image of a boat in a storm

Tossed To and Fro By Every Controversy

Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head — Christ.

– Ephesians 4:14 – 15

In Ephesians, Paul warns his readers against following trends in spiritual matters. This was as important in the early church as it is today. It’s easy to get swept up in the pull of public opinion. It’s easy to want to do things that feel right even if they don’t line up with what God wants. It’s as much a challenge to young congregations as to those that have endured for generations.

There’s another way we let ourselves get tossed about, however, and that’s in the venue of current events. Something may suddenly flare up in the media, in the White House, in the courts, or on social networks, and we feel the need to jump on it immediately. We start sharing our thoughts on it reflexively; we share link after link or meme after meme; and it becomes the topic du jour in Bible classes and sermons — until the next distraction comes along.

Distractions and Reactions

We’ve all seen it happen. I’ve done it myself. A Bible study on the topic of giving somehow ends up including a rant about how unfairly the media is treating a Christian celebrity. A sermon about baptism end up spending twenty minutes on gay marriage. A reading from Isaiah suddenly turns out to be about immigration policy. A Lord’s Supper talk unexpectedly turns into a defense of the pledge of allegiance.

Some current events are worth discussion and study, but it should be done so with considered preparation, removing self from the equation and letting God’s word guide our thoughts. It’s never productive to derail what could be an otherwise encouraging study by letting something that is grating on our nerves distract us. Then the next thing will come along. And then the next. Before we know it, instead of purposeful and meaningful study happening in our Bible classes and sermons, all we’re doing is reacting. We’re being tossed to and fro.

What To Do About It

When something in the news or current events rankle us, we need to step back and ask ourselves some questions.

  • Is it a matter of Scripture? Whether or not someone stands for an anthem or wears a flag pin has no bearing on God’s word. In those cases, it’s not worth discussing in a worship or study setting. Have your opinion, but don’t derail others’ faith and worship with it.
  • Will it bring anyone closer to Christ? Again, will discussing the topic help anyone with their relationship with Christ, or will the topic create secular barriers to discipleship?
  • Does it fit the current topic of discussion? Maybe your current frustration does have scriptural relevance. Does it fit the current sermon or Bible study topic? If not, maybe it’s better to find another time or venue to discuss it.
  • Am I able to talk about it rationally? If I can’t discuss the topic without getting flustered or angry, I’m perhaps not the best person to address the issue.
  • Am I letting God’s word guide me? This is a challenging one. Is your opinion on the topic formed by Biblical principles or by secular sources like public figures or media personalities? We should ensure that God’s word shapes our opinions rather than letting our opinions shape our interpretation.

It really comes down to being able to practice self-denial with our need to express our opinions. We also have to stop assuming that every person in the room agrees with us. Ranting about the evils of gun control in a Bible class where there may be a visitor on the other side of the issue will make them feel unwelcome. You or I may hinder another person’s journey to Christ in our need to vent, and I don’t want to have to face Christ in judgment with that on my conscience.

We have to come to the conclusion that souls are more important than personal opinions, politics, or any other secular controversy. We have to decide that we will focus on Bible topics when we’re studying or worshipping together. Just look at Paul’s prison letters as an example. Does he spend time in his letters complaining about the unfairness of the Roman justice system? Does he complain about the conditions of his prison? Does he rant about the corruption of Caesar? In no case does he let physical distractions upset his spiritual focus.

We cannot be distracted from Christ. There are indeed some current events worth addressing in our Bible studies and our pulpits — our obligations to the poor and disenfranchised, overcoming racial prejudices, addressing violence against women. However, there are many more that we should leave alone lest we alienate believers and those seeking Christ. We should be a body knit together by our common faith and hope. Let’s not let secular distractions harm our unity and purpose in Christ. Stop being tossed to and fro by every controversy, and instead anchor yourself in the upward calling of Christ.

 

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Removing the Sword from Our Words

image of a man shouting into a bullhorn

When Jesus told Peter to lay down his sword, he instructed us all to reject violence and unnecessary conflict. This is not restricted to my refraining from physically attacking you for differing beliefs; it must, by extension, affect our words and attitudes toward those outside the body. If I unthinkingly hurt you with my words, then I am every bit as guilty of attacking you as if I had truly taken sword against you.

