The Church of Whatever We Want Jesus to Be

Paul's Letter
Valentin de Boulogne – Public Domain

If ever there was a person who was an authority of the Christian gospel, it was the Apostle Paul. Author of one-third of our New Testament, Paul penned letters to the churches in Rome and Galatia, both of which have become premiere sources for our understanding of the gospel.

Notice how Paul begins his letter to the Romans:

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…. Romans 1:1 (NASB)

This verse provides a point of convergence for all Christians. Would any of us dispute Paul’s calling—or his authority for that matter? We all might also agree that the gospel (good news) is integral to the Christian faith. Even those who do not consider themselves to be evangelicals still revere the centrality of the gospel.

Christ's Resurrection
Noel Coypel – Public Domain

Professing Christians begin to diverge when it comes to the heart and purpose of the gospel. Jesus came to earth as God incarnate—that is God in the flesh, in human form. The Son of God walked amongst us as the Son of Man. After fulfilling a supernatural ministry on earth, Jesus suffered a torturous death on a wooden cross as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of all men and women. But death could not hold the Son of God! On the third day following, Jesus rose in power from the grave, never to die again.

Sadly, there are some professing Christians who would disagree with this Biblically-based representation of the good news of Jesus Christ. They might say, “Humans aren’t all that bad and are able to please God by being good people and doing nice things—like helping little old ladies across the street.” They might say, “Sure, Jesus was a great moral teacher, but he never believed himself to be God. A few misguided souls simply misunderstood his teachings.” Further still, they might say, “Jesus never performed any actual miracles and we all know the resurrection to be scientifically impossible.” “Of course, these things are recorded in the Bible, but the book is more of a teaching tool intended to help modify human behavior than it is the inspired word of God,” they might say.

It is not my goal to be rude, but I can’t, for the life of me, understand how such a perspective can be called “Christian” when it attempts to strike a dagger in the heart of the Christian faith. If we remove the reality of Christ’s miracles and His subsequent resurrection, we lose the power to transform human lives. Christianity, then, becomes more of a humanistic self-improvement project than the radical, life-changing movement it was intended to be.

I understand that some people find certain tenets of the Christian faith to be repulsive. Seriously, how many of us relish the thought of needing a Savior to remind us that we are thoroughly inadequate in heaven’s eyes? The picture of a bloody sacrifice does little to make me feel warm and fuzzy. And, of course, dying to my own selfish desires has never been at the top of my bucket list!

I disagree with the theology of Unitarian Universalists but I do respect them for their honesty; they don’t claim to be Christian. On the other hand, I really struggle with those who profess Christianity but deny the substance thereof. It is one thing to disagree about the meaning of Scripture. It’s a totally different issue to deny its authority.

Church of WhateverWe live in a world in which the title “Christian” means just about everything; therefore, it means nothing. What makes this state especially sad are the precious human lives adversely affected by such confusion. Would we, perhaps, be better to make a distinction between those who embrace the supremacy and authority of Christ, and those who would like to reinterpret the Bible according to their own desires? We could call one group the church of Jesus Christ and the other the church of whatever we want Jesus to be.

I realize that the abrasive tone of this post breaks from my usual pattern but I believe there are times when we sacrifice honesty for the sake of nicety. If you would like to make your own religion, have at it! Enjoy yourself! Do it up right! Create whatever makes you feel good. But let’s not forget that Jesus Christ is the head of His church and that He will form and shape her according to His desires—not ours.

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Why Gun Control Misses the Point

photo credit: John Steven Fernandez via photopin cc
photo credit: John Steven Fernandez via photopin cc

“The findings were disturbing….” So goes the beginning of a paragraph in an article about the Pulitzer Prize winning report (Assault on Learning) by the Philadelphia Inquirer regarding violence in the Philadelphia school system. After reading further, I could not help but agree—it is all very disturbing!

More than 30,000 serious incidents were reported in the district over a five-year period. On an average day, 25 students, teachers, or other staff members were beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted, or made victims of other violent crime. As large as those numbers seem, they didn’t represent the full gravity of the problem. Many violent incidents went unreported. Some attacks were carried out by children in the earliest grades.[1]

How many students are there in the district? According Susan Snyder—one of the lead journalists in the story—we are talking about only 146,000 students.[2] The significance of the problem becomes even greater when we recognize that schools are gun-free zones. In other words, very little of this violence had anything to do with firearms.

