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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:

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!

How to Catch a Crustacean

Original Photo by Kevin Connors – morgueFile

Are you a fan of lobster? It is without question a delicacy in many parts of the world, but such hasn’t always been the case. Early settlers to New England found lobsters to be so plentiful that at times they could wade into the ocean and capture them by hand. An overabundance of lobsters actually served as a common staple for prisoners. Can you imagine a law in which New World colonies restricted the number of times per week a penal institution could feed lobster to its inmates? Prisoners could be heard making statements such as, “It’s horrible in here! All we get to eat are these stinkin’ lobsters!” Of course, things are much different today; with an amazing increase in transportation and a bit of skillful marketing, lobster has essentially become the steak of seafood.

Interestingly, lobsters are negligibly senescent, meaning that they don’t show the normal symptoms of aging seen in the majority of life forms. No dimming eyesight, loose antennae or creaky claws for these guys. If not for the pleasure to our palates and the benefit to our stomachs, a lobster might live for 100 years or more. The primary downfall for the lobster, it seems, is the lobster trap.

Photo by Hartmut Inerle – CC BY-SA 3.0

A working lobster trap consists of three main parts: a combination wooden and wire frame, a rope and buoy to mark the location and bait (i.e. something that appeals to a lobster’s tastes). Mr. or Mrs. Lobster smells dead fish (or some other convenient bait) and is drawn to investigate. Access to the trap is easy as the oblivious victim races toward an easy dinner. Once the pleasant meal is consumed, however, life becomes rather unpleasant as the design of the trap turns freedom into a distant memory.

When Lucifer launched his zombie conspiracy we can image he spent considerable time designing a trap that would be effective in capturing and binding the human race. Humans are smart you know, so he had to get it right the first time. Any stupid mistakes and the opportunity to open Pandora’s Box could be lost forever.

More cunning than The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, old slewfoot determined that the most effective bait would be the very same temptation that led to his precipitous fall from glory—the desire to be as God; or more appropriately put—the desire to be like God apart from God. And the plan worked, perhaps beyond even his twisted imaginations. In eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humanity found itself not only separated from God, but also under the devil’s crooked thumb, entrapped by a power called Sin from which no human could ever escape (or so Lucifer thought).

Thus began what we call the human condition. Upon the once peace-filled and pleasurable Garden of Eden, pain, suffering, violence and death descended like darkness—the full scope of which is yet to be seen.

Photo by Miles Teg – CC BY-SA 3.0

Christ came to deliver us from the zombie conspiracy, not only freeing us from the trap of sin, but systematically working to eliminate the three tentacles of the temptation (self-centeredness, self-sovereignty and self-glorification) that captured us in the first place. For us to experientially know true and lasting freedom, it is imperative that each of those ensnaring tentacles be thoroughly severed from our hearts.

Humans were intended to be non-senescent–unaffected by time or age. But unfortunately for us, separation from God unleashed torrents of death. If only we can get back to abiding in God’s grace, no power in hell will be able to squelch the power of the life He imparts!

The Great Equalizer

Photo by hotblack – morgueFile

I think it was the most beautiful shot I had ever hit; the ball sailed for what seemed like a mile and landed squarely in the middle of the fairway. And for a (very) brief moment I believed the lie. “I can do this; I’m good at this game,” I thought. The next several holes quickly vaporized my vain imaginations as a sense of reality grew in my mind—I would need to practice and play almost daily if I were to approach even being average at the game of golf. The layer of dust on my golf bag is now quite thick, but my fishing rod has seen extensive use.

The vast majority of us tend to avoid areas of life in which we tend to do poorly, all the while seeking to capitalize on any type of activity in which we feel we excel. It’s just human nature and one of the primary reasons that many professing Christians are not more actively involved with their faith. All too often we simply don’t feel as though we are any good at doing Christianity.

We pray and see only a few (if any) of our requests answered. We pick up the Bible and feel lost in the thees and thous. We step out to serve, only to have some sort of conflict blow up in our faces. And sometimes subtly, but ever so firmly, the conviction begins to grow in our hearts that life is much safer when we allow others to actively seek and serve God. Of course, we still profess our faith in Christ, recognizing the value of its eternal promises, but for all intents and purposes, our Christian lives become dormant.

This perspective, among other things, has led to the professionalization of clergy. This mindset—that only the select few can effectively know and serve God, continues to do immeasurable damage to the church, and to our society at large.

Our retreat into the shadows of Christian activity finds its roots in two glaring misunderstandings of the Scriptures:

  1. We fail to recognize the role of the five-fold ministry.
  2. We fail to understand the role (and power) of the Holy Spirit, The Great Equalizer.

