The Spiritual Problem We’re In

America’s racial problems have a long and ugly history. The 13th amendment ended slavery in 1865 and the Civil Rights Act ended Jim Crow laws in 1964, but the root causes of racism cannot be removed simply by passing laws. Laws can manage sins, but not remove them. Laws impose a set of moral principles, values, and behaviors on people, and threaten punishment for disobedience, but no law is capable of eliminating sin from someone’s heart. Removing sin is a work of the Spirit. It is a God-sized task.

I have written previously that the deepest issues we are facing as a nation are spiritual in nature. I have also written about a few, simple, and practical things Christians can do about it. But ultimately, we need to remember this: spiritual wars are fought and won with spiritual weapons. Make no mistake – this is a spiritual war.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that this is merely a spiritual war and that all we should do is pray and move on. What I am saying is that whatever we do, we’d better to it with prayer and in the power of the Spirit. If we don’t, we’re going to be destroyed. When the seven sons of Sceva got all excited and decided to go out and make a difference in the world, Satan overpowered them, kicked their butts, stripped them naked, and sent them running out of the house (Acts 19:15-16). They had no idea what they were up against. Do we think we’ll do any better?

The spiritual world is real. There are demonic, evil powers that hate God and wants to cause Him pain. One way to hurt God is to hurt those He loves. When Satan wanted to make God suffer, he attacked Job. Satan knew all about Job: his name, his wife’s name, his children’s names, his work, his address (Job 1:10). Satan knew exactly how to hit him where it hurt, and he hit hard.

As we look out into our world right now, what do we see with human eyes? Cruelty. Hatred. Rage. Division. Vengeance. Bitterness. Envy. These things are right out in the open in your newsfeed and on TV. But look again, this time with spiritual eyes. The apostle Paul told us there’s more going on than we realize. “For 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,” (Eph 6:12). Paul is telling us to see with two sets of eyes. With our physical eyes, we see “flesh and blood” conflict going on in the world. With our spiritual eyes, we can also see that there are also demonic powers behind these events.

Paul’s writings reveal a hierarchy of evil powers at work in the world, such as rulers, principalities, authorities, powers, dominions, thrones, and world rulers. There is a range of meaning for all these words, but they often refer to demonic spirits that are arrayed against God and his people. But Christ is supreme over all these beings, having defeated them in his death and resurrection (Eph 1:20-21, Eph 3:10, Col 2:15).

Christians share in the victory of Christ, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also experience defeat. In Luke 9:1-2, Jesus sent out his disciples and gave them authority over demons. This was not absolute authority, since they could not overcome some of the demons they encountered (Mark 9:29). What did Jesus say about those demons? “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” In other words, don’t get cocky. You don’t know what you’re dealing with, and you’d better be prayed up first.

Here’s another example. Colossians 2:8 says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Notice a couple of things here: First, Paul is warning us to not get caught up in philosophies – worldviews – that are based in human tradition. These philosophies begin and end with human beings as the point of reference. There is no fear of God in them. Second, while these human philosophies are God denying and man-centered in their approach, they are actually demonic in origin. The engine of their man-centered philosophy are “elemental spirits of the world” – most likely, demons. Third, they deny Christ (“not according to Christ”). Remember, Paul isn’t writing this to the Humanities Department at Colossae U. He was writing to the church. What’s my point? Christians and churches can get taken in by Christ denying, godless, man-centered, demonic philosophies.

Behind the human events we see in the news is a hierarchy of spiritual forces – rulers, authorities, powers, and evil spirits. This is evident by the account of the first sin in the garden. The serpent’s temptation of Eve was not a fraternity prank on a helpless woman. His temptation was much closer to a covert operation by an elite, demonic power to plunder the most treasured possession of his sworn enemy. It was a spiritual turf war.

Here’s what I’m getting at. Human beings in our physical world are the focal point of a spiritual battle. The things we do in the world to oppose evil in our physical world have spiritual ramifications and will incur spiritual opposition. Satan (the Father of lies) and his demonic beings are at war against God and his heavenly host. This is the worldview of the Bible – it’s what Jesus himself taught. Therefore, Christians are called to wage spiritual wars with spiritual weapons. Paul calls this the whole armor of God (Eph 6:12-18).

My concern is for Christians who are rushing into a spiritual war unprepared for battle. Many Christians want to fight for “justice and righteousness” in the world but their definitions of “justice” and “righteousness” come from critical theory, not scripture. If we want to fight for justice without a solid definition of biblical justice (“belt of truth”), we’ll get our butts kicked. If we want to fight for a more righteous society without a commitment to personal holiness (“breastplate of righteousness”), we’re going to lose. If we want to relieve worldly suffering without regard to eternal suffering (“the gospel of peace”), we’re not being truly loving. If we want to see positive change in the world without “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication,” what exactly are we trusting in?

Christians are called to make a difference in the world, but we must be adequately prepared. Christians are called to be salt and light, but salt can lose its taste and light can be put under a basket (Matt 5:13-16). Christ and his kingdom is a movement on offense, reclaiming ground stolen by the enemy. Our weapon of offense is the sword of the Spirit (“the word of God”). And the Holy Spirit is the power within us – and he who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

Simple Things You Can Do About Racism

I promised in my last post to put together some more practical suggestions for what Christians can do to fight racism in America. But first, I’ll begin with three qualifications.

First, keep the cross of Christ before you at all times. I will follow up this post with another one about the spiritual nature of “this present darkness” we are going through. But for now, remember this: the gospel is the power of God to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). Don’t be ashamed of it. If we truly want to see meaningful improvement in racial tensions in America, the church can’t sideline the gospel in the process. The gospel is the cure, not an obstacle to racial healing. 

Second, everything I’m suggesting in this post should be categorized as “good works.” When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, he means something more than sentimental well wishing. Modern Americans think love is a feeling, as though all Jesus requires of us is to feel good feelings towards other people. This is wrong. Biblical love takes action on behalf of others for their highest good. Those loving actions are called “good works” (Heb 10:24). As James says, “faith without works is dead (2:17).” From what I’ve been hearing from white Christians in my church and elsewhere, people want something meaningful to do, but they don’t know where to begin. That’s what this post is about.

Third, good works must be done freely, not under compulsion. Paul tells the Corinthians to give freely and cheerfully, “not reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Cor 9:7). Paul says he could have ordered Philemon to treat Onesimus as a Christian brother, but did not do so because he wanted Philmon’s goodness to “not be by compulsion but of [his] own accord” (Philemon 14). Peter tells church elders to shepherd God’s people willingly and “not under compulsion” (1 Peter 5:2). Why does the NT emphasize the freeness of good works? Because the sincere desire of Christians to obey God can easily turn into a guilt trip, and guilt-burdened Christians are easily manipulated. All it takes is a few Bible verses and a little public shaming to get them to comply with whatever promises to ease our consciences. Before long, they wind up burned out or jaded. A good conscience is a glorious gift of the gospel. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free! (Gal 5:1)

I make this point about the freedom of good works because I see churches, denominations, and networks quarrelling about what “the church” should be doing right now. It goes something like this: some Christians want to deny any racism or systemic injustice in America. “Nothing to see here, move along.” That’s the wrong approach. In a sinful world, we should expect to see these things. Other Christians, however, want to recruit Christians and churches into political activism. “Silence is violence! You must say something! You must act NOW!” That’s the wrong approach too, because those are the tactics of guilt. Sure, some Christians will be motivated by this to do something, but it won’t last and they’ll resent it later on. The Holy Spirit gave us different spiritual gifts for a reason – let’s use them.

