sure you can come up with some other, more mature ways to deal with these types of situations. My point, however, is that sometimes it can be very productive to send a simple message to someone who’s trying to push us around. I would highly encourage this approach over trying to get even.

Have you encountered situations where you sought to take revenge on someone? How did it go? Is there someone on whom you’re actively seeking to take revenge? What might be a more productive approach?

[1] 1 Samuel 24:12.
[2] Deuteronomy 32:35.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Dealing with Holiday Stress

As of today, Christmas is only 27 days away. And of course, there’s tons of shopping, planning, and traveling to take place in the Pierce household between now and the New Year. Since I missed out on all the great deals this past week, I guess I’m going to have to spend the big bucks to finish my Christmas shopping!

I’ve noticed that during the end-of-year holiday season, everyone seems to act differently. They’re more stressed, more rushed, less patient, and less available. When I step back and think about how my behaviors change, I realize I don’t want to be like that. I don’t like the person I become.

I wonder if most of us have ever considered whether we really want to live this way. And I wonder if we’ve ever considered whether we can do something to make things different. I encourage you to think through these two questions and draw your own conclusions. In the meantime, I’ll share mine.

Do I Really Want to Live This Way?

No! I don’t want to live this way. It’s absolutely crazy.

Americans seem to value Thanksgiving and Christmas for various reasons. For me, Thanksgiving is valuable because I get a chance to spend time with some of my family members thanking God for all he’s given to us, including yummy turkey, mashed potatoes, and yes, even green bean casserole. And I value Christmas because I get a chance to spend time with some of my family members to remember and celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus, whose payment has brought us into fellowship with God. Many others in my family share the same sentiments, so it works out really well for all of us.

But there are also other traditions we hold which seem like they’re not worth the personal cost. A great example of this is gift giving. Every year we all stress out about what to get for each other, but I think if you asked all of us, you’d find that the thing we value the most about Christmas is spending time together, not giving gifts. Why do we continue to let gift giving burden us year after year? Why can’t we simply gather together for Christmas like we do for Thanksgiving to enjoy each other’s company?

I get that some people look forward to some of their yearly traditions, such as gift giving. And honestly, there’s nothing unethical or wrong about it. If that’s something you and your family enjoy doing, go for it. The question we need to ask is this: Are our traditions controlling us? And if they are, do we need to consider doing something different?

Can I Do Something Different?

This raises another question: Do we even have the power to do something different? It’s one thing to say that we want things to be different, but it’s another to actually make it different. When it comes down to it, I think we have a lot more power than we realize to do something differently.

If we want to see change happen, probably the best place to start is with our immediate families. For example, Amy and I usually don’t buy gifts for each other specifically for Christmas. That doesn’t mean we don’t buy stuff for each other throughout the year, because we do, but we give them when we buy them rather than saving everything up to give all at one time. We’ve found that the spontaneity of it makes it much more meaningful and impactful than saving them all up for one day. And it greatly reduces our stress levels during this season.

However, change is never easy. It’s very difficult to change a tradition that people, especially family members, have been doing for years. Even in your immediate family, you may find that proposing a change to a tradition is met with much resistance. If you’re set on making a change in order to provide added benefit for the family that’s met with resistance, then I’d suggest taking baby steps to get there rather than trying to make a drastic change all at once. Drastic changes rarely work well.

It’s okay to make some changes to enable all of you to focus on what you want to focus on and let the other stuff go that doesn’t help to accomplish that objective. This is my encouragement for us during the upcoming holiday season.

Do you really want to continue living this way every December? Or do you want something to change? What can you do to bring about some change so that you and your family are less stressed this year?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Deceptive Dream

You spent your life pursuing the American Dream. When you graduated from high school, you went to college and got a degree that would help you be successful in a corporate environment. After college, you landed a job working for a Fortune 500 company. Every couple years, you moved into a different position to get experience throughout the company. During this time, you worked your fingers to the bone wrapping your arms around your job and managed to succeed at every facet of your positions. In time, you found yourself being selected as the CEO of the company. For ten years, you ran the company, making huge decisions that impacted thousands of peoples’ lives. Then you opted to retire at age 62 and move to southern Florida where you hope to have many more years to kick back, relax, and enjoy the fruit of your labors.

At age 70, if you were to step back and ask yourself whether it was worth it, what would be your conclusion? Although you’re most likely not in this place, imagine for a minute that you are. Imagine that you were a successful businessman who rose to the position of CEO of a Fortune 500 company and that you’re now a retired Floridian. For the remainder of this article, I will be asking some questions that will hopefully help you to not only determine the direction you’re currently going, but also assist in helping you find the path you actually want to take in your life.

