Monthly Archives: February 2015

Reconciling Matthew 5:44, Revelation 6:10, and my internal response to ISIS

Today a friend of mine posted the following status on Facebook:

21 beheaded, 45 burnt and now 90 Christians abducted by ISIS. I have a struggle within my own mind. The human side of me boils up in anger wanting God’s immediate wrath to be poured out on these people. However the Spirit reminds me I too was an enemy of Christ (Romans 5:10) and also reminds me of Jesus words “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:44). SOOOOO conflicted but praying for His Spirit to be strong in my weakness. Praying that my brothers and sisters stand strong in the face of Satanic persecution and that even those who persecute, torture and kill my brothers and sisters will be convicted by the testimony of these Saints and repent and follow the one true God and King.

I think a lot of Christians are going through the same internal struggle right now. How do we pray in accordance with the will of God in this situation? How do we control the anger boiling beneath the surface? I have the same struggle.

I’m also wrestling with this theologically.

Specifically I’m trying to figure out how to reconcile Matthew 5:44 and Revelation 6:10.

On the one hand we have Matthew 5:44, a clear command of Jesus that we should love and pray for our persecutors. (Side note: All of this conversation seems a bit disingenuous because I am not being persecuted.) If this were our only command of how to pray or example of prayer in Scripture than it would seem that the only godly response would be for us to pray for the salvation of the persecutors.

On the other hand, we have Revelation 6:10. This records the prayer of actually martyred Christians. This could very well be the prayer of the 21 beheaded Christians. How do they pray? “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” I feel like a lot of Christians these days would chastise their prayer. “Don’t pray like that! Pray for God to bless, don’t look for his vengeance!” But God doesn’t chastise them. Instead he gives them white robes and tells them to wait a little longer.

In addition to Revelation 6:10 we have the “imprecatory” prayers in the psalms and God’s promise in Joel 3:21 – “Shall I leave their innocent blood unavenged? No, I will not!”

I don’t want to be in a place where I disregard Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:44, but I also don’t want to find myself disagreeing with God in the event he does take vengeance on his enemies.

I don’t want to be like Jonah who hated when God showed mercy to the Ninevites. But I also don’t want to show contempt for the prayer of the martyred saints in Revelation 6:10.

So how can this tension be resolved? Perhaps we’re meant to live with this tension as we face evil. But I do think that both Jesus’ command to pray for our enemies, and the saints prayer for vengeance can be reconciled in the justice of God.

God is justified in showing mercy to his enemies. He is justified because Christ took the punishment for us. That is why I who was once his enemy can be saved by his great mercy. God is justified is saving ISIS. If he does, I should give him glory for his mercy and justice.

But God is also justified in taking vengeance. It is His right to take (not mine) and when he carries it out it will result in his glory. If and when he carries out his justice, whether it is swift through a human military force or deferred until the Final Day, I will give him glory, knowing that he is able to carry out justice perfectly.

So I pray for God’s justice.  “Lord if you have vengeance, you are justified. If mercy, you are justified. May your will be done.”

I also pray for the protection on future would-be persecuted Christians. “Lord protect them, either by saving the persecutors or by taking them out.”

Finally, I pray for the persecuted. “Lord, give them strength and grace in this hour of great need. Make them brave and Christlike. May they stand firm as they receive the crown of glory due.”

One final note: I feel much safer praying like Jesus command in Matthew 5:44 and that’s because I know my own heart. How can we pray Revelation 6:10 without hate creeping in and corrupting our soul? I’m sure it is possible otherwise we wouldn’t have this prayer in Scripture, but it is surely extremely hard to do.

Bottom line: When all else fails in our prayers it is best to go back to the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: “You’re kingdom come, you’re will be done.”

