Who is the most important person in your church? On one level it’s kind of a silly question to ask. Yet in his book Healed at Last, Scott Blackwell provides an answer that is both sweet and encouraging. He tells about his friend Steve who has been profoundly disabled since birth.
He has been forever wheelchair-bound, and his arm and head movements are often uncontrolled or controlled with difficulty—especially when he gets excited. His speech is difficult to understand, and his vocabulary is limited. Because he was born in the 1950s, those who cared for him made certain assumptions about his ability to learn, respond and understand. He was institutionalized and given minimal stimulation and therapy—such was the state of rehabilitation for the profoundly disabled back then. It was assumed he would never be able to read, so he was never taught. Now, in his fifties, Steve is thoroughly dependent on the aid of others. He requires assistance to eat, drink, bathe, dress, toilet, and so on. Steve also constantly battles the kind of respiratory and gastro-intestinal disorders that life lived full-time in a wheelchair bring. All this is so much more difficult to witness knowing that trapped within Steve’s dysfunctional body is a sharp and inquiring mind that was left untended and ignored for years.
Yet, as Blackwell points out, Steve finds joy despite such severe challenges.
Steve is the most joy-filled and enthusiastic believer in Jesus I think I’ve ever met. He’s bright, intelligent, witty, stubborn, passionate and compassionate. He holds down a job and, every time I talk with him, he insists that he is far too busy. His grin and his “G’day” is one hundred percent genuine for every person he meets. He insists on having his Bible open at the right passage with the rest of us, even though he cannot read it. The phenomenal thing about Steve is that somehow he manages to view every day of struggle as another day of triumph, and this he does, by his own testimony, through his faith in Christ. Hope and trust in God’s promises burn brighter in Steve than in anyone else I’ve ever met. In our church it’s impossible to preach about the return of Jesus, or the great resurrection day, or even death, without being interrupted by the man in the front who is madly flailing his arms around and shouting with excitement, “No more chair!”
After telling more about Steve’s deep faith and his sure hope that one day he will stand on his feet before his Savior, Blackwell says this:
Personally, I think it is possible that this makes Steve the most important person in our church. Once, during a rare moment of melancholy, he asked me why I thought God had caused him to live out his life in a chair. I thought for a long time before I said I didn’t know for certain, but that maybe his disability and his chair were meant for our teaching, blessing and benefit. I suggested that, possibly, it was God’s intention that through Steve our church might learn great lessons about patience, love, endurance, joy, compassion, hope and faith. I said to him (and I believe it is true) that he is perhaps our most dynamic and effective evangelist and pastoral worker. His look of surprise and shock actually made me laugh out loud. It had never occurred to him that this was what he was for us. He was just Steve.
Through my friend Steve, God has worked wonderful deeds of spiritual growth and maturity in our church.
I have written about envy before and have referred to it as “the lost sin.” Envy is a sin I am prone to, though I feel like it is one of those sins I have battled hard against and, as I’ve battled, experienced a lot of God’s grace. It is not nearly as prevalent in my life as it once was. Recently, though, I felt it threatening to rear its ugly head again and spent a bit of time reflecting on it. Here are three brief observations about envy.
ENVY IS COMPETITIVE
I am a competitive person and I believe it is this competitive streak that allows envy to make its presence felt in my life. Envy is a sin that makes me feel resentment or anger or sadness because another person has something or another person is something that I want for myself. Envy makes me aware that another person has some advantage, some good thing, that I want for myself. And there’s more: Envy makes me want that other person not to have it. This means that there are at least three evil components to envy: the deep discontent that comes when I see that another person has what I want; the desire to have it for myself; and the desire for it to be taken from him.
Do you see it? Envy always competes. Envy demands that there is always a winner and a loser. And envy almost always suggests that I, the envious person, am the loser.
