28 May 2015

Wisdom for My Graduate

Congrats son!  Soon you'll be walking across the stage and strolling right on to the next major chapter of your life - college.  As you make this transition, I have the desire to share with you some advice for the immediate days ahead of you.  Life can be messy and certainly unpredictable.  It's full of unexpected turns and unintended consequences.  At times all is good.  At times it can be filled with frustration.  Sometimes you just feel stuck.  Bottom line - life is best approached with some wisdom in your tool box from the start.  Of course, you've heard some or all of this before, but if you're like me, hearing some things again and again is helpful.  It's only through repetition, that stuff really begins to stick.  I want to give you some practical advice that I know is wise.  I'm not naturally wise myself, but I've got a book in hand full of wisdom.  And in that book is a portion particularly focused on wisdom.  Here are some pearls of wisdom from the Proverbs for you to know, cherish and follow for a happy life. 

1. Enjoy sex in the right context

"The one who commits adultery with a woman is lacking sense;
He who would destroy himself does it." (Prov.6:32)

"Suddenly he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter..."(Prov. 7:22)

I know, this is kind of embarrassing, but it's just the truth about us guys, so let's just tackle this one first!  We all have the drive, especially in our physical prime.  But understand sexuality is a God-given pleasure with purpose in the right context.  It is not a casual, recreational activity.  The Proverbs warn the young man of an unrestrained sexual appetite.  There are many that speak about the dangers of prostitution, the foolishness of adultery, and the godly goal of being sexually faithful to your wife.

Our culture has become extremely casual and cavalier in regards to sex.  Your senses are flooded with images and messages intended to feed your sexual appetite.  About this you have to be wise for a couple of reasons.  First, you're wired just like every other male and you can't underestimate your capacity for sexual lust.  Second, the world's culture is stacked against you.  The Bible gives you a great prescription for these conditions - flee!  In other words, you have to be smart, realistic, and proactive to guard your eyes, mind and heart for inappropriate sexual stuff.  Appetites are funny things.  The more you feed something, the more you tend to want it.  Don't feed this appetite with stuff that is contrary to God's will for you and shameful to yourself.  And on the issue of pornography, please don't let it in.  Treat it like the poison that it is.  It's not funny or harmless.  It distorts, disturbs and destroys lives.  A man will secure for himself, not merely a more faithful life to God, but a more happy life for himself by keeping a close guard on his sexual appetite.  (Also see Proverbs 2:16-19; 5;6:23-35; 7; 9:13-18; 22:14; 23:27-28)  

2. Tell the truth
"Truthful lips will be established forever, but a lying tongue
is only for a moment." (Prov. 12:19)
"Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who deal
faithfully are His delight." (Prov. 12:22)

This one sounds simple enough.  Yet the struggle to be a man of integrity can be quite the battle.  In theory it's easy, but in the moment of decision you may amaze yourself how easy it is to become comfortable with half-truths, embellishments, omissions and exaggerations all employed for the purpose of self-protection and deceit.  No one has a problem with truth telling when there is nothing at stake.  But we are all prone to deceive when either we are trying to avoid a negative consequence or secure some kind of advantage or benefit.  At these moments we are tempted to be less than truthful.

Value and cherish integrity and truth telling now in all things.  Commit yourself to the fact that God delights in your truthfulness and hates deceit.  When you are straight with the truth rather than loose with it, you are demonstrating trust in God and reflecting His character to others. (Also see Proverbs 6:16-19; 8:7; 12:17; 16:8; 19:1; 23:23)

3. Be aware that words are powerful

"A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh
word stirs up anger." (Prov. 15:1)
"Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul
and healing to the bones." (Prov. 16:24)

The Bible tells us a lot about the power of speech either for good or evil.  With your words you can sooth and heal another or cut a person more deeply than the surgeon's scalpel.  Words are powerful.  You can use words to gossip, slander, ridicule and demonize.  You can use words to encourage the discouraged, praise what is praiseworthy, instruct and correct with gentleness, and give glory to God.  How you use your words will become a discipline and habit. 

