Our Life’s Response to this Christ Child

On Sunday our pastor led our congregation in a study of Isaiah 11:1-12.  In this passage, Isaiah further expounds upon his prophesy of a coming child that he introduces in chapter 9, the One who will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6).  On one level this prophesy offered encouragement to the Israelite people in that time who had been taken captive and forced to leave the land God had given to them.  They could be reminded of God’s plan and his faithfulness to complete that plan.  Even though things were bleak for them currently, God would return a remnant of his people to the promised land in order to finish what he had started through them.  God had promised Eve that he would provide a seed of a woman who would crush the head of the serpent.  He then promised Abraham that this seed would come from his lineage.  Isaiah reminds the Israelite people that despite their own disobedience that has led to the current captivity and banishment of Abraham’s ancestors, God’s plan has never gotten off track.  He will fulfill what he has promised.

On a deeper level, though, Isaiah’s prophesy points to a day in which all of this child’s accomplishments will culminate.  After he has completely satisfied God the Father in his perfect life and death, after he has conquered death in his resurrection, after he has given his Commission to his Church, and after he has ascended back into Heaven, one day He will return in his second advent.  He will return as King and Judge, once for all doing away with sin and its consequences.  He will bring about the destruction of this fallen creation and the creation of a new heavens and earth.  His people can look forward to this day only because through all that he has accomplished, he has made a way of reconciliation between sinful people and God the Father.  All who have embraced Him as that Way can look to that day with confidence and anticipation, for that day will also bring their much awaited glorification as they are ushered into his Kingdom to dwell with him forever!

I spent some time this morning reading through these chapters in Isaiah, but I took special note of the response of God’s people by the prophet in chapter 12.  In light of the prophetic truths in chapters 9 and 11, chapter 12 offers several appropriate responses that should be marks of our lives from our perspective on this side of Jesus’ first advent.

1. Thankfulness.  But not just any thankfulness; thankfulness specifically because of our changed standing before God because of this child.  “I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me” (v. 1).

2. Confidence.  God is faithful.  As we grow in our knowledge of that, we can join with Isaiah in declaring, “I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation” (v. 2).

3. Rejoicing.  We talk a lot about joy at this time of the year (Christmas time).  The only true source of joy, though, can be found only in God, himself.  “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (v. 3).  We should respond to these truths by drinking deeply from this well!  No matter what our circumstance, we can experience joy, but only as long as we dwell on the beauty of this gospel and its salvation.

4. Proclamation.  As we drink from such a well, the natural response will be an overflow of proclamation to others.  “And you will say in that day, Give thanks to the LORD, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted.  Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth” (v. 4-5).

Remember, however, that these responses are not the result of religious activity.  They are not the result of some surface belief in God’s existence.  They are only the reality of those whose faith has been placed in this child of whom Isaiah prophesied and in all that he accomplished on behalf of sinful, fallen humanity.  Only through him can we be counted among the ones to whom the angels referred when they pronounced to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14).  This child came so that we could attain that standing in him before God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

“Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel!” (Isaiah 12:6)

Do these responses resemble your life this Christmas season?

Giving to God what is Marginal

God’s rebuke of his priests in Malachi offers a sobering picture of the reality of marginal giving for the Church today.  To understand this, we must fully understand the context of this heavy passage in light of the entire biblical narrative.  In his indictment, God accuses the Priests of “offering polluted food upon my altar” when they “offer blind animals in sacrifice…and those that are lame or sick” (Mal 1:7, 8).  Now at first glance we may simply believe that God chastises his priests for the mere fact that they have broken his law, which indeed they had (see Lev 22:17-25; Deut 15:21; 17:1).  True, the priests were guilty of offering what was easy instead of what was commanded; however, the context and very purpose of the sacrificial system in which the priests participated forbids us to stop at that interpretive level.

The Deeper Meaning

Ultimately, the priests had evoked the anger of God because of a far deeper truth pertaining to the sacrificial system they had stewarded so poorly.  The sacrificial system had never existed simply for itself.  It had always been intended to envisage the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus.  It was meant to represent, or show a picture, of the perfect, spotless Lamb who would one day come to take away the sins of the world once and for all (Heb 10:11-12).  This is why God’s standard demanded such a pristine animal to be slaughtered.  This is why God’s anger burned against a group of priests who instead were offering animals that represented no real cost…or sacrifice at all.  In doing so, the priests became guilty of far more than just transgressing the law; they were misrepresenting Jesus to those who watched.  They had been given the lofty task of proclaiming the excellency of the coming Christ for the people to see.  Instead, out of their selfishness and nearsightedness, they instead offered a nod to God by checking off their religious boxes while attempting to rig the system in a way that would ultimately benefit themselves.

