who do you love most?

Love.  God is love.  God loves people.  God’s people love people.  But what if believers love people more than God?  So much so that we let what would delight them checkmate what HE declares?

Last Sunday I alluded to Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins which selectively uses Scripture and church history to pitch an old heresy that eventually everybody gets to heaven.  He contends that’s as true for the atheist as it is for the Buddhist as it is for the repentant Christian.

Pastor of the massive Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Bell is a spellbinding communicator who has long been recognized as a marquee player in the emerging church world.  Looking at the world through Jesus’ eyes, his slick 10-minute NOOMA videos have captivated believers from all quarters of the church and across denominational lines.  

Committed to reaching people who need Jesus with Jesus, the emerging church has often criticized both the traditional church and the megachurch movement for neglecting the mission while being preoccupied with itself and its programs.  There’s some merit to the criticism.  As a church grows, by nature it turns inward.  The expansion of the institution claws for more and more attention to the institution instead of to the mission it was formed to carry out. 

Mission is good, but not if we love the object of the mission more than the Designer of the mission.  I believe Bell has a great passion for lost people but I think his false doctrine on hell typifies how dangerous it can be to love lost people more than God.  We’ll be tempted to take our doctrinal cues from people who don’t know God, don’t know or believe His Word, and don’t really have any inclination to submit to someone they can’t see or hear.  Especially Someone who seems so narrowminded.

What unbeliever wants to hear that unless he repents of sin and casts himself on the blood of Jesus Christ, he is an object of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3)?  Apart from the Holy Spirit convicting her, what unbeliever wants to give anybody the kind of authority God demands over her life?  If given a vote, unbelievers would clearly vote hell, judgment, wrath, and sin all out of doctrinal office.  Problem is, all those things would still be as true as they were before the vote.  And the voters would still be in as much need as before.  Really loving lost people means giving them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. 

Bell’s departure from biblical orthodoxy will not be the last time a prominent Christian goes public with his/her innovative beliefs.  In fact, as Christ’s return nears, we will hear more and more of this kind of thing–and, many will be duped by their teachings.  The Bible says so.  It’s why we must all be Bereans (Acts 17:11) and compare whatever’s being taught with the Word of God.  

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to heart.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.  2 Timothy 4:3-4. 

[Here’s the link to Kevin DeYoung’s excellent review of Love Wins.  Get a cup of coffee if you’re going to read it; it’s 20 pages long: 

confessions of a pharisee

“I thank you God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else.  For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery.  I’m certainly not like that tax collector!  I fast twice a week and I give you a tenth of my income.”

In my lifetime I’ve come across a couple of people I don’t like.  Alright, alright, more than a couple.  Let me grab my shrink (a preemptive “sorry” to the psychologists in the audience; don’t leave mean comments) hat and analyze me.  Figure out why.

The bullies are easy; the boys who terrorized me with bodily harm in elementary and middle school.  The ridicule was tolerable but the idea of a beating or worse…  OK, didn’t even need the shrink hat for that one.
I didn’t like…, I’ll call him Stanley–the guy I worked beside who mocked the faith that he said I didn’t possess anyway (he was right).  He gave me other reasons to despise him: like opening his window when it was 20 degrees outside (I’m kinda cold-blooded).

I didn’t like a college classmate who was pompous and brazen.  “Look at me, look at me!”  I wanted to say, “Watch out you don’t break your arm!”

At church, I don’t like…  Ha, ha. 

Do you have people who rub you the wrong way?  When I do I usually justify myself, reasoning, who wouldn’t dislike this person?  She’s got an abrasive personality, or is unreliable, or is critical, or he’s overly sensitive, or too loud, or too quiet, or has sinned against me, or is two-faced, or is vulgar, or…

I was confident no one could recognize any inner animosity I had toward them.  Hating the conflict that tends to show up when a person levels with someone (“Hey, has anyone ever told you that you’re about as dependable as a snowman in June?”), I mastered the art of appearing warm and friendly to all people–even those I didn’t care for.  “I don’t love you, but here’s a smile for you anyway!”

Yet I was troubled every time I read something in the Bible like “be devoted to one another in love” or “love your neighbor as yourself” or “bear with one another in love”.  I’d reason, “OK, I love this Christian brother or sister, but God doesn’t say I have to like him or her.”  I may have been reasoning, but I no longer think it was sound reasoning.  Since love is a deeper and more selfless regard than like, how can I possibly love someone I don’t at least like?

