Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Heaven is for Real, And We Shouldn't Diminish That

Quite a bit of controversy has arisen over the popular book and film, Heaven is for Real. It might seem a little silly to squabble about. But I have to admit that many of both Christian and secular discussions of this story -even in reviews and articles- are disturbing. 

I am disturbed for this reason: 

Heaven is not the good news. The good news is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When we take liberties, even small ones, in what we proclaim, believe, and set our sights on, we are vulnerable to in-numerable trappings and abuses. Further, when we condone or approve of such liberties, we expose others to a wayward path.

And, in more detail, 

1. We diminish the kingdom of God when we place our faith in human experiences that add to or subtract from the Word of God.

It seems in regards to this story that we are all largely concerned with the things of this world, not with the Kingdom of God. Some of the concerns, for example, involve believing/disbelieving a four year old child whose experience occurred while he was drugged. Others involve what to make of the "evidence" for his story, namely that he was able to piece together things that were never directly spoken to him. 

Generally, when people publicly claim to have had spiritual experiences that are not in line with the Bible, Christians largely consider the experience to have been misunderstood or to be folly. For example, many believers have claimed over time to know details about Christ's return. Scripture is usually quickly referred to -no one knows the time of His return (Mark 13:32). No person is given license to add to the Bible in such a way. 

People also try to subtract from Scripture. For example, many individuals have tried to claim that all spiritual paths can lead to God, dismissing that Jesus is the way, singular (John 14:6). Bible-believing Christians often respond in unity, appealing to God's Word as infallible.

This is according to Scripture. Deutoronomy 4:2, for one, says:

"You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you."

What the Bible tells us about heaven is not in line with stories like those presented in Heaven is for Real, or the many other differing tales on the topic. So what about the evidence people provide to justify themselves?

Trying to work out the nuances and "science" of experiences like those presented in Heaven is for Real is foolish. The story isn't a myth to be debunked, it isn't truth just because it was sincerely spoken. Heaven is not in need of our discovery and presentation; the Bible has got that covered.

2. We diminish our hope in the Lord and His Gospel when we take foolish risks about what we should or shouldn't believe.

Our hope is in the Lord. The Gospel alone saves us. Without the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it doesn't matter if we believe in heaven and want to get there. It doesn't even matter what we think heaven is like. The Kingdom of God exists. Scripture tells us to "repent and believe in (the good news of) the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). We learn that the Kingdom of God isn't a worldly or human matter, like eating or drinking, but is found in the Holy Spirit, and in pleasing God (Romans 14:17-18). 

Romans 14:20 highlights the issue for us. "Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food." 

The Greek word "food," transliterated "bróma," is figurative and literal. It indicates anything selected for the purpose of satisfying the soul or the mind. The implication is that the selected thing is not God Himself.  "Destroy," transliterated "kataluó," describes an act of thoroughly loosening or breaking up something bound properly, like a yoke.

This verse exhorts us -do not loosen the yoke of the Gospel for the sake of something to satiate you with satisfaction apart from the truth.

Further, later on in, in verses 21 and 22, we read this: "It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves."

It is better not to participate in things selected to satiate us that could cause another person to loose hold of the truth. Our beliefs about the things that might be currently considered unclear spiritually in our minds are between us and God alone. We are blessed by not approving of things that we might actually be condemned by. 

It is also wise for us to not jump on a feel-good bandwagon that could be headed far from the truth, simply because it might satisfy one of our many sinful cravings for foreknowledge and hope beyond the sufficiency of Christ. This is even more so because it might not be only ourselves that we condemn in the process, but others who are led astray. 

3. We diminish the sufficient and living quality of God's Word. 

We have good reason to be cautious in what we believe about other's experiences. Scripture has plenty of examples of visions, signs, and wonders, that are not of the Lord (see examples such as Egyptian magic in Exodus 7 or Satan and the false apostles being disguised as angels of light in 1 Corinthians 11). 

There are also a few Biblical examples of people having visions of heaven -but always for an explicit, new purpose and message from God. Those who died and are raised in the Bible, regardless of their experience with death, never recorded what occurred during the experience. And all occurrences are in absolute conjunction with each other and the rest of Scripture. The stories we hear of modern folk's experiences of heaven, like in Heaven is for Real, are never like those had by Biblical characters and always add something.

