Sweet and Bitter

da Vinci’s concept of Jesus’ agony.

Matthew’s gospel, chapter twenty-seven, reports Jesus’ torment and torture at the Roman soldiers’ hands. The executioners gave their prisoners wine before nailing them to the cross beam and hoisting them into the vertical position, but in Jesus’ case they mixed gall with the wine to make it intolerably bitter. Why did they take that extra step to make him even more miserable?

Every aspect of Jesus’ torture and death has symbolic implications, and sweet wine mixed with gall is not an exception. While the wine’s alcohol might have offered some small relief from crucifixion’s agony, Jesus’ tormentors wanted to show Him no compassion at all, so they made the wine impossible to drink. I think Jesus wouldn’t have drunk the wine even without the gall, as he wanted to fully experience the pain and humiliation of crucifixion and the sin it represented. Also, taking even that small amount of bitter gall into his mouth symbolized His tasting sin’s bitterness.

That thought brings me to another application of sweetness versus bitterness: harmony versus discord. We find those qualities in every area of life, from music to culinary arts. Everyone prefers harmonious to discordant sounds, architectural lines, artistic works, flavors and human relationships, to name just a few categories we encounter daily. After all, every relationship will involve some combination of those two qualities. God created Man to relate to Him harmoniously, but to make it a voluntary relationship gave His creation one simple choice: obey or disobey.

Well, we know how that worked out. Eve, and then Adam, chose to disobey God, ultimately sending Him to suffer and die to end sin’s dominion over us, and then to be resurrected from the grave, giving His eternal life to everyone who accepts that sacrifice for themselves. The world’s stereotype of God as the scowling, bearded old Judge peaking over a cloud’s edge to catch us doing something wrong couldn’t be further from the truth. The Bible is full of accounts of God’s patience with His people Israel, all leading up to His ultimate redemptive act.

God created nothing but harmony. We introduced discord into the world, and God longs to restore that harmonious relationship with each and every human being.

HOW COULD GOD DO THIS TO ME?

Have you ever heard yourself asking that question when something goes totally wrong in your life? It is a question born of desperation, a response to the need for someone to blame. Obviously, you’re innocent of any wrongdoing that would warrant such punishment. Right? So God is wrong and you are as pure as the driven snow. If you’re a Christian you’ve heard a gospel presentation or two. Among the Roman Road pamphlet’s Bible passages are Romans 3:23 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and Romans 3:10-11 “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one11 There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God.'” For Christians, of course, all that is old hat; you may have heard it a thousand times in Sunday school. But another passage—not in Romans—brings the idea home to us: 1 John 1:8-10 “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” Apostle John directed that assault toward first century believers. You know, the ones who suffered persecution for their faith. If they were sinners, what does that make you? And if you’re angry with God for your troubles, that means you are judging Him for His unrighteous judgment. That, my friend, is blasphemy, pure and simple. God doesn’t need defending, but one Bible passage lays out an apt comparison between God and us: Isaiah 55:8-9 8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. 9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts. Oh, yeah. There’s also Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Care to rethink your question?

Screwtape on Using Religion As a Christian’s Stumbling Block

Screwtape (C.S. Lewis’ demonic character) shows real ingenuity in his approach to tripping up Christians.

Success here depends on confusing him. If you try to make him explicitly and professedly proud of being a Christian, you will probably fail; the Enemy’s warnings are too well known. If, on the other hand, you let the idea of ‘we Christians’ drop out altogether and merely make him complacent about ‘his set’, you will produce not true spiritual pride but mere social vanity which, by comparison, is a trumpery, puny little sin. What you want is to keep a sly self-congratulation mixing with all his thoughts and never allow him to raise the question ‘What, precisely, am I congratulating myself about?’ The idea of belonging to an inner ring, of being in a secret, is very sweet to him. Play on that nerve. Teach him, using the influence of this girl when she is silliest, to adopt an air of amusement at the things the unbelievers say. Some theories which he may meet in modern Christian circles may here prove helpful; theories, I mean, that place the hope of society in some inner ring of ‘clerks’, some trained minority of theocrats. It is no affair of yours whether those theories are true or false; the great thing is to make Christianity a mystery religion in which he feels himself one of the initiates.