The Pharisee aims at outward obedience but Jesus points us to agape love and natural conformity to God’s law

Recently I have been reflecting on the fact that from my youth I have slowly shifted from thinking of religion in terms of outward obedience to terms of inward transformation and from ideology to responsibility. This is perhaps why I am now ready to hear Dallas Willard’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Willard argues convincingly that Jesus is not setting out a new set of laws to be followed woodenly, but is describing and illustrating the motives and actions of a disciple whose life has been transformed by Jesus and the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Here, for instance, is Willard on Matthew 5:39-42. For Willard, when we understand the kingdom and are transformed into the likeness of Jesus, we replace the presumption of the world with the presumption of the kingdom.

Within the human order, the presumption is that you return harm for harm (“resist evil”), that you do only what legal force requires you to, and that you give only those who have some prior claim on you (those who are “family” or have done you a favor, etc.).

The presumption is precisely reverse once we stand within the kingdom. There the presumption is that I will return god for evil and “resist” only for compelling reasons, that I will do more than I strictly must in order to help others, and that I give to people merely because they have asked me for something they need.

Here is Willard applying this concept to Matthew 5:41. Note that he rejects legalism on both sides. He rejects only doing what is required, but he also rejects an unthinking obedience to Jesus’ illustration. Remember, it is important to remember that for Willard Jesus is giving illustrations of the kingdom heart, not universal commands.

If a government official compels me to carry a burden for one mile to aid him in his word – as any Roman soldier cold require of a Jew in Jesus’ day – I will, again “as appropriate,” assist him further in his need. Perhaps he has a mile yet to go, and I am free to assist him. If so, I will not say, “This is all you can make me do,” and drop the burden on his foot. I will also not carry it another mile whether he wants me to or not, and say, “Because Jesus said to.”

This means that the disciple of Jesus must take responsibility for their actions in each concrete situation. In some cases, it is not appropriate to go the second mile. In fact, in some cases, you must not go the second mile.

Of course in each case I must determine of the gift of my vulnerability, goods, time, and strength, is precisely, appropriate. That is my responsibility before God…

If, for example, I am a heart surgeon on the way to do a transplant, I must not go a second mile with someone. I must say no and lave at the end of the first mile with best wishes and a hasty farewell. I have other things to do and must make a decision. I cannot cite a law and thus evade my responsibility of judging.

Likewise, sometimes it is not “appropriate” or “responsible” to turn the other cheek. You must consider the larger context.

If turning the other cheek means I will then be dead, or that others will suffer great harm, I have to consider this larger context. Much more than my personal pain or humiliation is involved. Does that mean I will “shoot first”? Not necessarily, but it means I can’t just invoke a presumed “law of required vulnerability.” I must decide before God what to do, and there may be grounds for some measure of resistance.

But Willard is careful to say that our actions and attitudes do have strict limits, though those limits have more to do with the condition of our heart before Jesus than with acts of outward obedience. Whatever action we take, our motive cannot be retaliation or personal retribution.

Of course the grounds will never be personal retaliation. And there will never, as I live in the kingdom, be room for “getting even.” We do not “render evil for evil,” as the early Christians clearly understood and practiced (Rom. 12:17; 1 Pet. 3:9). That is out of the question as far as our life in the kingdom living. That is the point Jesus is making here.

Here we get at the heart of Willard’s understanding of the Sermon.

In every concrete situation we have to ask ourselves, not “Did I do the specific things in Jesus’ illustrations?” but “Am I being the kind of person Jesus’ illustrations are illustrations of?”

Again, this only works if our hearts are transformed and compelled by the love of Christ. This is no doctrine of personal expediency in order to get around the “commands” of Jesus.

We will decide, as best we know how, on the basis of love for all involved and with a readiness to sacrifice what we simply want. And in every situation we have the larger view. We are not passive, but we act always with clear-eyed and resolute love.

After all, it’s ultimately OK if we experience harm and loss for the sake of Christ. We see the world from the point of view of eternity – and that changes everything.

