Tag Archives: Gospel

The Idol of Power

The story of the Exodus of the people of God from Egypt is a big and beautiful story. It is a story of God’s rescue and redemption. It is a story of God’s declaration of superiority over the gods of the land of Egypt. But it is also a deeply personal story. The story involves real people like Moses and his family and Pharaoh. Although I know that there are bigger purposes for this passage, I couldn’t help but notice that in the story of the Exodus, God demolishes one man’s idol of power.

The ruler of Egypt gives us an insightful look into the heart of a man captivated by power and control. In contrast to Moses’ humble awkwardness at the divine call in the desert, Pharaoh is the self-confident guy who has manipulated circumstances in order to come out on top. And God ultimately used this man’s craving and lust for authority to bring redemption to the Israelites. Here are ways to know that you’re similarly obsessed with power just like Pharaoh:

  • You are intimidated by people who aren’t like you (1:9-10) and you compensate by mistreating (1:11-14) or sidelining (1:15-22) them.
  • You punish unwanted expression through brute force and unreasonable expectations (5:10-14)
  • You cannot allow for freedom of expression that you’re not in the middle of or creativity that you didn’t invent yourself (8:25, 28).
  • You are willing to lose everything else except power (10:7).
  • You have an inordinate desire to be the “Big Brother” (10:8).
  • You assume evil intentions on the part of those whose plans differ from yours (10:10).
  • You move to manipulate people using their families (10:11) and possessions (10:24) when they don’t fall in line.
  • You view people only as means to an end and value people only for what they can do for you (14:5).

The hope for freedom from the power-junkie mindset only comes in the Gospel. In the Gospel, Jesus gives up power and does in our place what we could never do ourselves.

  • Jesus loves and wants people who are nothing like him.
  • Jesus’ yoke is light. He enjoys rewarding people with rest.
  • Jesus gives us freedom. He didn’t come to give more Law, but to fulfill it.
  • Jesus wants to give up everything in order to come to us.
  • Jesus died to make us part of his family. He doesn’t pretend to be family just to take advantage of us.
  • Jesus knows the worst about our intentions, but he loves us anyways. He doesn’t hold our past faults in front of us when we come before him.
  • Jesus doesn’t manipulate us into doing what he wants. He patiently guides us like a shepherd.
  • Jesus saw the value of humanity as equivalent to his own life and death. The value of the human soul was worth the incarnation and death of our Savior.

Does the Bible Belt Need the Gospel?

Wailing Wall in Jerusalem
Wailing Wall in Jerusalem

I have deep roots in the south. Although I was born in Baltimore, my family is all over the south. I graduated from high school, college, and seminary in the south. I know the south for better and for worse. And right now there’s all kinds of pressure for ministry-minded folks to move anywhere else besides the Bible Belt in order to do “real” ministry. While I’m not saying that I’ll never leave the south (or the USA), I’d like to take a moment to give a shout-out to fellow-ministers of the Gospel in the Bible Belt. Here are some reasons why I think ministering in my state of South Carolina is important, and why other southerners shouldn’t feel like less of Christians for advancing the kingdom in this spiritual “Jerusalem.”

The Bible Belt is largely a cultural phenomenon

The Bible Belt has a culture of tradition-based church attendance without strong accountability or appreciation for what the Church really is. Much of Christianity in the southern states of America is really a self-centered consumer social activity. If a church steps on toes or doesn’t fit someone’s preferences, they’ll move on in a skinny minute. Huge crowds that pack out the massive auditoriums across the south are often seen as indicators of a lack of need in this region, but the truth is that many churches are packed with good people who need the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Many of these people remain blinded to their need of Jesus because of their good lives, church attendance, Republican votes, etc. It’s a mission field of a different variety from other regions of the United States, but a mission field nonetheless.

The Bible Belt has a culture of biblical literacy without strong application of Scripture. It’s a culture of Sunday School teenagers who will walk away from the faith when they leave home.  It’s a society of “God bless you” friendships who need little reason stab their friends in the back and tear them down to others. It’s a culture of Bible verses and fish symbols on business signs, but where the shoddy ethics of Christians in business is often worse than their secular counterparts. There’s plenty of Jesus on the outside, but very little Jesus on the inside.

