Wednesday, November 25, 2015
We tend to idealize holidays, but human depravity doesn’t go into hibernation between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. One thing that will hit most Christians, sooner or later, are tensions within extended families at holiday time. Some of you will be visiting family members who are contemptuous of the Christian faith and downright hostile to the whole thing.
Others are empty nest couples who now have sons- or daughters-in-law to get adjusted to, maybe even grandchildren who are being reared, well, not exactly the way the grandparents would do it. Still others are young couples who are figuring out how to keep from offending family members who are watching the calendar, to see which side of the family gets more time on the ledger. And others are new parents, trying to figure out how to parent their child when it’s Mammonpalooza at Aunt Judie’s house this year.
And, of course, there’s just always the kind of thing that happens when sinful people come into contact with one another. Somebody asks “When is the baby due?” to an unpregnant woman or somebody blasts your favorite political figure or…well, you know.
Here are a few quick thoughts on what followers of Jesus ought to remember, especially if you’ve got a difficult extended family situation.
Yes, Jesus tells us that his gospel brings a sword of division, and that sometimes this splits up families (Matt. 10:34-37). But there’s a difference between gospel division and carnal division (see 1 Cor. 1, e.g.). The Spirit brings peace (Gal. 5:22), and the sons of God are peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). Since that’s so, we ought to “strive for peace with everyone” (Heb. 12:14).
Often, the divisiveness that happens at extended family dinner tables is not because an unbelieving family member decides to persecute a Christian. It’s instead because a Christian decides to go ahead and sort the wheat from the weeds right now, rather than waiting for Judgment Day (Matt. 13:29-30). Yes, the gospel exposes sin, but the gospel does so strategically, in order to point to Christ. Antagonizing unbelievers at a family dinner table because they think or feel like unbelievers isn’t the way of Christ.
Some Christians think their belligerence is actually a sign of holiness. They leave the Christmas table saying, “See, if you’re not being opposed, then you’re not with Christ!” Sometimes, of course, divisions must come. But think of the qualifications Jesus gives for his church’s pastors. They must not be “quarrelsome” and they must be “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:3,7). That’s in the same list as not being a heretic or a drunk.
Your presence should be one of peace and tranquility. The gospel you believe ought to be what disrupts. There’s a big difference.
The Scripture tells us to fear God, to obey the king, and to honor (notice this) everyone (1 Pet. 2:17). If your parents are high-priests in the Church of Satan, they are still your parents. If cousin Betty V. does Jello shots in her car, just to take the edge off the cocaine, well, she still bears the imprint of the God you adore.
You cannot do the will of God by opposing the will of God. That is, you can’t evangelize by dishonoring father and mother, or by disrespecting the image-bearers of God. Pray for God to show you the ways those in your life are worthy of honor, and teach your children to follow you in showing respect and gratitude.
Part of the reason some Christians have such difficulty with unbelieving or nominally believing extended family members is right at this point. They see differences over Jesus as being of the same kind (just of a different degree) as our differences over, say, the war in Afghanistan or the future of Sarah Palin or the Saints’ winning streak this year.
Often the frustration comes not because of how much Christians love their family members as much as how much these Christians want to be right. The professional Left and Right cable-TV and talk-radio pontificators may value the last word, but we can’t.
Jesus never, not once, seeks to prove he is right, and he was accused of being everything from a wino to a demoniac. He rejects Satan’s temptation to force a visible vindication, waiting instead for God to vindicate him at the empty tomb.
Often Christians veer toward Satanism at holiday time because we, deep down, pride ourselves on knowing the truth of the gospel. The rage you feel when Uncle Happy says why “many roads lead to God” might be more about the fact that you want to be right than that you want him to be resurrected.
Plus, we often forget just how it is that we came to be in Christ in the first place. This wasn’t some act of brilliance, like being accepted into Harvard or some exertion of the will, like learning to put a Rubik’s cube together in 20 seconds. “What do you have that you did not receive,” the Apostle Paul asks us, “And if you received it, then why do you boast as though you didn’t receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:6-7)
Satan wants to destroy you through his primal flaw, pride (1 Pet. 5:7-9; 1 Tim. 3:6). He doesn’t care if that pride comes through looking around the family table and figuring out how much more money you make than your second cousin-in-law or whether it comes by your looking around the table and saying, “Thank you Lord that I am not like these publicans.” The end result is the same (Prov. 29:23).
Unless you’re in an exceptionally sanctified family, you’re going to see failing marriages, parenting crises, and a thousand other shards of the curse. If your response is to puff up as you look at your own situation, there’s a Satanist at your family gathering, and you’re it.
The Scripture tells us that if we follow Jesus we’ll follow the path he took: that’s through temptation, to suffering, and ultimately to glory. Often we think these testings are big, monumental things, but they rarely are.