Truth for Us Today

How is this passage written to a group of priests relevant to us today?  As I read this account I am reminded of Peter’s words in his first epistle.  Notice what he chooses to call believers in chapter 2: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood,” (v 5), and again in verse 9, “But you are a chose race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession…”  Did you catch that?  He calls us, New Testament believers, priests!  And as priests, how can our task be described?  We are to “…offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…” (v 5)  and “…proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (v. 9).

Instead of a sacrificial system to steward, however, Paul tells us what kind of offerings we are to offer in Romans 12:1, when he writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  Just as the priests in the day of Malachi were to proclaim the excellencies of the coming Christ to the people through the sacrificial system, we now have been called to proclaim the excellencies of the resurrected Lord Jesus to the world through our lives!

Proclaiming His Worth

We do this, ultimately, not by putting bumper stickers on our cars, having perfect attendance in Sunday School or listening exclusively to Christian radio.  We proclaim the excellency of Jesus by declaring the worth of Jesus.  I have heard it said this way: Worship is really worth-ship.  When Paul speaks of offering our lives as a living sacrifice, he means that the outward expression of our lives will always declare something about the worth of the one we claim to follow as Lord.  When the priests offered blind, lame and sick sacrifices, they were making a proclamation of the worth of the One those sacrifices represented, whether they meant to or not.  The same can be true for us when the outward expression of our lives places a higher worth on something other than Jesus.

This, then, begs the question: What am I proclaiming about the Lord I claim to follow in the outward expression of my life?  Is there anything to which my life ascribes more worth than Jesus?

A Grievous Contrast

Notice the question that God asks the priests through his prophet in Malachi 1:8.  “Present that to your governor; will he accept such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you?”  What a convicting contrast!  Inherent in this question seems to be the fact that these priests would never present such an offering to their government officials.  But they dare to offer what is marginal and easy to give to their God?  I see so many tragic parallels to this contrast in our own culture today in considering the sacrifices we offer God:

“Present the same amount of commitment to your career or your boss…”

“Present the same amount of commitment to your child’s athletic endeavors…”

“Present the same amount of commitment and sacrifice to your hobbies…”

We can draw this similar contrast in any number of areas within our culture.  It really comes down to this: Our lives always proclaim the worth of something.  Do they proclaim the worthiness of the greatest treasure there is?  The sad reality is that although the priests were only offering what was marginal, or easy to give, they continued to “entreat the favor of God, that he might be gracious to [them]” (Mal 1:9).

God offers a reaction to the priests’ marginal offerings and cost-less sacrifices in Malachi 1:10.  “Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain!  I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand.”  You see, God is not interested in our religious obedience, our checking of boxes.  He is concerned with our hearts.  He already exists as the owner of all things.  He does not need our obedience or sacrifice in order to bring his will about.  Instead, through sacrificial living, he desires for us to grow in our knowledge of him, relationship with him and dependence on him as he uses us in the completion of his will.  His mission will be completed…with or without us.  He declares this truth in Malachi 1:11 & 14b, “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and i every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering.  For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts…For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.”  He certainly does not need us for this to be the case, but he does desire to use us in bringing it about.  And who wouldn’t want to be a part of that!?

Malachi 1 & Lottie Moon

I have preached this passage several times over the past several years, but recently I have been drawn back to its message in light of another Lottie Moon Christmas offering campaign.  Perhaps we need only to look at our giving to Lottie Moon over the past several years in order to see the stark reality of our marginal giving.  Somewhere around 6,000 people groups exist in our world today that are unreached and have little to no access to the gospel.  This means that around 2,000,000,000 people (that’s billion with a ‘b’) have never even heard the name of Jesus.  Yet, our (the SBC’s) sending agency, the IMB, continues to face massive budget shortfalls that greatly hinder their attempts to make Jesus’ name know to the ends of the earth.  In a denomination that boasts well over 10 million ‘members,’ they can only afford to place around 5,000 missionaries on the field.  And that number is down from 5,500 from 4 or 5 years ago when the agency was forced to bring several hundred off the field due to lack of funds.