Every Christian should oppose the sin of racism, not because it’s trending on Twitter, but because the gospel demands it. It is a sin against the image of a holy God in another man or woman. But we should not expect every Christian who truly opposes racism to oppose it in the same way. God has been and still is raising up devoted Christian men and women who are doing good works to promote racial unity that feel no need to tell everyone about it on Facebook. They aren’t “silent” – as some accuse them of being – they are active. They are plodders. Steady and faithful. God sees their secret deeds and He will reward them (Matt 6:1-4).

The point is this: Christians who want to do something about racial tension in America need to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus, do good works to love and serve their neighbors, and do so willingly, in the power and gifting of the Holy Spirit, not under compulsion.

Well then, here’s a few, simple suggestions of things you can do right away.

#1. Learn about the black experience in America

When you first meet someone new, you usually ask a few questions to hear their backstory. Where are you from? How many brothers or sisters do you have? Where did you go to school? These questions help people discover common interests, which give us something to build on.

I met a visitor at my church a few months ago who was from my hometown in WVa. There was an immediate connection. We could talk about schools, restaurants, and cultural quirks of our community. My small hometown has been in the midst of a drug war, leading to a massive spike in the murder rate. We were both shaped by a few similar experiences that provided context to begin a new friendship.

In some ways (I’m admittedly overgeneralizing here), some experiences are common for black people in America that white people are not familiar with. These shared experiences form a sort of cultural “hometown.” In one sense, black folks have a natural, relational starting point because they come from the same cultural hometown, “Black America, USA.” (Again, forgive the overgeneralization.) White people can learn better ways to love and serve them by spending time in their cultural hometown. This gives white people a better starting point for relating to black people as people, not as a “learning experience.” The learning experience is done on our own through books, videos, and similar resources.

There are lots of resources out there for this; too many to list. As with any topic, some resources are more helpful than others. I’ll mention three. In 2001, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith published “Divided by Faith,” which uses research and interviews to present a data-driven analysis of race and Christianity in America. George Yancey’s “Beyond Racial Gridlock” examines four different secular solutions to racial problems from a Christian perspective and suggests a Christian approach he calls “Mutual Responsibility.” I found his book very helpful. Another option that looks promising is Carl Ellis Jr’s online course called “History and Theology of the African American Church.” I haven’t completed the course yet, but I have a lot of respect for Ellis. I’ll include notes about how to access this for free at the bottom of this post. 

#2. Acknowledge the pain and grieve with people of color

In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, I spoke with several non-white people in my church who were personally affected by it. This makes sense – I was personally affected too, but not like them. It made me sad and angry, but their reaction was much more intense. They expressed a blend of anger, sadness, exasperation, confusion, despair – all at once. Many of them live with a constant anxiety that their own death could be the next viral video.

When I was a kid, the video rental store near my house had a documentary series called “Faces of Death.” The concept was simple. The film contained footage of people getting killed. We didn’t have cameras everywhere in those days, so video footage of this sort was almost always captured accidentally and not released to the public out of respect for the dead. But the filmmakers were able to gain access to them anyway and turn them into movies, complete with the “parental advisory – extreme footage” warnings all over it. 

What about now? Youtube and Facebook have thousands of videos just like this ready to view anytime, anywhere. My own children saw George Floyd die on the 6PM news. Up next, the weather. It’s so common now that we’ve become numb to the fact that we are watching people die violent deaths on our phones. God help us. The indignity of a man dying in front of an amateur paparazzi has become a common feature of our modern, social media age. And as soon as the video goes public, hyper-political and familiar narratives quickly emerge. Camps form. Division ensues.

But one simple fact remains – this is extraordinarily painful for black people in ways that white people can not easily relate to. For white people, it’s a senseless tragedy. For black people, it’s a pattern. It’s a threat. A simple way for white Christians to love our black neighbors is to recognize that these events hurt them in ways we don’t understand. That’s OK – we don’t have to fully understand in order to communicate love and concern for them. For people of color that are in your immediate spheres of influence (family members, neighbors, coworkers, church members), reach out to them personally with your prayers and love as you follow the lead of the Spirit.

#3. Start with one simple, clear, and specific goal – then pursue it faithfully

As I stated above, every Christian should oppose the sin of racism, but not every Christian is called or gifted to go about it in the same way. Some Christians are gifted at using social media to make a real and meaningful difference. The rest of us suck at it.  The more we say, the worse it gets. If God has called and gifted you to do ministry on social media, do it well, for the glory of God. If not, remember that even our use of social media use will not escape God’s judgment. Our words, thoughts, and motives will be brought under the bright light of God’s scrutiny, where we will all give an account for every careless word (Matt 12:36). 

To truly do something worthwhile, start with one simple, clear, and specific goal – then pursue it faithfully. Before you begin, state your goal and count the cost (Luke 14:28). Make it a realistic goal with a clear, attainable outcome in mind. For example, “ending racism” is a good desire, but not a realistic goal. Racism is going to continue to be a problem until Jesus returns. Until then, we have to find ways to limit its effects in society. Some people may intentionally live in a particular neighborhood out of a desire to love and serve the people who live there. If so, put down deep roots and commit to it. What could some goals look like in this situation? As a suggestion: (1) meet everyone on my block in the next year, (2) invite one person from my neighborhood into my home for a meal in the next two months, (3) share the gospel ten times in the six months, (4) try to build three significant friendships in the next year.

In 2008, my wife and I moved into an intentionally chosen Cincinnati neighborhood with our two children. We’ve been here for twelve years and we’ve had two more kids in the process. We had to be realistic – we were planting a church in a tough environment and our kids were really young. But over the years, little by little, we’ve established ourselves in our neighborhood and God has opened doors to significant and meaningful ministry. We’re plodders. Slow and steady wins the race. 

As a pastor, I have broader influence than most people, but it’s still limited. My greatest influence will be in my local spheres: family, neighborhood, and church. There are great racial injustices that occur in places far away from me. For example, I have no influence with the police department in Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed. But I have friends and brothers in Christ who pastor churches there, and I can pray for them and support them from here. I do have influence in my own city, and God has renewed my commitment to steward that influence for the good of the city where I live (Jer 29:7). 

As for you, begin with yourself: repent of the sin of partiality in your heart, seek forgiveness from anyone you’ve sinned against, and teach your children to do the same. Then, get to know your neighbors and love them with your good works as the Spirit leads you. In your workplace, treat others with respect and do not participate with others in the sin of partiality (AKA racism or racial injustice). If you are able to identify unjust practices in your neighborhood, workplace, or community, speak up for those affected by it and do your best to correct them. If you have a community council, join it and attend the meetings. This is a good opportunity to meet local law enforcement officers and talk to them about your concerns, ask them questions, understand what’s going on in your community, and take prayerful action. Whatever influence you have in your community can be leveraged to love and serve your neighbors in whatever ways that fit your context.