What Did You Gain?

Amy’s parents live in Naples, Florida and we usually visit them every year around Christmas. During our visits, we’ve been on a couple boat tours that have taken us by some homes that are in the $20 to $50 million price range. These homes are truly mansions. But that’s not what’s really at the heart of why they cost so much. The same house somewhere in Ohio wouldn’t cost $20 to $50 million. They’re so expensive because they’re located in a gated community that is situated on the water. The residents have quick and easy access to the ocean by walking out their back doors and taking a short boat ride through the bay. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the boats they use to get to the ocean are multi-level, multi-million dollar yachts. As you can imagine, these people have lots of money!

Is this your dream? Do you dream of owning a $50 million home and a multi-million dollar yacht? If this was you, what would be your daily routine? Would you get up well after sunrise, grab a cup of coffee and sit by your private pool to read the latest news, grab a quick lunch, take your boat out for an afternoon joy ride, eat dinner, wind down in front of the television with a good sporting event, go to sleep, and then get up and do it all over again?

I have to be honest–If this was my life for a couple days, I’d gladly take it, especially if someone else fixed all my meals. But if this was how I had to spend every day of the rest of my life, I’d absolutely hate it. Do you know how bored I’d be? I can’t even image how mundane it would be to wake up every day and do the same things over and over and over again. I’d probably die in a couple years out of sheer lack of mental stimulation.

Is it exhilarating to live in a mansion? I guess maybe some people think it is. The best part for me would be that I could spend time in a different room every day for a whole month and probably not get through all the rooms. But after a while, all thirty-plus rooms in my mansion would be just as commonplace as a one bedroom apartment. It’d lose the excitement. Owning a multi-million dollar yacht would also be pretty cool, at least for a little while. But like with the house, it’d lose its excitement and I’d get bored with it. After a while, I’d learn all its limitations and become disillusioned with it. Having my own private pool out back would be pretty awesome too, especially if I didn’t have to clean it. But again, after a while, I’m pretty sure it’d lose its excitement and I’d get bored with it.

So if I retired at age 62, by the time I was 70, I think I’d be pretty bored with all the stuff I had gained from becoming a slave to my job and working my fingers to the bone for forty years. What good would it be at that point? What would I really gain from my forty years of labor?

I ask you to consider the same questions. If you managed to get all this same stuff, would the excitement of it eventually wear off? Would you eventually get bored with it? Would it give you happiness for the rest of your life? Or would you reach a point where it fails to continue to keep you happy?

Our Ultimate Goal

I don’t think we pursue all this stuff just because we want the stuff; I think we pursue the stuff because of what we hope to gain from it: personal happiness. We hold out hope that this stuff will make us happy not just now, but for many years to come. Maybe your experiences have been different than mine, but my experiences with just a small fraction of this stuff have led me to believe that although some of it has the ability to make me happy for a short period of time, none of it has the ability to keep me happy me for a long period of time.

I’ll prove it to you. Think back through your experiences. When you were younger and first began eating chewable foods, you didn’t know the difference crappy food and gourmet food. But as you got older, you began to experience different tastes and recognized that some food was so much more flavorful than other food. For example, after you’ve eaten a fresh steak at a fancy restaurant in the Midwest, you can never go back to eating the crappy steaks at Outback Steakhouse. For a while, the crappy Outback steaks made you pretty happy, but after eating a Mitchell’s steak, it no longer makes you happy. However, you’d run into the same issue with Mitchell’s steaks if you ate them every single day? Would they continue to make you happy in the same way they did the first time? After a while, you’d get tired of them.

In the same way, at some point in time, all the stuff we currently have made us happy. But most of this stuff no longer makes us happy. Why would a better version make us happier? Maybe it would offer some instant gratification, but in the long run, wouldn’t you be back in the same spot where you are now; wouldn’t you reach a point where the better version would no longer make you happy? So you upgrade to the next version and then to the next version and eventually you have the best version that’s available. Won’t the happiness it provides eventually wear off as well? Of course it will. If we can’t be happy with a little, what makes us think we’ll be happy with a lot?

Based on this conclusion, here’s my encouragement to you: Stop being a slave to your job and working your fingers to the bone so that if you happen to live long enough to retire, you can purchase a $50 million house and private yacht in southern Florida. I don’t see how the gains can outweigh the costs, especially when you’d have to give up deep relationships with your family, friends, and God, in order to make it happen.