What does this say about what we are proclaiming with our lives?  What are we proclaiming to be worthy?  In what may very well be the most convicting statement in the book of Malachi, God declares through his prophet, “Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished” (Malachi 1:14a).  When we met Jesus at the cross, following him meant that we vowed everything to him.  This is what it means to call him ‘Lord.’  He is worthy of no less than all we have.  He exists as the greatest treasure one can have.  Yet how often do we only give to him what is marginal or easy to give, falsely believing that our checking off of boxes suffices?  Just like the priests in Malachi, we may come to believe that we have somehow rigged the system, offering a nod to God while making this life all about ourselves.  Perhaps we need to hear the same rebuke from God that he offered them, then.  We may be just as guilty of misrepresenting Jesus to a watching world.

We Need Repentance

Let’s allow the gospel to do its work in our hearts.  Let’s allow the Spirit to expose our hearts and lead us to repentance.  Let’s commit to intentionally seeking the Lord, asking him what sacrificial would mean for our family.  As I shared with our church a couple of weeks ago, it is entirely possible to give a large sum of money and still not give sacrificially.  Let’s begin to proclaim the worth and excellency of Jesus to a watching world by giving the largest gift ever given to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering this year!  Let’s give in such a way that those who have surrendered to go would be enabled to do so, thus increasing our number of missionaries on the field!  Let’s begin to proclaim to a watching world that Jesus exists as our greatest treasure, worthy of all of our lives!  Let’s proclaim his worth by, as IMB President David Platt suggests, laying our lives out before God as a blank check, willing to gladly offer whatever he would call us to give or do.  No amount of presents could provide that amount of joy this Christmas!

Beyond Christmas, let’s proclaim the worth of our Lord to everyone in our circle of influence in the way we view and live our lives!  Let’s offer our lives as living sacrifices, boldly proclaiming the gospel in word and deed.  Let’s be people who truly treasure Jesus and put him on display for the world around us to see.

Clearly Identifying the Enemy

*I wrote this some weeks back and for whatever reason just didn’t post it.  After reading this very good post (which serves as one of many possible great illustrations for my thoughts here) today, though, I returned to this post and decided to go ahead and publish it now.

It’s ISIS, right?  Or maybe ISIL.  We can cover all bases by saying ISIS/ISIL, or perhaps just keep it at IS.  Recently our President said that although those first two letters stand for ‘Islamic State,’ ISIL is not Islamic.  What!?  Just the other day I heard a rather alarming report that although previously believed to include 10,000 fighters, whatever-they-are-called have more accurately amassed somewhere around 30,000.  Some have suggested that they pose only a regional threat and no real threat to Western civilization, although most have come to the agreement that they, in fact, do.  I saw a rather funny video just a couple of days ago that shows our Secretary of State saying very directly that we are not at ‘war’ with ISIL, only to then declare we are at ‘war, if that’s how you want to put it,’ just 48 hours later.

The truth is, the identity of our enemy has everything to do with our response!  In relation to ISIS, should we respond at all?  And if we do, should we arm those in direct combat and leave it at that?  Should we aid those fighters with supplemental air strikes?  Should we send Special Ops in to help train and strengthen a foreign defense?  Does the enemy pose enough of a threat to justify putting our own troops in harm’s way?  If so, how many?  I would hate to imagine us sending in what we would consider enough military power to deal with 10,000 fighters, only to arrive and learn that we are dealing with 30,000!  (I’m sure that would never be the case, but hopefully you get where I’m going with that.)

The point is, the nature of the enemy will, at least to some degree, dictate our response to that enemy.  If we mis-identify the enemy, we stand the chance of defeat through an ill-fated response.  This terrorist threat must be clearly identified and completely eliminated. The same idea holds true for us as believers.  If we fail to clearly identify our enemy, we stand the chance of either engaging the wrong enemy or underestimating the enemy. Both of these scenarios can produce catastrophic consequences, spiritually.

