Distill all the characteristics of American culture into one word, and you’ll likely find grandiosity. “Bigger is better,” “Go big or go home,” “Too big to fail,” and the like are our taglines of choice. Anything we do is bound to be better if you toss a “mega”, “super”, or “hyper” out front.
Neither is the Church immune to this phenomenon (witness “megachurches” and “celebrity pastors” in case you have any doubts). It cuts across theological and denominational lines, to the point that we are not even aware of it or how it colors our ministry. An implicit code demands every event or project we undertake to be thoroughly planned, promoted, hyped, executed, well-attended, and measurable. If any step of that procedure is given short shrift, we question whether anything “really” happened.
Over 50 years ago, novelist Walker Percy fingered the wrist of post-WWII America to find this idea pulsing within.
In The Moviegoer, Percy paints his protagonist, Binx Bolling, as a dislocated individual—lost in suburbia and the art of moneymaking, yet oddly ill at ease with nearly every aspect of existence. Binx seeks significance and transcendence in watching and re-watching popular movies; the shared world of mass culture is more real to him than anything else. Through Binx (and one scene in particular where William Holden’s presence brightens an otherwise dull afternoon in the French Quarter), Percy describes how people and places are authenticated, not by their actual nature, but only when they are acknowledged by the transcendent reality of Hollywood.
This desire for worldly significance, to be on the radar of the kingmakers of politics and mass media, afflicts almost all Americans, and it has only metastasized since Percy first diagnosed it. Only rarely do we see it outright; more often it seeps into our thoughts and actions with hidden designs for otherwise innocent and noble work.
The situation is no better in the Church, and, if I’m honest, in my own heart.
Do we gobble up books, videos, blogs, and conferences featuring the best and brightest pastors because we earnestly desire to grow in appreciation and understanding of the Gospel or because we hope being close to these men & women and their ideas rubs off some “real” ministry on us? Do we rush to donate time and resources to relief after a natural disaster out of genuine concern for the suffering of the victims or because we want great stories about how “we were there” to tell our family and friends? Do we promote our writing and church services through social media in order to benefit others or to pad our own egos?
These are fine lines, and, though we should check our motives often, we should never stop doing good things. Still, these temptations tug at us, urging us to be double-minded. We want so desperately to be noticed, to be certified by our peers and a watching world as “real”.
The problem is that “real” ministry does exist, and it often looks a lot like hard work and patient suffering with few observable results. “Real” ministry often takes place far from the cameras and microphones, away from the chattering hordes of Twitter and Facebook.
Our cultural blinders are so strong that we often miss the work God has put directly in front of us while we crane our necks to see if our true calling might be just around the bend. Even when we recognize the ministry at hand, we might give less than our full effort, treating the people we serve as stepping stones. The local church becomes a training ground where we wait to be called up to the big leagues with a book deal or a spot on the staff of a well-known church. Even if ambition lies closer to home, the chimera of a vibrant and growing church entices many to water down or sideline the Gospel for the sake of “success”.
As the story of The Moviegoer progresses, Binx’s discomfort with life and detachment from everyday responsibilities are upended by a series of events and choices that force him to reengage with the world around him. His catharsis comes as he turns from projecting himself into the illusory world of movies to become a director of sorts. In the unfolding metaphor, Binx begins producing the project of his life, framing shots and executing takes for the benefit of those closest to him, leaving his former idols on the cutting room floor, and God alone in the theater audience.
In the same way, “real” ministry requires us first to recognize that God alone determines reality. When He calls us, it is according to His plan for His glory—not our plan for ours. There is an artistry to living faithfully and sacrificially among the people God places in our care that, though it is seldom celebrated on earth, “is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
There is nothing wrong with growing or well-known ministries—God uses faithful people, big and small. The problem is when we see one as more valuable than the other, forgetting that neither is anything but for the cross of Christ. Obey God where you’re at, and if you get noticed, don’t change a thing.
Note: For a piercing look at “real” ministry, I cannot recommend this book enough.