My Alternative

What would I encourage you to do instead? Here are my thoughts.

Happiness is not found in gaining everything nor is it found in giving up everything. According to Paul and countless other people throughout the history of humanity, eternal happiness is to be found in knowing the creator of the universe, not in the stuff he created. As Paul also once wrote, “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…”[1] By gaining Christ, Paul gained happiness.[2]

At that point, Paul’s happiness was no longer contingent upon succeeding in his career so that he could own a large mansion and private yacht in southern Florida. He could be in prison, shipwrecked on an island, or even suffering torturous floggings, yet he was still happy. Wouldn’t you like to experience that type of happiness too, a type of happiness which isn’t contingent upon your situation? If this is what you want, stop chasing after all those other deceptions like careers, wealth, 401k’s, mansions, and yachts and start chasing after Jesus. He says “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”[3]

Lest you think I’m making this stuff up based on some personal delusion, here are three quotes from others throughout history who have said the exact same thing:
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.[4]
There once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.[5]
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too week. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.[6]
My encouragement to you is to give up chasing after the American Dream and instead, chase after Jesus. It’s the only pursuit I will, with 100 percent certainty, say you can chase and not be disappointed with the results.

Have you found something that keeps you happy day after day, or do you find that you have to continue moving from one thing to the next in order to continue finding happiness? What are the people around you experiencing? What can you learn from their pursuits of happiness? Have you considered trying to gain Jesus instead?

[1] Philippians 3:7-8.
[2] In Philippians 4:11, he referred to it as contentment.
[3] Jeremiah 29:13.
[4] Psalm 16:11.
[5] Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensees, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 113, thought #425.
[6] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 26.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Why Did Martin Luther Start the Protestant Reformation?

A year ago today marked the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This date marked the beginning of the end of the sovereign reign of the Roman Catholic Church upon Western culture. Since this time, Christianity, which up until that point had been fairly united,[1] has taken on many different expressions and beliefs.

What most people don’t realize is that Martin Luther didn’t intend to separate himself from the Roman Catholic Church. And what most people also don’t realize are the beliefs that Luther held about God, humans, and salvation. In this article, I will be sharing why, based on my research, I believe Luther started the Protestant Reformation, and the primary way in which his soteriological (doctrine of salvation) beliefs were distinguished from those taught by the Roman Catholic Church.

Luther’s Revelation

Martin Luther was on his way to becoming a lawyer, but had a close encounter with death which frightened him into becoming an Augustinian monk. He quickly rose to become professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany.[2] But Luther was unsettled about something.

Luther strove for perfection, otherwise known as holiness. He took the monastic discipline as seriously as humanly possible. Yet, in his exhausting attempts to make himself holy, he still recognized the great magnitude of his sin compared to the righteousness of God.

To compound his distress, the gospel seemed like nothing more than bad news to a bunch of sinful people. As Luther read Paul’s letter to the Romans, this partial verse stood out to him: “In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed…”[3] Luther had been taught that this verse meant God had sent Jesus to earth to reveal the full and terrible reality of his divine righteousness, which in turn revealed the horrific state of humanity’s unrighteousness.[4] Where was the good news in this message, especially when humanity needed to “do their best,” which was first and foremost an act of the will to love God, in order to earn God’s grace and favor?[5] As Luther once wrote about this verse:
As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath![6]
The word “gospel” by definition means “good news.” How was this gospel good news?

But by God’s grace and mercy, Luther’s eyes were opened to understand Paul’s intentions when he wrote this statement. The full verse is, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”[7] As Luther then wrote:
There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.[8]
In other words, God, although a fair and just judge, ascribes Jesus’s righteousness to his people, not because of anything they’ve done to earn to it (their unrighteousness makes them completely unworthy of it), but because he chose to do it. This means the faith by which they receive it is also a gift from God. Now, this was good news. It was good news that Jesus paid for the sins of a bunch of unrighteous sinners so that they could be offered the free gift of his righteousness.