But never forget the words that come from the lips originate in the heart.  Or as the old timers say, what's in the well comes up in the bucket. (See also Proverbs 10:19; 12:18; 15:4; 17:9,27-28; 18:7,21; 25:11; 26:28; 29:20)

4. Be okay without everyone's acceptance and approval

"He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the
companion of fools will suffer harm." (Prov. 13:20)
"Do not be envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them; for their
minds devise violence, and their lips talk of trouble." (Prov. 24:1-2)

Be content to have some people reject you for the right reasons.  In the end you're always better off for this.  It's so easy to lower your standards or to compromise what is right in order to gain the approval of others.  God's Word warns us of the harmful influence of ungodly people.  You must understand that you are no better than any other person, but you must simultaneously guard your mind and heart from the influence of those who would lead you away from faithfulness to God. 
(See also Proverbs 1:10-19; 4:14-15; 9:6; 14:7; 22:24-25; 23:20-21)

5. Stay away from the booze

"Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is
intoxicated by it is not wise." (Prov. 20:1)

Certainly a great temptation for a young man, certainly once reaching the legal age, is to finally have some alcohol and see what all the fuss is about.  Since you grew up in a house where there was never any alcohol, this curiosity may become particularly strong.  And honestly God's Word does not command that you abstain from alcohol.  But the proverbs do give us some good warnings that you should heed.  In our culture, alcohol is not a necessary, staple commodity; it is chiefly a legal recreational drug, particularly among the young.  Of course, I don't have to tell you this.  You've already seen plenty of it in friends in high school.

The Proverbs tell you to stay away from the drinking crowd, that intoxication is harmful, and that it's better to avoid it and keep your mind clear and sharp.  All of these are important warnings from God's Word.  I would encourage you to keep alcohol out of your home and your recreational time.  There are plenty of common sense reasons just to leave the stuff alone.  (See also Proverbs 23:20-21; 23:29-35; 26:9; 31:4-7)

6. Don't tolerate laziness in yourself

"How long will you lie down, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? 
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest and
your poverty will come in like a vagabond, and your
need like an armed man." (Prov. 6:9-11)
"As the door turns on its hinges, so does
the sluggard on his bed." (Prov. 26:14)

Make yourself get out of the bed and be productive.  There are many proverbs that address the human problem of laziness. Of course in the agrarian culture of the day, much of the impact is on not having the food one would need because of a lack of diligence in the growing season.  However, the principle remains timeless.  You're not going to make your way in life in any vocation on your good looks and talent - okay, not your good looks and talent alone!  Achieving and getting the job done is by far mostly about a consistent, good work ethic.  Discipline your soul to desire God.  Discipline your body in good habits. Discipline your spirit to Christlikeness.  Discipline your effort to a great work ethic.  Not only will this serve you well, it brings honor to God.  (See also Proverbs 6:6-11; 10:4-5,26; 18:9; 19:15; 20:4,13; 22:13; 24:30-34; 26:13-16)

7. Don't sing your own praises

"Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD;
assuredly, he will not be unpunished." (Prov. 16:5)
"Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty
spirit before stumbling." (Prov. 16:18)

The Proverbs tell you much about the pitfall of pride.  It doesn't usually take long in a proud person's presence to pick up on his sense of self-importance.  It typically is not a pretty thing.  However, pride more often resides in the small corners of our heart, expressing itself every time we think we don't get what we deserve or that we are getting what we don't deserve.  Get busy now with the goal of keeping this natural drift toward pride in check.  The way to do this is to nurture your genuine dependence on God.  Flee the prideful trap of self-sufficiency and cultivate a humble walk with the Lord.  It's something your going to have to work hard at your whole life.  But it begins with knowing that it's something you have to work at.  (See also Proverbs 3:7; 6:16-19; 8:13; 15:25; 18:11; 25:27; 26:12; 28:25)

8. Seek to love people by understanding people

"Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart so you will find favor and good
repute in the sight of God and man."(Prov. 3:3-4)
"Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions." (Prov. 10:12)