Of course, the “him” to which Screwtape refers is Wormwood’s personal project, an unsuspecting Christian. Lewis appears to grant him greater discernment than is typically true; I’ve known many “Christians” who displayed pride in their religious affiliation because they either don’t know, or care about, the Bible’s warnings about vain pride.

“Spiritual pride” is an oxymoron. Whenever a Christian takes a, “big I, little you,” perspective based on his position in Christ, chances are he’s not “in Christ” at all. That includes making snarky, patronizing comments to or about atheists or homosexuals, regardless how snarky or patronizing they are.

How easily we forget that the only damnable sin is that of rejecting Jesus’ offer of forgiveness for our sins and reconciliation with the Father. Think of such rejection as a refusal to pray as King David did in Psalm 139:23-24 “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” What is “the way everlasting?” Well, its map is God’s complete Word, and it’s called, “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Unlike GPS, or Screwtape, it won’t mislead you.

Like Waking From a Dream

Last night—or this morning, depending on your perspective—I dreamt of an old ladies’ beauty parlor where I was expected to know one of their past customers. One of the ladies said her name began with Bu-something. I suggested my late wife’s name and sure enough that was it. Seems my dream-Nancy had a makeover before we moved to Montana, and it all made perfect sense to me; even the dream-memory of a glamorous, dark-haired Nancy accompanying me to Montana seemed real, even vivid.

While the name was correct, everything else about that dream was pure fiction, but I didn’t realize it until I awoke. That non-critical phenomenon is both the beautiful and the scary thing about dreaming. Regardless how fantastic the dream scenario, we typically buy into it without question until we wake up.

Sometimes, however, my dreams are so vivid that their thoughts and emotions persist awhile, even into my waking mind. A common comedic situation has a woman clobbering and interrogating her husband because he had behaved badly in her dream. Believe me, it’s nowhere near as funny in reality as it’s sitcom depiction.

My longest dream lasted the twenty-odd years from my birth until God opened my eyes to His truth. During that protracted period I believed without question, everything my mind, emotions and senses told me. Like my dream-memory of Nancy, I believed there was a God, and even His Son Jesus. I believed in the religion my Dad and the priests and nuns taught me. I believed that I was worthless because of my sinful mind and appetites. I believed that my self-serving treatment of people was okay because I was “nice” while doing it. I believed my lusting, thieving, lying and hating was alright because nobody really got hurt, and I could tell a priest about them and say my penance to gain absolution. I even believed in “science,” though it seemed to contradict my roughly Christian religious beliefs.

Yes, dreams can seem real and vivid, even blissful, but we must deal with waking life’s realities. Waking from sin’s seductive illusions requires the same sort of  dogged determination, but to all who accept God’s gift of salvation from sin, and eternal life in Christ Jesus, He gives us a leg up in the form of His Holy Spirit. Apostle Peter, by the power of that same Holy Spirit, wrote:

Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. (2 Peter 1:2-4)

Like that stereotypical scenario about the woman clobbering her husband after her dream, fully awakening from my sin-fueled fantasy life, even after God revealed His truth to me, took time. In fact, forty-odd years later, I’m still unlearning the lies I believed before I was reborn. If you’ve been saved my our glorious Lord Jesus you have already begun awakening from your natural life’s illusions, but it is only a beginning. As Apostle Peter said, by Christ’s great and precious promises, which you must know in order to apprehend them,  you will partake of His divine nature and escape this world’s lustful corruption.

Awake, O dreamer, to God’s beautiful reality through our loving Savior and His eternal Word.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Oops

This evening I had the best of intentions … pretty much, anyway. A while after my evening meal (I wouldn’t glorify it with the title, “dinner.”), I decided to take my bedtime pills and retire. So I waltzed over to my pill sorter, only to be reminded that it was empty. Not terribly daunted, I took it over to my computer desk to refill it in front of a Netflix movie; multitasking is next to godliness, right?

So there I was, carefully sorting out my supplements and meds while watching a good movie and munching on these amazing, “Dark Chocolate Super Fruits” from Costco, in preparation for downing my meds, some of which must be taken with food, and I forgot to quit munching. I mean, dark chocolate is good for you, and super fruit is good for you, so this particular snack must be great for you, right?

Three hours after retiring, my eyes popped open and refused to pop back closed. Seems I’d forgotten about the caffeine that resides nefariously in dark chocolate. Besides, I felt hungry after all that (ahem) sugar. Well, fifteen minutes of that is enough for anyone, so I climbed out of bed, donned my jeans and robe, made some PB-and-honey toast, brewed a cup of sleepytime tea, and sat down to write this blog post.