Luther’s 95 Theses

This revelation led Luther into further questioning of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, if righteousness isn’t something that can be earned, then why were people offered an opportunity to purchase indulgences from the church in order to “earn” their way out of purgatory faster? Early in 1517, Luther constructed 97 theses for debate at the university which was a common practice at the time. To Luther’s disappointment, his 97 theses garnered little attention.[9]

Later that year, on October 31, 1517, he constructed his famous 95 theses and sent a copy to his bishop and Prince Albert, one of the archbishops. A copy also fell into the hands of a man who owned a printing press who saw its marketing potential, mass produced it, and had it distributed throughout Germany. Luther’s stances in his 95 theses were relatively conservative as he spent most of it addressing the issue of selling indulgences; he did not question the authority of the pope or the existence of purgatory.[10]

Luther did not intend to separate himself from the Roman Catholic Church, but rather, he wanted to bring reform to it. But in the years shortly following, the church continued to alienate him more and more and reached a climax in 1521 at the Diet of Worms (a trial). Luther was put on the stand and asked to recant of his new beliefs. After refusing to recant, he was declared a heretic and excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

For the rest of his life, Luther continued to alienate himself further and further from the Roman Catholic Church. He put much of the institution into question, including the authority of the pope, and even went so far as to call the Roman Catholic Church the Antichrist prophesied in the New Testament.[11]

Martin Luther’s impact continues well beyond his lifetime, specifically his doctrine of salvation. It very quickly spread throughout Europe and impacted the theology of many contemporary reformers including John Calvin, the first Protestant to write a comprehensive book of theology. Protestants owe much of their doctrinal beliefs to the work of these two men.

How has Martin Luther’s legacy impacted your life?

[1] At that time, Christianity had already suffered one major division during the schism of 1054 when the Eastern Orthodox Church broke off from the Roman Catholic Church. In Europe, the church was still united due to the quick arrest and at times, death, of all people who expressed disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church.
[2] Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 155.
[3] Romans 1:17a.
[4] Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 150.
[5] Lane, A Concise History, 155.
[6] Martin Luther, “Preface to Latin Writings,” in Luther Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955-76, 34:336-37.
[7] Romans 1:17.
[8] Luther, “Preface to Latin Writings,” 34:336-37.
[9] Lane, A Concise History, 155.
[10] Ibid., 156.
[11] Ibid.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

How Comfort is Robbing You of Joy

What comforts do you desire? Do you desire a temperature-controlled house? Do you desire a predictable, relaxed, stable, forty-hour-a-week job? Do you desire heated seats in your SUV? Do you desire cushy, padded seats at church? Do you desire a lightning fast computer? Do you desire clean, private restrooms? None of these things are bad things. Comfort, in general, isn’t a bad thing. It can serve to keep us healthy in many ways.

But as I evaluate my own life experiences, I observe that some of the greatest joy I’ve experienced has been during times when I’ve been the least comfortable. I experienced joy during the service-oriented trips with my high school youth group that I reluctantly attended. I experienced joy when I moved up from C league to B league in hockey. I experienced joy when I gave up my stable jobs and started my own business. I experienced joy when I gave up the comforts of Churchianity and became a missionary to the people of Findlay. Isn’t that ironic? Comfort, the very thing in which many of us trust to provide us with joy, actually seems to be robbing us of it. Let’s take a closer look.

Sandbaggers Lack Joy

Sandbagger: A player who deliberately misrepresents and downplays his ability in order to derive an advantage over his opponents. Those of you who have played recreational sports are all too familiar with these people. They find their way into lower-skilled divisions because it’s more comfortable to play there than to be pushed outside of their comfort zones in higher-skilled divisions.

Personally, I’ve played in a few recreational hockey games where my skills were quite obviously superior to the skills of the people on the other team. Honestly, those games weren’t much fun for me. I can remember one in particular where I scored a breakaway backhand shot to the top corner of the net and we handily won the game. You would’ve thought I was overjoyed with the outcome, but as I drove home that night, I felt very dissatisfied.

Why? What was wrong with me? Wasn’t the level of comfort I felt in that game, the sweet goal I scored, and the win my team achieved supposed to give me joy? Why did I still feel dissatisfied?

Conversely, in the summer of 2015, I played on a team where I was one of the least-skilled players on the ice. We lost every single game that season and I struggled to get on the scoreboard, yet I experienced a lot of joy.

Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? We would think that the more we stay in our comfort zones, the more joy and satisfaction we would experience. Yet it seems to be just the opposite. It seems that the greatest joy is found when we’re taken outside of our comfort zones.

I’ve discovered that this same principle applies throughout every area of my life. When I’ve been challenged to step outside of the comfort zone of my temperature-controlled house, stable job, and padded seat, the floodgates of joy opened around me.

God’s Role in Our Joy

I would fail to paint the entire picture here if I failed to share about God’s role in our joy. Yes, I think there is a level of joy which can be found when we overcome challenging situations. But personally, the greatest amount of joy I’ve experienced has come during times when I’ve been completely dependent on God to bring me through my challenging situations, including the strength he’s provided me to play hockey at a higher level.