Most people are not going to be like you.  Many people will come from completely different ways of thinking about stuff.  Some people's world views and values are going to simply blow you away.  The struggle we all have is truly loving people really different from us while being true to ourselves.  It's easier to dismiss, ignore, and denigrate those who are really different.  But God's Word points us to the goal of loving people.  It's a whole lot easier to love a person, when you have done the work of getting to know and understand him.  You don't have to even share the same commitments in regards to faith and values to genuinely love.  And when you dig deeper into the Proverbs and the rest of God's word, you will discover that God is very interested in your kindness and understanding toward the poor and even your enemies.  (See also Proverbs 14:21; 14:31; 24:17; 25:21-22)

9. Choose a peaceful woman for a wife

"He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains
favor from the LORD." (Prov. 18:22)
"It is better to live in a corner of a roof, than in a house shared
with a contentious woman." (Prov. 21:9)

Not sure that I can, or should, say any more than what is stated above, but the Proverbs certainly give you wise advice on one aspect of choosing a wife.  It won't matter how beautiful, smart, funny, or talented she is, if under the least amount of stress she habitually transforms into an unkind, angry, offensive person.  This is not to say that from time to time you will not give her a reason to get mad at you.  You definitely will do your share of doing and saying dumb stuff.  But the Bible gives you a heads up on the grief you will endure by unwisely tying the knot with the wrong kind of personality.  Make sure you see how she handles stress and see her at her worse before you decide it's till death do you part.  (See also Proverbs 15:17; 17:1; 19:13-14; 21:9,19; 27:15-16; 31:10-12)

10. Be a life-long learner

"A wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man
of understanding will acquire wise counsel." (Prov. 1:5)
"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction."(Prov. 1:7)

Knowledge produces wisdom, but wisdom does not necessarily follow knowledge.  Wisdom is knowing what to think and how to act on knowledge.  Knowledge and wisdom go hand in hand;  however, there are plenty of really knowledgeable fools who leave God out of the equation.  Never stop learning.  You're going to learn plenty in college because that's what you do.  Learn all you can, but most importantly fall in love with learning.  Then, once you've completed the course, you'll still be motivated to learn.  Keep reading and exploring.  Most importantly, let me urge you to consistent and diligent study of God's Word.  Here is where you will find wisdom.  Here is where you go beyond just mere knowledge.  Here is where you know your Creator and you find your purpose for your existence.  (See also Proverbs 1:5-7; 2:1-5; 8:11-12; 10:14; 12:1; 28:5)

11. Acknowledge that God's in charge

"Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all
your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight."(Prov. 3:5-6)
"Commit your works to the LORD, and your
plans will be established." (Prov. 16:3)

Lastly, remember that your life is not about you.  I know that is a tough one, but it's good to learn that now rather than later.  Yes, you will have your pursuits and enjoyments, as you should.  But your life will be best lived if you put God first, living for His glory first.  And I don't merely mean going to church.  Staying active in worship, discipleship, and service in church is just evidence that you are putting God first.  Putting God first is about all the above and much more than just going to church.  It is about humility, properly placed desire, love, integrity, faithfulness, and more.  It's about having the right perspective on life that informs everything.  It's you saying to God in your heart, "I'm Yours. No matter where you lead me or what I do, I'm Yours.  In great prosperity or great difficulty, I'm Yours.  Whether the world applauds or throws stones, I'm Yours."  (See also Proverbs 2:1-5; 3:9-10; 4:26-27; 14:12; 16:9,25; 28:5; 30:5)

There you go.  I hope you'll read the Proverbs everyday along with all your other reading and learning.  There's one for each day of the month.

You will always be my son and your mother's baby (just accept that), but more importantly you belong to God - the one who made you and loves you more than anyone.  You couldn't have more proud parents on the eve of your graduation.  We love you.  We miss you already.  We will pray for you.  We will always be there for you.  Happy graduation.

By the way, your sister wants your room. 