Ephesians 6:17 and Hebrews 4:12 both compare God’s word to a sword. It pierces hearts and minds; it divides between right and wrong. It discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart. But there’s a danger in wielding a sword carelessly or rashly. I recently saw this approach come out in a lesson I was listening to about Catholic doctrine. Setting aside the fact that the preacher was teaching factual inaccuracies, his tone and word choice would have likely driven away anyone who identifies as a Catholic.

He said things like:

  • “They claim to respect the Bible, if you can call what they do respect.”
  • “How can anyone think this is pleasing to God?”
  • “The priests get up and do their mumbo-jumbo.”

I almost interrupted the lesson (and I kind of wish I had). It was unnecessarily harsh and disrespectful to others’ long-held beliefs. Sure, he might have been preaching Biblical truths, but he was doing so in a way to ensure he alienated anyone who didn’t already agree with him. I’ve been guilty of the same in the past, but it’s no more than another form of self-sacrifice to show grace in our speech toward or about those with whom we may disagree.

The place where this seems to be the biggest challenge is online. When we get behind our keyboards, our natural filters disengage, and we write things in posts and comments we would likely never say in person. I’ve even seen it in church families — brothers and sisters who are perfectly pleasant to each other’s faces but who have written extremely thoughtless and mean-spirited things to each other online.

We would all do well to remember some warnings from Jesus and His followers about our speech:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Ephesians 4:29

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Colossians 4:6

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

James 3:10 – 12

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

Luke 6:45

We should be as careful with what comes out of our mouths and our keyboards as we are about any other potentially sinful activity. Our words need to be thoughtful and intentional, inviting consideration rather than demanding a reaction. Yes, there were times when Jesus’s or Paul’s words gained a hard edge; that’s not in dispute. Those times, however, were the exception rather than a habit. Our habit needs to be one of grace.

Disagreements happen, even among the closest of Christian families. We can have disagreements without being disagreeable. We can talk about doctrine without condescension. We can address controversy without meanness.

Here are some things that might help:

  1. Read Jesus’s words and the letters of Paul in particular. They each have times where they address difficult topics. Looking at how they did so while maintaining a good relationship with the affected parties is a valuable lesson.
  2. Delay commenting. If you read something online that provokes a reaction, avoid posting a comment until the next day. If you’re like me, you might have an easier time wisely choosing battles with this approach.
  3. Turn off harsh voices. This might look like turning off Rush Limbaugh or Tucker Carlson. It might mean unsubscribing from incendiary Facebook pages. It might mean avoiding sites like Daily Kos or The Drudge Report. If we feed ourselves bad examples, we will begin to emulate them.
  4. Pray for the person who made you angry. Don’t just pray that they come to their senses. Pray that you will forgive them and that they will have a closer relationship with Christ.
  5. Be prepared to follow Christ’s example. “What would Jesus do?” is only enough if you are willing to do it.

My hope and prayer for all Christians is that we lay down our verbal weapons and keep doors of opportunities open rather than closing them with a harsh word or unkind attitudes. Every person is valuable to God. We should speak to them like we understand that.

Laying Down Our Swords

verrière de la Passion du Christ. Saint-Pierre tranchant l'oreille de Malchus. Illustrates Peter drawing his sword in the garden.

Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

John 18:10 – 11

And when those who were around Him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.

Luke 22:49 – 51

And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

Matthew 26:51 – 54

Two Swords and the Apostles

Every gospel gives account that one of the apostles, identified as Peter in the gospel of John, attacks with a sword one of those who comes to seize Jesus. Each account save one also records Jesus rebuking Peter for his actions, and two record Jesus healing Peter’s victim. Here, Peter is fulfilling his promise from Matthew 26:35, expressing his willingness to die beside Jesus; but the problem is that Peter isn’t really willing to die for Christ here. He’s willing to kill, which is something far different.

In Luke 22:35 – 38, Jesus tells his apostles that a time will come where they will want to gather supplies, collect their savings, and arm themselves. He says this in contrast to how they had previously gone to evangelize Jesus with no defenses or supplies. At that time, they trusted in Jesus. Here, He foretells that they will lose their trust in Him and again trust in the things of this world. This would come true that very night.

After Jesus says these things to them, the apostles point out two swords, to which Jesus replies, “It is enough,” or, “That’s enough!” depending on translation. There are a lot of takes on what Jesus means here; whether He approves of them taking the swords, or He says it sarcastically since two swords would clearly not be enough for all of them, or it is an expression that the matter is closed. I lean toward the latter, for it seems that this is yet another occasion where Jesus is trying to show them something deeper about events to come, and they just don’t get it.