I’ve heard many Christians, even in the last week, say, “God won’t give us more than we can handle.” First of all, that’s not what the Bible says. It actually says:
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.[1]
In this passage, Paul was explaining that he was burdened beyond his strength. In other words, he was given more than he could handle. But then he goes on to say that the reason he was given more than he could handle was so that he could rely on God and his strength rather than on his own strength.

And second, if Paul’s experiences are similar to those of other people, which I think they are, then it wouldn’t be in our best interest for God to allow us to continue living in our comfort zones. Paul experienced great joy in his life, even though he went through more hardship than anyone can personally handle. He survived being stoned, was flogged five times, was beaten with rods three times, was shipwrecked three times, and was in constant danger.[2] Do you think that was more than he could handle? Of course it was. But as he wrote in his letter to the Corinthian church, by facing all these hardships, he was forced to rely on God to get him through them. And it was in the process of relying on God that he found joy in God.

When we live in our comfort zones, we have no need for God. Why would we if we can do it all on our own strength? But doing things on our own strength only gives us, at best, a minimal amount of joy. It promises to completely satisfy us, but it fails every time. It’s when we trust in God’s strength to make it through and then watch him come through that we experience great amounts of joy.

Don’t let comfort continue to rob you of joy. Let God take you out of your comfort zone, watch what he can do, and soak in the joy that can be found in him.

Have you experienced this contrast between comfort and joy? In what ways might God be calling you out of your comfort zone so that he can give you more joy in him?

[1] 2 Corinthians 1:8-9.
[2] 2 Corinthians 11:23-29.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Lessons from My Current Trials

I don’t know about you, but instinctively, I hate pretty much everything having to do with confrontation. I waste way too much time thinking about exactly what I’m going to say, it emotionally drains me, and sometimes I walk away feeling worse than I did before I started. The only time I somewhat like confrontation is when it enables me and the other person to enter into a deeper relationship with one another.

In the past couple months, I’ve faced one confrontational encounter after another. One that really stands out which isn't sensitive in nature is a confrontation, or rather a series of confrontations, I had with my new wireless phone provider. They made a bunch of promises in order to get me to switch to their service, but after I signed the papers, they haven’t been the least bit concerned about whether they come through on their promises. Since signing up for their service, I’ve talked to about 10 different people to try to get everything straightened out. Absolutely ridiculous and completely draining for someone like me who hates confrontation.

If all of my recent confrontational encounters were tied back to one primary aspect of my life, such as my cell phone bill, then I probably wouldn’t have thought about it any deeper. But they’re not. I’m experiencing confrontational encounters in seemingly every area of my life.

When my series of confrontational encounters began, I saw these situations as nothing more than aggravating burdens. I held out hope that the confrontations would end soon and I could go back to living in my non-confrontational comfort zone. But after continuing to see it pop up over and over again, I began wondering if maybe there was something more to it. In the past couple days, I’ve come to recognize that my current situation is a great example of what the biblical writers were referring to when they wrote about fiery trials. I see now that God is testing me. Like a goldsmith, he’s putting me in the fire so that more of my impurities rise to the surface so that he can scrape them off and rid them from my life. I’m now seeing that these trials are not only from God, but they’re a gift he’s given me. How’s that possible?

God’s plan is to transform us completely into his image. If we were given the option to choose how this transformation happens, I think most of us would choose for God to magically bestow this transformation upon. We’d choose to go to bed at night untransformed and wake up the following morning being completely transformed. But for whatever reason, God hasn’t chosen to work that way. Instead, he’s chosen to throw us into the fiery furnace over and over again so that our impurities, which slowly rise to the surface, can be scraped away every time he pulls us back out.

At the present time, I’m not exactly sure what impurities God intends to remove through these confrontational trials. Maybe he’s intending to remove more of my pride. Maybe he’s intending to remove more of my reliance on the affirmation of others to define my value. Maybe he’s intending to deepen some of my relationships. I don’t know.

It can be extremely challenging to accept our trials (not that our rejection or acceptance is going to change God’s mind) when we don’t know God’s intentions through them. If we could see a few years, or even just a few months into the future so that we could see how our situations today will positively impact us in the future, it seems like that would at least make the trials a bit more bearable now. Sometimes God does give me a glimpse into why he’s doing what he’s doing. But right now, I can honestly say that I don’t know his intentions.