The Bible Belt is a culture where politics and Christianity are one and the same. Many southerners believe that the hope for culture can be found in politicians, laws, and court decisions. They’ve placed their faith in quasi-Christian political parties, in guns, in precious metals, and not so much in Jesus. While our politics sound so biblical, the fact is that our southern politics have become something of an idol instead.

The Bible Belt is rapidly changing and desperately needs Jesus

The southern states have been inundated over the past decade with manufacturing, distribution, and call centers. Cheap skilled labor has drawn thousands of global companies and employees from all over the planet. People from other nations and regions of the United States are traveling to the Bible Belt for jobs and for quality of life.

Immigration challenges on the southern border of the US have brought an influx of low-wage workers from the global south. Many counties in the Bible Belt speak more Spanish than English. Unfortunately, this has led to xenophobic politics rather than welcome and mission in the churches of the Bible Belt. The spiritual and social needs of the Hispanic communities is a high calling for the churches of the south.

Legal immigrants and national refugees have settled in large pockets due to low cost of living and strong job market. While we often think of New York City as the gathering-place of the nations, the truth is that tens of thousands of immigrants have settled in your southern state. The end result is that the second largest religion in most of the Bible Belt states is either Islam or Buddhism. What are we doing to develop relationships with these communities?

The overriding reason why we should take other people’s cultures seriously is because God has taken ours seriously. – John R.W. Stott

Local attitudes are shifting away from the strongly-held traditions. About 7 out of 10 kids raised in church are abandoning Christianity or church. There are plenty of reasons for this kind of departure, but it is primarily happening among a major Bible Belt demographic – white teens. Postmodernism is taking root rapidly. The assumption that southern culture and Christianity are permanently one and the same should never be a given. I’m not saying that we should fear these shifts, but I’m saying that we need to realize that the secularization of American culture has come to the south. Who will equip the church to understand and reach the secular postmodern millennials?

The Bible Belt Christians need to be called to kingdom work

Millions of Christians don’t have the option of moving out of the Bible Belt. At a time where jobs are hard to come by, we can’t simply live under the delusion that all the Christians in the south must just pick up and move to more needy areas in order to do Great Commission work.

The Christians in the Bible Belt need to be equipped for mission in their communities. As we’ve already seen, the Bible Belt communities are changing and cannot be seen as havens of the heavenly, but as neighborhoods of the needy (in many senses of the term). Bible Belt churches have a great opportunity to equip Christians to serve their changing culture. Churches in the Bible Belt are in dire need of evangelistic accountability and fervor in order to carry out mission. Reticence in the pew and bureaucracy from the pulpit has led to the Great Commission becoming the Great Omission in southern culture. It’s time to think about how to step out of the way and empower and urge all Christians to engage their communities.

Expect great things from God.  Attempt great things for God. – William Carey

Millions of Christians in the Bible Belt need to be equipped for mission around the globe. Think of the untapped resource for global impact which is bottled up in the communities of southern USA. And I’m talking about more than doing week-long mission trips or swiping your Visa to send others as traditional missionaries; I’m talking about preparation for and actualization in meaningful worldwide impact in innovative and direct ways.

The Bible Belt was important to the Apostles

The Apostles stayed in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). In spite of a call to evangelize outside of Jerusalem and in spite of an urgent need to do so, for some reason, the Apostles remained. A church of perhaps thousands of non-Hellenized believers needed to be discipled and equipped. While there was a need and a command given by Jesus to go on at some point, the Apostles saw the importance of working in the heavily reached and overwhelmingly religious city of Jerusalem first.

Paul stayed in Ephesus (Acts 19:8-10). Ephesus and the local environs rapidly became the Bible Belt of the first century, and Paul didn’t appear to see this as a negative thing. He spent over two years in the city, training and equipping this missional church to spread the Gospel to the neighboring cities. He would later send his colleagues to minister there, and John the Apostle also spent much time in ministry in this city. Instead of viewing the city as an “already reached” location and moving on, the leaders of the first century church viewed the city as an evangelistic hub for ministry and mission. At the same time, this didn’t keep these leaders from being realistic about the growing challenges of religiosity and traditionalism in the church there either (Revelation 2).