We know what is really happening, seeing it from the point of view of eternity. And we know that we will be taken care of no matter what. We can be vulnerable because we are, in the end, simply invulnerable. And once we have broken the power of anger and desire over our lives, we know that the way of Christ in response to personal injury and imposition is always the easier way. It is the only way that allows us to move serenely in the midst of harm and beyond it.

Again, this is not to deny that there are universal commands in Scripture. There are non-negotiable. This isn’t relativism. Still, I think Willard has put his finger on what I am calling “responsible love” (a term “I got either from Bonhoeffer or Willard, I cannot recall which.) I am learning that in life there is Black and White, but there is also a lot of situational Gray. How do we navigate those gray areas? As a teenager I would have tried to navigate them by removing them entirely but as I have grown I have come to realize that life is complex and there isn’t a “rule” for every possible situation. I think we can navigate the complexity and sometimes ambiguity of life, however, if our hearts are first transformed by Jesus and the values of the kingdom.

I’ll conclude this post with one final quote from Willard:

The Pharisee takes as his aim keeping the law rather than becoming the kind of person whose deeds naturally conform to the law. Jesus knew the human heart… [thus] he concludes his exposition of the kingdom kind of goodness by contrasting the ordinary way of human love, loving those who love them, with God’s agape love. This is a love that reaches everyone we deal with. It is not in their power to change that. It is the very core of what we are or can become in his fellowship, not something we do. Then the deeds of love, including loving our enemies, are what that agape love does in us and what we do as the new persons we have become.

All quotes from The Divine Conspiracy, Chapter 5.

The foolish, weak, lowly, and despised

In a passage describing the availability and nearness of the Kingdom brought to us in Jesus, Willard has a wonderful passage on the Church. Here is a brief excerpt worth a share:

These are the grubby people. In their midst a Corrie Ten Boom takes the hand of the Nazi who killed her family members. The scene is strictly not of this earth. Any spiritually healthy congregation of believers in Jesus will more or less look like these “brands plucked from the burning.” If the group is totally nice, that is a sure sign something has gone wrong. For here are the foolish, weak, lowly, and despised of this world, whom God has chosen to cancel out the humanly great. -Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 125

How do I know if it’s time to act right now or wait?

In a few weeks I will be preaching on Acts 1:1-11. In this passage Jesus instructs the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and “wait for the gift my Father promised.” This command has a clear historical root: The disciples had not yet received the Holy Spirit and so were not yet fully equipped to carry out the Great Commission. We should be cautious in applying this historical command to “wait” in our modern context. However, sometimes God does tell us to wait. Sometimes he has something for us to do, just not yet. Whether it’s going on a mission trip, changing your job, starting some new endeavor, taking care of an interpersonal issue, or something else, how do we know when the time is right?

First, don’t put off what you know you need to do now. I’m talking to myself here. Some other people may be more likely to “run ahead” of God’s timing but I’m far more likely to use “not yet” as an excuse to put off something I know I need to be doing now.

Some things just can’t wait. Jesus emphasizes the importance of reconciling to a brother immediately when he says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). When Paul calls people to be reconciled to God through Jesus he urges them by saying, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2 emphasis added).

Second, act in accordance with wisdom. God does not call us to be unwise. It may be controversial, but I would apply this to church debt. Should your church go into debt for a new addition? Would doing so be an act of faith or an act of foolishness? While I would leave a little ground for the former I think in most cases it would be the latter. Would acting now be foolish, for financial or other reasons? If so, wait. That new addition (or that new job, or getting married) may still be a good idea, but maybe God is calling you to wait.

Third, listen to the voice of the community. God has not left us alone. We are created to think and act within a community of believers. Your friends, families, and mentors can all provide a perspective broader than their own.