What I had intended for good … pretty much, anyway … had caused rather inconvenient, unintended consequences. That’s my life’s story—and that of every other human being.

Even Jesus faced unintended consequences when he remained in Jerusalem to lecture the lecturers instead of accompanying his family back to his home in Nazareth. His mom and dad were worried sick when they couldn’t find him along the dusty, bandit-infested, Palestine road, so they turned back to search for him. What perils they faced, abandoning the caravan of pilgrims to return to Jerusalem, but they loved their son enough to risk anything to find him.

The Bible doesn’t record his apology to his folks when they found him in the Temple teaching the teachers, but I’m sure he must have. After all, that would only be the right thing to do.

Despite our best intentions, we too occasionally pursue actions that turn south on us. Perhaps we unintentionally offend a brother or sister in the Lord, or drop a news-bomb that we thought was common knowledge. Christ-followers don’t intentionally gossip, but none of us are always able to perfectly control our tongues (note the triplet of absolutes in that sentence).

Whether we are the offender, or the offended party, we have two choices: During such embarrassing moments our first impulse as the offender is usually to make excuses or dismiss the offense as trivial. That, however, instantly transforms a thoughtless oversight into a true offense that could, and often does, grow into a brierpatch of bad feelings. Our second, and more difficult choice, is to fess up and beg forgiveness. Sure it wasn’t intentional, but it was hurtful, and needs to be positively dealt with before it can infect the church with division.

The offended party also has a significant responsibility, and that is to forgive the offense. Whether or not the offender responds in a godly manner to their gaffe, Jesus’ Law of Love requires that we forgive up to 490 times (Matthew 18:21-35). The alternative is sin, even if you’re technically in the right.

Jesus said that reconciliation is more important than sacrifice (Matthew 5:23-26), meaning religious practice. So, before you offer praises to God, take care of those unintended consequences; it’s the law!

Why Lukewarm?

Francis Chan

I mean, not speaking of myself, of course; it’s all those people. You know, the less-spiritual “brethren:” The ones who don’t spend enough time in God’s Word. The ones who don’t help out. The ones whose lives are too hurried for much prayer. The ones who fill their minds with worldly entertainments. And the ones who follow pop-culture’s behavioral and fashion trends, rather than Godly principles.

Wait a sec! That’s me, except for the last one. No one would ever accuse me of being trendy. Those are the kinds of things that gradually cover our eyes with worldly-colored contacts, nudging our world view and priorities away from what Jesus taught, one teeny-tiny step at a time. Walk that path very long, and no one will recognized Christ’s presence within—that is, if He’s still there.

Bible Gateway sent me a link to the article, Biblical Literacy by the Numbers: Fixing the Problem, where Ed Stetzer suggests: 1) Viewing the Bible as a whole, as opposed to fracturing it into sound-bites to suit our purposes, or taking a, “spiritual fast-food,” approach to our “McBibles.” 2) Creating a reading and study plan, personally or congregationally, since becoming conversant with God’s word flows from the top down. 3) Teach the Bible, not predigested curricula that may, or may not, present Biblical principles faithfully. 4) Teach and preach from the best contemporary translations, while taking older, more established versions, into consideration.

Stetzer summarizes with, “Reading the Bible is actually part of the abundant life Christ has given us,” but I say it’s far more. Only when God’s Holy Spirit makes His Word alive within us, will we understand His life-giving principles, but each Christ-follower—that’s you and I—must commit to learning them. We cannot live the Christian life without them.

The resurrected and glorified Jesus told His disciple John to warn the Laodecian church about the consequences of their lukewarm commitment to Him (Revelation 3:14-22). If there are ages within the historical Christian church, we are now in the Laodecian age, where we take our ease, having, in our own minds, satisfied Christ’s minimum requirements for salvation. We are rich (by the world’s standards), we have become wealthy, and have need of nothing … nothing but repentance.

Utopia

Map of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia

Project Utopia; A Human Concept

Everyone hopes for a better place. Since 1516, when Sir Thomas More published his novel, Utopia, we’ve known what to call it. Many sociological and political movers and shakers in the six intervening centuries have tried to establish their own, “unique,” utopias, but every attempt went the way of all earthly paradises. One problem stands in the way of such ideal places: the dreaded “S” word, or the “D” word, and they aren’t the popular profanities that start with those letters. Sin, and the depravity that follows it, always intervene with even the best-laid human plans, programs and institutions, when we leave God out of the picture.