Concluding Explanation:

I’m not writing to the millions of believers who live outside the Bible Belt. I’ve seen many families move to the Bible Belt hoping that the Christian schools and good churches and godly society will rub off on their kids. But that’s the exception and not the rule around here. Don’t be enamored with this region of the country. As I’ve said, we’ve got a ton of problems down here. It’s no utopia.

I’m also not writing to those who have been called by God to minister elsewhere. Some of my good friends have had doors for ministry or vocation open outside the Bible Belt and have moved on to minister there. They’re doing some awesome kingdom work in these locations. I’ve always adopted a posture of “looking to leave, but willing to stay.” And if God’s will moves you to leave to other areas of the globe, you need to see this as an opportunity for a different sort of mission.

I am writing to the millions of Christians in the Bible Belt of the US. As long as God has you and me here, we shouldn’t feel discouraged about the sort of ministry that God has given us here. We shouldn’t see it as a utopia. We shouldn’t stop doing mission because we think our work here is done. We shouldn’t ignore the mission in our backyard, assuming that real mission only happens elsewhere. The Bible Belt needs the Gospel. And you and I must take the time that God has given us here to make a difference.

The Other Brother

Yesterday I read a helpful article guiding parents on how to respond to their children who walk out on Christianity – prodigal behavior as it’s often called.  I found the insight helpful, but there are a couple additional angles that could be addressed.  Many times, in a situation when a child decides to turn their back on God and family, we tend to zero in on the prodigal and the parents.  But there are often other participants in the process who don’t get addressed.  I’m talking about the other brother (or sister).  Here are some considerations for you:

1. You are not alone.

Yes, behind the veneer of self-righteousness, pleasant overtures, and smiles, there are people in your church, school, and extended family who are experiencing the same thing that you are experiencing right now. No, you’re not the only one to have a dysfunctional family. The worst you’ve seen has been experienced and seen by countless scores of kids in Christian homes across the planet. This is no unique problem experienced only in your family, your church, your denomination, and so on. The feeling of loneliness will only eat at you during the months and years ahead. So remain encouraged by knowing that you are not alone. Remember: even Jesus had prodigal siblings.

2. You are not doomed to repeat their mistakes.

Especially has a younger sibling, you’re going to be tempted to dread each successive year that brings you closer to the age of your sibling’s departure.   You’ll wonder how much longer you’ll make it before you make the same mistake yourself. You’ll wonder if your brother’s proclivities are genetic. You’ll begin to freak out when you realize that you experience the same types of temptations your sister experienced. But the fact is that you are not them. You’re your own unique person, and you have your own relationship with God. You’re your own person who has your own set of struggles and your own difficulties. Don’t waste the upcoming months and years projecting their problems into your own life and living in fear of them. You’re only responsible for your own actions – not theirs.  By God’s grace you don’t have to fall where they fell.

I think of Cal in Steinbeck’s East of Eden.  Upon seeing that a great evil ran in his family, pitting brother against brother and spouse against spouse, he sees the same potential in himself.  This fear drives him to prayer – prayer that God would keep him from destroying his family and brother like others in his family had done.  Pray, and pray earnestly that you don’t repeat their sins.  But in the end, there is a danger of obsessing on this.  If you obsess over avoiding their mistakes, you’ll be tempted towards pessimism and depression when you end up having their flaws or extreme pride when you feel like you’ve beaten their sins.  The Gospel gives you hope beyond the pull of your genetics.

3. You’re not free from making their mistakes.

I know that on the one hand, there’s the danger of obsessing over their mistakes – the danger of assuming that you’ll do the same thing. But there’s another danger too. That’s the danger of thinking that you’re better than them – that you’ll never make the same mistakes or fall to the same sins. The reality is that we all have the same sin nature. Under the same conditions you and I are prone to make the same decisions that we hate seeing our childhood friends make. So when that moment comes, that moment when you look at your siblings’ terrible choices and ruined life and immorality, stop saying: “I can’t believe you did that.” Instead, start saying, “but by the grace of God, there go I.”

