Which is easier?

Matthew 9:5 (NIV) Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?

It occurred to me the other day that I always treated this comment by Christ to the Pharisees as kind of a throwaway line. Like it was really more difficult to say “get up and walk” with the miracle behind it rather than to just forgive the sin.

“just forgive the sin.”

I realized what others have known for millennia, Christ knew just exactly how hard it was to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” since “for this reason” He came.

So yeah, it was way harder to go to Calvary than to do a miracle.

But I couldn’t leave it there. I kept mulling it over in my head and it occurred to me that man is approaching the ability to do some of those miracles, like giving the lame the ability to walk again, or to enable the blind to see. This is truly awesome and a wonderful thing.

But we can’t even begin to say, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Oh some will argue that psychologists have been doing this for years, but not really. They may be able to help deal with the guilt, but they can’t cleanse the soul.

What Jesus did on Calvary, and what God sealed with the Resurrection was bonafide sin forgiveness. Wiping away the guilt and regret, really and truly giving us a way to know we have peace with God. Not the hope that if we are good enough, or try hard enough the mistakes we make and have made will somehow be outweighed by our efforts. He gives us the Hope that God through Christ has made a way for us, the way for us, to finally be free from the vicious cycle of failure and disappointment.

Not that we never fail again, but we need not be condemned by it.

And that freedom transforms us, making us the people we have always wanted to be, secure, confident and satisfied, knowing that we are His children and he is watching over us.

That is a miracle indeed.

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Contradictions in the Bible

I classify Biblical contradictions into 3 categories; contradictions of account, contradictions of interpretation and contradictions of concept.

The Bible is not just a book of religious wisdom and insight, it is also a work of history. As such it is liable to the accusation that it is inaccurate in its account of events. These would be contradictions of account.

As it turns out contradictions of account are really hard to establish. The number of people who actually have put in the time and study of history, anthropology, language and the Bible itself is small enough that it is highly unlikely you are one of them. Furthermore those who have, regardless of which side of the fence they start from, bring their own prejudice and (scholastic) reputations to the endeavor. As a result most of us have at best, third and fourth hand knowledge of the context or details around any contradiction of account and multiple differing opinions from experts in the field.

These disagreements (among qualified individuals) do not generally change the story. For example there isn’t disagreement in the accounts that Christ was crucified (public verifiable death), buried and then appeared to many. So the evidence for contradictions of account often depend on the baggage carried to the investigation.

The next type of contradiction is a contradiction of interpretation. The best way to explain what I mean is to use an example. Consider the exchange between Satan and Christ in Matthew 4. Satan quotes Psalm 91 to Christ, who quotes back Deut. 6:16. Both are scripture, so is there a contradiction? Why did Deuteronomy trump the Psalm?

As a friend of mine explains, “the Bible is not a spell book.” Which is not to say we can’t or shouldn’t claim the promises of God. It is to say, however, that you cannot control God through His words any more than you can control Him through His love. This is a contradiction of interpretation rooted in our misunderstanding of who God is. Christ’s response to Satan’s temptation is to clarify just exactly who is on the throne. When we stop and think about it even a little it becomes obvious we cannot manipulate God, and if we understand who He is we would not want to. Contradictions of interpretation are particularly common around passages like John 14:14 or Matthew 21:21. So common in fact they came up in James 4:3. A clear understanding of this point can be elusive.

The last type of contradiction is the contradiction of concept. These are in fact logical contradictions. The idea that eternal God could come in the flesh and die is a contradiction. It is a fundamental aspect of God that He is infinite and it is a fundamental aspect of man that he is not. Salvation, prayer, the Bible itself are all contradictions to the way we imagine things could, would or should be. I Corinthians 2:14 says it best, these things are foolishness.

The last contradiction of concept is, this foolishness works. It comforts the broken, strengthens the weak, overcomes the strong, cleanses the heart, stimulates the mind and satisfies the soul. The fact this works comforts me and strengthens my faith. Think about it, if this were a contrivance of men, it would be rational at a human level. The fact that it only makes sense within the framework of a faith submitted to Him testifies of its divine origin.

And why not? Isn’t it perfectly logical that the foolishness of God would be wiser than men? In fact how could it be otherwise?

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Faith, Hope, Love and Snowflakes.

Faith, hope and love make life worth living. They are first things. Just as success, power and money are second things. Second things are only bad when the get out of order with first things. This perception of primacy and order is a common one as recorded through the centuries and so I am confident asserting its truth.