Fourth, balance the urgency with the situation with the sovereignty of God. Don’t panic. Don’t get lost in the situation. Don’t act out of knee-jerk reactions. Remember that God stands sovereign over history and time. There are very few “one time offers you have to take right now or it will be lost forever” kind of events in life. God does sometimes calls us to act right now (see point number 1), but those situations are rare. God is in control and has the ability to carry out his will in his own timing even if it doesn’t match yours. Don’t use this as an excuse to procrastinate what you know you need to do. But it’s just as unhealthy to carry around the feeling that everything is urgent. Such an attitude demonstrates a lack of faith in God’s timing.

I’m sure this list isn’t exhaustive. What advice do you have for discerning God’s timing?

Benefits of bivocational ministry (via Thom Rainer)

I have recently started following Thom Rainer’s blog and podcasts. His most recent podcast is on the topic of bivocational ministry (check it out here). He lists several benefits, which are quite similar to a list I wrote back in 2012. Here’s Thom’s list:

  1. A secular or marketplace job will put you in the middle of culture on a regular basis.
  2. Full-time pastors and church staff often get missionally stale in their “holy huddles.”
  3. Smaller churches are increasingly unable to afford full-time pastors or staff.
  4. The digital world is offering more opportunities for flexible secular jobs than ever.
  5. More churches are moving toward multiple teaching/preaching pastors.
  6. More churches would like to expand staff, but don’t have the resources to do so.
  7. A bivocational pastor or church staff can have greater freedom than a person in a full-time role.
  8. A bivocational pastor or staff person has transferrable skills.

I am often asked “Do you plan on going full-time?” or “When are you going to go full time?” And, for the first year or two of my ministry that was my stated goal. However, as I have stayed in it I have come to see bi-vocational ministry as a type of calling, specifically because of the reasons Thom mentioned in his podcast. I will consider full-time ministry in the future if the church could afford it and needed more pastoral support, but it is no longer a “goal” for my ministry future.

If you’re thinking about going into ministry I recommend considering bivocational ministry. It’s not for everyone in every circumstance but is worthy of consideration.

The “Plus One” Approach to Church (via Kevin DeYoung)

Kevin DeYoung has a great article on how to get more connected to your local church which he calls the “plus-one” approach. His advice is this: “In addition to the Sunday morning worship service, pick one thing in the life of your congregation and be very committed to it.”

I recommend reading the complete article here. I link to it on this blog (instead of just “sharing” on Twitter/Facebook) so that I can reference it later in the book-about-church-Ill-think-about-writing-but-never-will.

The one time you won’t be bringing up the problem of evil

I heard this week that atheist Stephen Fry was asked what he would say if he were confronted by God. Fry’s response: “I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s the about?”

Fry imagines that if he were confronted by the God of Scripture he would challenge him with the problem of evil. “How dare you create a world to which there is so much misery that is not our fault?” Indeed, I do not claim that Fry’s question is wrong by itself. It’s a question I can imagine King David asking, or perhaps one of the Old Testament prophets. It’s a question you may have asked, and its one Christian theologians have wrestled with over the centuries. But it’s not what you, or I, or Stephen Fry would actually say if “confronted” by the living God.

In his suffering Job wrestled with the apparent injustice of his predicament but when God “confronted” him all his objections were silenced and he simply replies, “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted… My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:2, 5-6)

The prophet Isaiah, too, had an experience with the living God. How did he respond? “Who is me!” he cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5).

When the nation of Israel was in the desert and they stood before the mountain of God and heard his voice they were filled with awe and fear. “The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear’” (Heb 12:21).

In the last day all will see the glory of God and will be “confronted” by the risen Christ. At the name of Jesus “every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:10).

This is a vision that Stephen Fry finds repulsive, even evil. And right now he has the luxury of thinking and feeling this way. The question of evil is a tough one, and it’s one we may ask today. But it’s not one we will ask when encountered by the living God. In that day we will all be undone by the majesty of his presence. We are wise to take the counsel God offered to Job: “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you will answer me” (Job 38:2). Better yet, we are wise to find refuge in the place God himself has offered us salvation, His Son, Jesus Christ.