4. Your church and family love you too.

Let me spend a little more time here, because this really needs to be said (maybe because no one else will say it to you).  I know that over the next few months and maybe years, everyone’s going to be talking about your brother or sister. They’re the big news. You may be known from here forwards to your youth group or in your school as nothing more than “the other brother.” Every time there’s a family reunion, everyone will want to talk about what she’s up to.  They’ll ask about her finances, health, kids, and lifestyle choices.  They quiz you about your brother’s job and girlfriend. But in the midst of the crazy, I’d like to make a couple points about the interlopers.  More often than not, they don’t really care about your brother or sister.  They’re looking for a little dirt or something to make themselves feel better about their failures.  Don’t play into this desire for scuttlebutt.  Even if you’re ticked at your sibling and want to run them into the ground…don’t!  You’ll only regret your participation in the feeding frenzy.  Pray for him.  Don’t prey on him.  You’ll make her road back home a lot smoother if there aren’t as many obstacles in the church and extended family.  But in all this attention, remember: don’t conflate interest with concern.

But what about your parents?  They’re going to be very distant and tied up in dealing with these new challenges.  Your parents will always pray for your sister. Your parents will cry for your brother. They will talk to each other about your sibling and their problems and the latest updates on their struggles and challenges in life. In the midst of all the chaos in all the concern, it may seem like no one cares about you. It’s easy for you think your parents are only concerned about the prodigal. But this simply isn’t true. Your parents do care about you. They’ve always cared about you.

What you absolutely have to understand is that they’re going through some things that are flat-out impossible for you to sympathize with. As much as it hurts for you to see your best friend leave the family never to return, you’re only experiencing a fraction of what your parents are experiencing. Their little son or daughter, the one whom they held close to them, swaddled, and changed, is not coming back.  The little newborn daughter who they cuddled and lovingly placed in a crib is now in bed with a man who only cares about what he can do with her tonight. They helped their little boy ride a bike and now he’s driving off into the sunset to spend another night in reckless drug-hazed partying.  They helped him learn to read and write, but now he’s enslaved to typing in another URL of a porn site. They’re watching their little girl struggle how to deal with an unplanned pregnancy. And they just don’t know what to do.

As you see your parents react to this situation, you’re seeing the depth of their love for you too.  They held you and taught you just like they did your sibling.  They have hopes and dreams for you just like they did for your sister.  Next time you watch your mom cry or your dad vent his sorrow, just remember: this is how they really feel about you too. You get to see an angle of your parents’ love for you that some of your friends will never see from their parents.  The kids in your school who don’t have brothers or sisters who leave home simply never get to see the depth of concern that their parents have for them.  Remember and treasure what you see.

Let’s tie this point back to the Gospel too.  In the Gospel, we see a God whose love is seen at the highest when we are at our farthest from him.  Just as Jesus weeps for his people, your parents weep for their children.  We really wouldn’t understand God’s love if we only saw how he treated those who loved him back.  Instead, we appreciate God’s love all the more when we see how he loves those who turn their backs on him.  The dark times only make the light of love that much clearer.

5. Break into the life of your sibling.

As the sibling of a prodigal, you’ve been through a lot. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. You’ve seen things that your prodigal brother or sister will never see. You’ve seen your family torn apart from the inside out. You’ve seen your dad cry. You’ve seen the pain and stress aging your mother’s face. Your prodigal brother sees only the stage where your parents put on their best faces and try to confront the impending calamity in his life, but you see what happens behind the scenes. You see the anguish and the fear. You see the sadness and the chaos. And with a backstage pass like this, it’s so easy to get bitter. It’s so easy to see the hurt that your sister has brought into your life and want nothing to do with her ever again. After counting the losses and surveying the damage, why would you ever speak to them again?