The Apostle Paul tells us through Ephesians 4 that the role of the five-fold ministry is to equip those involved in the church for “the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.” In other words, the primary job of full-time ministers is not to do all of the ministry, but to train others to effectively use their God-given gifts to reach out and build up the body of Christ.

Of course, we can easily excuse ourselves if we consider natural gifts and talents to be the sum total of our God-given gifts, but they aren’t; or at least, they shouldn’t be.

So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:21-22 (NASB)

Jesus breathed on them: at this moment they were born from above. But Jesus told them to wait and seek for something more—an empowerment from the Holy Spirit.

“He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’” Acts 1:7-8 (NASB)

Photo by Mary R. Vogt – morgueFile

One of the most beautiful aspects of the Christian faith is that no matter how hard humans work to the contrary, Christianity is not elitist. God’s utilization of people does not depend upon genetic superiority or innate charisma. The Holy Spirit is our Great Equalizer. It was He who empowered a group of uneducated fishermen to change the world, and it is He who desires to empower the average person to make a huge impact in the lives of others. This is what the spiritual gifts are all about. They aren’t about identity or status, or anything along those lines. They are intended to revolve around a faith empowered love for God and others.

I can’t help but think that we can do better than we are. It’s not about becoming super-spiritual, but about more effectively cultivating the essence of the Gospel—faith working through love. God knows how desperately we all need The Great Equalizer to have His way in our lives and in our world!

Identity – The Issue of the Ages

Have you ever wondered what it is that motivates people toward extreme behavior? What drives a successful athlete to sacrifice his body for the sake of a trophy? What compels a celebrity to say and do almost unspeakable things to be shown on film to millions of people? Why would a woman stay in an abusive relationship with a vengeful, unstable man? What causes so many of us to live beyond our means? Why do so many young people take their own lives? What about the inner city violence and mass shootings of our day? What in the world compelled Adolf Hitler to take the lives of tens of millions of people?

Believe it or not, there is a key thread in all of this—one that has influenced the actions and motives of all men and women ever since the beginning of time as we know it. The issue is identity. In so many ways identity is everything!

What is an identity? The collective set of characteristics and connections which define a person as an individual.

What is your identity? Obviously a much more difficult question to answer!

Almost from the time of conception our gender becomes the first order of identity. “Is it a boy or a girl?”

We’re then given a name, hopefully in relationship to a respectable family. Both our first and last names serve to define us throughout the course of our lives.

But identity isn’t just about gender or even family. It’s about significance! How we need to feel valued and important! When we sense that never-ending search for significance is being fulfilled, we develop a positive self-image—sometimes to the point of arrogance. The other side of the coin is a negative sense of insignificance, which always seems to be lurking behind the next bend in the road; just waiting to beat you down.

From a natural human perspective, the path of self-esteem almost always involves performance and approval. The better you perform, the more you are approved by others, the better you can feel about yourself. If you have to put others down in the process, then so be it. After all, shouldn’t your quest for significance be your top priority in life?

Such a humanistic line of reasoning produces an almost nonstop stream of conflict. Trust me (as I know from firsthand experience) there is a much better way. Unfortunately, far too few people grasp the significance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as an identity message. There is much, much more involved than memorizing a handful of who I am in Christ Bible verses.

In the coming weeks I’ll be writing about the issue of identity from a Christian perspective. The issue of the ages can only be solved through the message of the ages. At this point I’m really not sure how long I’ll stay on this theme, but I suspect there will be no shortage of material. Some of my thoughts will come from The Search for Me Identity Series, while others will hopefully flow from the Holy Spirit’s inspiration as I seek to walk with Him day in and day out.

In the meantime, can you identity any extreme behavior in your life resulting from your personal search for significance? As painful as some of those past experiences may be, the Gospel is an amazing message of hope for all who choose to respond!

“‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.'” Jeremiah 29:11-13 (NASB)

A Tribute to Sam

Sam The Intern

No, Sam wasn’t our beloved dog. And, no, Sam isn’t dead. But he is gone. Ladies and gentlemen, Sam The Intern has left the building. I no longer hear the whirl of his overworked computer, the busy tapping of the keyboard or the sound of the lid being screwed back on his water bottle. Of course, most of you are wondering why you should even care about how Sam spent the past 16 months of his life. But it does matter.

Almost 2 years ago I contacted Sam and offered him a job working on a DVD teaching series that has the potential to impact a lot of lives. The problem was that I didn’t have any money to pay him. With apparently nothing better to do, Sam agreed. We sent him for some training so that he could go through the uncomfortable process of raising his own salary—much like a missionary would do. And God provided in amazing ways! In fact, time and time again, our God provided for every need as we accomplished something that we should have never been able to do.