Posted by Justin Lonas
I don’t usually use this space to comment on local issues, but something has come up here in Chattanooga that is a microcosm of the larger cultural fault-line of abortion.
This cartoon appeared in Sunday’s edition of our local newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Warning, this is (in my view) a very offensive image.
To be fair to the newspaper’s editorial staff, the local backdrop of this issue is the very unfortunate case of Dr. Scott DesJarlais, a Republican U. S. Congressman representing a neighboring district. DesJarlais was supported by the Tea Party in 2010, winning his seat by campaigning on the pro-life, low tax, limited government platform that most voters in East Tennessee identify with. In this year’s re-election campaign, however, a recording surfaced of a conversation between DesJarlais and a female patient of his with whom he had committed adultery. In the recording, the woman claimed to be pregnant with his child, and DesJarlais pressured her to have an abortion. The hypocrisy that this exposed has cost him all credibility with the people of his district, turned his locked-in reelection into a fight for survival, and given more ammunition to opponents of the Church and Christian values.
This cartoon exemplified for me the harsh, anti-conservative and anti-Christian turn the pro-abortion forces have taken this election year. The local situation notwithstanding, I thought the cartoon was totally uncalled for. I haven’t written much about this issue as it has played out at the national level this year, but as a firm believer in Tip O’Neill’s observation that “all politics is local”, I undertook to write to the Times Free Press editorial board and register dissent with their choice to display such a hateful image. Please note that being a Christian should never be equated with being a Republican, but the Republican platform on abortion has been consistently shaped by Christians seeking to restore a respect for and protection of God’s image-bearers in our culture.
Below is my letter to the editor, which may or may not show up in the paper, but which I want to share here to encourage Christians around the country not to take such attacks from the media lying down.
To the TFP editorial staff,
Sunday’s editorial cartoon by Clay Bennett was predictably left-wing, more tasteless than usual, and untruthful to the point of libel.
As a longtime reader of the Times Free Press, I’m well familiar with Bennett’s style and politics, and very little that he produces surprises me. He is a talented artist, but I’m sure I’m not the only Chattanoogan who finds his relentless ax-grinding for Democratic Party politics and liberal social issues a poor fit for this community. Still, he is entitled to his opinions and I fully support his right to express them.
When a cartoon so deliberately crafted to goad many (if not most) people in your readership area to anger is run on the front of the Perspectives section with no comment from the editorial staff or space given to an opposing viewpoint, my beef is with the TFP editorial board, not with Mr. Bennett. Cartoons are by nature stand-alone pieces not requiring further commentary, but this absolutely humorless depiction of Republicans as supporters of gruesome back-alley woman mangling and child murder crossed a line that should exempt it from the usual “free pass” afforded to a cartoon. I have trouble believing that the TFP or any other major news outlet would run a written editorial expressing those ideas with the same level of vitriol at all, and certainly not without running a corresponding piece from a pro-life source.
More than the tactlessness, Bennett’s complete misrepresentation of a conservative position on life prompted me to write. The insinuation that political action toward the end of protecting children from abortion must mean 1) that proponents of life wish unspeakable harm to women who become pregnant against their wishes or when they feel helpless to care for a child, and 2) that pro-life conservatives have no compassion whatsoever is hateful and uninformed. Conservatives, particularly Christian conservatives, do so much to protect life (both of mothers and babies).
If the staff of the TFP cared to look, Chattanooga is filled with examples of people giving of their time and resources to help women break the cycle of unintended pregnancy and abortion. The wonderful people at Choices Pregnancy Resource Center (who provide counseling and assistance with prenatal care) and Bethany Christian Services (who work tirelessly to place children with loving foster families and adoptive parents) spring immediately to mind, and I’m sure there are many other smaller organizations and church ministries striving for the same goals. In my own circle of friends at church and at work, I know many families who have sacrificed tremendously to adopt and care for the “unwanted children” that might have been killed in the womb but for the intervention of the same conservatives Bennett skewered in his cartoon. The liberal establishment and the Times Free Press may believe that opposing legal abortion is simply an ivory-tower moralistic position that doesn’t stand up to reality. The truth is that the pro-life movement is filled with people who live out their beliefs at great personal cost to give every member of our society a chance to live their life and have their voice heard. This is apparently a privilege that Bennett takes for granted.