I don’t have time to write what all God did over time–and is doing (the remodeling’s a long way from being completed).  And this story would probably be more fascinating and coherent if it began at a moment in time, if I had some epiphany, some “ah-hah!” moment.  Instead, it’s been a slow and subtle awakening, something happening over several years.  In stirring up a new passion in me for the gospel, God frequently reminded me of Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18.  I came to see that by my dislike of others (no matter why), I was the smug, self-righteous Pharisee congratulating myself for not being as bad as him or her.  It wasn’t that I didn’t believe I had faults; at least about some, I was painfully aware.  But suspicions began growing that disliking someone because of their faults may not be “normal”, not ok, not understandable even though wrong…, maybe it’s self-righteous.  Maybe behind my justifications is a conviction that what is wrong with me is not as bad as what is wrong with him.  That my faults are not as destructive as his are, my sins not as offensive to others and God as his are.

The pride of self-righteousness.  10 years ago it wasn’t a sin I would have thought made God’s top 10.  Nor thought it applied to me.  Now I’m convinced it’s in God’s top 3.  And the hidden root when I do not love someone.  It interferes–not just with me being kind, but genuinely loving that other person.  Someone has said that we don’t make great progress in sanctification until we begin to see the depth of our sinfulness.  Spot on.  I’m a mess.  And only the grace of Jesus Christ working in my heart through the Holy Spirit, offers hope. 

the Lamb

I am not worthy.  I have no claim upon the Father’s favor, His mercy, His forgiveness, His grace, His love.  No qualification, no merit, no currency.  But…
worthy is the Lamb…
Worthy is the LAMB…

the grace of courage

After an earthquake and tsunami, Japan’s disaster saga continues to steamroll a grieving and exhausted nation.  A reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is nearing meltdown.  The building’s damaged, and with no electricity there’s no way to keep pumping water onto the radioactive fuel rods.  Aerial dumps of water have been somewhat ineffective with much of the water dispersed by winds.  Police and fire trucks have also sprayed water from the ground.
What leaves me in awe are the some 50 technicians who stayed behind yesterday as many others were evacuated, risking their lives in hopes of sparing Japan yet another disaster.  Because of the heat inside they are probably not wearing as much protective gear as those outside, yet radiation levels were at 400 millisieverts.  Most nuclear plant workers around the world don’t absorb more than 1 millisievert in an entire year.  
I salute them; that’s putting it all on the line.  As I pray for these selfless people I wonder about my own willingness to shoulder a great risk for others or my God.  Football great Reggie White used to say, “God places the heaviest burden on those who can carry its weight.”  Really?  Is it just that you either have the stuff of courage or you don’t? 
Studying Revelation we keep stumbling over bodies; people who’ve died for Jesus.  The great tribulation will be a religious bloodbath.  If my understanding of eschatology is correct neither I nor Christians alive before the rapture will be here to see it.  But it will be brutal for those who are.  

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.  5:9
The dragon [Satan]… went off to make war against… those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.  12:17
He [antichrist] was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. 13:7
If anyone [Christian in the end times] is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed.  13:10

How will they do it?  I used to drive myself crazy trying to think my way through the question: could I die for Jesus?  Do I have the guts, the bravery, the courage, the right stuff with which to endure the torture, the sword or the bullet?  

No.  I think, at my core, I’m a coward.  Regardless of what Reggie thinks, God might still place this act of ultimate worship on my shoulders.  If He does, my cowardice will not be the thing anyone remembers.  They will remember the grace God gives me to face the call.  We are warned to stand firm in our faith (1 Cor.16:13), but here’s the backstage view: Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ (2 Cor.1:21).  May God likewise sustain those brave Japanese workers.

Is Christian “law” adequate?

Did you hear the latest from the jihad front?  Al-Qaeda is publishing a new women’s magazine called Al-Shamikha (Majestic Woman).  It’s a radical mix of interviews with proud widows of suicide bombers and timely tips on how to care for your skin in the sun.  It gives ways to get a mujahideen husband as well as how to wage techno-terrorism.  Offering something for every woman on your gift list I guess.

I realize most Muslims do not have suicide vests hanging in their closets and that many are chagrined at being lumped together with the likes of bin Laden and Pakistan’s Qari Saifullah Akhtar.  But many take pride in the thoroughness of their faith.  Who can argue?  Islam regulates every aspect of life from prayers to diet to marriage to courts to child-rearing.

On the University of Michigan campus in 2009, a Muslim student asked apologist Ravi Zacharias to explain Christianity’s rather weak code of life compared to the comprehensive codes of Islam and Judaism.

pray the news

“Hi, I’m Keith, and I’m a news junkie.”  I’ve searched and searched for a cure, a pill, an antidote but…  

OK, actually, I haven’t.  I don’t really want an antidote, and I don’t want to stop.  I love it too much.  Good, bad or indifferent news, I love it all.  I want to know what’s going on in my community but especially around the world.

Maybe this is nothing more than a pathetic attempt to redeem my sickness; you be the judge.  For over 20 years I have prayed the news.  As I’m reading or viewing video on the internet about the horrific tsunami that just hit Japan, I pray for the people there, for Japan’s leaders, for those who have lost family, for rescue teams, especially for spiritual responses from the tragedy. 