It’s no secret that we live in a me first world—it’s been that way for an awfully long time. The Apostle Paul said it this way as he wrote about Timothy: “For there is no one here like him who will readily demonstrate his deep concern for you. Others are busy with their own concerns, not those of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 2:20-21 (NET)

I know we all have needs. And I know there is often a steep price to pay for being other-centered. But do we realize that except for one relatively minor exception, the entire world consists of others?

Too often the cry of our hearts is, “What about me?” as we see others being blessed in envy-inducing ways. But even in our day, the promises of God stand true for those willing to believe them.

“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:33 (NASB)

I have spent the past 30 years of my life standing on this promise, and continue to find it to be true. I have spent 30 years watching others stand on this promise, and it has proven true in their lives as well. And, unfortunately, I have spent 30 years watching too many Christians seek after their own interests first—and pay an unwanted price for their unbelief.

In following God’s leading, Sam has moved on to the next leg of his journey. I have no question that God will continue to bless him in amazing ways. But this tribute isn’t just for Sam. I would personally like to thank and honor all of you who faithfully give of yourselves for the sake of Christ and those He loves.

Photo by cohdra - morgueFile

From pastors to campus ministers to missionaries, from small group leaders to Sunday school teachers to worship team members, from those who clean the church to those who pray to those who write checks, from mothers to fathers to all types of caregivers—I thank and commend you all! Sometimes you may think that no one cares, that it really doesn’t matter, but trust me, heaven is watching! I encourage you not to lose heart at the cost of love in our selfish world.

“For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name, in having served and continuing to serve the saints.” Hebrews 6:10 (NET)

“So we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9 (NET)

“So then, dear brothers and sisters, be firm. Do not be moved! Always be outstanding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 15:58 (NET)

His promises are true as ever!

God, Why?

Photo from Wikipedia

Have you ever asked, “Why?” I often wonder why God does some of the things He does. Some people mistakenly think that God is the source of natural disasters and every type of human tragedy. News flash: God doesn’t have a cruel streak!

At the same time, however, our Heavenly Father does have this tendency to lead His children into difficult places. Consider the Israelites’ entrapment by the Red Sea. And then their journey into the desert without food or water. God initiated all of that!

And why did Jesus tell us to pray to the Father, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (ESV)? Surely there is a reason for this particular aspect of a prayer that so many lift before God week in and week out.

Make no mistake—our loving Father is trying to prove and establish us as a people of integrity—that is wholeness. Matthew 6:13 might make more sense put this way: “And please don’t lead us into difficult trials where our faith and devotion will be sorely tested and proven, but do deliver us from our own evil tendencies toward self-sufficiency.”

The last thing that God wants is for us to fall prey to sin. But the one thing He always seeks to accomplish is the firm establishment of our faith. Trust cannot exist without faith. And relational intimacy never happens apart from trust. And wholeness, most certainly, is impossible apart from relational intimacy with our loving Creator.

Have you ever thought that perhaps God leads us into desolate, impossible circumstances in order to teach us to look to Him? Resting the weight of our confidence on others apart from God is idolatry–simply put. Trusting in ourselves is nothing more than a return to the original sin (the desire to be like God apart from God). Both idolatry and self-sufficiency corrupt our lives with bitter, poisonous roots.

Stepping out in ministry I have been living by faith for 12+ years—especially the past 4 with the launch of Search for Me Ministries, Inc. I can’t count how many times I’ve said in a tight spot, “God, if you make me independently wealthy, I would do this for free and fund it all myself.” Ah! That’s exactly the problem! I would do it all myself—in my own strength and with my own ability—if I could.

The only thing that compels me to avoid self-trust is to find myself in situations and circumstances that are beyond my human ability (and therefore considered impossible). Herein lies the wisdom (and beauty) of the wilderness experience. Through the Lord’s Prayer Jesus is sending us a message: “Put no trust in yourselves and your ability to handle difficult circumstances. Turn from self-sufficiency and put the full weight of your trust in your heavenly Father and His covenant love.”

God’s promise is that He will never fail or forsake us. The desolate and impossible terrain of the wilderness sends the opposite message. Depending upon our response, the final products are fear, anxiety, hardness and bitterness, or a deep-rooted transformation into a Holy Spirit-watered life. The potential outcome almost makes me want to say, “Bring on the wilderness!” Having been around the block a few times, however, I’ll wisely stick with, “And lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil.”