Why do we "add to the truth" as if God's promise of heaven (the Kingdom of God, which is at hand!) isn't sufficient? Why do we place our hope and faith in the fanciful dreams of men and their children instead of in the One who is living? And in His living and active Word? 

4.  We diminish our belief in Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). It matters that we put our whole faith in Jesus Christ, and not in any person, no matter how convincing their tales. Christ alone is the Savior who is with us and will be with us forever.

The glory of heaven is something to look forward to, but we don't have to wait for the peace and joy and righteousness of the Kingdom of God. It begins for us, though it is not yet brought to completion, when our life is given anew in Him. When the Holy Spirit begins to work in us and we can securely fix our eyes on the Savior who is with us and will be for the rest of eternity, we have the guarantee of future glory, and we have the beginnings of our witnessing glory now. 

We shouldn't diminish the reality of heaven. We must not diminish the Gospel that gives us access to eternity in glory. Yet we do diminish all these by skipping over the Gospel, dismissing it, or putting it in second place, right after our own "happy day" arriving in heaven. Heaven is established and maintained by God, who is the only one worthy of all glory and honor and praise. 


Hebrews 12 is a beautiful place to revisit the course laid out for us, remembering not our selfish desires for glory, perfection, and joy, but our actual goal:

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:1-2)

And what is our prize? Not a jolly mansion in the sky, not schemed up angel wings, not seeing people who we've never even met, but as Philippians 3:8-14 states:

"I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."

(Underlined emphases added)

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Blessing of Endurance


Isn't it interesting that we tend to count our blessings most when "bad" things happen?

It is after a major accident that we are glad to be alive, or post loss that we are grateful for those who truly love us. It seems that we need disruptions to remind us that life isn't actually in our control and that there is something more important "out there".

Yet the faster we get over things, the sooner we forget these pseudo-lessons. Reminders seem fleeting and unable to impact us in a way that changes something in our hearts.

This, the Bible suggests, is the blessing of endurance. Troubles and suffering that endure teach us, rather than remind us, to rely on our Lord and to look on our lives in light of Him. We are to glory in our sufferings, God says in Romans 5:

" And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us."

If God chooses to, He can heal the sick, prevent accidents, and delay the time of death. There are certainly times that He has. We often find that this is what we pray for. Or, if not such extreme miracles, we pray that recovery is speedy or that joy come quickly. Why do we fear suffering, tribulation, and uncomfortable emotions? Surely no one needs to desire or wish for trouble, but when it comes, as it did for Jesus, we are to trust in God's will. And He produces much in our hearts in our times of need.

Consider what Psalm 105:19 says about God's work in the suffering of Joseph (who was sold into slavery and thrown into jail for no sin of his own!):

"Until the time came to fulfill his dreams, the LORD tested Joseph's character."

In Psalm 73, we are given an example of one who begins to slip from righteousness because He focuses on how wicked people seem to have no trouble at all. The writer begins to look around and grow envious of how happy others earthly lives. Meanwhile, his own Godly life is one of affliction. He comes to this conclusion in verses 20-28:

"They are like a dream when one awakes;
when you arise, Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.

When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.

Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.

Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds."

Sometimes life is a lot to endure when we look around and see how other's lives seem to go. Particularly when we suffer. Yet our endurance, when rooted in the Lord, can be a blessing.

The "end goal" of our lives as Christians is that we are near to our God. Joy is not the goal. Prosperity is not the goal. These might be a means to our end goal, but we must realize that suffering can also be a means.

It is good for us to be near our God. He is our desire and our glory. If it is in suffering that we spend our days seeking Him, learning from Him, and relying on Him, than we can count our having to endure as a blessing.

In light of our Savior, our hope is secure. He is faithful. His love is unfailing. Time and time again, He has proved Himself merciful. Our suffering does not change the Lord, but the Lord can certainly draw our hearts, shaping them as His, through our suffering.