In your church, if there are specific prayer or serving initiatives that you can get involved in, choose one that you can fully commit to and go all in. Remember, good works are free and not compelled, so commit to what you can do and enjoy a clear conscience when you can’t.

The bottom line is this. We can do the most good for others focusing on and faithfully pursuing clear goals where we have the most influence. For most people, that will be in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and churches.

Addendum

As mentioned above, here’s how you can access for FREE Carl Ellis Jr’s 7-hour mobile ed course on the history and theology of the African American church. If you don’t already own Logos Bible Software, here’s what you can do. First, download the free version of Logos Bible Software. Second, purchase (for free) this course, “History and Theology of the African American Church.” Third, check out this Facebook group that has frequently updated lists of FREE books that are available through Logos. You can build a mini library with free books. Currently, there is a CSB Apologetics Study Bible available for free.

Update

I found book reviews for the two books mentioned above.

Book review: Divided By Faith

Book review: Beyond Racial Gridlock

Five Things Christians Must Do About Injustice

When the video of George Floyd’s death punched America in the gut last week, people from every quarter expressed outrage because another unarmed black man had died, gasping for air and pleading for his life, while a white police officer pressed his knee into the back of his neck. There are no words. It was senseless and wrong. Evil. Christians are particularly outraged, because George Floyd was an image bearer – created in God’s image, with dignity and worth. His death was an insult to his Maker (Prov 14:31).

A recent post from Acts 29 says it well:

“Racism is undeniably woven into the fabric of this nation—from our treatment of Native Americans, to the institution of slavery, segregation policies and Jim Crow laws, redlining in urban sectors, and the ever-evolving overt and covert modern practices in our economic, political, social, and religious spheres of life. Black men and women live under the particularly heavy shadow of generational pain that is the result of gross inequality and inequity.”

A Call to Justice, Restoration, and Renewal, Acts 29

In light of all this, Christians are asking, “what can we do?” How can we bring an end to the evil of racism? How can Christians bear witness to God’s kingdom in a world of such violence, hatred, and sin? What can we do to make it stop?

I plan to write a follow up post to this one with some practical suggestions. But this post is more foundational. Christians have to be distinct – we don’t simply jump on the bandwagon with what everyone is doing. Hasty action is rarely wise. The church is a city on a hill. We operate on different principles. Yes, Christians can take action, but not every action that could be taken is available to us. We have to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

So in this post, I’ve outlined five things that Christians need to do first before we rush to action. In a later post, I’ll suggest a few practical things we can do right away.

#1. Christians need to fear God more than anything else.

Christians are familiar with the Great Commandment to love God more than anything else (Matt 22:36-37). But the fear of God is what I’m talking about. Fearing God and loving God are not opposed to one another. In fact, fearing God is how we love God.

When it comes to injustice, God has suffered greater injustice than any of us. God patiently endures the sin of a wicked world, allowing time for some to repent, believe the gospel, and receive mercy. Jesus also suffered in ways unimaginable to us, enduring not only the physical agony of the cross, but the spiritual agony of bearing the Father’s wrath against sin. 

So any discussion of racism and injustice begins with God as the reference point. These are big problems that need a big God to solve them. We need “big God” theology. Not just because it’s true and biblical, but because it keeps God and his glory at the center of everything. Progressive (or liberal) Christianity is powerless against racism, because it enthrones human beings and our desires and feelings above God and his glory. That’s not gonna cut it. 

So the way forward begins with the fear of God. Sovereign. Almighty. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil” (Pr 8:13). “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Pr 1:7). “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life” (Pr 14:27).

#2. Christians need to define sin properly. 

Sin is breaking a command of God, either by commission or omission. In other words, sin is doing something God forbids, or failing to do something God requires. It includes both outward actions and inner thoughts and motives (Matt 5:28). The sin of racism is the sin of partiality. “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:9). To show partiality in action, thought, or deed, according to one’s race or class, is the sin of partiality. Jim Crow laws outwardly subjected black folks to the humiliating and degrading sin of partiality. Praise God that we no longer have “white people” and “colored people” drinking fountains in America. And yet, racial prejudices still persist in people’s thoughts and motives. This, too, is sin.

Since God is our reference point for defining sin, partiality is wrong no matter which direction it’s coming from. “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (Lev 19:15). Recently, there has been a growing trend of treating “whiteness” as a sin, leaving many white people feeling guilty simply for being white. That misdefines sin. But if we define sin biblically, we recognize that both white people and black people can show partiality in various ways, and everyone is called to repent of partiality wherever it is discovered.

#3. Christians need to define justice properly.

A just society actively works to avoid partiality. God is just. God loves justice and hates injustice (Isaiah 61:8). Justice is at the heart of the gospel. Jesus died on the cross to satisfy the righteousness and justice of God. Christians are justified in Christ because God’s justice was satisfied at the cross. Having been justified in Christ, Christians are called to live lives of justice, righteousness, and peace (Isaiah 9:7).

America is more just for some people than for others. This isn’t a liberal vs. conservative issue – it’s fact. It’s right out in the open for anyone who cares to see it. The Washington Post recently published an essay about racial bias in our criminal justice system. That’s just one recent example. Of course, seeing the problem is easier than fixing it. That’s the question no one has a workable solution to right now.

Until recently, this would not have been controversial. But now, political and cultural movements rooted in critical theory and identity politics flies under a banner called “social justice,” which is actually not justice at all. It’s just the opposite. It is the sin of partiality rebranded and renamed. What is often called “social justice” nowadays is actually fighting injustice with greater injustice. We have a word for that. It’s vengeance. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ (Rom 12:19).”

Justice requires a system of just laws that are justly applied (Gal 3:19). Defining justice is easier than establishing it. Micah 6:8 famously calls God’s people to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Doing justice means establishing a true standard of what’s right and wrong and applying those standards with appropriate penalties. Biblical justice is impartial. Objective. Unemotional. Consistent. It favors neither the poor nor the rich. It does not give special treatment to blacks or whites. Rich or poor.

We live in a sinful world. No one is exempt (Rom 3:23). Jesus even said his own disciples were evil (Matt 7:11). How do you establish justice in an evil world? A just system needs to protect everyone from everyone else, while everyone has a different perspective on what justice is. It’s a delicate balancing act, like stacking golf balls on top of each other. Pray for God to show us a practical way forward.

#4. Christians need to have some humility.

The tools of the gospel are essential for Christians to make any difference with race relations. We are not, in ourselves, qualified to give justice to anyone, because we ourselves are unjust (1 Peter 3:18). Christians need to repent of their own sins before trying to fix other people’s sins.  Have some humility. Take the log out of your own eye first. Failure to do so is hypocrisy (Matt 7:5). As everyone knows, hypocrites only make things worse.

#5. Christians need to fight spiritual wars with spiritual weapons.