Nonetheless, I have no less faith in him and no more anxiety about the situation because of my lack of insider information. I’m 100 percent certain that God is fully in control and trust that his current testing, although painful and difficult to bear at times, is serving to bring glory to his name and transform me more into his image.

I’ll wrap up with a light story. I have to laugh sometimes at God’s incessant humor. Last week when our missional community was gathered together, we were discussing a few chapters from Ecclesiastes and the topic of fiery trials came up. After we all agreed that we’ve noticed God’s transformation the most during our fiery trials, I asked why we don’t ask God for more trials. Seriously, if facing more fiery trials is going to get us closer to reaching our goal of being transformed into his image, then why wouldn’t we want more of them? When I volunteered to close in prayer at the end of our time together, I prayed for God to give us more fiery trials. Look what happened…God answered my prayer! Haha.

Honestly, we shouldn’t be surprised when we’re faced with difficult situations that push us outside of our comfort zones. It’s written all over the Bible that this is going to happen.[1] How are we going to respond? Are we going to respond with conditional faith which needs to know exactly what’s going to happen and how it’s all going to work out before we submit to God’s plan? Or are we going to respond with unconditional faith which submits to God’s plan, even when it doesn’t make sense?

[1] A few examples are 1 Peter 4:12-13, James 1:2-4, Isaiah 48:9-11, Psalm 66:10-12, and Revelation 3:18.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Will Everyone Be Saved?

In my last article, I shared how the grace God offers me isn’t due to something I’ve done or will do, but rather, it’s something he chose to do on his own accord. During this discussion, I asked the question of whether God shows his grace to everyone and then proceeded to give a quick answer without any further explanation. This article offers a deeper explanation of my answer to this question.

For years, people, even in the Christian community, have been divided on this topic. Some say that God only shows grace to some people while others say that God shows grace to all people. I think both are correct, but in different ways. My purpose in writing this article is to share what God has communicated to us about the scope of his grace.

Common Grace

Going all the way back to the beginning of human history, we find a story which sheds some light on a theological principle which is often referred to as common grace. The first two humans God created, Adam and Eve, were originally sinless beings. God placed them in a garden and told them they could eat the fruit from any tree in the garden except for one tree. They were told that on the day they ate from it, they would die.

Nonetheless, they decided to eat from the forbidden tree. When they did this, they were removed from the garden and therefore God’s presence, but they did not immediately die. Death didn’t come until many years later.

As a just judge, God had every reason to condemn (kill) Adam and Eve as soon as they ate fruit from the forbidden tree. But he didn’t. This act of letting them live many more years was an act of grace.

In the same way, the Bible tells us that we are born as sinners and continue to live in sin every single day of our lives, yet God continues to withhold judgment until a date which only he knows. This is only possible because of God’s grace, something he’s issued to every single one of us currently living on this planet from the newborn to the elderly.

This is the type of grace God shows to everyone and the reason why I answered the question with a “Yes.”

Special Grace

Now we’ll turn our attention towards another type of grace, the grace about which most of you are most concerned: special grace. In theological circles, this type of grace is defined as the grace by which God saves people (gives them eternal life). In alignment with the topic of this article, the question on the table, then, is this: Does God show special grace to everyone? Let’s take a look.

In Revelation 20, we’re told about the final judgment which is to come where God will sit on his throne and judge every person who has ever lived. It says that “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”[1] Immediately following these verses, we see that those whose names were written in the book life will be with God in his dwelling place, the New Jerusalem. These verses give us a clear distinction between the fates of people which is dependent upon whether God offers special grace to them.

In another book of the Bible, Jesus shared a parable about the eternal fate of the righteous versus the eternal fate of the unrighteous: “And [the unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”[2] Once again, we can ascertain that Jesus was communicating that there are two different fates for people, one which involves eternal punishment and one which involves eternal life. Those who receive God’s special grace receive eternal life.

The Counter Argument

As straightforward as this concept may seem, not everyone agrees that this is actually what the biblical writers meant. Rob Bell, a theologian out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has made the claim that the Greek word aion which was translated “eternal” in English, can mean “eternal,” but it can also mean “a finite period of time.” Therefore, he claims that these verses are saying that the supposed “eternal” punishment is actually referring to an “age of” punishment. At the completion of the aion, everyone will receive eternal life.[3] What Rob Bell is arguing for is a theology called Universalism which states that everyone who has ever lived receives God’s special grace.