In one particularly sad case, more than 30 Asian students were brutally beaten by their fellow classmates—most of whom were African American. This type of situation was identity related and it stems from the third primary root of our fallen natures that contributes to violence—our quest for glory. Of the three roots mentioned—self-centered lust, the desire for control, and the quest for glory—the quest for glory is probably the most difficult for us to comprehend.

Adam & Eve had been created in the very image of God, and, being clothed in His glory, they were naked and unashamed. However, by choosing to seek a sense of goodness independent from their Creator, our ancient ancestors quickly found themselves naked and very much ashamed. Painfully separated from the King of Glory, the unhappy result was a glory deficiency which is now inherent to the entire human race.

Glory is fleeting . . .
photo credit: Brett Jordan via photopin cc

From a very young age, it becomes every person’s goal to find a sense of significance through his or her performance, appearance, possessions, etc. It is in the fickle court of human approval that we seek to find significance. As we enter the world of comparisons and judgments, our value as human beings depends upon our ability to measure up to the ever-changing standards of our individual subcultures. In the high school scene, for example, those who meet current standards of beauty and athletic performance become wildly popular, while those who fall far short of the standards find themselves condemned as objects of scorn.

The pursuit of glory is so ingrained in the human psyche that for the most part we find it to be entirely natural. But the division it creates and the destruction it wreaks! A group of black students viciously beat 30 Asian students in Philadelphia schools simply because the Asians did not meet the standards of a black identity. Ironically, it was the same mindset used by whites to justify the horrors of slavery for so many years. We can see that at its roots this type of violence has nothing to do with black or white or any other skin color—it’s rooted in an all-encompassing effort to achieve a glory-based identity.

The tree of identity-based violence springs from the seed of contempt. Any time we despise someone who fails to meet our particular standards we commit an act of spiritual violence toward that individual. Physical violence ultimately erupts as we nourish seeds of contempt with the right (or wrong, depending on one’s perspective) environmental conditions.

At its core, the Gospel is an identity message.[3] We find our true significance through our relationship with God, not by our performance, but in our lofty status as sons and daughters of the eternal King of Glory. To abide in Christ is to be clothed once again in God’s greatness, secure in identity and free to be humble.

photo credit: Good Eye Might via photopin cc
photo credit: Good Eye Might via photopin cc

 Will fewer people be killed if our government implements gun control measures? Possibly. Violence and its resulting pain, however, will continue to plague American society until we strike the problem at its evil roots. Once again, the Gospel of Jesus Christ provides the most powerful solution to what ails us!


[1] Susan Snyder, The Press, the Passion, and the Prize, as found in the IUP Magazine, VOL. XXX, NO.3, p. 17

[3] Check out our Search for Me Identity Study for a much more in-depth explanation.

The Keys to a Peace-filled Existence

Noah Webster statue by Korczak Ziółkowski
Photo by Ragesoss – CC-BY-SA 3.0

Noah Webster once wrote: “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe.”[1] And you thought all Noah did was write dictionaries!

Webster is also reported to have stated, “Tyranny is the exercise of some power over a man, which is not warranted by law, or necessary for the public safety. A people can never be deprived of their liberties, while they retain in their own hands, a power sufficient to any other power in the state.”

The great fear of our Founding Fathers was not of a U.S. citizen with a gun, but of a tyrannical government run amuck. Technology was less advanced in those days, and society was not especially inclined toward senseless violence, so we can only infer how Webster’s statements would apply to our current situation. However, one thing has not changed since the days of our forefathers—human nature is still driven by a lust for power (control).

Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany stand as a classic case in point—their thirst for power resulted in the untimely deaths of approximately 70 million people. To put this into perspective, this equates to roughly the current combined population of our 29 smallest states! That is 70 million fathers, mothers, children, siblings, and friends. And, unfortunately, the death and destruction of WWII stand as the fruit of but one of many such conflicts that have occurred throughout the course of human history.