What we are experiencing in America right now is the result of a well-coordinated and executed spiritual assault by Satan (2 Cor 10:3-5). Our country is being torn apart, piece by piece. When we see evil on TV or social media and demand “someone must do something!,” what do we mean by that? Can congress fix this? If they all united for one week to pass the greatest legislation ever known, how much difference would it make? Our problems are deeper than any legal action or charismatic leader can solve. We need a God who is big enough to kill evil at the root – in every human heart.

What I’m saying is this – right now, in America, what we need is nothing less than a miraculous work of God’s Spirit. What we’re seeing right now looks more like judgment than revival. We cannot win spiritual wars with the devil’s tools. “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29). We need more prayer and more fasting. We all need to humble ourselves, in fear and trembling, before a holy God, falling to our knees in prayer, and begging for his mercy, grace, and healing.

Forgive us, Lord. Awaken us. Heal us. 

How the News is Still Making Us Dumb – and What We Can Do About It

I’ve been paying attention to the news my whole adult life. It was, I thought, the best way to keep up with important things going on in the world. But it wasn’t, and a 1999 book by C. John Sommerville explains why. His book, “How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society,” is just as relevant today as it was two decades ago.

It was published while the internet was still in its infancy – well before the social media era. But these facts serve to highlight the truth of his thesis: the news makes us dumb. It’s not the news’ fault, though. The news isn’t trying to make us dumb. It’s our fault for investing so much time, energy, and trust in the news, as though the 24 hour news cycle is the most important thing that happens. It’s not.

I’ve been on a years long quest, through trial and error, of discovering better ways to keep in touch with what important things are happening in the world. What follows is some of the main takeaways from Sommerville’s book and some adjustments I’ve been making as a result.

How the News Makes Us Dumb

The most important things in life rarely, if ever, change. That’s a good thing. People build their lives on things they can count on not changing, such as family, friends, jobs, neighborhoods, and so on. God himself is immutable. From a human perspective, the more important something is, the more you want to protect and preserve it. Our change tolerance is limited. Most people do not want much to change in their lives from day to day.

Change makes things interesting, not more important. The failure to distinguish interesting from important is one of the main reasons why the news makes us dumb. For example, the fact that one day can be 78 degrees and sunny and the next day be 34 degrees with snow flurries is interesting, but that is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Having a variety of new and unusual food options for dinner each night is interesting. Having a stable circle of valued relationships to share those meals with is important.

The news is all about reporting change. The things that don’t change from day to day aren’t usually newsworthy, but that doesn’t make them unimportant. If most people in a community are healthy, employed, and content with life, that’s incredibly important, but it’s not newsworthy. If a tornado rips through that community leaving death and devastation in its wake, that’s newsworthy. But while it’s important for the community that is impacted by the tragedy, it’s not as important for people on the other side of the country who are unaffected by it. For them, it’s just news.

The news is a business, not a charity. The main purpose of the news industry is to make money. That’s not a complaint. Everyone needs to make money. Doctors spend years of their lives in training in order to provide medical care, but they expect to be paid for it. If they no longer got paid for it, they would do something else. That doesn’t make them greedy, it’s just how things are. It’s the same with the news. The news industry reports on stories that will keep people interested (change) and will keep them consuming more of their product. People don’t consume news to hear about what’s unchanging and of the greatest importance. They go to church for that. The news is a form of entertainment that is funded by advertising dollars.

Bad news is the most interesting and profitable kind of news. Fear is a more profitable news product than hope. In the news business they say, “if it bleeds, it leads.” As scintillating as bad news can be, the wise Christian will resist the temptation. Psalm 112:7 says, “For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever. He is not afraid of bad news;  his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.

The “Bad News + Video” formula is even more tempting. As the news media has become increasingly visual, video footage makes something more newsworthy. I once walked by my living room TV while my local news was reporting on a high speed car chase with video footage in California. But I live in Cincinnati. Why was this on our local news? Because they’ve got an exciting video of it. It’s interesting, but not that important.

Exaggerated coverage of bad news makes things seem worse than they are. The relentless focus on tragedy and heartbreak in the news creates an inflated perception of tragedy in the world. For example, tens of thousands of cars may safely drive through town on a given day. But safety doesn’t excite. Tragedy does. So the one tragic accident that happened that day makes the 6 o’clock news. The tragedy is very important to those who are affected by it. For the rest of us, it’s just news.

News makes the novel seem normal. The consensus is boring and uninteresting. That’s why the news focuses its attention on things that break the pattern. The outliers, the bizarre, and the things that deviate from the norm are newsworthy. For example, if hundreds of scientists have been studying a phenomena for years and arriving at similar conclusions, that’s not newsworthy, because it doesn’t represent any significant change. But if one study yields a completely different result, that’s newsworthy, even if the change reported by the study was due to poorly conceived and executed experimentation. The headlines will read, “New Study Shows…” and it will appear as though this is the new scientific consensus, but it’s not. Sloppy science is often rewarded with undeserved news coverage.

The news boosts its relevance by reducing context. Summerville writes, “The product of the news business is change, not wisdom. Wisdom has to do with seeing things in their largest context, whereas news is structured in a way that destroys the larger context. You have to do certain things to information if you want to sell it on a daily basis. You have to make each day’s report seem important. And you do that by reducing the importance of its context.” In recent weeks, we’ve been treated to countless headlines talking about the “rising death toll” caused by COVID-19. Of course the death toll is rising – every day in human history will have more deaths than the day before. But what’s needed to understand the death toll numbers is context. What are the trends represented by those numbers? That information is not always provided – just the number of deaths. Understand the importance of something requires wisdom and broader context.

The news is addictive. The stimulation provided by constant change is addictive. The “fear of missing out” drives us toward the news. Joe Carter wrote that “the most disconcerting consequence of this addiction is the belief that it is normal, and that those who aren’t tuned into a daily news feed are ill-informed.” We’ve heard that trust in the news media is at an all time low, yet we still consume it. It’s addictive.

New Media has upended the News Industry. One thing that Summerville’s book couldn’t have foreseen is how the new media has disrupted the news industry. The daily news cycle has been replaced with a non-stop onslaught of news that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. The lines between news, advertising, and activism are blurred more now than ever before. Much of what passes as “news” these days is little more than click bait. Even still, the way many people get their news nowadays is through social media, which accelerates misinformation. Social Media equalizes the playing field by presenting a crowdsourced “news feed” that might contain serious journalism mixed with memes, cat videos, and conspiracy blogs. It all looks the same. When someone reads a misleading headline, they may not even realize it’s from a disreputable source. All they remember is, “I saw it on Facebook.” For example, the Babylon Bee has been criticized for spreading “misinformation,” but the critics don’t realize it’s a satire site.

Breaking the News Addiction

Consuming too much news is a bad habit, but it can be broken. Here are some personal rules I’ve developed to break the news habit without being isolated.

Stop relying on clickbait, Facebook posts, and memes for the news. Refuse to click the clickbait. Clickbait websites collect money from advertisers every time someone clicks the headline. If the headline promises a “shocking truth revealed” or some secret being “exposed,” it’s clickbait. If there’s exclamation points in the headline, it’s clickbait. If it’s got a numbered list and says, “#6 Will Blow Your Mind!,” it’s clickbait. Don’t support them. Also, avoid news sources that are blindly driven by ideology (MSNBC and Foxnews are prime examples).