Engaging the wrong enemy

Paul clearly identifies our enemy in Ephesians 6:12 where he writes, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  Did you catch that?  Our enemy does not consist of flesh and blood.  Our enemies, instead, exist within the spiritual realm.  They consist of the evil one (Satan or the devil) and sin.  It seems, however, that we can sometimes get this backward.  We tend to pay the evil one very little regard and neglect to properly combat sin, while at the same time making enemies out of people who participate in, promote and celebrate sin, instead. Whatever we identify as the enemy will inevitably end up squarely in the crosshairs of our derision and hatred.

If we fail to realize the spiritual nature of our enemy, that means that we will aim our weapons of warfare at the wrong enemy.  I’m afraid this can sometimes become the case within the church.  While I think we need to be careful with how far we carry extra-biblical cliches such as “love the sinner, hate the sin,” we need to be careful to remember the basic truth it conveys.  Scripture offers an abundance of commands to hate sin, but never says the same about people.  In fact, we are commanded to love our neighbors, whom Jesus clearly identifies as everyone (Luke 10:25-37), even including our enemies.  (Enemies, here, meaning that we are not given the option of not loving even those who set themselves up against us, not those whom we identify as enemies.)*

Although they may engage God and his Kingdom (even us!) as hostiles, people outside of Christ are not our enemies.  People living in and celebrating sin should never become the target of our hatred and wrath.  Instead we should be broken over the state of pervasive lostness because we are all too familiar with the struggle with sin from our own dealings with the enemy.  We should engage them with compassion, remembering what it was like to live in pervasive lostness.  We should realize that they are POW’s, held captive by the evil one, in bondage to their sin.  We should beg God to allow them to see his love, grace and mercy through us as we bear with them.  We should hate the sin that has them bound and be intentional about proclaiming the good news of rescue available to them through Christ.

I realize this is a very thin line.  We must not compromise the truth and we must continue to engage and combat sin within our culture; but, we also must find a way to do that without abandoning the call to love our neighbors.  If we get this wrong and engage the wrong enemy, the church loses its evangelistic voice and begins to abdicate its responsibility to proclaim truth and the good news of the Gospel within the culture in a compelling way.  Outsiders will be viewed as enemies who need to be destroyed or avoided rather than potential worshipers in need of redemption.  The church will spend its resources in building its own subculture rather than invading the culture with truth, saturated in the love of Christ.

Underestimating the enemy

After identifying our enemy in Ephesians 6:12, Paul then urges believers to properly gear up for warfare.  He writes of certain pieces of armor that are specific for the type of battle we will face.  He insinuates that without this armor we will be ill-equipped to face off with our enemy.  He even suggests that we bear the whole armor of God in order to stand agains the schemes of the devil.  Among a variety of applications we may glean from these verses, Paul clearly conveys the seriousness of this fight.  He also appears to be saying that there is an appropriate way to prepare for and engage in the battle.  Paul proposes this preparation in light of the identity and nature of our enemy.

A soldier who truly understands his enemy would never enter the field of battle without first being properly equipped.  Soldiers understand the life or death nature of what faces them.  They understand that to be under-equipped could mean certain death.  We must apply the same sort of thinking in our spiritual warfare.   We face a serious enemy who actively engages us in order to kill, steal, destroy (John 10:10), and devour (1 Peter 5:8).  He never rests.  If there were a Geneva Convention for spiritual warfare, he would be guilty of countless war crimes!  He fights dirty.  We cannot take him lightly.  We cannot underestimate him.

Now, on one hand we engage this enemy with the promise that, “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4), yet Scripture also exhorts us to not be taken captive (Colossians 2:8) and stand firm against the Devil’s schemes, withstanding evil (Ephesians 6:11, 13).

We will not be prepared if we fail to abide in the Word of God.  We will not be prepared if we do not take sin seriously.  We will not be prepared if we allow the culture to be the sole voice that shapes us and our worldview.  We will not be prepared if we remain unengaged in the mission God has given us.  We will not be prepared if we allow ourselves to buy the lie that we are ‘good’ and become blinded by our own self-justification.  We will not be prepared if we live our lives acting as if there is no enemy and we really don’t have a great problem with sin.

Misunderstanding our enemy in Iraq and Syria could have a profound impact on both the future of the Middle East and our own country’s safety.  Misunderstanding our spiritual enemy will result in our unkind treatment of people and an allowance of sin to hold sway over our lives that it should not have.  I am reminded lately that we must clearly identify and engage our enemy on both fronts.  The stakes are simply too high.