Hitler and Nazi Party - December 1930
Photo by Bundesarchiv, Bild 119-0289 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Our natural tendency is to bemoan such terrible things as though they are far removed from any one of us, but that would be a huge mistake. Hitler could never have committed such atrocities without the help of all who participated in the Nazi party, as well the involvement of other Axis nations. World War II was undoubtedly the collective effort of many parties.

Our inherent desire for control breeds conflict and destruction on so many levels. Nazi Germany certainly stands as an extreme example, but the fruit of seemingly less significant attempts to control others is fiendish in its own right. How many families have been severely damaged by a controlling mother or father (or a rebellious child)? How many churches have been divided because of internal battles for control? How many powerless, unborn children have been slaughtered due to parents who refuse to release control of their own agendas?

The greatest struggle that any of us will ever fight is the battle of the will. And, unfortunately for us, when we win, we lose. Those who get their own way in life will find themselves far from the will of God and His abundant life. Death in its many forms is all that we can expect. Thankfully, inherent to the Gospel is God’s provision to free us from our compulsion to control.

Somewhere along the line, you may have heard of a little something called the Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father who is in heaven,

Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Matthew 6:10-12 (NASB)

When Jesus was asked by His disciples how to pray, right near the top of the list was, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done.” God’s kingdom is essentially His government in which His will is performed. All of this means that any Christian’s top priority should be to pursue the will of God–rather than his or her own personal agenda–because of a deep love for our Savior.

Peace is one of the defining attributes of the kingdom of God (Romans 14:17). This type of peace isn’t simply an absence of conflict but rather an almost unexplainable harmony brought about through an environment of authentic love.

Humble Prayer
photo credit: ☻☺ via photopin cc

Guns have become the focus in our debate over violence because very few of us genuinely understand real peace. Whether on the streets of a city, in the conference room of a church, or the living room of a home, the entrance to the path of peace comes not from standing tall in power, but bowing low in humility. Surrendering control. Yielding to His will. Giving God the freedom to have His way. These are the keys to a peace-filled existence.


[1] An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, (1787)

It’s Time to Ban Dark-Colored Hoodies!

photo credit: Fayez Closed Account. via photopin cc
photo credit: Fayez Closed Account. via photopin cc

Having spent far too much time meticulously watching local news reports out of Pittsburgh, I have come to the conclusion that most of the reported crimes are committed by people wearing dark-colored hoodies. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why someone hasn’t moved to ban them. I think that light and bright-colored hoodies would still be acceptable—as long as criminals don’t begin to use them when the dark ones can only be found on the black market.

No, this isn’t a sarcastic statement on gun control—a little levity now and again can help us from being overwhelmed by the weight of such issues as violence. However, I do want to again emphasize that we rarely focus on underlying issues because we are the problem.

Over the next few posts, I plan to highlight each of the three primary roots of the human heart that create conflict between us. The only real difference between violence and conflict is that violence is somewhat further down the same tumultuous road. I’ll also highlight how the Gospel provides the only truly effective antidote for each deadly root.

photo credit: david_shankbone via photopin cc
photo credit: david_shankbone via photopin cc

Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it.

You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to. You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way. James 4:1-3 (Message)

The Message Bible isn’t always the most accurate, but there are times when I think it does a great job of communicating the intent of the original writer. In this case, James was strongly challenging his readers that selfish lust is a primary source of conflict–even to the point of violence.

Nowhere is the contrast between a worldly and a kingdom mindset greater than when it comes to selfish desires. The message of our world is, “You can have it all! You deserve it! You owe it to yourself! Put yourself first!” On a daily basis, we find ourselves bombarded by thousands of advertisements intended to play upon the selfish tendencies of human nature, compelling us to spend our money on a vast array of products.

In contrast, the message of the Gospel is one of selflessness—of laying down our desires for the benefit of others. After all, isn’t that what the heart of love involves? Certainly, the Gospel is about God’s amazing love for us, but we dare never forget that we are called to deeply love God and others in return.