Limit your intake of daily news. The 24 hour news cycle is unreliable and incapable of providing context. Limit yourself to one or two of these, known for good reporting, and pay for a subscription. Weekly or monthly news magazines may have broader perspective, but can still be ideologically driven. (World Magazine is known for excellent reporting from a biblical worldview. They also produce a podcast and a daily news brief called “The Sift.”)

Be selective with blogs. Ten years ago, most blogs looked amateur and credible news sources had sharp looking websites. Now, sophisticated blogging platforms have evened the playing field. Anyone with a half-baked opinion can write nonsense on their beautifully designed blog. Design and aesthetics matter – attractively designed blogs have an air of credibility because they look good, no matter what they say.

Read more books, especially the really old ones. Modern society increasingly needs to listen and learn from voices of the past – what GK Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead.” I can’t think of any better way to gain perspective on modern life than to read books by dead people. They had their blind spots, for sure, but so do we. The best way to see our modern blind spots is to let dead people from ages past point them out to us.

Certainly, of all the old books, the one we need most desperately is the Bible. It was written by men long since dead, but also written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is forever alive. God, who never changes, is the most important thing there is. To read the Bible is to hear the voice of God, who transcends all time and space, and who is directing all history towards God’s Eternal Purpose. To read the Bible is to read the newspaper of heaven, where the daily headline always reads, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).

Growing Faith in Times of Uncertainty

“Exercising” Faith

It has been said that faith is like a muscle – it gets stronger with exercise. If this is true, then trials are the Planet Fitness of the Christian faith. They are resistance training – resistance makes us stronger. With the coronavirus pandemic, God is taking us to the gym for a faith workout. Facing and overcoming trials is an indispensable tool God uses to make us more like Jesus. It shows how much Jesus means to us – or how little.

James 1:2-4 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Trials may be hard but the benefits are worth the cost. There’s growth to anticipate on the other side.

There are two contagions in the world right now that are a trial for Christians. One of them is the coronavirus. The other one is fear. Both can be deadly. The coronavirus outbreak has caused degrees of uncertainty that most of us have never faced before. We don’t know how long it will last. We don’t know how who or how many will be infected. We don’t know how bad the economic impact will be.

Uncertainty is part of the trial, because people tend to fear the unknown. In ancient times, God used high levels of uncertainty to test and strengthen believer’s faith. In modern times, we have grown accustomed to the illusion of control and predictability. When we realize how little control we truly have, newly discovered uncertainty provokes new levels of fear. None of us have ever trusted God through the uncertainty of a global pandemic before. It’s is a spiritual muscle we’ve never exercised.

Screwtape’s Advice

In CS Lewis’ book, “The Screwtape Letters,” Screwtape is a demon who gives advice to the his nephew, Wormwood, who is learning how to deceive and tempt his human “patient.” In chapter six, Screwtape advises Wormwood on how to use uncertainty against his patient:

We want him to be in the maximum uncertainty, so that his mind will be filled with contradictory pictures of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear. There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them…

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him… It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of.

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Screwtape’s advice is to get his patient to succumb to the fears of all the terrible things that could happen, rather than exercise trust in God in the things that actually do happen. In other words, “use the fear of the unknown against him. Cripple him with fear of innumerable ‘worst case scenarios’ to keep him enslaved.” Put simply, as far as Screwtape is concerned, the fear that a terrible thing might happen is just as destructive as when a terrible thing does happen. It matters little whether or not it actually does happen, so long as the patient is in constant dread of the possibility.

Christians Do Not Fear Death

The coronavirus has brought human mortality into sharp focus, and with it stratospheric levels of fear and anxiety. People don’t want to die and the coronavirus is deadly. Christians know that, because of sin, everyone will die, either from the coronavirus or something else. Natural death is the great enemy of the human race. But we also believe that God created as eternal beings, and therein lies the real thing to fear.

Jesus tells us there is actually only one thing to fear: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Dying apart from Christ is truly the most terrifying thing that could happen to anyone. For Christians, the matter is already settled. Jesus faced the reality of hell on our behalf, so nothing remains that can ultimately harm us. The Apostle Paul said, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21) and also “the last enemy to be destroyed it death” (1 Cor 15:26). Hebrews 2:15 tells us that Jesus destroyed “the one who has the power of death,” and also delivered “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” In other words, Jesus saved us from death and also from the fear of death. Death has been defeated already. Why fear it?

The Test of Faith

Christians, the test of our faith right now is how we will respond to a world that is afraid. Afraid of dying, economic collapse, or any number of other things. Satan can use our fear of what might happen just as easily as the things that do happen. But fear is the opposite of faith. It is irrational. It doesn’t care about what’s true, only what’s scary. So, right now, the most Christian thing you can do is trust God, rebuke your fear, and walk by faith.

If the gospel is true and Jesus rose from the dead, then death no longer has dominion over him nor us (Rom 6:9, 1 Cor 15:55). Death is not our master. Christ is. The coronavirus will test how deeply we believe this to be true. Will we live in fear? Will we panic like so many others? Or will we live with the confidence and hope our faith provides?

This is an opportunity to exercise our faith and refuse to allow ourselves to be ruled by fear. God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control (2 Tim 1:9). We are not ruled by fear of the coronavirus, or economic collapse, or anything else. They cannot take from us anything that truly matters.

What do these Christian "deconversion" stories mean for the rest of us?

Exvangelicalism

The news that Rhett and Link had deconverted from Christianity came as a shock to those of us who knew them first as Christian missionaries with CRU. But those who knew them first as entertainers were shocked that they ever claimed to be Christians in the first place.

Since I used to work with Rhett and Link when we were on staff with CRU together, I wrote a few reflections about it, as did many others. A few days later, Rhett and Link responded. When I posted my article on Facebook, one of my friends and fellow pastors commented with a great question that is relevant for all of us. I’ve reproduced some of that thread, with further thoughts below.

“What would you say to somebody who reads your article and asks, “So how do I know ‘right now’ if I have true faith or just the appearance of true faith? How can I be sure I’m a real Christian and not just somebody who appears to be a real Christian for a very long time, but doesn’t really have true faith?…”

Is it possible that there was ever a time in Rhett and Link‘s life that they read 1 John, and based on what they could discern of their life and their desires, they experienced assurance that they were Christians. And yet, now that they’ve walked away from the faith, we would say that they were never actually Christians. So my question is, given that phenomenon, how can any professing Christian be certain that they won’t one day fall away., And if they are not certain that they won’t one day fall away, how can they actually have assurance that they are in fact Christians?

– Pastor Andy Barlow, Fellowship Church, Louisville, KY

In my response to Andy, I said the scripture itself presents this tension. The scripture offers us assurance and also warns us against falling away. Assurance is not the same thing as a rock-solid guarantee that we never would nor could fall away. If it were, the warnings would be meaningless. We are told to walk by faith and not by sight, which means we go through life trusting in God even when we don’t have the answers. Yet the scriptures also teach that those who are truly in Christ will indeed persevere in the faith to the end (Phil 1:6). This is a paradox, and we live in the tension. We cling to Christ and his promises, trusting that we are his and that no one can take us away from him (John 10:27-30). And we are also sobered by Jesus’ warning that false converts and even false prophets will arise within the church, so we should be alert (Acts 20:28-30). If we cannot be satisfied within this tension, then we are looking for something beyond faith.