_______

* I am speaking here individually as believers, not as a nation toward enemies such as ISIS, which I believe to be the appropriate context of this command in Scripture.

“If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”

wordtolife copyJesus makes two very important promises to his disciples in John 14:12-14.  It just so happens that these two promises have resulted in some of the most hi-jacked and perverted interpretations of Scripture. In turn, such interpretations have provided the foundation for some of the most prominent false theological systems of our day.  It is true that Jesus does use some very strong language in the words he chose.  These words can be confusing, especially when we allow them to stand alone, apart from their greater context.

[12] Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do and greater works than these will he do because I am going to the Father.  [13] Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  [14] If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.    John 14:12-14

So, what does Jesus desire to communicate to his disciples, both the ones in his midst as well as us today?  What do these promises mean for the church?  What do these promises mean for God’s mission?

Promise #1: Greater Works

What are these ‘greater works’ that Jesus promises his disciples will do?

These works are NOT greater because they are more powerful than the ones Jesus did.  Jesus is not declaring that his disciples will necessarily do more powerful works than he did.  It is not a promise by Jesus that we will be able to raise people from the dead or bring healing to people as a result of ‘enough’ faith, either.

These works are NOT greater because they are done over a longer period of time than the 3 years that consisted of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  Some would suggest that greater here simply means more.

Rather, these works ARE greater because they are based on the fully accomplished work of Christ and because of the abiding and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.  The works Jesus did were infinitely powerful, yet they all took place before the full completion of his redemptive mission by way of the cross.  He had not yet gone to the Father, which opened a way for the Spirit to indwell the lives of believers (Acts 2).

These greater works speak of the fulfillment of the mission of the Church, empowered by the Spirit (think Matthew 28:18-20 & Acts 1:8).  These greater works exist for the purpose of HIS Kingdom, HIS purpose, HIS fame, HIS glory.

Promise #2: Fruitful Prayer

What does Jesus mean that he will give anything we ask in Jesus’ name?

This is NOT a promise that God is obligated to do everything we ask with enough faith and by saying “in Jesus’ name.”  It does not serve as an opportunity for us paint God into a corner, so to speak, forcing him to provide all we think of to ask.

This is NOT permission to use Jesus’ name as some sort of spiritual genie or superstitious tag line.

This promise has absolutely NOTHING to do with the empowering of our own ambition or desires.  Jesus is not promising that God will grant everything it takes for us to experience our ‘Best Life Now.’

Rather, a look at 1 John 5:14-15 helps us in our understanding of Jesus’ promises.

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.   John 5:14-15

First, that passage recalls the very confidence we have in offering prayer in the first place.  We only have that access because of the way opened to us through Jesus, who removed the dividing wall between us and God (Ephesians 2:14).  As he worked to redeem us on the cross, the Scriptures tell us that the vail in the Temple tore in two (Luke 23:44), symbolically illustrating for us this access that we now have been granted with the Father, through Jesus.  Hebrews 10:19-22 speaks more about this great confidence we now have through Jesus and his redemptive accomplishments.

Second, we learn a more pronounced qualifier for the anything Jesus asserts in John’s gospel.  Asking for anything in Jesus name is to ask only those things that accord to his will.

The Logical Progression in Understanding These Promises

IMG_0009As I prepared to preach through this passage this past week, I began to recall all that we have heard Jesus say and do throughout the first 13 chapters of John so far.  I remembered hearing much of the same language throughout those other chapters that are seen here in chapter 14.  Jesus has continually alluded back to the central truth that he and the Father are one, that the Father is in him and he is in the Father.  I began to realize that this message of Jesus has everything to do with the promises he declares here in John 14:12-14.  This central truth provides a basis for our understanding, especially when we couple them with who the Scriptures declare us to be as disciples of Christ and what our lives are to look like as the gospel continues its work of transformation in our lives.  You can see in the picture to the left how I began to see that word ‘authority’ as a key word to every mention of speaking and doing throughout the rest of the passage.  In light of this, I sat down and just began to write.  The following is what I came up with.  This is nothing more than my stab at following the logical progression of Jesus’ message to his disciples and how that can help us understand how to view these two important promises of Jesus.

Jesus makes clear that he only speaks and does out of the authority of the Father.  Whatever, then, he asks of the Father is granted, but only and always for the purpose of the Father.  Whatever he does flows out of the Father’s authority for the pursuit of his agenda.  Again, he and the Father are ONE.