As my wife and I drove through Lancaster Tuesday we saw police cruisers barricading a block where a mangled child’s bicycle and a pillow lay in the street.  I prayed for the child I learned the next day was a 13 year old boy.  Riding into the path of a car he broke both hands and wrists, a femur, and received a head injury.  Thankfully, he was released from the hospital 2 days ago and apparently will heal.

Living a half mile from the fire station, I pray when I hear the siren go off.  When an ambulance screams past me, I pray for the person in it or the person who soon will be.

Disasters, conflicts, wars, accidents, life and death issues, politics…, even sports news can contain matters and people to pray about.  Of course, there’s one catch: you have to believe God will listen to little old you about anything big or small–even on matters you don’t know about personally.  He will.

Sister in Christ in jail

In a sermon recently I referred to Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian condemned to death under that country’s prejudicial blasphemy law.  Voice of the Martyrs describes her plight: 

Asia Bibi, a 37 year-old Pakistani woman from the village of Ittanwali, was arrested by police on Friday, June 19, 2009 and faces possible blasphemy charges.  Asia (also called Asia Noreen) is the wife of 50-year-old Ashiq Masih, and their family is one of only three Christian families in a village of more than 1,500 families.  Many of the local women work on the farm of Muslim landowner Muhammad Idrees, including Asia.  During their work many of the Muslim women have pressured Asia to renounce Christianity and accept Islam.  In June, the pressure became especially strong.

On Friday, June 19, there was an intense discussion among the women about their faith, with the Muslim women telling Asia about Islam.  Asia responded by telling them about her faith in Christ. Asia told the Muslim women Christ had died on the cross for our sins, then asked them what Mohammad had done for them, according to VOM sources.  She told them Jesus is alive, but Mohammad is dead.  “Our Christ is the true prophet of God,” she reportedly told them, “and yours is not true.”

Upon hearing this the Muslim women became angry and began to beat Asia.  Then some men came and took her and locked her in a room.  They announced from mosque loudspeakers that she would be punished by having her face blackened and being paraded through the village on a donkey.  Local Christians informed the police, who took Asia into custody before the Muslims could carry out their plan.  She was held at the police station in Nankana city.  Christians there urged the police not to file blasphemy charges, but police claimed they were under pressure from local Muslim leaders.

The Voice of the Martyrs urges Christians around the world to pray for Asia Bibi and her family.  Further, we call on the Pakistani government to insure that the rights of Christians like Asia are protected.

In addition to praying for Bibi, Facebook accounts have been set up for her and you can friend Bibi.  And we all grasp the enormity of Facebook’s leverage when we look back at the Egyptian revolution.

Putting a pike in the porn dragon

[a pike is a medieval spear]
I wish I could say that I never looked at pornography.  Most of my exposure was ancient and before the days of online porn.  I bought a couple of magazines, and I went to 5 movies.  Not sure why I can remember that number from about 36 years ago when I can’t remember where I parked the car but…, there you go. 

I love/hate pornography.  Love it because like most men I have a male drip of testosterone the size of a fire hose soaking my brain with sex.  What’s the old joke?  Men think about sex every 30 seconds?  (That’s when you’re young and virile.  At 57…!)  
But I hate porn–especially the DIY online version, because it simplifies lust and makes it so convenient.  Like earlier versions, it too mocks God (Ephesians 5:3; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5).  I hate porn because it destroys.  And for the record, doesn’t deliver any better than a slimy salesman in a cheap suit who talks too fast.

I’m preaching on Revelation 12 right now which showcases God’s antagonist, the devil hisself: dragon, angel of light, accuser, demon commander, people abuser.  And liar.  You can’t believe anything he says.  Like, “God’s depriving you of the good stuff.”  Puh-lleese!  It’s the same tired line he used on Eve.  Thousands of years later it’s still the best he can do: “God is against you, I’m for you.  God’s trying to limit your fun, your future, your fulfillment.  Run with me and I’ll make all your dreams come true.”  

Lies.  Try selling that garbage to worn out veterans of crime, drugs, and indiscriminate sex.  Lying is the native language of the father of lies (John 8:44).  What tells more lies and is more deceptive than pornography?  Savaging marriages and destroying children, men, and women for fun and for profit.  Statistics a couple of years old put the pornography industry proceeds at over $13 billion just in the US (and about $100 billion worldwide).  The volume is understandable when 70% of men 18-24 are watching porn at least monthly.  That includes 50% of the men in churches and 20% of the women.  Tragically, pastors are watching too.  And in every shadow of the porn empire lurks the devil.