Saving Faith

Ephesians 2:8-9 says “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Hebrews 11:1 says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

We are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9). The object of our faith is very real, but lies beyond what we can see with our eyes (Heb 11:1). In the Christian life, we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).

It is like being blindfolded while being led by the hand through a crowded and dangerous area by someone we trust. They’d say, “watch out, there’s a step here.” Or, “duck down, there’s a low ceiling ahead.” The obstacles are there and are very real, but we have to rely on a trustworthy friend to tell us about the things we can’t see. That’s what walking by faith is like.

The spiritual world is very real, and we can’t see it, but God can (2 Cor 4:4). When we become Christians, God enables us to perceive the beauty of Christ by faith, but much remains hidden. So he takes us by the hand, and tells us where to step.

Saving faith produces a conviction in our hearts that Jesus is real, that he has saved us from our sins, that he will return in power and glory, and that our lives should be ordered accordingly.

But sometimes we stumble.

Faith and Doubt

Many true Christians experience seasons of doubt. Their faith is shaken. Thomas famously doubted the resurrection until he had seen it with his own eyes. He wasn’t content with faith; he needed sight before he’d believe. When Jesus appeared to him, he said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). We are more blessed than Thomas.

Just before Jesus gave the Great Commission, Jesus gathered his disciples together on a mountain. Matt 28:16 says, “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Written decades later, Jude 22 says “have mercy on those who doubt.” He’s referring to people who truly love Jesus yet are afflicted by nagging, unresolved questions that shake their confidence. Their faith is weak.

The smallest degree of true faith in a perfect savior is sufficient to save (Matt 17:20). But the soul of that truly saved person may not be at peace. He or she will be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14). Doubt disturbs the tranquility of the soul.

I’ve experienced this many times in my life, especially during my college years. I was ill equipped to face the ridicule of unbelieving professors who took pleasure in mocking Christianity. I once met with a well known student atheist on campus to share the gospel with him, and found myself unable to answer his objections to Christianity. I almost lost it. Almost.

Faith and Assurance

Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 20:27). Jesus promises to give us inner peace in this life, which anticipates the perfect peace of eternity with Him. Assurance is the state of the soul that is not doubting but is resting in Christ. God desires this sort of assurance for us (1 John 5:13). Assurance is a fruit that grows on the tree of vibrant and growing faith.

Faith describes how we are saved. Assurance describes how we feel. No one is saved by their feelings, however sincere those feelings may be. Only faith in Christ has saving power. Our fickle feelings are unreliable guides to eternal truth. They are not to be trusted with such important matters.

If you are blindfolded and you have confidence in your guide, you can walk confidently and without fear. But if you are not confident in your guide, you will move more slowly and cautiously. You doubt whether you are truly safe. You may wonder if you have the right guide in the first place.

It has been said that “It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you.” Someone with saving faith may experience doubt or assurance, depending on the strength of his faith. When his faith is strong, he enjoys God’s peace and assurance. When his faith is weak, he questions his salvation and experiences doubt. The true Christian may experience both at different times.

Counterfeit Faith and False Assurance

My friend Andy pressed the question further, asking if it were possible for a person to experience assurance of salvation at one time, only to later reject the faith and prove themselves to have never been converted? He asks, how can any professing Christian be certain that they won’t one day fall away? And if they are not certain that they won’t one day fall away, how can they ever have real assurance that they are in fact Christians?

We have to recognize that the scriptures speak to different people in different situations. True Christians need to grow in their confidence that Christ has saved them and will preserve them in the faith. Cultural Christians, who lack true faith, should not feel assured of a salvation he does not possess. False assurance emboldens people in unbelief, which is exactly what cultural Christianity does. It makes unsaved people feel saved, which is the worst sort of unbelief. People in this condition need to hear the warnings about falling away.

Many who have deconverted from Christianity will say that they experienced a form assurance at one time. How can this be? How can they be assured that they possess something they never truly possessed?

The distinction between faith and assurance is again helpful. We humans are masters of self-deception. Cultural Christianity excels at self-deception. Cultural Christians eagerly proclaim how much God is pleased with them. Their self-righteousness is the perfect mate for their self-deception.

First John says that we should expect this sort of thing. After all, these are the last days which are marked by the spirit of antichrist. This is where people profess Christ and yet deny him. “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). As for those who deconverted from Christianity, John says, “they went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

Jesus tells the same story: “Not every who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ (Matt 7:21-23).” Jesus does not say, “I no longer know you,” but “I never knew you.

I do not question that Rhett and Link at one time thought themselves to be committed Christians. But their deconversion reveals that they were actually committed to something other than true Christianity. Their hope, commitment, and assurance was in some other gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). They may have had an experience of assurance, but it was a lie. They never truly knew Jesus. He said so himself.

Simply put: those who end up denying Jesus never knew him in the first place, no matter how much assurance they felt at the time. They were self-deceived. At least now they’re honest. “Former Christian” is the cultural Christian’s way of reconciling outer identity with their inner unbelief. They never knew Jesus. They hold him in contempt (Heb 6:4-6). Their unbelief is now consistent, inside and out.

Conclusion

These are the paradoxes we see in scripture: a person can be saved but not feel saved. And a person might feel saved but not be saved. If our faith is genuine, our feeling on the matter will be a great blessing and comfort. But if it isn’t true, our feelings will be our greatest source of self-deception. As cultural Christianity continues its decline, these “ex-vangelical” stories will also continue. So, what should we do in respond to this paradox of faith, doubt, and assurance?

First, don’t rely on feelings. The substance of our faith is Christ, not our feelings.

Second, examine yourself. This is a healthy practice, in moderate doses. It sobers the soul because it acknowledges our capacity for self-deception. Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Third, remember that we are all saved the same way: by grace through faith. In my church, the most common salvation testimonies we hear is from cultural Christians who came to our church, heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, and responded to him in faith. Many were raised in church but later realized they never truly believed. When they came face to face with the truth of the gospel, they searched their hearts, repented of their sins, and embraced Christ by faith. This is quite common.

Fourth, build your faith through regular intake of scripture. To understand assurance better, a great place to start is the book of 1st John. John weaves the paradoxical themes of assurance and warning throughout the letter. And he teaches that the evidence of saving faith is to know, love, and obey Jesus as Lord (1 John 5:2).

Finally, pray that you will richly enjoy God’s peace and assurance in your life. Christ is your life and your salvation, and he is committed to keep your feet from stumbling. Do not obsess over whether or not you’re saved, but focus your attention and your prayers on enjoying the salvation you have. A good place to start is to pray the doxology at the end of Jude, claiming God’s promises for your life:

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” Jude 24-25

The Deconversion of Rhett and Link

Last night, I found out from an article posted on Facebook that two of my former colleagues in ministry, Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neil, have abandoned the Christian faith.