We, through the gospel, have been united with Christ.  Our lives are said to be hidden in him.  We are called to follow Jesus (the Way), enlightened by his light (the Truth), and to experience the abundance of abiding in him (the Life).  We experience this only as we abide in him and remain connected to him.

As we live then, united with Christ, the outward expression of our lives begins to flow out of our unity with Christ through the empowerment of the Spirit.  We begin to speak and do out of that authority and not our own (this is a picture of Christian obedience).  That ultimately points back to the Father’s authority and glory in ALL things.

So the greater works we do are greater because of all that is finished in Christ, and because of the power of the Spirit that now indwells the believer.   Only when our minds and hearts are aligned with the Father’s purpose, plans and will, will we truly be able to ask anything “in Jesus’ name.”  Our requests, then, will consist of those things that only accord with the Father’s purposes, authority and glory that will drive our prayers only as our hearts and minds are aligned with his.

Our focus, then…

We can experience the fullness of v. 13-14 ONLY as we consistently walk IN Christ and are focused on HIS grand story.  We are not compelled to ask “in Jesus’ name” for him to come and join us and empower the vision we have for our little stories. As we walk IN Christ, we are compelled to ask “in Jesus’ name” for all that we need in giving our lives completely for His grand story!  God is glad to grant all that we need and ask in order to demonstrate his power in completing the mission he has given us, through us (2 peter 1:3-4).

Jesus does not intend for our focus to be on greater works!  He doesn’t intend for our focus to be on deciding what we should pray for “in Jesus’ name!”  He desires for our focus to be on him.  He is our greatest treasure.  He is the author and perfecter of our faith!  He is our desire and passion.  Only when we keep our eyes focused on him will be able to truly pray in accordance with God’s will, in Jesus name.  We will not have to look for greater works, they will be the natural by-product of living life in Christ and giving ourselves to his mission!

So, here is the most important question: Are you walking in Christ?

The Gaping Hole in Matthew West’s Call to ‘Do Something’

Matthew West’s latest single, “Do Something,” sounds a call for a revolution among Christians who are tired of mediocrity while turning a deaf ear to the suffering of the surrounding world.  Christian radio has embraced this call, promoting the song’s message with great repetition.  Now, understand, I am not against urging Christians to both awareness and service in the area of injustice.  I am, however, super critical of the way West declares his message and defines the Christian mission.  Allow me to offer a few points of contention, all dealing with the glaring absence of the gospel in West’s lyrics.

1. The song promotes a false savior & fails to recognize the true problem.

In one of the most troubling lines in the song’s lyrics (in bold below), West sings the following

I woke up this morning

Saw a world full of trouble now

Thought, how’d we ever get so far down

How’s it ever gonna turn around

So I turned my eyes to Heaven

I thought, “God, why don’t You do something?”

Well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of

People living in poverty

Children sold into slavery

The thought disgusted me

So, I shook my fist at Heaven

Said, “God, why don’t You do something?”

He said, “I did, I created you”

The problem with this assertion is that God never said that.  Nor will he ever say that.  This statement offers a humanistic perspective rather than a biblical one.  That somehow God seeks to bring an end to human suffering through other humans includes flawed thought, theologically.  Humanity is not the ultimate answer by God, or rescue, to human suffering.  The wonderful news is that God has indeed done something, something definite and final.  The final line there should instead read something like, “He said, ‘I did, I sent Jesus.'”  The Father sent Jesus as the only solution to sin, which is the root of all human suffering.  Jesus is the only Savior capable of the rescue all of humanity needs, yet West mentions him absolutely NOWHERE in his song.  Instead he proposes a functional savior that can only offer a temporary ease for the physical needs of the poor and disenfranchised, which presents a poor and insufficient savior indeed.

2. I, and my capacity to ‘do something’ does not offer the hope that those suffering in our world so desperately need.

It follows, then, that any relief we can offer in light of human suffering within ourselves can only temporarily treat the symptoms of the greater disease.  At best I can only ease someone’s suffering for a brief period of time.  The point of being the hands and feet of Jesus, as West does mention (although he uses ‘God’ instead of ‘Jesus’), is found in our pointing those who are suffering to reconciliation with God through Christ, not in our ability to eradicate their suffering.  In this way, West offers false hope to those who are suffering.  If we simply do something, we offer no more than any ‘secular’ humanitarian entity in the world.  What sets our mission apart from say, the Peace Corps, is that we ultimately offer what is eternal through the ministry and relief to temporal needs we provide.

