Living in a Land of Affordable Prices and Priceless People

Patong_Beach_street-phuketI now live in a country that is lauded globally for its cheap entertainment, food, and products. I can walk down the street from where I live and buy a quality Thai meal for less than $2. I can go see newly released movies in a high-quality movie theater for $3 a ticket. And I can get a Thai massage for less than $5. In a land where there are so many great things that can be bought for a low price it is important to remember than there is one thing here that is absolutely priceless— the people.

Because of the fall (Gen. 3), we live in a world where the value of people is grossly underestimated. This is exemplified in simple ways, such as when people speak unkindly and uncharitably to others, and it is exemplified in the evilest ways such as when men prostitute and abuse women in pornography or prostitution.

The Bible teaches that men and women are equally made in the image of God and carry equal dignity and worth (Gen. 1:27). The fact that we are made “in the image of God” means (among other things) that we have value. James writes in James 3:9 that we often use our tongues to praise God, and then turn around and verbally assault those made in God’s image. The implication in this verse is that because people are made in God’s image and likeness, they have value, and we should not treat them poorly.

As I live and work among people from the opposite side of the globe from where I was born and raised, I have to remember that every one of them is made in the image of God simply by virtue of being human.

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They may not all act exactly like me, talk exactly like me, or like the same TV shows as me, but God loves them because when he looks at them he sees a reflection of himself. For those that are lost, He sees a broken, rebellious reflection—but a reflection nonetheless. The hope of the Bible is that people would give their broken, rebellious, image-bearing hearts to God by placing their faith in Jesus to save them. Then the process of renewing that image into the image of Jesus who is the perfect image of God, begins (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18).

Before that can happen, though, Christians have to acknowledge two things. First, God is worthy of all sacrifice, simply because he is infinitely worthy. Second, people are worth it because they are a reflection of Him. When Christians locally acknowledge that, they will go to great lengths to share the message of Jesus with their families and neighbors, sometimes at great risks to their own personal interests. When Christians globally acknowledge that, they will be willing to come alongside local believers in many different ways. For us, that means being here to learn the culture and language, and coming alongside local believers in the tasks of evangelism and discipleship. For some, that means praying and giving financially to the work being done. Whatever else it means, it means people have value.

You Want it to Stop, but You Actually Need it (For Now)

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Liz and I rarely turn off movies before they are over, but a few days ago we did. We try to avoid them, but sometimes we stumble onto movies that are so lacking in depth, so lacking in plot, and so lacking in character development, that they rely almost completely on sick and shocking humor and violence. They are the kind of movies that immature guys sit around and watch while they drink cheap alcohol, make fart jokes, and punch each other. In sum, not the way a three-years-married Christian couple wants to spend their evening.

It may sound weird, but I think God actually led us to the movie. I had prayed that day for some inspiration as I was thinking about writing this post. I wanted to write a post about the necessity of pain in the world, but all I could think to start with was “since the time of the Greek philosophers “the problem of evil”…” which sounds good for an academic essay but doesn’t quite catch the attention span of people coming from watching cute animal videos on Facebook.

So as I was watching this cheap movie– and feeling increasingly like vomiting while doing so– I realized at least one reason why these movies are so terrible. It is because the movies normally revolve around some pagan view of heaven. The heaven in these movies isn’t the Bible’s view of heaven: a place where followers of Christ will have resurrected bodies, will do all things perfectly and without sin, will know God’s love perfectly, and will worship him for all the beauty that he radiates into eternity. The heaven promoted by these movies is simply an escape from responsibility; an escape from conflict. In a way, they are connected to the old philosophical conundrum known as “the problem of evil” which posits that there cannot be a God who is all-powerful and all-good if he allows pain and suffering in this world. This “problem” comes from a mindset that believes there is nothing redemptive about pain (which is why these movies lack so much in real conflict and tension). God wouldn’t allow something that does absolutely no good for the universe would he?

Maybe not, but the point is that pain does have redemptive qualities. It would take an entire book to fully draw out all the ways in which that sentence is true, but I want to tackle just one here: the presence of pain is an indicator that something is wrong.