Faith, hope and love though essential cannot be forced. We cannot “work up” real faith any more then we can “work-up” real love. So how do we get them?

I think it works something like this.

Faith, hope and love involve a choice. If you think about the I Corinthians 13 list a bit you see that all the attributes of the list can be put in the context of a choice, choosing to be patient etc.

I believe what happens is there are times when God, in His mercy, frees us from the compulsion of our self centered lives, from the fruit of evil choices and gives us that moment of grace to see the true and the false, the wicked and the good and allows us to choose. In that moment we plant a seed.

We do not make that seed grow any more than the farmer makes his crop grow, but having made the choice we are provided the opportunity of subsequent choices to nourish or neglect what we have planted.

In the end we reap the fruit of our choices, faith hope and love or doubt despair and selfishness.

This idea of a journey or a progression, a series of events that develop richness of life or leave us destitute, is also common in literature and by extension to men.

What we need then, for those moments, is a reason, a signpost, a rubric to know which choice we want to make, because deciding beforehand makes the actual choice easier.

Consider snowflakes.

Snowflakes have a lot in common with humans. Each one is unique, just like every other one. Both snowflakes and people are fleeting occurrences, here today and gone in a moment.

The question is, are people of any more worth than snowflakes, do they have any value beyond their uniqueness? More meaning beside what they can do for us?

If there is a God in the universe, the consummate union of power and goodness, one who gives meaning to goodness, the answer must be yes. If there is no such being the answer, though less clear, must ultimately be no.

It should be no surprise then that those who come to the end of themselves, who look down the road ahead and see with clarity an empty hole, are prime candidates to begin their journey following the signposts in the other direction.

All that is required is the grace of a moment of choice and the willingness to choose life. God brings the increase.

for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.Romans 10:10

… so choose life in order that you may live…Deuteronomy 30:19

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Why try?

Ephesians 2:8-9 (KJV) “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

Romans 8:1-2 “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

If it doesn’t depend on me, or my “Righteousness”, the natural question then becomes, “Why try? I’m saved, going to heaven. Why be uncomfortable while I’m waiting?”

The problem here is that the question is flawed.

Let’s back up a minute and remember what “Not of works” really means. It means we don’t “earn” it.

Most of us operate within some form of effort and reward system. We “keep books” if you will and expect that if we work for something our effort will be rewarded. We use this system every day to choose courses of action to get what we want based on the effort we expect our desire to require. This becomes so ingrained in our behavior we are usually not even conscious of the process.

Then we meet Christ and He gives us grace, providing the forgiveness and redemption we could never “earn” with a system of effort and reward (the Law). But that system of effort and reward is so integral to what we know we try to fit His grace into that framework.

And like the “Foolish Galatians” we go back to the Law.

Which brings us back to the question, “Why try?”

Behind the question is the old bookkeeping system. Why do I have to put any effort in to something I already “own”? The books are balanced!

The very basis of the question is the Law and not grace. It violates the spirit of the gift by trying to make it a Law. It is, after all, a “natural” question.

A better question might be, “What shall I do with this gift?”

Indeed how will we spend this freedom? Where will we invest this life?

“Why try?” comes from the old “bookkeeping” system where limited resources are spent to acquire what we lack.

“What shall I do with this gift?” Comes from the abundance of life we receive by grace and testifies of its sufficiency.

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Why can’t you keep the law through the law?

Have you ever wondered why Christians teach we can’t be good enough for God by ourselves?

If you think about it it seems like theoretically we should be able to meet the requirements of the Law of God. We have the rules, we have the capacity to choose, to will. It seems like if we just managed to put in that little extra effort we could fulfill the requirements. After all if Christ could do it why couldn’t someone else?

As I mulled this over it occurred to me that the whole idea of just putting in that next level of effort is logically flawed. The idea of keeping the Law by modifying our behavior through an act of will is inconsistent, doomed from the beginning.

Here is the logic:

The whole Law is summed up in the two great commands to love God and our neighbor as ourselves.  What that means is it requires Love to keep the Law.

If we try to keep the Law through the Law, i.e. as a set of rules, we are off the track before we even begin. Said another way, modifying our behavior to meet a standard violates the standard we are trying to conform to. We don’t modify our behavior to meet the letter of the standard, the Spirit of the standard modifies our behavior as the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts.

Since it is clear* we must believe that God is both loving and just for us to have the love with which we may love our neighbor as ourself, it also follows that God must first love us. So we must first receive grace before we can even begin to keep the Spirit of the Law.

So when the Bible says in Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16 that no flesh will be justified by the works of the law, it is being logically consistent. We simply cannot be good enough on our own.