The TFP’s promotion of Bennett’s unanswered attack amounts to nothing more than a gleeful sucker punch of your host city by an editorial staff increasingly out of touch with the needs and values of the Chattanooga region. I offer this as a word of caution. A city of Chattanooga’s caliber deserves a thoughtful, thoroughgoing, and well-managed media presence. If the Times Free Press chooses to become a mouthpiece of only the liberals in the city, another media outlet will grow to fill the middle ground, taking more and more readers out of your circulation and making it more and more difficult to provide the services you promise. It would be a very sad end for a publication with such an august history.
Posted by Justin Lonas
In his 2005 bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Canadian journalist Malcom Gladwell wrote about the neurological phenomenon of “thin-slicing”–the ability of humans to make remarkably accurate snap judgments about people, objects, and situations based on very little information. Thin-slicing, Gladwell says, helps us navigate daily life by equipping us to recognize friends and acquaintances, avoid danger (like visiting run-down buildings or eating spoiled food), and generally speed up our cognitive process (in essence, bypassing deeper thought about simple matters). Of course, like the rest of human nature, it has its drawbacks too: stereotyping and subjectivity to subliminal advertising messages come to mind.
Our propensity to thin-slice can make a muddle of social discourse. It is difficult for us to see the individual merits of someone who is from a different social class, race, or political party than we are or to rightly judge the merits of a specific action or argument because it is espoused by someone with whom we have profound disagreements in completely unrelated areas. These are not conscious decisions we make, but we can choose whether or not we allow our automatic thin-slicing to drive our slower, more reflective thought processes. We have to be willing to question our snap judgments, to “test the spirits” before we reach conclusions or take action.
In the Church, likewise, thin-slicing can be a blessing (quickly recognizing the fruit of the spirit in a believer’s life, having a “nose” for phony charities, etc.) and a curse (assuming guilt based on circumstantial evidence, interpreting Scripture out of context, etc.). Unchecked thin-slicing leads us into a host of theological, ecclesiastical, and personal prejudices that can often impede spiritual growth and provide justification for sin. I mean “prejudice” here in its classical sense (to pre-judge, to make decisions before gathering sufficient evidence), not, despite its modern connotations, “racist”, “hateful” or simply, “bad”. Neither is it prejudice to have many things settled in advance of evaluating a person or an idea. To hold to the authority of Scripture, for instance, in judging thoughts or behaviors as sinful is not prejudice but prudence–you are simply obeying the “ground rules” for debate and discussion set by the Maker of the universe. By contrast, however, it is indeed prejudice to impute sinful motives to a fellow believer simply because they hold to a position you don’t.
Christians need to be mindful of this tendency and the ways it influences discourse, both between the world and the Church and between believers within the Body.
In a culture given to ever more truncated communication, the substitution of cliches and sound-bites for dialogue is the rule of the day. The truth of the Gospel interrupts the noise, forcing everyone to engage with the person of Christ. The world recoils from that intrusion, quickly recognizing both Christ’s difference from itself and authority over it. There have always only been two options–repentance and submission or rejection and assault.
It should never catch us off guard when the world and those in its thrall pigeonhole Christians. We should more or less expect them to do everything possible to shut us down, drown us out, and keep us from applying the truth to their lives. We can either walk back our faith, kowtowing to their side and turning our backs on the God who saves, or we can stand firm. When we do that, the world’s next move is always to attack, and it should not take us by surprise in the least (see Matthew 10).
Nonbelievers often fail to think beyond their knee-jerk association of Christians with “badness”, hurling quick quips and distortions at the Church from a safe distance. They seldom engage in actual reading of the Bible or relationships with actual Christians in effort to discredit us–exposure to those things for many, as we are well aware, can have the unwanted side affect of conversion. Among their favorite tactics is to extrapolate the motives of every Christian’s heart from any example they can find of a “Christian” behaving badly or sharing views that run counter to the fruits of the Spirit. Nevermind that many of their favorite whipping boys were not Christian in any biblically recognizable sense and that most of the worst opinions ever held by Christians are the result of insufficiently sanctified minds (that is, Christians taking their cues from the world rather than from Christ).