The Girl Who Couldn’t Feel Pain

I remember seeing a news clip on TV years ago that really stuck with me. It was about a girl who had a neurological condition that affected her so that she couldn’t feel pain. I remember thinking at first how awesome that would be, and then quickly realizing that, far from being awesome, it was actually deadly. Why? Because the presence of pain is an indicator that something is wrong. If you don’t know you are hungry, you won’t eat. If you don’t know you are bleeding, you won’t bandage the wound. If you don’t know you are sick, you won’t look for a doctor.

Now, on a massive, universal scale, think about this. The world is broken. We are broken. The Bible tells us that all of us have sinned (Rom. 3:23) and are headed for the judgment of God (Rev. 20:11-15). When do we most realize that we are broken? When we feel pain.

In fact, most people give their lives to Jesus when something happens that makes them realize they are not invincible and that life is short. That is why the writer of Ecclesiastes said that it is better to spend time at a funeral than a party– because we need to be reminded of our finality (Ecc. 7:2).

Here is the answer to how an all-powerful and all-good God could allow pain and suffering: because he wants us to know our need for him. Because without pain we would be fine to stay sick. Because the presence of pain is an indicator that something is wrong. If you don’t know you are hungry, you won’t eat. If you don’t know you are bleeding, you won’t bandage the wound. If you don’t know you are sick, you won’t look for a doctor. If you don’t know you are sinful, you won’t look for a savior.

Don’t let your pain be wasted. Let your pain be the very thing that takes you to the source of all joy–Jesus Christ. For followers of Jesus, the pain on this earth is as bad as it gets (Rom. 8:18). One day, we will live forever with God our Father who will “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Rev. 21:4-5).

Jazz and Jesus: Learning to Enjoy

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A few weeks ago, I went to a Jazz concert to see some friends play. I hadn’t been to one in a while. I haven’t listened to Jazz a lot in the past, but I have found myself enjoying it more and more over the years, to the point that it is one of my favorite kinds of music now. I remember listening to it towards the end of high school and thinking, “there is something really enjoyable here, I just can’t make myself like it as much as I want to.” Over the years, though, I think I have developed an ear for it. My wife, after all, is a musician, so my ear has unintentionally been trained over the years to appreciate different kinds of music on a deeper level. Needless to say, I don’t exclusively listen to Daft Punk and Hip-hop like I did when I was a teenager.

As I sat there enjoying the Jazz pieces, a thought hit me: Jazz is Jesus. Not in a pantheistic, God is everything and everything is God kind of way, but in a metaphorical sense. What I have been experiencing with Jazz music is the same thing I have experienced in my relationship with God over the years.

It started out with a glimpse of God’s beauty as revealed in the Bible. As a kid, I knew something great was there, I just didn’t know how to enjoy it yet. When God saved me and began to teach me more and more about himself, it was like taking Music Theory. The more I read and studied the Bible, I began to see God’s character and the way he works in the world. The more I related to him personally (through personal disciplines such as prayer and Bible reading) and corporately (by being an active part of a local church), the more I learned how to enjoy Him. You could say that my ability to enjoy him grew.

Seeing it in the Bible

I think we see this concept played out in the Bible. First off, look at what Paul says in Philippians 3:8-10:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order 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 comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection…

Paul is saying he has counted everything good in his life as garbage. Why? “In order that I may gain Christ,” and “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.” This is a simple observation, but do you not think Paul already “had Christ” and “knew him and the power of his resurrection?” These are the basics of what it means to be a Christian (Rom. 8:11). I think the answer is yes, which leads me to believe that Paul was really saying that he wanted more of these. In other words, he knew there was something else to be had, and he knew he just didn’t have it yet, but something had to happen in him in order for him to experience more of Jesus.