It just makes sense.

* If there is no God of Love there is no Hope or Faith to sustain our love of our neighbor.

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What is truth?

When I was at the men’s breakfast last Saturday I learned something kinda neat and that made me think about something else. So bear with me while I tell you the first thing to present the second.

We had a guest for breakfast who is a Pakistani missionary my church supports. Very interesting older man with quite the perspective on living somewhere you might be killed for your faith (and not just as a Christian). In any case he talked to us, among other things, about the Gospel of John Chapter 18 verses 33-38.

33So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

What he observed about these passages was the interactions of question and answer. In particular should we think Christ was being intentionally evasive or is there something else going on here. If you think about it a bit you will see that Pilate was asking a wrong headed question. What I mean by that is he framed a question that Christ could not answer in the way Pilate expected (yes or no) without misleading Pilate because of Pilate’s own preconception. So instead Christ answers him in a way to try to get him to think about what is really happening. When Pilate fails to make the leap Christ responds to the second question trying to show Pilate the difference between what he is thinking and what their interaction is about. Finally Christ explains to Pilate what he still refuses to “see”. Pilate responds with a rhetorical question and ends the exchange.

Now the thing about this exchange is that most of us have been on either side of a similar exchange. We think things are one way, but we’re so wrong about it our question can’t be answered as asked. The person on the other side is trying to get us to see that we just don’t get it, but we can’t/won’t break our viewpoint.

So the point is Christ was not being intentionally vague, in a similar manner we in various circumstances and for various reasons can’t or won’t pay attention to what is really going on. Eyes that don’t see and ears that won’t hear. This is not an uncommon theme in the Bible.

So I’ve told you the first thing, let me talk about the second.

I’m struck by the depth of the insight into the human condition of this passage and the many passages like it I find in Scripture. Whatever else you may think about the Bible or doctrines of infallibility there is a tremendous amount of real truth and insight in this book.

So the question is, does it seem reasonable that it was written as lie. Given the insight and truth revealed in the narratives is it more likely that it was written by deceitful or deceived men or that it is what it claims to be?  Which is the logically consistent view? Even if the answer lies somewhere in between there is still a broad range of claims there is sufficient reason for a person to heed. Yet many of us cannot or will not see that.

Just like it says.

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What was the question?

Matthew Chapter 2

16Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. 17Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:

18“A VOICE WAS HEARD IN RAMAH,
WEEPING AND GREAT MOURNING,
RACHEL WEEPING FOR HER CHILDREN;
AND SHE REFUSED TO BE COMFORTED,
BECAUSE THEY WERE NO MORE.”

I started this post about a month ago as part of a study from the men’s breakfast I attend. It went through several iterations. Then the tragedy of Sandy Hook School happened in Newtown, Connecticut.

This passage and that event may lead us to ask how a loving God could allow such a thing. Surely if He is God and He cares He would have prevented this slaughter of innocents. After all, as Huston Smith writes in his book, The World’s Religions, “Whatever else the word God may mean, it means the being in which power and value converge, a being whose will cannot be thwarted and whose will is good.”

So we are confronted by what may seem to us an impossibility. A loving God who surely could have intervened but did not.

If He cares, if He is capable, if He exists…

So let us assume He does not. Assume that there is no loving God in the universe who promises to comfort the broken, lift up the weak, answer our sorrows and wipe away our tears. No loving God whose power extends beyond the grave, who has the last word over the actions of the wicked. None who can and will make the crooked places straight and whose glory will be revealed to all mankind.

What then shall we say to the mothers of Bethlehem or the mothers throughout history? What hope will we give them if the grave is the end? If there is no mighty God of power to overcome the acts of wicked men? What hope for solace and the end of unspeakable pain? Will we offer them a cold and pointless universe, a grave?

God forbid.

So do we offer them a false hope, a lie for children who cannot face the terror of the real world?

Only if the child that Herod tried to kill was never born. Only if that child as a man, crucified by wicked men who could not bear to hear the Truth, was not raised from the dead. Only if that man, The Christ, the Son of the Living God did not make a way for peace with God through His sacrifice on Calvary.

But those things are true, there is hope. There is a loving God whose power cannot be overcome. Who will swallow up death forever, and wipe away the tears from all faces.

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5 Beads and the meaning of life

Last year about this time I went with a few people in my church to do “street witnessing” at one of the multitude of local fairs that happen each autum. The guy who leads the breakfast group I attend has been doing this for several years and last year was the first time in many years I had done anything like that. I had such a good time I went again this year.