This is when we need to remember the Gospel. Jesus wasn’t the Word, the Message of God, speaking into a world that wanted to listen to him. Jesus didn’t come chasing after us when we were chasing after him. He didn’t pursue those who lived perfect little lives and do everything just right. The Gospel is all about God breaking into the lives of those who hurt him in the deepest way imaginable. We’re all God’s prodigals. And now God wants us to model his pursuit of us in the way we pursue our siblings. He’s calling you to move through the hurt and the pain, and out into their world.  He’s calling you to love that brother who has betrayed your trust and has let you down. The Gospel calls us all to break into the prodigal’s life to show them what the Gospel of Jesus Christ really looks like.

A Final Word

I always fear coming off too preachy, but these reminders are things that I wish someone had told me when I experienced what you’re experiencing.  I’m not writing these thoughts because I did it right.  I screwed up in all of these areas, so I’ll be the last to recommend my own example.  My hope in writing these thoughts is twofold: (1) to help kids like me wrestle through how to respond as their family crumbles into chaos around them, and (2) to help people on the outside better appreciate and understand what happens in the life of the other brother or sister.

God bless!

Legalism Part 2: The Broad Appeal of Legalism

Toyota Prius

(To see Part 1, click here)

But why is legalism appealing?  We absolutely detest it in other people and especially when the finger is pointed at ourselves.  I think it is the one sin that the most righteous to the most wicked person in society would condemn in others but would be least likely to see that they commit it themselves.  But if we hate it in others, how can we live with ourselves?  Why then does legalism turn people on?  I thought that there may be a couple reasons.  Perhaps it has something to do with enjoying absolutes…black and white.  There certainly is something reassuring in knowing that there are no questions and only answers.  But the Bible doesn’t always work that way.  It seems to give us the answers to the key issues of life and leaves other things for us as individuals to work out (Rom 14).  God actually gives us the space to apply the Gospel in our contexts.  But the legalist hates this kind of thought.  It seems downright postmodern to believe that something could be right for one person and wrong for another; however, that’s exactly what the Bible indicates (Rom 14:22-23).  But there seems to be another reason why legalism is so appealing.   I think this is tied with the other appeal of knowing all the answers.  It is that sense of awesome spiritual superiority that you get when you have all the answers.  Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.  You’ve seen it in yourself and others.

It’s the parent whose kids all turned out right.

It’s the guy in prison who stole, but at least he didn’t commit child abuse like that other inmate.

It’s the hipster in the Prius.

It’s the preacher with the right Bible version.

It’s the cop who is always catching everyone else doing wrong.

It’s the vegan to that poser’s vegetarian.

It’s the guy who owns his own home.

It’s the kid who is the teacher’s pet because she always keeps the rules while the teacher is looking.

It’s the guy who wishes he could say “I told you so” a million times when people don’t follow his procedures.

It’s the overweight guy who smirks at the alcoholic.

It’s the protester on the street that says that another person or company did something wrong.

It’s the intellectual who always has the deepest insights on all things political and religious.

It’s the lady with a college diploma to that guy’s GED.

It’s the voter who is so thankful for the good sense not to vote like the person with that bumper sticker.

It’s the guy who lusts after women and not men.

It’s the person who looks at the bum on the street and assumes things about their poor choices.

It’s the family who always know what holidays to celebrate and how.

It’s the person who wears the nice clothes.

It’s the guy who is in touch and connected in his culture (whether high culture or pop culture).

It’s the angry motorist on the highway who wishes everyone could drive as well as he does.

Now I don’t suppose that all of these people have to become legalistic and superior about the way they do things.  But based on my experience, when you find yourself in one of these spots it’s really easy to start smiling and thinking to yourself about how much better you are.  Been there.  Done that.

As I continued to think about the appeal of legalism, I shuffled by one of the teachers offices and somehow the archaic image of the teacher’s apple popped into my head – an image which took a couple of odd twists and turns as it usually does in my bizarre little mind.  Somehow I ended up thinking of an apple or probably some other really cool fruit dangling from a mist-covered tree in a garden some years ago.  Perhaps the roots of legalism’s grip on me go even deeper.  Maybe they go back to my parents…my first parents.