I might be motivated by the fact that children are starving to go and feed a child.  However, if all I do is feed a child, that child’s hunger will return.  In order to provide true hope to that child, I must offer him spiritual, eternal, food.  If that child embraces the gospel, though he may live the rest of his earthly life in abject poverty, his inheritance is secure in Christ and his eternal life sure.  He then embraces the hope that one day his suffering will truly come to an end, being fully adopted into the family of God to live forever in the Kingdom of God.

In another one of West’s hit songs, “My Own Little World,” the same holds true.  He sings,

Stopped at the red light, looked out my window

Outside the car, saw a sign, said “Help this homeless widow”

Just above this sign was the face of a human

I thought to myself, “God, what have I been doing?”

So I rolled down my window and I looked her in the eye

Oh how many times have I just passed her by

I gave her some money then I drove on through

in my own little world there’s

Population two

So, in order to meet the perceived need in his scenario, he “gave her some money and drove on through.”  This proposed solution actually accomplishes two things.  First, it offers a temporary relief to the homeless widow.  Perhaps that money provided a meal or some clothing, which is nice for her.  But, at best, the money only offers a temporary solution.  Perhaps if he continues to do this each day, it will provide many temporary solutions, but all temporary nonetheless.  The act of giving her some money and driving on through will never meet her greatest need.  Second, the act of giving her some money brings personal validation for doing something good.  For West, he can drive away with the personal satisfaction that in some little way his scope of perception has increased to now be ‘population two.’  That’s fine, but at the end of the day the widow remains hopeless, eternally speaking.  We are not called by the Scriptures to increase the population in our little worlds for the sake of a greater perspective, but rather to advance the scope of the Kingdom, which can only be accomplished through the gospel!

Also, any belief that we can somehow bring an end to human suffering illustrates both a misunderstanding of suffering and of sin.  Suffering will not end as a result of Christians meeting the physical needs of those who are suffering.  Suffering (the symptoms) will only end when Jesus returns to once and for all bring an end to sin (the true disease).  Jesus alludes to the fact that this fallen world will never right itself.  In John 16:33 he says to his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation,” and then offers the solution by declaring, “I have overcome the world.”  Earlier, as the story of Mary anointing Jesus with expensive oil unfolds, he rebukes his disciples who asked why that oil had not been sold and the money used to alleviate the suffering of the poor.  Jesus states, “The poor you always have with you…” (John 12:8).  Suffering, sadly, will always be the reality of our broken world.  Once again, West asks a good question in his lyric, “If not now, then when will we see an end to all this pain,” only to completely fail to provide the appropriate answer for his listeners.  Instead, he promotes an idea rooted in some ‘social gospel,’ suggesting that somehow Christians can accomplish this through enough acts of service.

3. The song offers believers the wrong motivation for pursuing justice.

Our hearts should break in light of suffering around the world; however, this brokenness should pale in comparison for our reaction to their eternal reality apart from Christ.  Our motivation, ultimately, must be for God and his glory, not just for the satisfied feeling that we have ‘done something’ in light of what we deem to be unjust.  God has commanded us to make disciples, not just to fill empty bellies and ease the pain of suffering.  We must pursue work in light of injustice and suffering, but only through the vital lens of the infinitely more dire mission of the gospel.  After all, we are ambassadors of God, but the Scriptures define our primary ministry as one of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).  Our acts of ministry, then, must serve as vehicles in meeting the greatest need of those who are suffering, which is reconciliation with the Father through the Son.  If we only provide remission from the temporary suffering, in the end we have offered them nothing in light of eternity.

I am all for motivating believers to action.  It saddens my heart, though, that a song completely devoid of the gospel seems to have motivated so many.  But motivated to what?  Believers should be motivated to action because God himself has given us a commission to pursue.  We should be motivated because there are millions of people in the world that have never even heard the name of the only one, Jesus, who can truly rescue them from their greatest need, sin.  We should be motivated by the God-breathed words of the Scriptures, not the driving beat of a song that completely neglects Scripture’s greatest focus.  We should be motivated as we are “filled with the knowledge of his will,” as Paul prays in Colossians 1:9.  Now, perhaps West intends for that to be the case in his call to action, but if that is the case, there exists one great problem: He does not say it.  Anywhere.