The Sword in the Garden

However Jesus meant this final phrase before departing for the garden, at least one of those swords come along, carried by Peter. Peter carries the sword; unsheathes the sword; uses the sword; and Jesus rebukes him for it. John and Luke record very short reprimands, basically telling Peter to stand down and let Jesus fulfill prophecy. Matthew contains a longer rebuke, with Jesus telling Peter that those who live by the sword shall also die by it, and that He is more than capable of calling down legions of angels to defend Him if He really needed it.

The second century theologian Tertullian had this to say about the account:

For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action.

Tertullian asserts (rightly, I believe) that Jesus’s words to Peter affect us all; that, like Peter, we are also to lay down violence as a tool and choose a different way. Peter brought a sword into the garden so that Jesus could teach him, and us through him, what it is to reject violence as a method of defending Christ or His kingdom.

But the Conquest of Canaan…

How do we reconcile this with the bloodshed of the Old Testament? God established Israel by force; He defended Israel by force; and, when necessary, He punished Israel by force. David, a man after God’s own heart, slew numerous enemies (yet, according to I Chronicles 28:3, David would not build the temple because of the blood on his hands). So how does God defending His kingdom by physical violence in the Old Testament translate to the new kingdom of the church being nonviolent in nature?

Several months ago, I wrote about the different laws contained in the Bible, how each is separate and distinct, and how keeping a statement or command in the context of the covenant in which it was given is important to harmonizing and understanding God’s word. Without rehashing that whole post here, I believe the differences between the Old Testament and New are intentional, and they show us a better way.

Hebrews 8:3 – 7 says this about the transition from old to new:

Every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant He mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.

The Hebrew writer calls the Old Covenant a “shadow of the heavenly things.” It’s not the reality; it’s a representation of reality. Christ is the reality, and He brings us a better way. He oversees a kingdom, not defined by geopolitical borders, ethnicity, or economics; rather His kingdom is a boundless spiritual kingdom. That means our warfare is not physical but instead spiritual.

Take Up a Spiritual Sword

Paul explains our conflict this way in Ephesians 6:12:

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.

He goes from here to describe the armor and defenses of God, and one of these defenses is indeed a sword. He calls it the Sword of the Spirit, which he defines as God’s word. That is our defense in our spiritual battles; that is where we place our trust rather than in physical weapons and strength. This is the lesson the apostles had a hard time comprehending, and this is where Peter failed in the garden. He trusted more in his sword than he did in God’s plan.

We need to learn the lesson of Peter. Christ’s church is not here to wage wars against other peoples. It is not here to be a superpower. It is not here to conquer lands. Instead, we are to wage war against sin and the death it brings; we are lifted up when we humble ourselves; and we conquer hearts and minds with the sword of truth. We do not take prisoners. Rather, we convert souls. As God’s people, we need to stop giving in to the allure of physical power and the violence it brings. Instead, we should lay down our swords and completely give our trust over to the Prince of Peace.

Yes, we should be willing to die for Christ, but we should never be willing to kill. The only death a Christian should be responsible for is death to self so that Christ can live in us.

Moloch

an engraving of people offering their children to the idol Moloch

In the midst of commands regarding sexual purity in Leviticus 18, we can find this directive from God to His people:

You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.

– Leviticus 18:21 (ESV)

Moloch is a Hebrew name for a Canaanite god. (It’s also known as Molech, Milcom, or Malcam in various translations.) Later in Israel’s history, Moloch is most often associated with the Ammonites. Solomon actually brings Moloch worship into the borders of Israel at the behest of one of his many wives in I Kings 11:7, and Jeremiah 32:35 specifically condemns some of the children of Israel for continuing to worship this idol or any idol that requires human sacrifice.

What made Moloch unique among the other idols we read about in the Old Testament is that those who worshipped it sacrificed their children, seemingly by burning them before or on the idol. Cleitarchus describes similar sacrifices to Cronus in this way:

There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing. (trans. Paul G. Mosca)

We don’t worship statues any more, but the New Testament writers speak time and again about fleeing idolatry. Paul, in Colossians 3:5, goes so far as to define covetousness as idolatry. In other words, anything for which we are willing to sacrifice our spirituality to obtain, material or otherwise, becomes an idol to us. They are replacing God in our hearts.