Once again I had a wonderful time. Clearly based on the focus of this blog I enjoy talking about what I understand as the truth about my Lord and His gift and in the context of the fair we have nice weather and many people with time on their hands 🙂

The way this is set up we hand out walking sticks to people who will take the time to listen to what we have to say. I like to say the sticks are free in the sense they cannot be purchased with money, you have to pay attention to get one. I like that because it states the nature of the Gift of God before we even start.

What we do is prepare the sticks in advance with the 5 bead gospel mnemonic often used in Sunday Schools. We start with the black bead because it identifies the need (I like to think it is more consistent with the Biblical timeline, but why quibble).

Last year I went in cold and it took awhile to get a rhythm going. This year I did some prep work and I think it helped me relax and get out of the way (if you know what I mean).  I’m copying that prep work here. Each section is very brief because even when people have time on their hands it is still a precious commodity.

This was my homework.

Five Beads Of Life

This is a story told through 5 beads to explain the meaning of life and how it makes a difference. It is the story of the Good News of Jesus the Christ.

The first 3 beads represent the meaning of life.

The 1st bead is the black bead – it represents Sin.

What is Sin? Most people think Sin is doing bad things, but doing bad things is the result of sin not sin itself.

Sin is rebellion against God. Back in the Garden man chose the knowledge of good and evil because he believed the lie that it would make him like God. This rebellion against God broke the personal relationship between man and God.

But now man is stuck because he can’t use his knowledge of good and evil to figure out how to be good enough to restore that relationship. Man has to rely on God. This makes perfect sense because it is presumptuous to think man can reach up to God, God must reach down to man.

The 2nd bead is the red bead – it represents Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

God knew that man could not find his way back to God on his own so He sent His only begotten son, Jesus Christ to make a way back for man. Jesus explained that the way back to that personal relationship with God was through faith in His Son – through Faith in Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of John (14:6) Jesus says, ”I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

But sinful men, confronted by the truth of His claims with signs and miracles and their own wicked hearts chose rebellion and crucified Him, putting Him to death and burying Him in a tomb.

However, God raised Him from the dead to demonstrate once and for all the validity of Christ’s claims.

The 3rd bead is the white and represents the restoration of our fellowship with God.

So if we choose to believe God through faith in Jesus Christ, not our knowledge of good and evil, the power of sin is broken and we are once again acceptable to God and our personal relationship with Him is restored.

So the meaning of life is fellowship with God – It is why we were created. We are not an accident. An accident has no meaning. It may be good or bad but without purpose it is merely an accident – not on purpose. The burden and glory of life is that it does have meaning.

The last two beads represent how this makes a difference.

The 4th bead is green and represents new life in Christ

With our personal relationship with God restored we can have the things that make life enjoyable – worth living. In Romans 8:32 Paul reasons, “He who did not spare His own son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also graciously give us all things?” And Christ Himself speaking of his own in the Gospel of John (10:10) says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

So what are the things that make life worth living? These are Faith, Hope and Love. With a little reflection I think you will agree that a life without Hope or Love would be pretty grim regardless of other circumstance and that Hope and Love make any circumstance more bearable, even redeemable. If you think about it a little more you will see how the key to Hope and Love is Faith.

The 5th bead is gold and represents eternity.

Gold represents eternity because it neither tarnishes nor rusts. It doesn’t decay. You may have heard it written in the Gospel of John (3:16) that, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son , that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And Christ says (John 11:25), “I am the way the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he were dead yet shall he live.”

So the application of the meaning of life is that by believing we have peace with God through Christ and by believing in His love and care for us we can trust Him. We no longer have to worry about “looking out for #1” because we acknowledge He is #1. If we believe God “has our back” as it were and will have it for eternity what do we have to be worried about?

As the poet Bob Dylan sang, through faith in Christ I can “change my way of thinking”, and that change in perspective makes all the difference. Just as two people in the same situation but with different attitudes have a different experience, so Faith in Jesus Christ gives us a different experience of life.

But remember our Faith is not “positive thinking” based on false hope or myth but on the reality of God in Jesus Christ.

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The humility of faith

I was commenting on another blog recently and used an old idea about the difference between comprehending and understanding. Reflected in these words is a subtle difference in the attitude of the one coming to knowledge.

Comprehend implies grasping and an attitude of overcoming while understanding implies acceptance, humility and an attitude of receiving. Simply put the closing grasping hand vs. the open upturned hand. For example I would rather have someone understand me than have them comprehend me. There is depth and warmth in the former lacking in the latter.