In addition, look at Mark 9:24. A man asks Jesus to heal his son and Jesus tells him that “all things are possible for the one who believes” (Mk 9:23). The man responds by crying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” At first glance, this phrase looks like nonsense. However, I think it reveals this principle—the man knew there was more to believe than what he currently believed. He knew that, objectively, there was more of God to be known, more to be believed in, but experientially, he wasn’t fully there yet.

That’s the whole point of what I am getting at. As we read through Scripture and experience God in our lives, we have got to remember that we are drinking out of an ocean with a spoon. There is always more of Him than what we are currently understanding, believing, and experiencing. As we grow in Christlikeness, our capacity to see him, know him, experience him, will grow. And when we die and are resurrected with new bodies, we will not be stuck hitting a ceiling of worship any longer. We will have the ability to see him perfectly, and in so doing our joy in God will be perfect.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).

 

If you are not a follower of Jesus and do not know this joy, you can today:  

For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 10:10-11)

Refresh Your Purpose

I ran across this parable this morning (a parable is a simple story full of symbolism used to make an effective point). It illustrates how organizations–churches included– experience what has been called mission drift. That is:

Organizations tend to move towards complacency over time, rather than urgency.[1]

In the Bible, we see this principle in the book of Revelation when Jesus says to the church at Ephesus:

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:4-5)

The lampstand in Revelation is symbolic of the church’s status as a church. Or simply, their status as light-bearers. So Jesus seems to be saying that the church has become useless because they have forgotten why they exist. If they do not have a revitalization of purpose, they will no longer have the privilege of being called a church. Jesus is not being cruel, but he is holding them to a standard. To be a church should necessarily mean to be an organized group of people who are shining the light of Christ to the world. To call anything less a church would be dishonest and dishonoring to that title.

This principle does not only apply to churches, but I think can be applied to any group or individual with a purpose, whether it is stated or not. I pray every individual, every family, every business, every team, and every church would think about what that purpose is and how it might be threatened by too much comfort, too much past success, and/or complacency.

How might you be drifting towards complacency in your personal life? What about in your church, job, and family? Now might be a good time to pray for wisdom (James 1:5) and be honest with yourself and with your team. If you are still alive, you still have purpose. If you are willing, revitalization is possible!

As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. (2 Thessalonians 3:13)

[1] Groeschel, Craig. “Institutionalizing Urgency, Part 1.” Life.Church. Accessed May 6, 2016. https://open.church/ideas/159-leadership-podcast-institutionalizing-urgency-part-1.

True Christian Faithfulness

Originally posted in 2015

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This week in an intern meeting, I met with a couple of guys to talk about the first chapter of the book of Daniel for a sermon. If you aren’t familiar with the biblical book, the first chapter essentially pivots on an episode where David and his friends are tempted to compromise their Jewish practices after being kidnapped by an invading country and forced into a pagan training school.

This episode got me thinking about what it means to be faithful. As I have thought about it, it seems to me that there are two approaches to faithfulness in the church world, and by Christians individually. There is biblical precedence for both, but often Christians and churches lean one way or the other, which ends up robbing them in the end. I also think God has a bias towards number two, and I’ll explain why.

1.) Faithfulness as sin avoidance (The defense)

The first type of faithfulness is the defensive posture. As I said, there are biblical reasons for this type of faithfulness. One good example of this is found in Romans 12:2a, which reads, “Do not be conformed to this world.” Obviously, in giving this command, there is an implied concern that the readers will be conformed if not warned. The same concern can be seen in 1 Corinthians 6:15. Where there are Christians who are involving themselves in sexual immorality, Paul writes, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” There is obviously a sense of faithfulness in avoiding sin. I’ll call this the defensive posture.
2.) Faithfulness as doing what is right (The offense)

There is a second kind of faithfulness, though, that I think the Bible emphasizes more than mere sin avoidance. That is, faithfulness in moving forward in (doing) what is right. This principal can be seen throughout Scripture, but one clear example is in the parable of the talents. In this parable, the servant that was rebuked was the very one who did not do anything wrong, per say. We could say he guarded himself against corruption, but in the very act of doing so, he failed to do what was right. Thus, it is not enough to be uncorrupted by bad things, Christians must also do good things. I’ll call this the offensive posture.