Often, from the pulpit, we draw direct comparisons between Moloch and modern abortion, and the comparison is obvious. Both involve children; both involve death. The big differentiator being whether or not the mother involved views their unborn child as a sentient being as most of us Christians do. In the case of the sacrifices to Moloch, there was no doubt that the child was living, sentient, and capable of pain. Yet they would go through with it in hopes that they would receive safety, security, and victory from this god. And that’s where the application opens even further.

Our culture has grown comfortable with sacrificing the lives of “others” in order to preserve security, uphold political ideals, or to obtain some perceived victory. We turn away refugees and their children because welcoming them makes us feel unsafe. We advocate for health care laws that will rip affordable coverage away from those that need it most for some sense of “liberty.” We criticize those who wish to put diplomacy before violence, and praise said violence as strength.

In all of these cases, we’re putting our ideas of security, safety, and victory before the lives of others. We deem our ideals as more important than their existence. But we seldom feel the effects of our own callousness because we’re not the ones affected. Incidentally, sacrifices to Moloch never involved throwing yourself in the fire; it was always someone else, even if that meant your own child.

So challenge yourself with this question: what ideal or victory are you willing to sacrifice the lives of others to obtain? If we’re all honest with ourselves, we might all find forms of Moloch we’re still serving.

Regret

ducks on a misty pond
image by Goran Vučićević

I recently ran into somebody whom I haven’t seen in years. Actually “running into” may be exaggerating things. It was more like seeing her in passing, taking ten or so seconds to actually recognize her, and then getting hit with a small tsunami of regret.

I have to admit, that last part surprised me.

When I knew this person, I was not in a good place in my life. I was mentally and spiritually struggling, and I did not treat her well as a friend or Christian should. We had a pretty bad falling out, and it was entirely my fault. This happened half a lifetime ago. I’d like to think I’ve made a good deal of progress as a person since then. I’m much closer to Christ now than I was then, and I’ve prayed over those errors of my past. I thought I’d moved on. I was surprised how little it took to open that old wound again.

Demoralizing Regret

That’s the trouble with worldly regret. Paul speaks about godly regret that leads to repentance in II Corinthians 7:10, and certainly the regret I felt over how I treated this individual prompted me to repent and seek to better myself. But the regret that kicked me the other day wasn’t that kind of regret. It was harsher, demoralizing, and spiritually weakening. It was the grief that produces death in the second half of II Corinthians 7:10.

Removing Regret’s Power

We simply cannot let regret have power over us as Christians — no more than we allow anger, fear, or hatred have such power. Certainly Peter regretted denying Christ. He certainly regretted his behavior leading up to the cross. I’m sure he had plenty of time to dwell on that regret prior to the resurrection, but he never let that regret consume him like Judas had.

By John 21, Peter is moving on with his life. When Christ then reveals His identity to Peter by way of a miracle identical to that of Luke 5:1 – 11, Peter doesn’t shirk away. Instead, he jumps in the water and swims ashore, so he can get to Jesus as quickly as possible. He had sinned. He had regretted, but now he was ready to move on and heal.

Even when it catches us by surprise, regret does not have to consume us, nor should we be afraid of or ashamed of it. We have to face it. Where Judas shows us an extreme example of the dangers of regret, Peter shows us another way. We can lean on God in our times of regret and grow stronger by working through those feelings. Like Peter, we may need to lean on Christ or fellow Christians to help us on the journey.

Every regret is a spiritual challenge to do better, and we move past that regret by facing the challenge and overcoming.

 

Running Without Legs

hunterwoodhall

This is based on a sermon I delivered at the South Boone Church of Christ a few years ago. Image of Hunter Woodhall of Team USA 2016.

On January 2, 2008, one of my favorite tech bloggers posted this short anecdote:

On the final day of a trip to Disney World with my family last month, I saw something remarkable: a boy, 4 or 5 years old, with two artificial legs, running around Mickey’s Toontown Fair in the Magic Kingdom. Running. If he had been wearing pants instead of shorts, you’d have simply thought he had a bit of a limp.

He was born without legs, but yet there he was, galloping across the playground on a warm, sunny December morning, every bit as happy, excited, and carefree as every little kid in the world ought to be.

His legs — sleek, lightweight, and impressively dextrous — were inspiring and beautiful. And they were made using technology that simply did not exist when I was his age, one generation ago. Focus solely on current events and it’s all too easy to despair at the state of the world. But science and progress march ever forward, and the world is a better place today than it used to be.