Clarifying our Call

The Scriptures do call to us have beautiful feet, but those feet are beautiful only because they “preach the good news” (Romans 10:15), not because they come to eradicate temporary suffering.  That is impossible because our world groans from the effects of sin.  Only when Jesus returns will he do away with sin and its effects for good will that be the case.  And when this happens, the only hope for people will not come from any temporary humanitarian work done for them prior, but rather in their having right standing before the Father through Jesus.

I agree that service and the pursuit of justice belong as a part of the mission God has given us.  Jesus healed people and commanded his disciples to heal.  But Jesus always pointed to the greater issue of sin and eternal life as he healed.  Jesus met the physical needs of the the multitudes when they became hungry.  However, just hours later, he refused to feed them again, instead pointing them to their greater need for the Bread of Life (John 6:25-35).  We have an account that includes a man asking the apostles for temporary reprieve from his suffering in Acts 3.  As he reached his hand out to receive some money, Peter responds, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk” (v6).  Yes, Peter meets his immediate physical need through the power of God (his being lame); however, as the rest of the chapter unfolds, Peter and John use that opportunity as a platform to proclaim the gospel to him and many other people in Solomon’s Portico.  The men exalt the gospel as the difference maker in the story, not themselves and their ability to heal.

We have been given the gospel to steward, and part of that responsibility includes clearly proclaiming its message.  At the very least these two songs by West, both of which have gained huge popularity among Christians, present a call to a mission that completely lacks the power of the gospel itself.  West proclaims, “we’re never gonna change the world by standing still.”  While that may be true, we will never change the world by just getting ourselves busy ‘doing something’ either, without offering the only true change available.  That’s the gospel of Jesus.  After all, it is the gospel that “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

How Are You Waging War?

I have embedded a video below that has greatly convicted me.  It is about 9 minutes long and includes an excerpt from a sermon by Allistair Begg.  Begg’s incredible accent alone offers reason enough to watch all 9 minutes, not to mention the great beat in the background; but, it will be well worth your time for a number of reasons if you click play.

Before you watch it, though, please consider some of my thoughts…

I would consider myself a fairly political person.  Most of the time you will find my radio dial in my car set to talk radio!  I know, I’m boring.  I enjoy political banter more than most, probably, and am generally interested in the happenings of the day.  I consider myself a strong conservative, as well as someone who very much loves his country.  Why am I telling you this?  Because, as you watch the video below, you will understand my struggle with it.  Although I did struggle, I would consider it a very good struggle.  I am posting the video because I believe that many people like me need to experience this struggle.  I will also say that the conviction I experienced far outweighed any struggle I had.

All I would ask is that you would watch the video and listen to Begg’s words with an open heart and see if you do not experience some of the same conviction.  Struggle with his words, but in an introspective way.  Allow the questions he raises to penetrate your own heart and life.  Ask yourself, “How do I wage war in this culture?”  Perhaps you will discover that your waging looks more like the world and less like the Scriptures. I know that has been true for me as I listened and evaluated.

One last observation before you watch.  I do NOT believe that Begg advocates for a complete removal of the Christian from all things political.  I have never heard his stance on that, but that is my conclusion gleaned from this 9 minute clip.  In fact, at one point, he even suggests that ‘becoming an activist’ is ok.  I do think he challenges the way we would seek to *ultimately* view our culture, fight to transform our culture, and set our ultimate hope.  I would LOVE to both see and engage in some further dialogue concerning the thoughts presented here.  So, please comment below and share your reaction and let’s chat about this most important topic together!

The Only Cure for Bullying

Awareness has been raised.  The hashtag campaign is in full force.  Celebrities and stars have enlisted in the fight.  Bullying, in many ways, has become one of the key issues of our day.  And for good reason.  Bullying poses a real threat to young people all across our country.  It has brought about trauma and tragedy.  It is an issue that really must be addressed.  However, can the pandemic of bullying be solved through celebrity shout outs and hashtags?  Although all these things might raise awareness, the ultimate answer to this question is ‘no.’  The primary reason for this is that the anti-bullying message becomes convoluted and confusing when it comes from a culture of bullying.  Consider the following. Continue reading