08 May 2015

The Real Issue Behind our Disagreements on Homosexuality

Proverbs 29:18 is one of those often misunderstood and applied verses of the Bible.  In a recent leadership meeting at church, I read this verse and explained this unfortunately reality.  Too often this verse is used to emphasize the importance of leaders having a clear vision for the church and the KJV rendering is typically quoted, "Where there is no vision, the people perish..", and only the first half of the verse.  Ripping out of it's immediate context results in us missing the intended message. 

Although it is critical for a pastor and the people of the church to have a clear, focused, articulated, plan for the congregation, Proverbs 29:18 is a poor proof text.  This little gem is about something truly of much more importance - the absolute necessity of divine revelation for knowing truth resulting in humanity's harmony with God and with one another.

Here are some modern English translations of the verse:
"Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom's instruction." New International Version 

"When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful." New Living Translation

"Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law." English Standard Version

"Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, But happy is he who keeps the law." New American Standard Bible

"Without revelation people run wild, but one who listens to instruction will be happy." Holman Christian Standard Bible

These translations help us get at the meaning and intent of the original language.  The Hebrew word hazon means "vision."  But this is the kind of vision associated with divine revelation, a "Thus says the Lord" kind of moment.  It is a revelatory word from God. The Hebrew word yippara means literally "to let loose."  So, where there is no word from God, the people have neither instructions nor constraints and are let loose to their own inclinations.

The second part of the thought is a contrast.  Whereas the lack of divine revelation leads to moral confusion and unrestrained behavior, the presence of God's law produces blessedness.

There exists a tremendous amount of tension, disagreement, hurt, confusion and anger within American culture among those who call themselves Christians in regards to the current push for so-called "marriage" equality.  There is much finger pointing, name calling, and ugliness.  This madness is certainly confusing to some in the church, somewhat puzzling to outsiders, and probably sadly amusing to skeptics.  How did we get to this place?  Sure, we can understand why non-believers might over time be persuaded to embrace the normalization of homosexuality, but how could Christians do this?  Shouldn't those who trust in the Bible as God's revelation be on the same page on this issue?  Is this behavior approved or disapproved by God?  A simple question for which you would think Christians would have a simple and clear answer.  Christians claim the same revelation from God.  So, why do we find ourselves in such strong disagreement?  Is the Bible unclear or is something else at play?

As I talk eye to eye and converse via social media with folks all over the spectrum on these issues, I believe more strongly than ever that our fundamental, irreducible, and irreconcilable difference is really about the nature of revelation.  The real source of our tensions, conflicts, and impasses is about how we differ in our understanding of the Bible - its nature and its place of authority in our faith communities.

If we take Proverbs 29:18 for what it says, then we all probably agree that revelation from God is critical for belief and practice.  At the very minimum, without it, we are mired in ignorance and confusion.  At worse, as it declares, we inevitably become unrestrained people who end up exiting the boundaries that God has set, which always leads to disastrous consequences.  How can we know anything beyond our own extremely fallible opinions about God and moral issues without revelation?

Of course, this leads us to basic questions that must be answered, which ultimately rest on personal faith.  What do I really believe about the Bible?  And where the rubber hits the road on that question is found in defining the nature of the Bible.  How you answer that question will determine a particular approach to the Bible, which will in turn lead you to a particular application of the Bible, which will in turn lead you to your commitments and matters of conscience.

First, one must consider if revelation is primarily propositional or primarily personal.  Is revelation what God reveals about Himself or is it the experience that a person has with God with the Bible as a key catalyst?  The former sees the Bible as the means by which God has revealed truth about Himself to us.  The key is to discover truth in the Bible and follow it.  This is managed through careful study of the Bible coupled with the belief that the Holy Spirit enables our correct understanding.  The latter tends to see the Bible as a record of some people's or group's experiences and expressions of their encounter with God. What is primary is one's own personal encounter with God.  The Bible might help inspire you or give you insight, but what is most important and authoritative is one's own subjective, personal experience. 