In the world’s construct of reality, a Christian who lives out the love of Christ with the greatest of devotion (reaching out to the lost with the only thing that can truly make a difference in their lives: the offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone) is at best “intolerant” and at worst a bigot. Christians are only tolerated by the world when they dance to the world’s tune, pushing aside the demands of Scripture whenever the two are in conflict. Christians are told that we are only being “Christ-like” when we perform duties that any humanitarian would approve of (providing food, water, shelter, education, etc. to the poor or those in crisis). If we try to combine mercy ministries with the proclamation of the Gospel, we are marginalized and called hypocrites for offering those in need a “bait and switch” of some sort. If we focus our ministry on the truth of the Gospel, we are openly derided and constantly reminded about how Jesus was more concerned with actions than “doctrine”.
How should we relate to those who prejudice Christians and seek to tear us down? First, we have to remember that the people who attack us are acting in sin and have been made into agents of the Enemy by their rebellion against God. Our quarrel is not ultimately with them, and when we respond in kind to their thin-sliced judgments and catty harassment, we’re ceding Christ’s hard-won ground and souring them on the hope of redemption. Second, we cannot overemphasize personal holiness–the things we affirm as we seek to honor God and follow Him are going to raise the ire of the world, and it is of crucial importance that we maintain a standard of righteousness in our walk with God so that those who assail us in tearing down the truth cannot find any extra ammunition lying around.
Far more dangerous is the often bitter infighting between Christians over theology, ecclesiology, politics, and the like. Too often, when we feel we have something important to say, we get on an ideological high horse and ride roughshod over anyone who disagrees on that particular point, brushing aside the 10,000 things we hold in common (most importantly the blood of Christ). When that happens, we show the outside world that their convictions are correct–Christians are just a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites on a succession of power trips who have nothing useful to contribute to “society”.
A distinction needs to be made between two types of Christian “infighting”. The first kind is often just a covert operation of the larger tension between the world and the message of Christ. That is, the fight is not between two branches of Christianity, but between Christians who want to honor Christ above all and people who want to submit Christ to the world’s system and are using the Church as a tool to that end (the conservative/liberal divide in theology is a good example of this). By wearing the mask of infighting, such conflicts are among Satan’s best tactic for tearing down the faith in the world’s eyes. The second strain, squabbling between Christians over issues that are in fact important when both sides are genuinely trying to apply God’s Word and give Him glory, is where I’m addressing these remarks.
When we let our discussion and decision-making begin and end with our thin-sliced assessments of each other, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the intellectual laziness we’re engaging in. When we set up certain trigger words as our shibboleths, beyond which no discussion can pass, we close our hearts to what the Lord may be trying to teach us through debate and disagreement. When we surround ourselves with an echo chamber of only like-minded voices, we deprive the Body of Christ of the challenge of learning and growing, and the joy that comes from submitting our differences to our shared worship of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
Again, there are two primary points we forget at our peril.
First, no one is perfect. I know we’ve heard that before, but I don’t think we believe it–we expect our cohorts in the Church to attain a standard of personal and intellectual purity that is simply impossible this side of glory. When we remember this, however, we can move forward in a more honest dialogue that honors God who alone is holy. The fall means that every good gift of God is distorted, every solution has a dark underbelly, but also that many bad things can be redeemed. If we’re hoping for anything better in our churches than repentant, forgiven sinners, we’re bound to be disappointed. Paul’s words to the Corinthians (about church members suing one another) are instructive: “Actually, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren” (1 Cor. 6:7-8).