Suffering is suffering. Having to persevere is what it is. We don't have to feign joy and peace, or pronounce platitudes to get by effectively. Our hope is in the Lord. His Spirit is poured into us...isn't that enough? Isn't His provision sufficient so that we are not "put to shame," but are all the more able to glory in Him (Romans 5:5)?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Our Mistaken Faith: A Good Friday Reflection

In the last couple of years, I’ve seen a Good Friday trend that troubles me. It tends to come with a reading of the crucifixion of Christ, dimmed lights, and the wailing of people moved by their sin.

Read that line again. People moved by their sin. I say that knowing that in my own heart at such services, there is a sinful temptation to take on everything I’ve ever done “wrong” and feel guilty that it’s because of me that Jesus died. I find no Biblical basis for mourning over our sins once Christ has redeemed us, or for taking back our sins and guilt from the foot of the cross so that we can have a spiritual experience all over again. Surely sin is to be avoided, hated, and condemned.

Let me be clear: there is a space for mourning, grieving, and sorrow. In this world we will have trouble, and we will suffer, the Bible tells us so. But sin is not worth wailing over or mourning for because Jesus has conquered it. He defeats us, His Spirit indwells us, so onward and forward we look to our Lord and waste no time on our selfish obsession with what we have and haven’t done.

In faith we ask forgiveness and repent. Focusing on our depravity is hardly connected to what our faith is founded on: God revealed in His son, Jesus Christ, who is with us. Our redeemer lives!

What a mistake we make when we look more to our faith –or lack thereof- than to His faithfulness.

All sorts of folly devolves from this perspective, causing our feet to slip on His path of righteousness. For example,

1). We treat sin as if it is merely making mistakes….
 Turning God into a harsh, petty, ungracious entity.

2). We border on thinking that God was mistaken to send Jesus to die…
                                                Forcing ourselves to create false theories for the atonement.

3). We misplace all emphasis on the cross…
                                                Neglecting the necessity of the resurrection.

4). We use our guilt as a tool for redemption…
                                                Backwardly believing that we are now more worthy of salvation.

5). We make Jesus a means to our ends…
                                                Setting ourselves on His throne, but in His name.

For the wages of sin is death”, says Paul in Romans 6:23.

In John 15:22 we read that we “now have no excuse for our sin”.

Further, we are made to understand that “while we were still sinners, 
Christ died for us”  -Romans 5:8.

This was because “He loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice 
for our sins” -1 John 4:10.

We must make no mistake about who God is when we remember His sacrifice!

Our God is faithful and has never failed those who seek His face. Even those who seek His face are unworthy. All have fallen short of His glory! Yet He has never left us or forsaken us. In all things, He has remained. From the beginning of time, He has promised to redeem us solely because He is good. His mercy has kept us from getting what we deserve –hell. And His grace has freely established us in the place of His favor, though we don’t deserve it –transformed by Jesus Christ.

Our God is just. He doesn’t change His mind about what we deserve or give anyone a free pass, but rather sent His son to be the ultimate sacrifice, once and for all, that we could be washed in His blood and have new life. Someone had to appease the wrath of the God who is righteous. That God chose to provide for us this lamb, at great cost, is evidence of His unimaginably loving, compassionate character.

Our God is worthy of praise. As we look at the cross and marvel at what He did for us, let us worship Him. Sin can be confronted. It ought to be. The reality of the fallen nature of this world and humanity are an important aspect of recognizing the opposing nature of Christ, in all His glory. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Faithful Expectations

We believe in a God who can do anything. Our Creator brought life out of dust. Jesus Christ healed the blind, cured the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead. The miracles continue today, though more commonly in small signs and wonders. All things are possible in the Lord. 

So God can do anything. And we ask Him to. When loved ones are sick, we pray that He heals them. When situations are dire, we pray that He come through and provide. And when we ask Him faithfully, He hears and He answers (Matthew 21, 1 John 5). 

Yet how many are still sick? How many are still lost? 

In our circumstances of suffering, we look to ourselves, our loved ones, and our prayers for answers. We ask what it is that are we doing that isn't satisfactory to God, since He continues to not do the impossible? This is natural, even righteous, to do. Some of the common questions we ask when we need answers are taken from these lines of thought:

1. James 4:3 tells us that "When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures."

Alright. We check our hearts. This time, our motives are not selfish and full of folly.