Before I became a Christian I thought that Christianity was fine for people who needed that crutch. Who needed a fairy tale to comfort them because they couldn’t face the hard truth. I was strong, they were weak.

This attitude of self sufficiency can fool us into thinking we may approach God in the power of our own strength, as though we could take Him or leave Him. The idea is just foolish on the face of it. If we think about it for even a moment it is clear that if we imagine we approach God with analytic detachment we are not approaching God. If He is as He says then we must approach Him from our lack or need, we are not God, we did not give ourselves life. It is perfectly understandable that anyone who comes to God, examining him to determine whether or not he is worthy of devotion would find he is not. How could it be otherwise? The most such a one would find is a bigger version of themselves and not God at all.

There is of course a quandary here. Does this mean we must blindly accept without using the faculties God in His infinite wisdom and mercy has given us? Not at all. It means that understanding follows from humility.

First we kneel, then we know.

The idea of the weakness of Christians may come from the lack of strength with which those who find Him approach God. They are broken and desperate, lost souls in need of mercy, forgiveness, and compassion. Theirs is not a “take it or leave it” situation.

It is these who find the one they seek. This too is perfectly understandable and only logical. When our need overwhelms our strength we are humbled, humiliated. It is from this place of humility that faith is born. Faith is required to obtain the righteousness without which no one will see God.

The marvelous thing is that this difference in attitude with which we seek God allows the meek, the mournful, the lowly in spirit, the humble, the peacemakers, those in need of righteousness, the unsophisticated, to know Him. When you read the Beatitudes notice it does not say these “will be blessed”, they are “blessed”.

So when we are weak we begin to understand, just as it is written the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

This knowledge of Him gives us the Hope to stand, to endure. The weak are made strong. I find that marvelous.

Once we lay aside our own intellectual strength, and only when we do, can we see the profound exquisite beauty of the Truth of Jesus, The Christ, the Son of the living God.

The view from your knees is breathtaking.

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Answered Prayer?

My church has a been going through the process of recruiting a new Minister. Our old Minister was tremendous, but his age and the size of the church caught up with his high touch style and he had to retire.  In any case during the interim, before the new Minister is installed, the church elders have been filling in on the Sunday sermons. Last Sunday the message was on I Corinthians 13 – the love chapter.

So at the beginning of the service, like always, someone reads the scripture for the sermon and we pray that God would speak to us through the speaker. Now I should probably mention here that our old minister has a gift for speaking. I don’t mean to say he was in the same category as Apollos but there is no doubt he has a gift.

In any case one of the elders gets up to speak. This man is very intelligent, clear thinking and organized. He is also an engineer (dear to my heart of course but lets not get ahead of ourselves).

He set up a whiteboard and drew the representation of a process with inputs and an output, identified the inputs and output and talked a little about the activities of the process and how they work together to generate the outputs. He went on to talk about the difference between and open loop (no feedback) and closed loop (feedback) process and identified the drawbacks of the former and the advantages of the latter. He then drew a parallel between the Christian life and the process identifying the inputs (Bible Study,  Prayer, Fellowship etc) and the output (Sanctification) and then proposed (with scriptural and scholastic references to justify the argument) that Agape Love is the characteristic to measure as the feedback input from the output back to the process. He then proceeded to go through the characteristics listed in the I Corinthians to identify how those characteristics are detected and measured, explaining as he did why those characteristics reveal Christ-likeness and how (with practical examples, esteeming others, long-suffering, etc.) the whole of the law and the prophets rest on these principals, and how Christ who emptied Himself provided the model for our actions.

Still with me?

So I have to say he spoke for probably an hour and the whole thing was coherent, well organized, detailed and consistent.  As an engineer (and a Christian) I was frankly spellbound, as I have no doubt the other engineers in the congregation were. His arguments were thorough and conclusive. He was, how can I say this, analytical and dispassionate. I think my wife (who is not an engineer) used the word monotone.

At this point, if you think about it a little, you can see how this sermon was, not only a thorough exposition on why Love is essential to the Christian life but, an excellent opportunity for practical application of the principals contained within the message.

How cool is THAT!  🙂

So here is my question. Is it more likely that this man, though clearly intelligent and thorough, planned that level of recursion (and was a sufficiently accomplished actor to pull it off – remembering he is after all an engineer), or did God providentially answer our corporate prayer?

Because I believe self-similarity is part of God’s signature on the natural world I choose option #2, and rejoice.

Posted in Christian, Christian walk, Faith