Second, remember how Scripture tells us to handle disagreements and sins. Jesus outlines a very specific process (private confrontation, confrontation by a few witnesses, public confrontation in the church, and excommunication if unrepentance persists) in Matthew 18:15-17. Paul, as fierce a contender for the truth as the Church ever produced, urges us in familial terms to rebuke one another in love (1 Tim. 5:1-2) and places very strict standards on how such charges are brought against church leaders (1 Tim. 5:19). What we see is that patience, thoroughness, and charitability are to be the defining features in our public responses to disagreements.
Both these lessons are crucial in today’s high-tech world. The walls between the world and the Church have been dissolved when it comes to online debates. Accountability is replaced by anonymity and darts are hurled from all sides. The pace with which controversies explode in the age of the internet pressures everyone with an opinion to weigh in within a day or two–why? Because they know that if they wait a week to pray, reflect, and research, no one will care anymore. If that is truly the case, we should always wait at least a week before we respond to anything–if we’re still confused, angry, and convinced someone was wrong, then we’ll have firm ground to deliver a well-formed response. If we’ve forgotten about it, it probably means that we should have–it wasn’t important enough to get our knickers in a wad over after all.
The reason this matters is wrapped up in the classic injunction to peace in the Church: “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). I fear that we may be so angry, even if righteously, that we turn from God and bow to a favorite idol of modern man–being right, understood, and acclaimed. I fear that this idol is worshipped more than the God we all desire to serve and worship, and that is on full display when we fight in public. May God have mercy on us all.
Posted by Justin Lonas
“Now I exhort you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider our calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that just as it is written, ‘let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” (1 Corinthians 1:10-31).
Posted by Justin Lonas
These days there is much discussion in the Church about the permissibility of behaviors for Christians. These issues range from cultural (what movies/music/entertainment choices are appropriate for Christians) to sexual (what are acceptable actions between a man and his wife; what are the parameters of marriage; etc.) to lifestyle (drinking, smoking, etc.) and everywhere in between.
At the risk of reductio ad absurdam, I see such debates typically coming at issues from one of two perspectives (each replete with proof-texts to hurl at their opponents): the restraining impulse to abolish any behaviors outside biblical prescriptions and a notion of “good Christian living” or the antinomian impulse to “follow your heart.” The extreme ends of this spectrum are easy enough to recognize (i.e. the Holiness denominations vs. old Mainline churches), but often opinions fall somewhere on a spectrum between the two. The arguments may look like a loosely restraining “some things that aren’t expressly biblical can be good if they fit our idea of ‘good clean fun’” or a loosely grounded antinomian “whatever is not expressly forbidden in Scripture is OK.”
To try to hold any kind of a biblically sound, logical, and socially realistic middle when these questions heat up is difficult at best. Nevertheless, I think that is exactly what we are called to do.
Christians of all stripes are quick (and right) to exult in the fact that salvation is a transformative experience: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). For restrainers, the temptation is to interpret that from a purely external view. They tend to say that this idea means that we are to put away everything that our culture values and create a new, Christianized (or at least sanitized) subculture that is noticeably distinct. For antinomians the temptation runs the opposite direction. They might say that what they do with their time, money, bodies, etc. is not the point, so long as they feel that Christ has changed their hearts to be more loving, caring, or what have you. The restrainers can quickly fall into a ditch of being distinct to the point of becoming insular–they shut out the world and end up failing to reach the lost. The antinomians can quickly fall into a ditch of being at ease with the culture to the point of being completely unrecognizable as Christians–they welcome the world without critiquing it and end up failing to reach the lost.
This, I think, is where we find the middle: to be transformed by Christ is to be overtaken by, in the words of Thomas Chalmers, “the expulsive power of a new affection.” The change is total, encompassing internal and external. When Christ lives in us, He must change our character: “For those whom He foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…” (Rom. 8:29). This necessarily changes our external behavior as well, not simply in good deeds toward others, but in our personal standards of conduct: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Pet. 1:14-15). What gets lost in these often well-intentioned disputes is the core question of why whatever issue is at hand distracts us from Christ.
If I obsess over making sure I am perceived as holy without growing deeper into Christ (who is the only source of righteousness in my life), I lose touch with the reason for holiness, trading it for pride. If I obsess over my behavioral “rights” without recognizing that my life serves as testimony to the One who lives within me, I have traded my Savior for the will of the flesh.