You may have noticed the bad reputation that religion is earning, even our beloved Christianity. That’s because even many religions or sects that claim to embrace Christ’s teachings and Spirit, don’t. Instead, they are the products of human pride and ambition, rather than of Christ’s Great Commission. and the love that He commands in His Word. Oh, they may have begun with the purest motives ever, but we … that’s you and I … too often let our carnality take over. A (literally) dead giveaway is when we set goals and targets for our ministries that aren’t strictly Scriptural. Those might include targeting a mean income for a church’s constituency, establishing “seeker-friendly” programs, and vetting perspective members by their appearance, style or occupation. But, of course your church doesn’t do that, does it?

A Religious Utopia (at least for those who pass the plate)

I said everyone hopes for a better place, because when we don’t have hope, despair takes over our lives. The New King James Version New Testament lists sixty-three instances of “hope,” fifty-three of which are in the epistles. God obviously considers hope an important idea. You’ll find the best known of those passages in Romans, chapter eight:

20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. 23 Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. 24 For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.

Christ-followers live in the only reliable hope of a “utopia,” and that is not a place, but a relationship with the only One who is able to deliver far more than we could ever hope for. Never stop seeking that “Utopia.”

To Arms! To Arms!

Meet AK 47, the insurgents’ weapon of choice.

Conservative news sources say our government is threatening our rights, to the extent that millions of U.S. residents are “prepping” for the “SHTF” scenario. God speed, rugged individualists.

I guess Preppers are the same folks who used to be called, “survivalists,” but now many more people are arming themselves, hoarding provisions, and fortifying their homes against looters, even if some of those looters are wearing the uniform of the very government that is supposed to protect the people.

The elitist news media—that’s most broadcast news sources—paints those who might be willing to fight for our Constitution as pillaging brutes, and all the Kool-Aid-drinking lemmings accept that sort of lie without question. So “we the people” allow the powers that be to pass punitive executive orders and legislation to keep the folks in line.

As Apostle Paul said, “I speak as a fool.” The above paragraphs present the extreme right end of the conservative spectrum, but as Christ-followers, our role is not to take up arms. If we will obey Christ’s Great Commandments, which Apostle James calls, “the perfect law of liberty,” we must submit to the corrupt authorities and endure persecution with patience and love. Such spiritual guns and bullets will be far more effective than trying to kill government enforcers. I pray that God’s church will grasp our peace in Christ and never let it go, regardless how much suffering we must endure. Jesus said we must be salt of the earth, which serves as both a flavor enhancer and a preservative.

Jesus said, Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.(Matthew 5:16) Wherever persecution reigns, God’s church spreads, and when that happens here, the remnant will shine with God’s eternal glory, bringing the abundant sheaves into His eternal storehouse. Praise God for His marvelous wisdom!

As for our God-given rights, I’d like to see the Biblical basis for our constitutionally guaranteed rights. The only God-given right I know is our right, as His children, to expect Him to be true to Himself and His promises. I’m plum tickled pink with that, and don’t expect any more. When our entitlements go belly up, the church will have to start taking care of its own. If it doesn’t, it’s not God’s church.

What a shame, that the LDS religion holds the standard for charitable giving higher than God’s church cares to match? The trouble with that religion, though, is such giving is mandated as brownie-points toward edification to godhood. But that’s human nature; fallen man gives so that he may get back. Whether it’s karma, God-brownie points, altruism, grudging responsibility or tax deductions, we want to know, “What’s in it for me,” before we part with our ungodly manna. I call it ungodly because we grasp God’s provisions near to our hard hearts out of love for money and the stuff it will buy, when we should consider everything we have holy unto the Lord, out of love for Him. When I say, “we,” I mean God’s church at large.

I personally don’t believe God requires us to tithe under the New Covenant of grace. What He does require, though, is far more than a simple tithe of our income. To obey God, Christ-followers must give of our earthly resources sacrificially, according to the principles Jesus laid out during the Sermon on the Mount. For every point of law He mentioned, He upped the ante. But the standards Jesus laid out are not required for salvation; they follow salvation, as the fruit of God’s Spirit that believers will bear.