I used to work closely with Rhett and Link when we were on staff with CRU together. We planned our annual winter conference together where Rhett and Link were the emcees and I led the worship music. They were hilarious. They were so creative and fun to work with. My CRU ministry in Louisville hosted them for a training on effective evangelism. It was a riot. I still remember the Lionel Richie jokes.

Once upon a time, I would have thought of Rhett and Link as friends. Over the years, it’s been exciting to see them become world famous internet celebrities. So many of us who know them celebrated their success, thinking, “what an incredible opportunity to spread the gospel!”

So the news of their apostasy hit close to home. It’s heartbreaking. I fear for their own souls, for their wives and their children, and for the souls of so many Christians who looked up to them.

I’d like to make two observations.

There’s No Such Thing as “Deconversion”

No one ever goes from belief to unbelief. Rather, they go from one type of unbelief to another type of unbelief. Cultural Christianity is a type of unbelief. It is unbelief that has dressed up in the clothing of Christianity. It looks like faith, but isn’t real faith. Second Timothy 3:5 says that this sort of unbelief has “the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” Two verses later, it goes on to say that these people are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7). In other words, some forms of unbelief can appear godly for a while, and even acquire great knowledge and learning in Christian things, but never truly embracing Christ in the heart.

In fact, every apparent deconversion is actually a reconversion. As deconversion stories have become more and more common, a familiar pattern is evident. They begin with some nagging question about God or Christianity that they can’t resolve. Then they seek answers from respected Christian thought leaders, but are unsatisfied with the answers. Then something in their personal lives forces a decision: “should I stay or should I go?”

Someone might say, “yeah, but I know them! They were sincere believers! They were Christian leaders! They even devoted years of their lives to teaching other people to share their faith. I know they were true believers.” But Paul says otherwise – none of those things are sufficient evidence of genuine faith. Their outward “form” seems godly, but there is no true spiritual life or “power” within (2 Tim 3:5). They may even continue learning more and more about Christianity, but there is no true “knowledge of the truth” within them (2 Tim 3:7). Deep within them, they even “oppose the truth” (2 Tim 3:8). In other words, what we see on the outside does not always match what’s going on on the inside. As 1 Sam 16:7 says, “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

When we hear these stories of deconversion, they often sound like they’re simply quitting the team. “I used to be a Christian, but now I can no longer hold to these beliefs.” But that’s only half the story. No one simply walks away and becomes neutral. No one goes from playing on the team to sitting in the stands. He always joins the other team. A deconversion from Christianity always entails allegiance to a new master.

The LGBTQ Tipping Point

Sexuality is often the tipping point for cultural Christians. It’s the issue that brings about a personal crisis of faith. LGBTQ issues have become powerful “defeater” beliefs against Christianity. As the logic goes, a God who is not on board with the LGBTQ agenda is not a God worth serving. One article about Rhett and Link said, “they both felt a deep discomfort with biblical sexual ethics, which they perceived to oppress women and their LGBTQ+ friends.”

The LGBTQ agenda is the new master who takes no prisoners. The world is demanding total allegiance to the agenda, and there are penalties for non-compliance. Those who do not fully endorse this agenda are considered hate mongers and bigots. If they are prominent Christians, they are targeted for cancellation so an example can be made of them.

Of course, Jesus demands total allegiance to his agenda. Jesus said, “whoever is not with me is against me” (Matt 12:30). Jesus announced his agenda when he said, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). He came to save people from their sins and give them new life through his death, burial, and resurrection. Christians are called to take up our crosses and follow him (Matt 16:24), which includes our sexuality (Matt 19:4-6).

A house divided cannot stand (Mark 3:25). The Bible’s teaching about sexuality is fundamentally irreconcilable with what the world is currently promoting. It has become the wedge issue that is forcing Christians everywhere to choose their allegiance. If following Jesus puts us at odds with the LGBTQ agenda, then following Jesus will make us unpopular, at the very least. 

That’s the issue with cultural Christians. If someone is a cultural Christian, their outward expression of Christianity requires cultural support and approval. But when culture no longer supports and approves of Christians, it should not be surprising that Christians choose to reconvert to a culturally approved belief system. The new culturally approved belief system is the LGBTQ agenda, and it will continue to expose more and more cultural Christians.

Conclusion

My encouragement for those of us who are discouraged by these deconversions is to take heart. We can only see what’s on the outside, but Jesus can see what’s on the inside. Deconversions are not a new thing. Paul said “times of difficulty” like this would happen “in the lat days” (2 Tim 3:1). He goes on to give two examples, Demas (2 Tim 4:10) and Alexander the Coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14). These deconversions don’t mean something is wrong with the Christian faith, but rather the truth of scripture is confirmed. 

Jesus himself experienced the worst reconversion of all, when one of his own followers, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him with a kiss. God was sovereignly able to us that deconversion to bring about salvation for everyone who would truly believe.

Two Kinds of Freedom

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Galatians 5:1

There are two kinds of freedom: positive freedom and negative freedom. Both are good and both were purchased by Christ at the cross.

Negative Freedom

Negative freedom is freedom from constraint, which is what we most often think of when we think of freedom. It’s the flag-waving, fireworks setting, parade watching, “let freedom ring” singing sort of freedom that we celebrate on Independence Day. The “Independence” part says we are not ruled by or dependent on another nation, but are in-dependent.

In the Christian understanding of freedom, that’s only halfway there. Paul says, “Christ has set us free” from the “yoke of slavery” of sin, but that’s only the negative part of freedom. Yes, we are free from sin. But Christian freedom always has two parts. There’s a freedom from and a freedom to.

Positive Freedom

Positive freedom is the freedom to act. Paul says “for freedom Christ has set us free,” meaning that our freedom has an action or a goal that it was meant for. Negative freedom alone is not true freedom because freedom is never a goal in and of itself. Freedom is always oriented towards something else. Freedom is the reality through which we pursue other goals.

For example, Independence Day is an annual opportunity to give thanks to God for the freedom we enjoy every other day of the year. But a true celebration of freedom includes not only freedom from the constraints that could bind us, but freedom towards the good things we want to do.

Galatians 5:1 refers to both kinds of freedom when it says, “for freedom Christ has set us free.” The “for freedom” part is left open ended, because positive freedom is where we truly express the gift we’ve been given. But the verse also warns us against falling into a new form of slavery while calling it freedom. We can trade one kind of slavery for another. When freedom becomes an end in itself, it becomes a new form of tyranny. Negative freedom without positive freedom is no freedom at all.

Modern freedom is often conceived of as freedom from the past, from tradition, from morality, from someone else telling us how to live our lives. They walk right out of that prison into a new one. The new prison is still slavery with new traditions and moralities guarding the cells. We can even be enslaved by our own passions and desires (Gal 5:24).

There’s a good reason why many African Americans are not as excited to celebrate Independence Day. This holiday marks freedom from English slavery but not American slavery. Paul goes on to say, “you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

Christian Freedom

Christ has purchased both negative and positive freedom. We are set free from the penalty and power of sin, and set free to obey God from the heart in the power of the Spirit. True freedom in Christ is freedom and power to obey – to will and to act towards that which is good. In Christ, we have new ability to desire and to act upon what is truly good.