In whatever situation arises, the determining factor for a Christian response should be our answers to these two questions. 1) What has Christ provided me from His overflowing grace that I may be ignoring in order to stand in my own power rather than His? 2) What has Christ asked of me from His holy authority that I may be refusing in order to indulge my desires? If the old cliche that Christianity is “not a religion, it’s a relationship” is true (and I believe it is), then to take a stand on anything without asking those two questions is a lot like buying a sports car without asking your wife.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Lamentations 1:12-14, 20.
“Is it nothing to all you who pass this way?
Look and see if there is any pain like my pain
Which was severely dealt out to me,
Which the Lord inflicted on the day of His fierce anger.
From on high He sent fire into my bones,
And it prevailed over them.
He has spread a net for my feet;
He has turned me back;
He has made me desolate,
Faint all day long.
The yoke of my transgressions is bound;
By His hand they are knit together.
They have come upon my neck;
He has made my strength fail.
The Lord has given into the hands
Of those agiainst Whom I am not able to Stand.
See, O Lord, for I am in distress;
My spirit is greatly troubled;
My heart is overturned within me,
For I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword slays;
In the house it is like death.”
Lamentations is one of my favorite books of the Old Testament. Its intense grief over the destruction of Jerusalem gives way to a profound picture of God’s hand in both good and evil that shows clearly that He is the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. What I sometimes gloss over in reading this book, though, is that the destruction wrought upon Jerusalem that moved Jeremiah’s pen came from within. The blight on Israel was a result of their collective sins, and they recognized it (though only after it was too late).
The implications for daily life are painfully real. I so seldom lament the sin in my own life and the destruction it causes. Even when I do, the tendency is always to lament the consequences and fail to connect them to the sin. We are the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, regretting our lack of cookies rather than the breach of trust and relationship with our parents our actions caused. We go on this way, stumbling from transgression to transgression without considering the brokenness of our own hearts.
When God allows our sins to bear fruit in pain and suffering, it is really His special grace to call our attention to our eternal destiny through such temopral consequences. The destruction wrought by our sinful actions should move us to consider our sinful hearts and our cardinal sin of rebellion against our Great and gracious Creator. The brokenness that comes when sin “catches up to us” should drive us to the cross, where the consequences of all man’s sin are on full display, heaped on the Son–”once for all, the just for the unjust” (1 Pet. 3:18). As Charles Hodge put it, “It is obvious that no severity of mere human suffering, no destroying deluge, no final conflagration, not hell itself can present such a manifestation of the evil of sin and of the justice of God as the cross of his incarnate Son.”
When we fail to recognize these connections, to lament and mortify our sin, we heap further guilt on our heards. What is lament but to dwell on our own failure in the face of God’s holiness and to consider ourselves as He does? For the believer, lament is a crucial discipline, the result of which is not despair but the joy of Christ’s sacrifice considered anew. It is only through lamenting the sin that stains us that we can see the grace of God in full. This is what allows Jeremiah to say from the depths of sorrow, “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never ceases, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness” (Lam 3:21-23).
Posted by Justin Lonas
I wrote this for my student newspaper during my senior year of college after a trip to Louisiana to assist with hurricane relief. I’m reposting it here in honor of the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast on 8/29/05 and as a reminder that God is at work in even in the worst disasters we witness around the world.
“œEverybody keeps saying that God sent this thing as an act of judgment on our city. I think it was really an act of mercy ““ there are people who have been praying for something like this for years ““ just waiting for an opportunity to get out of a bad situation.”
These level-headed words from the wife of a New Orleans Baptist Theologial Seminary student didn’t blend with their context.
She spoke them while inspecting her salt-encrusted Chevy Cavalier to the background noise of six men from Bryan College stripping appliances and furniture from her neighbor’s apartment.
I never associated mercy with destruction. The mold-blackened walls, rancid refrigerators and pervasive stench of flooded homes more closely matched my conception of hell than of God’s love. Pausing from our grim task to hear her wisdom sharpened the meaning of our work there.