This post caught my attention for several reasons – not the least for shaking my perspectives about this world we live in, for contradicting that, “What is the world coming to?” voice. I really think that sometimes we have grown very fixated on negative things to the detriment of our spiritual lives. Hopeless and pessimistic attitudes can impair our spiritual walking in a way this child’s disability fails to impede him.

Recognizing Our Obstacles

We often go to Ephesians 5 to discuss our Christian walk, and in verse 2, Paul instructs us to walk in love. If we skip to verse 5, he encourages us to walk as in the light, and the apostle concludes in verse 15 that we should walk with wisdom. Love, light, and wisdom should guide our lives. In other words, we should be able to:

  • Clearly see what matters. This is light.
  • Make good choices based on what we see. This is wisdom.
  • Allow compassion for others and for God motivates every step we take. This is love.

Worldly Cares

Unfortunately, there is much around us to tear us away from this walk if we allow it to consume our energy and attention, leaving us sitting along the side rather than progressing toward our goal. We can grow discouraged at crime rate statistics, at political figures, at business decisions, at stock market trends, at individuals or groups who somehow offend our sensibilities.

We argue these issues over the dinner table. We complain about them around the water cooler. We blog about them. We yell at the TV about them, and, in so doing, we are sitting down and giving up. We are forgetting how to walk. We are failing Christ. We are failing our brothers and sisters. We are failing those toward whom we should be examples – and over what? Over things that are temporary and insignificant in the bigger picture.

Matthew 6:19-21 reminds us that the things of this world are temporary and warns us about letting them take hold in our hearts. Also, I John 2:15-17 warns us against loving the things of this world, which are transient and will pass away. Often, we apply these passages to outward temptations and covetousness, but we fail to apply these at a deeper level.

When I argue with and berate you because my politics don’t agree with yours, am I not putting worldly cares first? When I mope and complain about taxes or bills, am I not allowing money to rule my life? In these cases, I have stopped walking that Christian walk of light, wisdom, and love, and I have allowed myself to become helpless along the side of the road.

Back in Matthew 6:31-34, Jesus concludes that we should not be overly concerned with the petty details of this life, relying on God for what really matters, and Paul, in Philippians 4:8 reminds us to concentrate mainly on those things that are virtuous and encouraging.

Helplessness

Additionally, I can permit my own sense of helplessness disable my journey. After all, I am apparently powerless against sin (Romans 3:23). I cannot earn my salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9). I deserve death (Romans 6:23), and every sin I commit reinforces the torture Christ went through millennia ago (Hebrews 6:6). I may feel myself a hopeless case. I am expected to walk the narrow path. I am expected to walk in light, love, and wisdom. Yet I find I have no legs to stand on.

James 4:10 tells us that we should humble ourselves before God, and He will lift us up. I Peter 5:6 reiterates this sentiment, encouraging us to cast all worries and doubts upon Him who cares for us. In every passage that recounts our helplessness before God, his grace and mercy is described as negating those obstacles between us and Him.

The imagery of God’s hand is replete throughout the Old Testament, and the prophet Isaiah encourages God’s people with the news that His hand is able to save them from their helpless state if they would but take it in Isaiah 59:1 . We may be unable to walk on our own.

We may be unable to make the Christian journey on our own legs, but remember Jesus in Mark 2 when helping a paralyzed man. He asks the scribes around Him which was more difficult, to make him walk or to forgive his sins. With this man, Jesus does both, and today He gives us the ability to walk with Him because of the forgiveness He offers.

Running Toward the Goal

The child at Disney World was not content to walk, though. Even on his artificial legs, he wanted to run, and he ran so well, he could have fooled those around him had it not been for the shorts he was wearing. Likewise, I Corinthians 9:24 encourages us to run to obtain the crown. Hebrews 12:1-2 encourages us to run with endurance toward Christ, but to do so we have to be willing to lay aside anything that burdens us.

I personally like the account in John 20, when Mary Magdalene tells Peter and John of the empty tomb, and both race to see it for themselves. John makes it first, but Peter runs right past him and into the tomb itself. For all intents and purposes, these two should have been strangers to each other by now — the disciple possibly closest to Christ and the one who verbally denied Him. Still, they set aside their differences, and they ran toward Christ. We can do likewise. Though we have no legs of our own, through Christ we can run.