At first, his argument may sound like a pretty good conclusion. After all, who doesn’t want everyone to be saved? But his argument breaks down when we apply the same definition of aion to the phrase “eternal life” which would read “age of life.” Do some people in Matthew 25 receive an age of punishment and some an age of life? What happens after that? There’s no mention in the Bible of another age to come afterwards. So based on the context, it seems the word aion was properly translated in these verses to “eternal.”

Therefore, in answer to the original question, I’ve concluded that God gives special grace to some people, but not to everyone.

Why Do Some People Receive God’s Special Grace and Others Don’t?

I think my answer to the prior question may spark another question: Why do some people receive God’s special grace and others don’t? So before I wrap up this article, I’m going to attempt to shed at least a little light on this question.

Many of us like to think that God will give special grace to us if we do something to earn it. Maybe if we attend a church service every week, read the Bible every day, help needy people, and accept Jesus into our hearts, then God will show us this special grace so that we can receive eternal life. Fortunately, God's special grace isn’t given because of our merits. I say fortunately because I’d never in a million years have the necessary merits to earn his special grace. God doesn’t grade us on a bell-curve; he grades us according to his standard, a standard which none of us can even hope to attain on our own.

Instead, the biblical writers tell us that God’s special grace is issued to those whom God chooses to give it. Yes, you heard that correctly. The biblical writers say it’s 100 percent God’s choice. If you don’t believe me, check out these passages:
And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. – Exodus 33:19
So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy…So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. – Romans 9:16-18
[God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. – Ephesians 1:4
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. – John 6:44
When I was first introduced to the idea of God choosing certain people to belong to him, honestly, I thought it was complete bogus. I thought God chose everyone (gave everyone special grace), but only certain people accepted the free invitation. However, as I dug into it more, I found that my thought process wasn’t biblical. Nowhere does it say that God chose to offer an invitation of special grace to everyone nor does it say that it’s only effectual for people who accept it. I’ve concluded that these are nothing more than doctrines made up by people who are desperately trying to protect God from sounding like his treatment of people is unfair. I appreciate the concern for God’s reputation, but I’m certain he’s less than enthusiastic about us trying to change his character so that less people are offended by him.

When we paint a picture of the God we read about in the Bible, we most likely won’t like what we see. What we see is a God who is in complete control of the universe (Matthew 6:25-34), a God who is loving (John 3:16), a God who is a just judge (Psalm 7:11), a God who always gets his way (Isaiah 46:8-11), a God whose first and foremost priority is bringing glory to himself (Isaiah 48:9-11), a God who does what he pleases (Psalm 115:3), and a God who chooses to show special grace to whomever he wishes (Exodus 33:19).

When we let the Bible, and only the Bible, inform our understanding of God, what we realize is that God doesn’t think or operate like us. And just when we think we’ve got him figured out, he throws us a curveball that makes us go, “What???” At the end of the day, we’re never going to be able to answer the impossible question of why he chooses to show special grace to some and not to others. I love the way Francis Chan once put it:
…we must come to a place where we can let God be God. We need to surrender our perceived right to determine what is just and humbly recognize that God alone gets to decide how He is going to deal with people…He hasn’t asked us to figure out why He does the things He does. We can’t. We’re not capable…there will be times, many times, when you won’t figure Him out.[4]
Personally, instead of trying to figure out why he chooses to do what he does, I thank him for showing me both common and special grace and seek to worship him with all my heart every single day of my life. And I daily hold out hope that I will one day get the privilege of spending eternity united with him, my one and only king.

Do you agree that God shows common grace to everyone? Do you agree that God shows special grace to some people and not to others? What Bible passages come to mind when you think about this topic? Do you think they support or counter my claims?

[1] Revelation 20:15.
[2] Matthew 25:46.
[3] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 31-58.
[4] Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2011), 131-34.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

I Did Nothing

I successfully fulfilled my job responsibilities…I got a good rating. I was kind to other people…I made friends. I trained regularly…I became a better athlete. I don’t say all these things to express an attitude of arrogance, but to show an important principle which is foundational to our culture: I received the wages of my work.

In America, we often live under the impression that the rewards we receive are a result of something we do. If we have a huge nest egg, we think it’s a result of our excellent budgeting skills. If we climb the corporate ladder, we think it’s a result of our hard work. If we gain trust from other people, we think it’s a result of us displaying a high level of integrity. On the flipside, if we don’t get any of these things–a huge nest egg, career advancement, and gaining trust–we think it’s because we did something wrong. Our experiences have told us that we have the ability to control our destinies.