Before heading to Louisiana for a week of ministry, I wondered how I could show God’s love to people who thought He Himself had destroyed their lives. The words of the seminary wife caught me off guard with the simple truth that God was behind the whole story of Hurricane Katrina, in ways that I never conceived.
New Orleans needed judgment. The city of gamblers, drunkards, prostitutes and revelers, was ripe for sentence to be passed. Gulfport and Biloxi in neighboring Mississippi weren’t much better. Then again, neither is any place on this earth. What cities and towns don’t play host to people who are financially irresponsible, those who depend on alcohol and drugs, the sexually promiscuous and self-absorbed partygoers? “œNormal” places carefully pass over these woes as those who partake of them deftly cover their tracks to avoid condemnation.
New Orleans wore her sins on her sleeve. Did we rush to proclaim the wrath of God on the Big Easy because she deserved it or because we were glad that our own closet hadn’t been blown open by the storm?
Too often we mistake nudges from the Almighty as blows from His sword. We forget that He works in mysterious ways. If He wanted to destroy the city, He could have ““ beyond the shadow of a doubt. Looking at roofs crushed by trees, windows exploded by 130-mph winds and 10-foot-high piles of trash that were once the contents of a home, it’s very easy to think of judgment.
Looking deeper, mercy overtakes judgment as the theme of this saga. A city of 500,000 people losing only a little more than 1,000 to a direct hit by a monstrous hurricane for which it was almost completely unprepared is mercy. Letting people see the Church do the work of restoring lives wrecked by the storm when the government bungled its attempt at the same is mercy. Leading National Guard soldiers and Red Cross relief workers to salvation is mercy. Allowing the terrible beauty of a hurricane to thrash our lives so that we wake from the slumber of Christless apathy is mercy.
New Orleans needed mercy. We all need mercy. God loves to show us His gracious care. We’re just slow to pick up His frequency.
New Orleans was not destroyed. Today, just a few weeks later, it is bustling with the activity of reconstruction. The South isn’t about to let the bosom of its culture wash by the wayside. More importantly, Christ isn’t about to let hurting people go untouched through this upheaval. I’ve never seen as positive an outpouring of energy and resources from the Church in my lifetime.
Those of us who could go offer tangible help did, some more than once, and I’m sure many will continue to go for months to come. Those who could give to the cause gave generously; so much so that there has been an overabundance of supplies for the refugees. The hand of the Lord has been active the whole time. It touched refugees herded into shelters with hot meals and listening ears. It touched uninsured homeowners by preparing their homes for reconstruction free of charge. It touched people living in makeshift trailer parks with welcoming embraces and simple services. It touched relief workers from Bryan with the strength, patience and generosity we needed to be that hand to the people of southeast Louisiana.
Years from now, when we look back on this incredible story of God’s redeeming mercy, no one will think of it as a judgment from on high. We can’t waste the gift He has given us. If we allow our lives to return to “œnormal” after the dust of all this settles, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina will not be the destruction of the Gulf Coast but the destruction of spiritual fervor by comfortable circumstances.
The words of the prophets linger in the background. “œ“˜I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not turn to me,’ declares the Lord.” (Hag. 2:17).
God got our attention and allowed us to rebuild His Body with a righteous work ethic. To Him be the glory, even (or, should I say, especially) when we can’t immediately see His purposes.
Posted by Justin Lonas
“œBy faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward“ (Heb. 11:24-26).
If, like me, you’ve grown up in the Church, you’ve probably been read that verse (and chapter) dozens of times. You may have even heard sermons built on this passage (particularly back in youth group days) exhorting you to “œflee youthful lusts” and live a life of high moral character. To that I’d say, “œgreat message; wrong passage.” Sure, there were boundless temptations appealing to all the senses in the royal palace that Moses would’ve done well to shun. However, the context says a lot about the choice Moses made to seek and do the will of God, and nothing about the licentiousness of pagan Egypt.