If the Bible is the Christian's source of revelation, however understood, then the issue of God's inspiration of it is also pertinent.   How is the Bible inspired by God?  How does that work?  What does that even mean?  In some way the belief that God has inspired the Bible is the idea that the book you hold in your hands is fundamentally different than any other writing.  It is certainly the product of men's hands in the writing, collecting, preserving, copying, and translating, yet the idea of inspiration asserts that there is a divine superintending that has taken place over all of this.  Of course, this is a matter of faith.

Yet, this faith in the Bible (and not in other writings) is not a blind, arbitrary faith.  The reason I believe in the Bible is because I believe it to be God's primary witness to His Son, Jesus, the Christ.  The attestation to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and the commentary of its meaning and application to me and the church as recorded in the Bible is absolutely essential.  Furthermore, the revelation given to Israel is the revelatory foundation for the New Testament that unpacks the significance of Jesus.  It's nonsense to assert faith in Jesus and be His follower and hold a view of the Bible that makes its content suspect. 

Of course, there exists a variety of views in regards to the dependability of the Bible.  In other words, how far can you trust it to convey to you the actual words (i.e. ideas, doctrines, morality, etc.) of God?  Some view it hopelessly burdened with questionable events, confused with contradictions, and mired in an irrelevant ancient context.  Some insist that the ethic of Jesus is all that is truly important or trustworthy - the proverbial kernel of Christianity.  This approach makes the reader the arbiter of what constitutes that "kernel" and what does not.  These approaches make the individual or a particular consensus the functional source of authority, sifting the nuggets of truth from the myths, embellishments, and errors that pervade the collection of culturally antiquated writings.  Hopefully, you can see that, as a Christian, viewing the Bible as anything less that fully trustworthy in its content is extremely problematic. 

Although there has existed a wide variety of views on the inspiration and dependability of the Bible as God's revelation, it would seem to me that only two views are reasonable. 

Option 1: The Bible is merely a collection of ancient stories of man's search for God, some of it mythological and some of it more historically reliable.  Who can say for sure which is which?  The Bible is just another human expression of our futile hope to find purpose for our existence and that our physical death is not our end. If God does exist, it's not the only or final word on the subject.  On the issue of homosexuality, the Bible clearly condemns the behavior, but that was the product of an less enlightened and less tolerant humanity.  We can simply discard such ancient prejudice because the Bible doesn't really constitute any kind of special authority. 

I don't agree with this view, but I respect it as intellectually consistent within itself.  

Option 2: There is a God.  He created all that exists, including us.  There is purpose to this existence, and our Creator has left us a means by which to understand the essentials in these matters.  He has ultimately revealed His purpose in His Son, Jesus.  Since the New Testament is the historical witness to Jesus, built upon the foundation of the Old Testament, then we regard the Bible as inspired of God and given through men.  Other, so-called sacred writings, are not about Jesus, so we don't recognize those as inspired by God with truth about Jesus.  Logically, if God left us this revelation of Himself, then it must be completely trustworthy.  If it is not trustworthy (i.e. inerrant), then God himself has proven Himself to be untrustworthy.  Yes, I'm aware of textual variations within the ancient copies of Scripture, but it seems to me that each of them are inconsequential.  Yes, I'm aware of progressive revelation and how the new covenant in Christ rendered certain aspects of the old covenant fulfilled and now obsolete.  And yes, I'm aware of interpretive challenges on some matters. However, God certainly can and has protected the integrity of his primary means of revelation, the Bible, and that on critical issues of doctrine and morality it speaks clearly.  This is a matter of faith and intellectually consistent. 

Settling for the option that God would reveal Himself in Jesus and then hand us a written revelation burdened with error or that doesn't give us timeless truth about salvation and issues of morality, including the homosexual question, isn't an intellectually reasonable position, in my opinion.   