2. The Old Testament is loaded with examples of people whom God punished for their sin. He spared them when they repented and sought Him.

Okay. We repent earnestly and call on His name. Still nothing in this circumstance.

3. James 1:6 states that "When you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind."

So we're just not believing well enough. So we do. Or we try to. And...still nothing.

There are times when it seems we've tried everything. The equation isn't adding up. So, the platitudes will have to suffice. God's answers aren't always what we want them to be. His plans are better than ours. Maybe He knows something about this that we don't. 

Relief slowly fills our cups. We've examined our hearts and found that it isn't because of us that He isn't performing signs. We can now rest in the idea that God is doing something -it's all just invisible and too grand for our comprehension.

But is that enough? Is it right to lower our expectations of God when He doesn't meet our requirements? 

When we lower our Spiritual expectations, we see the Lord backwards. 

Suddenly faith, to us, is a few cliches that He is in control. Our feelings and emotions have to be in line with the happy lines -we have to have put on joy anyway. Rather than be disappointed and wrestle with the character of the Almighty, we take a step away from Him, bow down, and refuse to look in His face. We'd rather just say it's okay and pretend that it is. 

When we lower our expectations of God, we raise the expectations we have of ourselves.

Suddenly we rely on worldly wisdom to empower us to be good people despite our challenges. We become our own counselors, our own doctors, our own friends. And how faithful we seem! As long as we don't make a lot of fuss and say the right things, we're spiritual.

But God is not less faithful when things we don't like occur. And we are not more faithful simply because we feel that God is less faithful but we're okay with it. 

Our expectations of the Lord must be established according to who God says He is, rather than what we wish were true.

Our Lord is the great physician. He is the creator. God is a provider. In all things, the Lord is faithful and good. His love endures forever. The Lord decides to give and to take away. He is sovereign above all things. Christ never leaves us or forsakes us.  -These are Bible verses. This is the truth. 

And so is this:

Job suffered tremendous loss, and God permitted it. He did nothing to deserve punishment, He believed wholeheartedly that God could do anything that He wanted to. His misery existed because the Evil ruler of this world challenged God concerning Job's heart.

Hagar was sent by God, pregnant and mistreated, back to a miserable situation. It was many years later, as a single mother cast into the wilderness, that God gave her hope and revealed His provision. The hope had nothing to do with improving her personal circumstances -God had plans for her son.

Elijah lived on food delivered by birds. He lived in a cave. This man of God was persecuted for being righteous. God didn't just have him camp out for one night while he "solved" the situation with Elijah's enemies. The man lived in the wilderness for a good long while. The Lord later used Elijah to reveal Himself to those worshiping false Gods. 

Paul had a thorn in his flesh. It truly weakened and bothered him. The Lord easily could have removed it. But He didn't. And the Spirit didn't tell Paul that He had to suffer to understand others better, or to stay humble, or as punishment, or anything at all having to do with Paul and His choices. 

Rather, God said: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness." 
-2 Corinthians 12:9

Why do we expect any less of God than absolute sufficiency? 

There will be trouble in this world, Christ never hid that. We will have emotions, strong ones, and that isn't wrong (see Christ's anger, sorrow, etc). 

Like Eli and like Joab when He was righteous, we must rely on the truth that:
"The Lord will do what is good in his sight." -1 Samuel 3:18, 1 Chronicles 19:13

Like David, we must recognize our options and choose based off of right expectations:
"Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands." -1 Chronicles 21:13

Our Lord is sufficient, exceeding our every expectation. When loved ones suffer for a long time, when they die, when we feel lost and worthless, He is sufficient. His grace is enough for us. 

We don't need to come up with excuses for God. We don't need to raise the bar in our hearts for how we ought to cope. 

If we are faithless (and at times we will be or we feel as if we are) then He is faithful because He cannot deny who He is (2 Timothy 2:13). 

What a gracious God He is, that when we weep, He will weep with us. That's so much more a "solution" than giving us what we want -it is giving us what we need.  Expect that from God. 

Expect that as we rely on Him, He will be enough.