God will allow you to be tested. He’ll refine you, bring you to the fullness of maturity in Christ. He probably won’t do it by your fighting lions before the emperor or standing with a John 3:16 sign before a tank in the streets of Beijing. More likely, it will be through those seemingly little places of temptation—like whether you’ll love the belching brother-in-law at the other end of the table who wants to talk about how the Cubans killed JFK and how to make $100,000 a year selling herbal laxatives on the Internet.
Some of the tensions Christians face at holiday time have nothing to do with outside oppression as much as internal immaturity on the part of the Christians themselves.
I’ve had young men who tell me they feel treated like children when they go home to see their extended families. Their parents or parents-in-law are dictating to them where to go, when, and for how much time. Their parents or parent-in-law are hijacking the rearing of their children (”Oh, come on! He can watch Die Harder! Don’t be so strict!”). Some of these men just give in, and then seethe in frustration.
Sometimes that’s because the extended family is particularly obstinate. But sometimes the extended family treats the young man like a child because that’s how he acts the rest of the year. Don’t live financially and emotionally dependent on your parents or in-laws, passively dithering in your decisions about your family’s future, and then expect them to see you as the head of your house.
Be a man (if you are one). Make decisions (including decisions about where, and for how long, you’ll spend the holidays). Teach and discipline your children.Your extended family might not like it at first, but they’ll come to respect the fact that you’re leaving and cleaving, taking responsibility for that which has been entrusted to you.
Remember that you’ll give an account at the resurrection for every idle (that means seemingly tiny, insignificant, unmemorable) thought, word, and deed. At the Judgment Seat of the Lord Christ, you’ll be responsible for living out the gospel in every arena to which the Spirit has led you… including Aunt Flossie’s dining room table.
Publication date: November 25, 2015
Monday, November 23, 2015
Much of the world watched in horror as reports rolled in over the weekend of the barbaric terrorist attack on Paris. At least 120 people were murdered in what appears to be a highly coordinated operation by the Islamic State (ISIS).
A few days before, I was in a hospital in the Middle East in which Christian and Jewish and Muslim doctors were caring for Syrian refugees brutalized by ISIS and related groups. Now, the refugee crisis has exploded on the American political scene in a wave of controversy extending from Congress to almost everyone’s Facebook feed.
At issue in this controversy are the competing principles of security and compassion, of the United States as a fortress and as a refuge. Some early reports have indicated that at least one of the suspected terrorists had registered as a Syrian refugee to secure transportation to France. This has caused many in the United States and around the world to ask, understandably, why a country should accept any more refugees if there’s a chance that a terrorist may gain entry in that process.
It is completely right to ensure that the United States have a strong process to discern who are truly refugees and who are trying to take advantage of refugees. That’s why we in the U.S. need a clearer and stronger articulation of what kind of system will be put in place by our government to properly vet anyone seeking to enter as a refugee.
At the same time, evangelical Christians cannot be the people who turn our back on our mission field. We should be the ones calling the rest of the world to remember the image of God and inalienable human dignity, of persecuted people whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Yazidi, especially those fleeing from genocidal Islamic terrorists.
We should remember the history of the 20th century, of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and Refuseniks from the Soviet Union who were largely ignored by the world community. We can have prudential discussions and disagreements about how to maintain security. What we cannot do is to demagogue the issue.
While this kind of complicated geopolitical situation requires prudence, it also requires virtue. We should debate what it would take to ensure adequate vetting of refugees, but we should not allow ourselves to engage in the kind of rhetoric we’ve heard in recent days—about, for instance, requiring ID cards for Muslim American citizens or considering warrantless searches of their homes or houses of worship.
It is one thing to have disagreement about whether the vetting process is adequate. It is quite another to seek to permanently turn our backs on Syrian refugees altogether.
Most importantly, we shouldn’t allow our domestic controversy over refugees to cloud the larger issue of what is driving the refugee crisis in the first place—a death cult with aspirations of regional or global dominance. Christian communities that have been in the Middle East since literally the Book of Acts are in danger of extinction, as are those who are in need of hearing the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
We cannot love our neighbors at the same time we’re standing aside and watching them be slaughtered. The Bible grants the state the power and mandate to use force to protect the innocent. That means both engaging ISIS with a strong military response and doing what is in our power to shield the innocent from terror. Anything less is not a sufficiently Christian response.
We cannot forget our brothers and sisters in peril. And we cannot seal ourselves off from our mission field. An entire generation of those fleeing genocide will be asking whether there is an alternative to the toxic religion they’ve seen.
Will they hear from evangelicals “Jesus loves you” or will they hear from us “Who then is my neighbor?” There are massive implications for both answers.