Having experienced this cause and effect relationship, many years ago I concluded that my faith and consequential relationship with God was a result of something I did. I thought my increasing faith was a byproduct of attending a church service every week, reading my Bible every day, and daily spending time in prayer. But as the Holy Spirit continues to remove the veil over my spiritual eyes, I’m more and more coming to believe something that has completely rocked my worldview. I’ve come to believe that my faith, my relationship with God, my heart transformation, and my salvation have absolutely nothing to do with a decision I made or will make or something I did or will do, but has everything to do with a decision God made and something he did.

By Grace or By Works?

It’s often stated in Christian circles that salvation is a result of grace and not a result of works. Paul, one of the most well-known biblical writers, made this point absolutely clear when he wrote:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.[1]
I used to read this verse over and over thinking that my theological framework was in complete alignment with these verses. As I understood it, Jesus died on the cross to forgive my sins. But his forgiveness didn’t take effect until I made the conscious and whole-hearted decision to accept it. My acceptance of Jesus was a result of my faith, something which I needed to muster up within myself.

But as I began thinking about it on a deeper level, my thinking on this topic began to unravel as I discovered the errancy in my thought process. Grace, as it’s defined in Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written), is an unmerited favor.[2] What does it mean for something to be unmerited? It means we did absolutely nothing to earn it. In another one of Paul’s writings, he explained it this way:
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.[3]
By definition, grace is something which is given irregardless of anything we do. If the favor I have with someone is a result of something I did, then by definition, it’s not grace at all. When someone decides to love me (I’m talking brotherly sort of love, not romantic love) after spending a few hours together, that decision was made based on what he saw of me in those few hours. Since he liked what he saw, he decided to love me. If, on the other hand, someone decides to love me without knowing anything about me, such as was the case with my parents when I was born, then that’s grace. And the love they have for me comes with no strings attached.

When I applied this same principle to these passages of scripture, I began to see the inconsistency in my logic. If salvation is a result of grace, then it has absolutely nothing to do with anything about me or anything I do. It’s not based on whether I muster up the faith to believe in Jesus, whether I repent of my sins, or whether I accept him into my heart. If it was, it would no longer meet the definition of grace since it would be partially based upon something I did.

If salvation is based upon God’s grace, then aren’t my faith, my transformation, and my relationship with him also based solely upon his grace? Yes! As much as I previously thought these things were a result of something I did, I’ve realized that they are purely acts of God. The person I am today, the faith I exhibit, and the relationship I have with God aren’t a result of my drive and perseverance; they are a result of God’s grace and his grace alone. I did nothing to earn them.

Is Grace Offered to All People?

A common response I receive when I share this conclusion is: Does that mean God offers grace to everyone? Yes and no. But in order for me to expound upon this answer, I’ll need more than a few paragraphs, so I’ll save that discussion for another article. More to come on this topic!

Can’t We Do Whatever We Want?

Another common response I receive when I share this conclusion is: If we’re saved by God’s grace alone, then can’t we do whatever we want? Yes, we can. And we don’t have to fear losing our salvation because if God chooses to save us, then he’s going to be faithful in that promise. But that’s only part of the story.

If God has truly chosen to save us, then we will bear good fruit, not because we do something to make it happen, but because of the work God does in our hearts. As the biblical writer John once wrote:
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.[4]
As God continues to transform our hearts, our heart condition, which drives our actions, will continue to align more and more with his will. As our heart and mind are being transformed, the thought of feeling licensed to sin as a result of knowing that nothing is going to impact our salvation doesn’t even make sense. A transformed mindset doesn’t ask, “What’s the minimum I have to do in order to stay in God’s good graces,” but rather, “How does God’s grace in my life influence the way I live?” These are two very different mindsets.


God’s grace is an unmerited favor, which means he gives it to whom he wants and doesn’t give it to whom he wants. As he once said to Moses:
I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.[5]
I know this may not sound fair, but I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter whether it sounds fair to us. God is God, so he can do whatever he wants.[6] If he chooses to show me grace, that’s his choice. If he chooses not to show me grace, that’s also his choice. Personally, I am eternally grateful and thankful for the grace he has shown me and which I hope he will continue to show me in the coming years.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my conclusion that God’s grace is completely his doing and isn’t dependent on anything we do? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Also, I’d be more than happy to expound upon anything I’ve written in this article, so let me know.

[1] Ephesians 2:8-9.
[2] Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, “Grace”, accessed September 12, 2018,
[3] Romans 11:6.
[4] John 15:5.
[5] According to Exodus 33:17.
[6] Psalm 115:3.