Why this matters

Throughout much of church history, it seems like the second type of faithfulness has been ignored more than the other. It seems to me that most Christians are content with being faithful by not erring doctrinally or not falling into sexual sin or not hurting others, but they don’t tend to focus as much on doing something with their doctrine or celebrating sexual purity when it is done right or helping those that are in need.

In fact, when Paul condemns the unbelieving world as having rejected God, he says, “They knew God, but they did not give glory to God or thank him (Rom. 1:21).” It wasn’t what they did that ultimately condemned them, it was what they did not do.

 

I think this is important because it affects how we posture our lives and churches. When Jesus put the stake in the ground to establish his church he said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Mat. 16:18).” This is a distinctively offensive posture. Many Christians live as if the gates of Hell are coming at them and they are supposed to stand against the gate. But gates don’t attack—they are by nature defensive. Christians and churches are supposed to posture themselves in such a way that they are more focused on doing what is right, rather than worrying about what they are doing wrong. This is not to say that holiness is not important, but there is one amazing phrase found in Galatians that summarizes the intent of holiness and turns even the acts of abstaining from the bad into a way of doing something good—namely, loving others. “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Gal. 5:14).”

 

In truth, the line between avoiding bad and doing good is hard to define, but it is there and it really does affect life and practice. Grace and love and mercy free us to be about the good work of the kingdom, and yes, there are certain things that we must stay away from because it ruins our witness, ruins our relationships, and ruins us, but while we must face those things, we must be obsessed with the kingdom responsibilities and privileges we have inherited through our adoptions as sons and daughters of God through Jesus!

 

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” – Ephesians 2:8-10

Reflections on Numbers 11

The first time I read through the Old Testament, there were a lot of chapters that left me wondering how I was supposed to apply what I learned in a genealogy, or a military census to my life that day. However, sometimes I would run across a portion of Scripture in the Old Testament that surprised me at how easy to was to make that connection. Numbers 11 was one of those. These are some thoughts from my journal about this text:

  • The Israelites focused on their present troubles rather than the promised land ahead. This made them discontent, short-sighted, ungrateful, and miserable. (v. 4-6)

“…the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat!”

Application: It’s not hard to see a connection between the Israelites’ tendencies and our own. A few verses later, Moses says, “Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers?” (Numbers 11:12) (Translation: These people are acting like babies!) All of us occasionally dip back into the waters of spiritual infancy. Reminding our souls that any trouble here on earth, compared to eternity with God, is “light and momentary” (2 Corinthians 4:17) will help us realize the greatness of what we’re heading toward and the shortness of this life with all its suffering (James 4:14).

  • God has a sense of humor, but is very serious at the same time. (v. 18-20)

“You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you…”

I had to laugh when I read this, because it’s funny. God is funny (Psalm 2:4, Psalm 37:13). After all, humor was a part of his creation.  In fact, sometimes God uses funny scenarios, such as a talking donkey (Numbers 22) or rubbing spit in a blind man’s eye (John 9:11) to get across a very serious point. But, that doesn’t mean that he is not very serious. He is serious, but he knows how to communicate His point in a creative way.

Emotional depth is important. The Bible demands we hold a lot of emotions at the same time. Think about Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus. The sovereign God who knows the end–and importance– of all matters…weeps. Not only that, but Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). Rejoice? While weeping? Yes.

  • But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29)

God would say through Ezekiel many years later, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:27)

Even more years later, God would pour out his Spirit on the day of Pentecost on all his people. (Acts 2)

The Holy Spirit is such a gift from God.

  • Sometimes God answers prayers– as discipline. (v. 31-34)

While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck down the people with a very great plague.”

God gave them what they wanted, but as discipline.

What is it you are asking God for that, if he gave it to you, would not be a blessing but discipline for your selfish requests? God answering someones desires or requests doesn’t always equate to his favor on them. It could be his wrath (Romans 1:24) or his loving discipline on his children (Hebrews 12:6).