ENVY ALWAYS WINS
Envy always wins, and if envy wins, I lose. Here’s the thing about envy: If I get that thing I want, I lose, because it will only generate pride and idolatry within me. I will win that competition I have created, and become proud of myself. Envy promises that if I only get that thing I want, I will finally be satisfied, I will finally be content. But that is a lie. If I get that thing, I will only grow proud. I lose.
On the other hand, if I do not get what I want, if I lose that competition, I am prone to sink into depression or despair. Envy promises that if I do not get that thing I want, my life is not worth living because I am a failure. Again, I lose.
In both cases, I lose and envy wins. Envy always wins, unless I put that sin to death.
Envy divides people who ought to be allies. Envy drives people apart who ought to be able to work closely together. Envy is clever in that it will cause me to compare myself to people who are a lot like me, not people who are unlike me. I am unlikely to envy the sports superstar or the famous musician because the distance between them and me is too great. Instead, I am likely to envy the pastor who is right down the street from me but who has a bigger congregation or nicer building; I am likely to envy the writer whose books or blog are more popular than mine. Where I should be able to work with these people based on similar interests and similar desires, envy will instead drive me away from them. Envy will make them my competitors and my enemies rather than my allies and co-laborers.
What’s the cure for envy? I can’t say it better than Charles Spurgeon: “The cure for envy lies in living under a constant sense of the divine presence, worshiping God and communing with Him all the day long, however long the day may seem. True religion lifts the soul into a higher region, where the judgment becomes more clear and the desires are more elevated. The more of heaven there is in our lives, the less of earth we shall covet. The fear of God casts out envy of men.”
I don’t watch a lot of movies these days, largely because it’s rare that I can find something that promises to reward me more richly than spending the same amount of time in a good book. That said, I do enjoy the occasional miniseries when I can catch it on Netflix or iTunes; I guess I find it easier to part with forty minutes than two hours. Even with that limited exposure there’s something I have observed and something that has spelled the end of my interest in more than a few shows: Rape is in.
I remember reading an article a few years ago where an entertainment writer was asking, “What’s next?” She wrote about how television and movies had ramped up the sexual content on the screen, first by way of innuendo and then by way of explicit display. She suggested that the next frontier might just be sexual violence, and it seems that she was right.
Recent articles at a host of publications have pointed this out, providing a long list of contemporary shows that have made rape a significant plot point: Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Scandal, House of Cards, Mad Men, The Americans, Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, Bates Motel—and many more besides (including a new show called Tyrant that has several rape scenes in the opening episode alone). Sometimes this rape is shown explicitly or psuedo-explicitly, while other times it is recounted as a past event. But either way, this much is clear: Television has never been crueler to women than it is right now.
I have very little experience with most of the shows listed above. I try to screen my shows as well as I can (IMDB’s Parents Guide feature is my friend) and not even get into ones that tiptoe along the edge of morality or, even worse, go barging right past it. I have an extreme aversion to sexual violence and am so deeply affected by it that I simply have to avoid it in television or movies. But as I read these articles about rape and today’s programming, it seems that rape fulfills various plot functions:
- Sometimes rape is used to explain why a character is the way she is. In these cases the rape is usually in the past and the viewers learn about it as a means to better understand a central character. This is apparently the case in House of Cards and The Americans.
- Sometimes rape is used as a means of character development. If a bad man needs to be made even worse, rape fulfills that purpose and is typically shown in some detail. This is apparently the case in Tyrant and Game of Thrones.
- Sometimes rape is used simply as a plot device meant to introduce dramatic tension, such as when the sweet and flawless character of Downton Abbey’sAnna Bates was raped, leaving the viewer to question whether her marriage would survive and whether her husband would find out and take revenge.
However it functions and however it is presented, rape is suddenly common in television programming. And it concerns me. It especially concerns me especially because so many Christians watch and enjoy these shows.