This reading probably comes from our American tendency to think of righteousness only in terms of “œnot doing bad things,” rather than in terms of life-long obedience to God’s will that His glory be proclaimed. When we sequester sin to the realm of activities “œthey” (”we” would never do that, right?) participate in, we wall off God as some sort of moral barometer instead of the Creator of the universe. The problem with this viewpoint is that morality is not about us. God desires that we be holy and blameless so that He can use us how He sees fit”“so that we will be true witnesses of His character to a watching world.
This gives new meaning to the “œpassing pleasures of sin.“ Perhaps they are those things”“more often than not, things that, in and of themselves, are not only not sinful but useful and good”“that distract us from our purpose of glorifying God by obedience to His will. Moses grew up into a sense of God’s purpose for his life as a deliverer (see Acts 7:25), and he knew that a life of luxury in the palace would keep him from that role.
In that light, everything we enjoy temporarily at the expense of participation in God’s purpose is a fleeting pleasure, and our obsession with comfort becomes a greivous sin. When was the last time you thought of your movies, music, television, or hobbies as “œpleasures of sin”? How about your fridge or pantry well-stocked with an incredible variety of food, your manicured yard, or your car? Obviously, anything can be used as a tool for accomplishing God’s call to proclaim His name, but we have quite an ability to justify all manner of luxuries as ends in themselves. The theme of the Scriptures is that we are blessed to bless others (Gen. 12:2-3, et. al.), and that’s a teaching I fear we’ve lost sensitivity to. May the Lord convict us (myself chief of all) of thinking that the self-serving accumulation of wealth that distracts from obedience to His call is somehow not a sin.
Reading the other day in Jeremiah (a book, I’ll confess, that has seldom been a focus of study for me”“though the Lord has been leading me in a “œrenaissance” of the OT of late) and came across a passage I’d never noticed before: “œHow can you say, “˜I am not defiled, I have not gone after the Baals’? Look at your way in the valley! Know what you have done! You are a swift young camel, entangling in all her ways, a wild donkey accustomed to the wilderness, that sniffs the wind in her passion. In the time of her heat, who can turn her away? All who seek her will not become weary; in her month they will find her“ (Jer. 2:23-24).
Scripture is filled to overflowing with creative turns of phrase and vivid word pictures. I’m quite familiar with the prophets’ descriptions of Israel as a prostitute or adulteress for their unfaithfulness to God, but this one goes a step further, equating them with a wild donkey in heat. The difference is one of degree more than kind”“a prostitute or adulteress does what she does for selfish reasons, standing to gain something (temporally) by her wiles; a wild animal does not reason through her actions, driven into a frenzy by chemistry and exercising no control whatsoever. In other words, the Lord is saying through Jeremiah that Israel worshipped whatever false gods came her way with no rhyme or reason, blindly following any and every path presented to her.
This is final stage of their degeneration before judgment”“they didn’t get to this point overnight. In the historical books, there seems to be a progression from casually disengaging from God and distrusting His provision and plan to willful disobedience to God and turning to false gods for political, social, or economic gain (prostitution) to devoutly worshipping false gods our of spite for the Lord (adultery) to the utter degradation described here.
There is a clear lesson here for us, and not just in terms of our personal sin and wandering from the Lord’s presence. When we begin to drift from God, forsaking prayer and the fellowship of the saints, we open our hearts to deception. We are then tempted to accept false teachings (even, or especially, the subtle ones) because they are “œhip” or “œthe new way to do things”. Eventually we come to hold falsehood more closely than truth and are in danger of completely sliding off our foundation stone. Just as the whole nation of Israel slid down this slope, so whole churches and denominations can and do take the spill.
We do well to guard our hearts and take the “œdry spells” of spirituality as a call from the Lord to search our hearts and commit ourselves ever deeper to obedience to His will. As Peter cried out in John 6:68, “œLord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.” He is enough. Whenever we forget that, we demote Him in our hearts from God of the universe to “œpersonal assistant” and begin looking elsewhere for gratification.
”œOh to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be.
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wand’ring heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it!
Prone to leave the God I love!
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it.
Seal it for Thy courts above.”