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.
Publication date: November 23, 2015
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Over the weekend many of us watched with horror and heartbreak as reports came of terrorism in Paris. At least 120 people were killed in what appears to be a coordinated operation by the Islamic State (ISIS), a terror organization that has murdered thousands of innocent people over the last year, including many Christians.
ISIS is one of the clearest embodiments of persecution and evil that we in the West have seen in many years. Their very existence is a commitment to wiping out political and cultural opposition through violence. They prey relentlessly on the innocent, including children. There’s no question that ISIS is a menace that must be engaged through just war.
But is justice the only thing that Christians should pray for when it comes to ISIS? Should we pray that our military, in the words of singer Toby Keith, “light up their world like the Fourth of July”? Or should we pray that, as a friend of mine posted on social media, there would be a Saul among those ISIS militants, whose salvation might turn the Arab world upside down with the gospel?
These are not contradictory prayers, and to each of them I say, “Amen!”
Jesus says to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Mat. 5:44). The Spirit of Jesus in the prophets and in the apostles also tells us that those who turn a blind eye to the killing of others are wrong. The fact that we feel contradictory praying both for justice against the Islamic State and for salvation for Islamic State terrorists is partly because we fail to distinguish between the mission of the state in the use of the temporal sword against evildoers (Rom. 13:4) and the mission of the church in the use of the sword of the Spirit against sin and death and the devil (Eph. 6). But that’s not, I think, the main problem.
The main problem is that we sometimes forget that we are called to be a people of both justice and justification, and that these two are not contradictory.
It sounds awfully spiritual, at first blush, to say that we should not pray for the defeat of our enemies on the field of battle. But that’s only the case if these enemies are not actually doing anything. This terrorist group is raping, enslaving, beheading, crucifying our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as other innocent people. To not pray for swift action against them is to not care about what Jesus said we should seek, what we should hunger and thirst for, for justice. A world in which murderous gangs commit genocide without penalty is not a “merciful” world but an unjust horror show.
As Christians, we ought to be, above all people, concerned with such justice. We not only have the common grace standing of caring about stopping murder and injustice, rooted in the image of God and the law written on the heart. We also have the personal implication here. It’s our household being wiped out in the Middle East, the very place where our church started. For us, this isn’t a matter of “they;” it’s a matter of “us.”
At the same time, praying for the salvation of our enemies, even those committing the most horrific of crimes, is not a call to stop praying for justice against them. The cross, after all, is not forgiveness in a contemporary therapeutic sense—in which one is merely absolved of wrongdoing as though it were all a misunderstanding. No, that’s precisely the Apostle Paul’s point in the Book of Romans.
The gospel does not say, “Don’t’ worry about it; it’s okay.” The gospel points us to the cross where sin is absorbed in a substitute. God’s righteous condemnation of sin is there. He does not, and cannot, enable wickedness. And God’s mercy is there in that he is the One who sends his Son as the propitiation for sin. He is both “just and the justifier of the One who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). The gospel doesn’t leave sin unpunished. Every sin is punished, either a the Place of the Skull, in Christ, or in the judgment of hell, on one’s own.
The thief on the cross—a Middle Eastern terrorist by Rome’s standards—in his act of faith did not believe that his salvation exempted him from justice. He confessed that his sentence was justice, and that he was receiving “the due reward for our deeds” (Lk. 23:41) even as he cried out to Jesus for merciful entrance into the kingdom of Christ (Lk. 23:42).
We ought, indeed, to pray for the gospel to go forward, and that there might be a new Saul of Tarsus turned away from murdering to gospel witness. At the same time, we ought to pray, with the martyrs in heaven, for justice against those who do such wickedness. Praying for the military defeat of our enemies, and that they might turn to Christ, these are not contradictory prayers because salvation doesn’t mean turning an eye away from justice. We can pray for gospel rootedness in the Middle East, and we can pray to light up their world like the Fourth of July, at the same time.
We are, after all, the people of the cross.
Publication date: November 18, 2015
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
I’ll never forget seeing a woman pull measuring tape out of her purse as she talked about the skull of her child.
This woman, standing in an airport in Russia with my wife and me, was, like us, an American. She, like us, was in the former Soviet Union to pursue adoption. She had heard, she said, “horror stories” about fetal alcohol syndrome and various other nightmares. The measuring tape was for gauging the size of the craniums of her potential children, to make sure there was “nothing wrong” with them.