If you’re walking just a hair’s breadth inside your idea of God’s requirements for salvation, or if you’re trusting in worldly weapons and wealth for survival, you’ve got it all wrong. Obviously, you’ve neglected to don the only armament that matters eternally: the Whole Armor of God. So, TO ARMS, God-style!

The Lie’s Silver Lining

Funny, isn’t it, how so many lawyers want to be known as results-getters, but never admit to lying.

Matthew 5:11-12 “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Some folks couldn’t lie their way out of a paper bag, but I don’t suffer from that malady. When I lived in and for the flesh, I “lied when the truth sounded better,” which was one of my mother’s homespun expressions. Even after I began allowing God to change me, lies came too easily. Oh, they weren’t whoppers, but they still weren’t the truth. Old habits die hard, but over my years of growing in Christ, lying has become ever more repugnant to me, until today those temptations to lie are about as influential to my behavior as are temptations to steal or murder.

Even in today’s church, expediency too often holds sway over truth. In that sense, Satan’s other name is, “Expediency.” Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.” (John 8:44)

So, you’re probably asking, “What’s this ‘silver lining’ in your title?” The fact that the gospel’s enemies must lie to oppose it, proves it’s truth. In fact, lies prove lots of things, such as the character of the one speaking them. The news media’s lies, misrepresentations and innuendos, are a great illustration of that. Take, for example, the almost comical way Soledad O’Brien talks over Allen West, trying to fluster him in this video. It proves that “progressives” must lie to get their point across, just as their communist brethren so often do.

 “Progressives,” my eye!

The “progressive” entertainment and news medias busily prove my point with their unbalanced presentations of any scenario involving Christians, and especially preachers. How often have you heard the Network News mention a perpetrator’s day-job that has nothing to do with the alleged crime? Unless, of course, the perp’s day job is preaching in an evangelical church. News programmers defend their biased reporting by insisting that such knowledge is in the public interest. Right! It’s in their own interest to sully the church’s reputation whenever possible.

Then, there’s the popular entertainment media, of which the network news media is a de facto member, that consistently portrays homosexual characters as well-adjusted, fun-loving, everyday folks, often in committed, lifelong relationships that really should, after all, be considered legal marriages. And how do these same media moguls portray Christians? On the rare occasion when the scenario mandates a Christian character, they portray him as a mindless, wild-eyed, assault rifle-carrying fundamentalist, or a complete idiot, or both. Anyone who is not a media-engorged idiot would see such portrayals as the transparent lies that they are.

If God were not the beneficent, loving Creator that the Bible reveals to us, how long would He allow such slander to go on? Does the phrase, “Give us enough rope to hang ourselves,” ring a bell? Our Creator God did just that when He gave Man free will. With that “rope,” we can either hang ourselves eternally, or grab hold of it and allow Jesus to pull us out of sin’s quicksand. The choice is ours, and I’ve already decided where I want to spend eternity. Have you?

C.S. Lewis on Self-Insight

34502Though I’ve taken some flack recently over using Lewis’ ideas to illustrate truths, I must continue to do so despite the acknowledged errors in his theology. Following our Lord Christ’s narrow Way does not demand that we follow Him with narrow minds. I’ve discovered errors in my own understanding of theology, and I expect to do so again, and the only way to continue with that program of self-correction is to keep my mind open to God’s Truth. I will always stand squarely on God’s Word as my exclusive source of eternal Truth, but that does not preclude others’ words opening my eyes to Biblical Truth that I have not yet discovered, or better understanding Truth-related concepts. With that disclaimer, here’s Uncle Jack.

Remember that, as I said, the right direction leads not only to peace but to knowledge. When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.

Uncle Jack, in his inimitable style, expressed a concept that I call, “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” When you’re in sin, you can’t see it for what it is, rather like magnifying a photograph to the pixel or grain-level, where the colored dots mean nothing to you. If you’re a serious Christ-follower, a similar phenomenon effects your appreciation of your spiritual life; though you hunger and thirst for righteousness, you can often forget how far behind you’ve left your former life of sin.

That’s why you need faithful brethren close by to encourage you in those bummer times of forgetfulness, to remind you of who you are now, in Christ Jesus. In case that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s called the Church. Remember the exhortation of Hebrews 10:24-25  And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. Everyone will live to see, “The Day,” whether it comes for you alone, or for God’s entire church. So, be ready!