One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40 (NASB)

photo credit: hoyasmeg via photopin cc
photo credit: hoyasmeg via photopin cc

To our detriment, we have tried to shape the Gospel to fit our Western consumer mentality.  How can we expect people to be unselfish when all we do is proclaim what Jesus can do for them? How often do we hear altar calls in which potential responders are challenged to fully count the cost of becoming a disciple of Christ before making a decision to receive Him (see Luke 14:27-33)? Almost never.

Would fewer people respond if they were compelled to count the cost first? Absolutely! But in the process, the Church would begin to look much more like the Church should look. Rather than fighting amongst ourselves because of envy over who got the bigger blessing, we would be alive with the power and vitality to make a real impact in the world around us.

How can we influence the world around us to become more peaceful and loving when conflict due to selfishness so heavily colors the fabric of our churches? Love is the answer—not only God’s love for us, but our love for Him and others in response to all that He has done for us. May we never minimize love’s importance or fail to realize love’s amazing power to transform even those who wear dark-colored hoodies!

Why Government Leaders Ignore the Root Causes of Violence

U.S. Capitol
photo credit: Hey Paul via photopin cc

Every time a mass shooting occurs in the U.S., our government leaders rise to the occasion by proclaiming the need for change. Those who are sincere will usually push hard for gun control while ignoring the root causes that have brought such sickness upon our society.

Why are our politicians so slow to look at the real issues? There are times when gazing into a mirror can be very unsettling.

In examining the Scriptures we find that the primary problem with human nature is an innate desire to be like God apart from God. This defining drive of the human heart finds its expression through three primary roots—self-centeredness, the lust for power and control, and a constant yearning for self-glorification. All three fallen tendencies drive the world of politics, but rather than potentially implicating themselves by addressing the real issues, our leaders and legislators will look for any scapegoat to deflect the attention from their own shortcomings. It is all simply a matter of human nature.

We the people
photo credit: “Caveman Chuck” Coker via photopin cc

I share these thoughts not as a disgruntled American full of disdain for our government leaders, but as a Christian who fully recognizes that these self-absorbed tendencies are common to the entire human race. If ours is a government for the people and by the people, at least to some degree, our government leaders serve as a reflection of the general populace.

All of this brings us to yet another factor in the rise of gun violence in the United States—the declining influence of a vital Christian Church in America. I cannot agree with those conservative historians who try to paint virtually all of our Founding Fathers as devoted Christians, but I can say that the men who fought for freedom from tyranny and who framed our Constitution were profoundly influenced by Christianity.

The First Great Awakening was a move of the Holy Spirit that changed the fabric of the American colonies in the 1730s and 40s. That experience, combined with longtime frustration with authoritarian monarchies, deeply impacted the hearts of America’s 2.4 million residents. The result was a new form of democracy replete with freedoms of all sorts, including an emphasis on the freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and, of course, the freedom of religious practice.

Founding Fathers
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Even though the Founding Fathers may not have all been Christians, they all lived in a culture that had been colored by the Christian faith. The result was an ideal—the belief that if all pursued the greater good, they could build a society like none other. In the process, men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington established a system of checks and balances to protect this new ideal from the self-absorbed tendencies of human nature. Almost amazingly, the social experiment that we call the United States of America worked quite well until the moral influence of a vital Christian Church began to wane. With the decline of the Church came the lifting of the societal standards which stood against self-centeredness, the lust for power and control, and the constant yearning for self-glorification. Human nature, in other words, has become increasingly free to run its course. And just as it was when Cain killed his brother Abel, grief, tears, and extreme heartache are now our lot.

Church Building
photo credit: Per Ola Wiberg ~ powi via photopin cc

Again, I want to be clear that my primary criticism is not of our government but of the Church at large in the U.S. Non-Christians will do what non-Christians will do—and all the more so without the steadying influence of a vibrant Christian Church. For those who profess Christ, we are now left with a choice. We can whine and complain and lament the loss of what once was, or we can lift up our heads, bow our knees, and pursue Christ with our whole hearts. Instead of being selfish, we can walk in love. Instead of seeking power and control, we can seek the advance of God’s kingdom. Instead of seeking our own glory, we can proclaim His through both word and lifestyle.