The exercise of this freedom takes time and intentional effort, however. It is refined and strengthened through Spirit-led discipline, much like a musician mastering an instrument. A child who is first learning the piano is free in one sense, but is not yet free in another sense. He did not give himself the ability to play; that ability is given by God. But he must develop the gift. He is free to take lessons and free to practice, but may choose to not do so. So he is free from the constraints preventing him from learning Mozart, but he is not free to actually play Mozart until he dedicates himself to learning and practice.

Christian freedom is like that. Christ has set us free from sin so that we will no longer be ruled by it. But that’s only half-way freedom. We are also free in the Spirit to devote ourselves to will and to act towards what is truly good. We are free to live in a God honoring way that is good and right in the world. Our freedom is not merely freedom from the penalty of sin in our past, but freedom to do what is good in the present and future.

Many Christians squander this opportunity. We limit freedom to the forgiveness for the past and miss the opportunities of the present. Like the child who is free to take lessons and learn Mozart, we often choose not to. But let’s at least be honest about it. We are missing out on the true benefits of freedom. Let’s not content ourselves with playing chopsticks and calling it Mozart.

Sabbatical Update

This summer, after 17 years of vocational ministry, I took my first sabbatical. It was a much needed and appreciated time of rest, prayer, reading, and fun with my family. We have been incredibly blessed to take this time away, and I am thankful to my church and my elders for granting me this sabbatical and handling the ministry of the church while I’ve been away. Since I am coming back to work next week, I’ve prepared a simple report on how I’ve approached this time.

The purpose of this sabbatical was to get extended rest. Pastoral ministry isn’t just a career – it’s a calling. It’s the sort of calling that blurs the lines between “work life” and “personal life.” The biblical qualifications for pastors are mostly personal and related to character (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5). In one sense, a distinction should be made between the work that elders do and the elders themselves who do the work. But this distinction is elusive. Elders are still elders even when they’re not at work. There’s the tangible work they do, such as preparing sermons, praying for the congregation, pastoral care, studying and teaching, and so forth. And there’s the intangible work, which the apostle Paul describes as “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28).

That’s the sort of pressure that can’t easily be quantified. You don’t clock in and clock out from those pressures. The pressure is spiritual and eternal. You don’t go home after counseling a troubled marriage and stop caring about the couple. It weighs on your soul while your having dinner with your family. It sits in the back of your mind and invades your thoughts. It’s always there.

For this reason, extended seasons of rest can be greatly rejuvenating for a pastor, because it provides a pressure relief valve for these daily anxieties. It is a time to trust God’s sovereignty and recognize that, at best, we are but weak men. Jesus will build his church. We are not the savior.

For this sabbatical, I had four broad goals: (1) to deeply enjoy Christ for who he is apart from ministry work, (2) to enjoy my wife and children and have lots of fun memories together, (3) to disrupt my daily rhythms and normal habits, and (4) to focus of deep rest – mind, body, and soul – and return energized for the next season of ministry.

The way I went about this was to unplug and leave town. I took trips alone (prayer retreat to a cabin), with my wife (to San Fransisco, Yosemite and Sequoia), and with my family. My kids wanted to do an RV Road Trip, so we rented an RV and spent two weeks out west exploring US National Parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Grand Canyon). We visited some of the most beautifully breathtaking places I’d ever seen. Each place was so different, but they all stirred up the humbling pleasure of human smallness and the wonder of God’s creation.

I also had a stack of books to work through, including “The Religious Affections” (my third time through it) by Jonathan Edwards, “Charity and its Fruits” by Jonathan Edwards, “How (Not) to be Secular” by James K. A. Smith, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains” Nicholas Carr, “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud, “The Grace of Shame” by Tim Bayly, Joseph Bayly, and Jurgen von Hagen, “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson, and “A Man Called Ove,” by Fredrik Backman.

I focused much of my prayer time on spiritual health, emotional health, deeper friendships, and God’s leading for the next season of ministry.

Now, as I prepare to come back to work, I am rested spiritually, mentally, and physically. I have prayed much, read much, and traveled much with my family. We have made great memories together that we will always cherish.

Even though I have rested from the daily pressures of ministry, the work of the ministry has never been far from my mind. My prayer (and the prayer of my elders) has been that this would not be a vacation for it’s own sake, but a time of rest and renewal in Christ that will help sustain me for continued ministry.

It is, after all, a calling, not just a career.

Our Collective Consciences are Seared

Over the last few weeks, I have forced myself to watch every single one of the Center for Medical Progress videos exposing Planned Parenthood’s sale of fetal body parts to StemExpress. I was shocked by the cavalier conversations about “tissue” and “procurement.” The most recent video was the most horrifying of all: a fully intact male child, still clinging to his last moments of life on a metal dish, awaiting his final resting place in a bio-hazard bag.

At this point, I’m sure many people will simply close this browser window and numb the pain of that mental image with a funny article at the theonion.com. But that says something about us. As much outrage that has registered over the past few weeks about this video, some might say that we should chill out for a moment. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post calls this “antiabortion extremism.” Some might be really bothered by all the outrage over Planned Parenthood and hope that the videos and the moral noise would turn down to a reasonable level.

What bothers me, however, is the lack of outrage.

Our society’s collective conscience has been seared, and these videos are, if we’re willing to watch them, forcing us to acknowledge that we are now living in Nazi Germany, 2015. Of course, that seems over the top. It’s easy to condemn the Nazis. The view from our moral perch in 2015 makes those crimes against humanity easy to see. You can tour Auschwitz and see for yourself.

How is it that we can universally condemn the death camps of 1944, but not the death camps of 2015? How is it that a single politician can openly support and defend the practice of abortion and still get elected? How is it that an entire political party can make pro-abortion part of its platform?

It’s because our collective consciences have been seared. A seared conscience lacks moral clarity. A seared conscience has been worn down through continued exposure to evil to no longer see it for what it is. Things that are undeniably right or wrong get buried with obscurantist language like “tissue” and “specimen.” Voters morally relativize when they support pro-choice candidates because “he’s good on economic policy” or “he cares about the poor.” Many Christians are eager to voice their concern for the poor and oppressed in 3rd world countries, but not eager to voice their concern for poor and oppressed unborn children. Many pastors love to talk social justice, but only about trendy causes.

There is no greater or more pressing social justice issue in our country today than justice for the unborn. God’s heart in the Bible is continually concerned for four groups of people: the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. Is anyone poorer or more vulnerable than the unborn? Is anyone more of an orphan than the child of an unwanted pregnancy?

You simply cannot support abortion and claim to be about social justice. This is the greatest social justice issue of our time.

In so many ways, we have reached a cultural moment. The Center for Medical Progress has given us a personal tour of Auschwitz. But, unlike Auschwitz, this tour is not a “never forget” matter of history. It’s still happening, right under our noses. I live only six blocks from Cincinnati’s Planned Parenthood clinic. It’s happening in my own neighborhood.

Many have not watched the videos yet. They’re painful and abhorrent. But we must know what’s going on. We don’t have to pay a fee or listen to a tour guide. Simply enter and pray for God to inform your conscience.

I plan on participating in protest Planned Parenthood tomorrow. Details can be found here.

To watch the videos and more information, go here.