Hidden by night’s darkness, a user caresses his mouse in a monitor’s low glow and buys the lie again and again: click, click, click.  Various states of undress, intertwined bodies doing things he has only ever fantasized about, makes the heart pound, the pulse race, and promise…
…what’s ‘s never fulfilled.  Lies.  Finding no enduring satisfaction the user keeps upping his dose: more time, more sites, more exploration, more hardcore.  Maybe this time, maybe this site, maybe this woman–or man, will show him something he’s never seen before.  Something that will make his quest worthwhile.  He hopes.
Of course it never does.  Ever.  But there’s always tomorrow.
The preacher of Ecclesiastes could have easily been a porn user: I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. (2:10).  Looking back he admitted his indulgence brought him nothing but emptiness.  Satisfaction sought in pleasure never satisfies.  The real thrill of married intimacy (clicking a mouse may be a lot easier than working on this, but it sure isn’t as satisfying) can never be reproduced, or surpassed.  Satan is nothing but a bad counterfeiter of God’s promises.  His “hope” is a toxic lie which too often destroys before being recognized.
God offers the porn user hope in the gospel.  In fact, I think it’s where the only hope exists.  Is that where you expect to find it?  Maybe all we need are some fences, some borders.  Each month an elder looks me in the eyes and asks me if I have looked an anything pornographic in the last month.  If I say “yes”, he’ll expect an explanation why it was an accident.  Or wasn’t.  I’m grateful for the grilling.  It’s a practice I initiated with all of our elders 17 years ago.
I think friends who care and confront and pray are valuable, and so are tools like Covenant Eyes to help a person trying to get off the treadmill of empty sin.  But all the accountability in the world doesn’t really change the heart.  That heavy lifting is the work of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Without a changed heart, at some point the person pulls the plug on Covenant Eyes; no longer cares if he’s caught.  He will throw under the bus his marriage, his job, his self-respect, his sleep, and his dignity.  Nothing matters more than the rush.
Spiritually, why?  Some porn users are just lost.  I mean they do not have Christ, they are facing His full judgment, they are headed for hell.  I wonder if we may be reluctant to entertain this possibility because so many church members are doing porn and we’re afraid to make such a sweeping indictment or to offend.  If I’ve discovered one thing as a pastor it’s that folks don’t like to have their salvation called into question.  But please, let us offend if it might rescue a soul from eternal death.  The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery…, orgies and the like.  I warn you…that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).
I once asked a porn user, “When you’re looking at porn on the screen, do you have any sense of shame before God, that you’re embarrassed at what he sees looking over your shoulder?”  He said “no” and I asked him to explain.
“I guess I don’t think it’s really all that big of a deal.”  Jesus scratched his head and asked, Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?  (Luke 6:46).  We should not reassure porn users who lack any conviction of sin, who have no sense that they are defaming God, and who are crucifying Christ all over again (Hebrews 6:6), that they are truly born again.
Obviously, hope for lost porn users is in receiving the forgiveness and the power found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  …our old body was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin–because anyone who has been died has been freed from sin (Romans 6:6-7).  Repentance & faith.  Changing one’s mind about his/her love affair with sin, and then turning the other direction.  The Holy Spirit moves in and then provides the most addicted the power to break the bondage.  
It’s really no different for the person we think is regenerate: repentance and faith.  Wanting some confidence he is saved so any efforts wouldn’t be as pointless as trying to dress a corpse, I’d look for a brokenness over his sin, a longing for deliverance, perhaps even enveloped by a sense of despair.  That’s good.  I think that’s the normal anguish served up by the Holy Spirit when we willfully and persistently defy him.  Repentance over our sin–with indications we mean business (confession, seeking help, seeking accountability), and then faith in the Lord Jesus Christ who bought us with His own blood.  Trusting him to forgive and cleanse.  You see, he died for the sin of lust too.  Wiped the slate clean.  Even the slipups that lie ahead, He died for!

All the world’s satisfactions–good or bad–are either cheap or destructive substitutes for Jesus.  “I am the bread of life, I am the living water.”  Offering Himself to those who turn from anything else, he promised, “You’ll never be hungry again, never be thirsty again.”  That’s His gospel: “I starved to death for you; I died of thirst for you.  My loss means your gain.”  Jesus came to solve our #1 need which is not a job, or purpose in life, or happiness, or a boyfriend or a bigger house.  It’s sin: breaking its power, bearing its price.  Just like stealing, coveting, lying, or idol-worship, lust is a sin.  A SOOOO addictive one.  But not even addictions reduce the power of the gospel. 

I’m not saying embracing the gospel of Jesus Christ will make porn withdrawal easy.  It just makes it doable.  After all, the power provided is God’s, Maker and Breaker of the universe.  It’s not the dragon’s lies that set us free, it’s the Messiah’s truth.  It’s the good news of Jesus Christ and the grace/power he imparts to the believing sinner.