Will we be able to turn our nation back to the point where freedom truly thrives? In all honesty, I don’t know. But I do know that one life fully surrendered to the King of Glory can have a powerful impact on the lives of untold others. If even one potential mass murderer is won to Christ, not only is his life saved, the lives of all of his potential victims are also spared.

No matter who you are and no matter what your status, if you are truly alive in Christ, you will make a profound difference in the lives of others. What better legacy can we leave for our children, grandchildren, and the others who follow after us?

The Mystery of Violence Revealed

Wet Dog
photo credit: Hello Turkey Toe via photopin cc

World peace! It is a vision long held by many. Each New Year, it seems, we try to cast off the violence of the previous year like a dog trying to shake off water. Unfortunately, dogs are much more effective in their drying off efforts than we are in our quest to eliminate conflict between humans. Why is peace so elusive? Either we don’t understand the root issues of conflict, or we don’t care enough to change our behavior.

Did you know that Cain’s murder of his brother Abel was not the first act of violence recorded in the Bible? Somewhere in the recesses of time–or perhaps before time began–the greatest of angels, the one we call Lucifer, attempted a violent coup against the Creator of the Universe.

How you have fallen from heaven,
O star of the morning, son of the dawn!
You have been cut down to the earth,
You who have weakened the nations!
But you said in your heart,
“I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God,
And I will sit on the mount of assembly
In the recesses of the north.
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.” Isaiah 14:12-14

Three particular aspects of this attempted coup are extremely relevant for our purposes:

Pride
Photo by SfMe Ministries Inc.

1. Lucifer repeatedly uses “I” to define his self-centered quest. Mysteriously, while God willingly receives worship, He is not self-centered. Always motivated by love and compassion for others, the life of Christ serves as evidence of God’s other-centered heart.

2. Lucifer also adds the word “will” to each of his five uses of “I”. Thus, one of his primary goals is for power and control.

3. Lucifer’s ultimate goal is to be like the Most High (the King of Glory), to lift himself up above all others.

When Adam and Eve fell prey to the serpent’s temptation in the Garden of Eden, they inherited the same  three tendencies which collectively form what we call pride. (I sometimes call it “C-pride” or “collective pride”.) It should stand as no surprise, then, that Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, murdered his younger brother due to nothing more than jealousy. The rest, unfortunately, is history. Since that fateful day in the Garden, human activity has always been beset with violent sexual assaults, murders, and wars of all kinds.

I have written about much of this in the past, but it bears repeating in light of recent mass shootings in the U.S. When someone mercilessly kills 20 first-grade children, as happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, something is desperately wrong. But something has been desperately wrong almost from the beginning of time as we know it. Even societies that have all appearances of peace are not that far from being immersed in conflict. Like a virus waiting for an immune system to be compromised, the violent tendencies of human nature need only time and opportunity to fully run their course.

Really, only two options are possible for the violence to cease:

Fidel Castro
photo credit: Mr Jaded via photopin cc

1. We remove various layers of freedom until an authoritarian government removes all potential weapons of resistance and forces its citizens to get along. Of course, the very real danger is that the authoritarian regime will itself be violent, subjecting its people to all sorts of cruelty and injustice.

2. We provide people with freedom but change their hearts so that they are motivated by love rather than selfish hatred. Herein lies the foundation for a truly prosperous society, but eliminating the selfish, self-exalting tendencies of the human heart is no simple matter. Real change requires much more than wishful thinking.

Unfortunately, in our self-absorbed world, freedom eventually leads to moral decay, giving way to violence in the end. At the other end of the spectrum, those revolutionaries who rise up to break the grip of an oppressive regime will almost always become the oppressors themselves.

In prophesying the birth of Jesus, Isaiah called Him the “Prince of Peace”. As a revolutionary, Jesus rebelled against the oppressive, self-absorbed establishment, but He broke their power in a thoroughly mysterious manner. By suffering unjustly Himself, Jesus Christ provided the antidote for each of the root causes of violence. We call that antidote the Gospel.

Happy New Year!
photo credit: HackBitz via photopin cc

I, too, really would like to see world peace. In my upcoming posts I will highlight how the Gospel truly is the only lasting cure for deadly virus of violence, but until then, I want to wish you all a happy New Year! My hope is that it won’t be a year that goes to the dogs!