This woman spoke with hushed tones as she mentioned her last visit to an orphanage. She rejected the referral because the child had “something wrong with her” because she had a “blank stare” in her eyes. “You know?” the woman prodded. “Like, you know, the lights are on, but maybe nobody’s home?” I ventured that maybe the little girl had a “blank stare” because she had been staring at a blank wall for twelve hours a day. The woman assured me that I just didn’t know how bad it could be, and we couldn’t be too diligent in sniffing out “attachment issues” and developmental delay. I was horrified. It was as though she were sorting through a litter of puppies or browsing through a line of secondhand refrigerators. I was judging her.
I rolled my eyes at the very thought of a measuring tape for a child’s skull. But I wasn’t one whit holier. I was just as self-protective as they. I just had a more carefully crafted spin. I wouldn’t have spoken so crassly about rejecting children, because I had a theology to uphold and a peer group who would’ve held me accountable if I’d started talking about a child as if I were buying a condominium. But I dreaded as much as any pagan the thought of struggling for years with a child with a debilitating disease. God knew this, and confronted me in it.
We live in an era when commitments have become opportunities for narcissistic self-realization. I encounter this perhaps most often with weddings. In too many instances, weddings have become state dinners put on by planners and photographers to celebrate the love of the couple. A pastor friend of mine and I find ourselves saying the same thing to couples in premarital counseling, and we find that it is almost always startling. Our message is this: “The most important thing about your wedding is not what makes your wedding unique; it’s what makes your wedding the same as other faithful Christian weddings.” The core of the wedding isn’t the expression of the couples’ unique personalities: the groom’s cake modeled after his favorite football team, the video streaming pictures from their childhoods. The core of the wedding is the exchanging of vows, in the presence of God and these witnesses. Too often, the wedding becomes a stage for photographs, and that’s an acid to the idea not only of what a wedding is, but also of what a marriage is.
In counseling a couple for marriage, I spend a great deal of time looking for warning signs of future divorce. I try to discern whether one of them is looking to “change” the other. I try to determine whether they are walking into the marriage with a utopian view of marriage as romantic dream. That’s why I often have each of them, as part of their “homework,” to write out an answer to this question: “If I were to cheat on you, here’s how I would do it.” This really serves two purposes. One is to have the couple start learning how to rely on one another for accountability. The other is to awaken the couple out of hormonal bliss to the reality that marriage will be difficult, under the best of circumstances, and their call together will be to follow in the counsel of the late Johnny Cash: “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine; I keep my eyes wide open all the time.”
The same imperative is necessary for those considering adoption, foster care, or orphan ministry. If you want your “dream baby,” do not adopt or foster a child. Buy a cat, and make believe. If what you like is the idea of a baby who fulfills your needs and meets your expectations, a cat is the way to go. Decorate the nursery, if you’d like. Dress it up in pink and blue, and take pictures. But don’t adopt. Adopting an orphan isn’t ordering a consumer item or buying a pet. Such a mindset hurts the child, and countless other children and families who are watching your family in order to see a picture of what adoption means.
The angel Gabriel told our Lord’s mother that her bearing of Jesus was a sign of God’s favor on her (Lk. 1:30), and through the Spirit Elizabeth pronounced Mary to be “blessed” (1:41-42). The visionary Simeon, on the other hand, told Mary that a sword would pierce her heart (Lk. 235), as indeed it did (Jn. 19:26). Both the blessing and the pain were true for her, and in a very real sense are true for every mother, and for every father.
If you wish to avoid the risk or possibility of being hurt, do not adopt a child. Do not foster a child. Do not engage in ministry with orphans or with widows or with the sojourners or with the poor. Do not have children, in any way. Do not get married. Do not have any friendships. Hide under the bed, and hope for the best. Any human relationship brings with it the possibility of deep hurt. You can protect yourself from that possibility, but only by walling yourself off from love.
If what’s behind your adoption or orphan ministry isn’t a crucified, eyes-open, war-fighting commitment, the end result could be a twice-orphaned child. You could wind up with a child who has faced the trauma of a loss of parents in the first place, and then the trauma of rejection by another set of parents. A child should not face the challenge of living up to your expectations.
We need a battalion of Christians ready to adopt, to foster, and to minister to orphans and to mothers in crisis. But that means real orphans, real women, real persons, real families—not idealized versions of what we think they should be. The gospel of adopting grace didn’t find us in a boutique nursery but in the war-zone of a stable, in the death-camp of a crucifixion field, in the graveyard of a borrowed tomb. That’s not a gospel that plays well on television, but it’s the only one we have.
Caring for orphans means, in a very real sense, joining them in their distress. I cannot tell you that won’t be risky. It could up-end your plans for yourself and your family altogether. It could wreck your life-plan. These children need to be reared, to be taught, to be loved, to be hugged, to be heard. That may take far more from you than you ever expected to give. This sort of love is not easy. But for those who are called to it—it’s worth it.
This article is adapted from the new edition of my book Adopted For Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches.
Publication date: November 11, 2015