Relatively speaking, only a handful of people in history had the privilege of being eye witnesses to events or to interviewing the people who were (e.g. Luke).  Countless more have only had the testimony of the witnesses to cling to, including us.  If we doubt the trustworthiness of certain parts of the Bible, then what makes us think we can trust any of it with confidence?  If I decide that certain stories or teachings are not true, or the product of a less enlightened era, then I have become judge over the Scripture.  I will mostly like swallow what suits my taste and spit out what I find unpalatable.  I must stand under the authority of the Bible as God's revelation.  I must read it prayerfully and humbly, while seeking to discern accurately its meaning and proper application.

The reason this is on my mind is because I love the church.  My calling is to be a responsible and faithful shepherd of a local church.  My flock must understand that I do not lead them by my own authority, my own notions, or the latest cultural consensus.  My calling is to lead them in the ways of God.  And God has revealed how I am to do this.  God has given us His revelation in a collection of writings.  His truth must by necessity be propositional, trustworthy and clear.  My experience is that we wrestle some with understanding the teachings of the Bible, but more so with simply believing and obeying the vast majority of its content that is clear.

In regards to the current debate on homosexuality within the Christian community, I suggest our real debate is about the Bible.  The argument that the Bible is unclear is classic subterfuge. It's truly not a matter of clarity; its a matter of submission to authority.  There is a growing population of professing Christians who simply do not want to submit to God's revelation on this issue.

We think sometimes we are debating an issue such as homosexuality, but in reality we are not.  Bible-believing Christians for centuries have understood the Bible's witness on the subject.  The real debate is about how we view the Scripture.  Any Christian proponent of same-sex marriage currently has to work extremely hard to explain away the relevant texts, or as some are doing, simply dismiss those texts as too antiquated to really speak to our current debate at all.  I think it's time for these folks to be honest.  The debate is about the authority of the Bible, not about homosexuality.  We know what the Bible says about the issue.  What Christian supporters of same-sex marriage need to admit is that they don't want to believe those inconvenient texts that so clearly challenge their desire to harmonize homosexual behavior with Christian living.  So, in the attempt to hang on to their Bibles and embrace a new sexual enlightenment that affirms homosexual behavior, they latch onto incredulous interpretations that primarily attempt to convince you that the Bible doesn't contain sufficient revelation to condemn homosexuality categorically.  Basically, this constitutes a willful discarding of God's revelation, which brings us back to the truth of Proverbs 29:18, "Without revelation people run wild, but one who listens to instruction will be happy."

You may be tempted only to apply this truth to people on the planet who lack access to the Word of God; however, it seems that the truth of this proverb applies to those hold the Bible in their hands, yet willfully choose to ignore or dismiss it so they can accommodate a lifestyle of their choosing.  We are certainly witnessing a significant segment of self-proclaimed Christians doing just this concerning homosexuality.  Many pastors, like myself, see the clear and present danger this poses to the biblical witness on the family.  And we cannot be silent about this.

Yet, I think the legal and ecclesiastical push for "marriage" equality is really just a conspicuous symptom that we left our commitment to God's revelation some time ago. What we are observing now is the proverbial "running wild" and "casting off restraint" of which we are warned.  We haven't arrived at today's debate overnight.  We are now simply reaping what has been sown for decades - American Christians who have a love affair with this world.  Too many have lived a weak, anemic version of faith that lacks the strength to stave off the creep of spiritual adultery.    

Church, we need to repent of so much.  Our hearts should be broken with grief at what we have allowed to become normal in our churches.  Maybe this current debate about homosexuality is a splash of cold water on formerly distracted faces. Maybe this crisis will help us see more clearly how we have laid down God's guiding revelation and picked up idols of materialism, recreation and competition, sexual indulgence, and all kinds of selfishness.  We have lowered the bar and we are reaping exactly what we have sown.  Our culture is progressively throwing off restraint. Please don't be na├»ve to the depths of depravity we will reach as we continue to throw away God's revelation. 

We most desperately need now a course correction back to the Bible.  It's time to stop fashioning a god to our liking and start discovering who He really is, including a serious reckoning with what He loves and what He hates.  It's way past time to be diligent students of His written revelation, the Bible.  It's time to choose.  Will we live by God's revelation, or will we cast it off?

Church, it starts with us. 

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