The area of Christians and the arts is one I do not write about very often, at least in part because when I have done so in the past, there is always a person way smarter than me and way better read than me who replies with an extensive theology and philosophy of art and an explanation as to why Christians need to explore depraved themes to find the redemption beyond them. There is a part of me that understands that. The worst Christian art is the Christian art that denies the obvious—that we live in world marred by all manner of depravity. Sexual violence is a sad, sick, and far-too-common fact of life in a world like this one. But does that justify its prevalence in programming? Does that justify us watching it? Does it justify it as a common theme in our entertainment?
As a family we have been reading through 2 Samuel and have just had to grapple with the sickening story of Tamar’s rape by her own half-brother (see 2 Samuel 13). This is a story of rape that God saw fit to include in the Holy Bible—one of several biblical portrayals of sexual violence. But when I look at it closely, I see a world of difference between it and television programming.
The most significant difference is this: It is not meant to be entertaining. When we thumb the remote and turn on the television, or when we open a browser and type in “n-e-t-f-l-i-x”, we do so to be entertained. When we open the pages of the Bible we do so to be changed. Within the great drama of Scripture, Tamar’s story serves not to entertain, but to inform and reform. It is sin told sinlessly. It avoids being salacious and being explicit. It displays the far-reaching consequences of David’s sin, it highlights the sickening idolatry of mankind, it explains some of the battles that will soon come. Best of all, it calls the reader to cry out for a Savior, another Son of David, who can fully and finally put an end to such horrors. It is a far cry from rape as a shocking plot twist meant to generate buzz, rape as character development when all else has failed, rape as the explanation for vengeance.
Here is what I wonder, and here is what we ought to be asking ourselves: If Christians won’t allow explicit scenes of sexual violence to keep them from watching television shows, what will? If scenes of rape are not over the edge, what is? If we won’t draw the line there, will we draw it anywhere?
A few months ago I began a short series called “The False Teachers.” I wanted to look back through church history to meet some of the people who have undermined the church at various points. We looked at historical figures like Joseph Smith who founded Mormonism and Ellen G. White who led the Seventh Day Adventists into prominence, and we looked at contemporary figures like Benny Hinn, the prominent faith healer, and T.D. Jakes, who has tampered with the doctrine of the Trinity.
I will soon be starting a new series looking at The Defenders, Christians known for defending the church against a certain theological challenge or a specific false teaching. I will be focusing on modern times and modern issues such as inerrancy and Open Theism. But before I do that, I wanted to reflect on some of what I’ve learned as I’ve spent time considering false teachers and false teaching. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from false teachers.
False Teachers Are CommonThe first and most fundamental thing I learned about false teachers is that we ought to expect them and be on the lookout for them. They are common in every era of church history. This should not surprise us, since the Bible warns that we are on war footing in this world, and that Satan is on full-out offensive against God and his people. And sure enough, history shows that whenever the gospel advances, error follows in its wake. When and where there are teachers of truth, there will necessarily be teachers of error. Perhaps the most surprising thing about false teachers is that we continue to be surprised by them.
False Teachers Are Deceptive
False teachers are deceptive. They do not announce themselves as false teachers, but proclaim themselves angels of light, people who have access to wisdom others have missed or misplaced. As Denny Burk says, “False teachers typically won’t show up to your church wearing a sandwich board saying, ‘I am a false teacher’.” Instead they begin within the bounds of orthodoxy and announce themselves only slowly and through their subtly-twisted doctrine. They turn away from orthodoxy one step at a time rather than all at once.
False Teachers Are Dangerous
False teachers are dangerous, and part of what makes them so dangerous is that they will affirm so much that is good and true. They will not deny all of the doctrines upon which the Christian faith stands or falls, but only select parts of it. They draw in the unsuspecting with all they affirm and only later destroy them with all they deny. There is an important lesson: We only know a person when he understand both what he affirms and what he denies.
False Teachers Are DivisiveFalse teachers cause division within the church and often cause division even among true Christians. Because false teachers tend to remain within the church, and because they claim to be honoring the Bible, they confuse true believers and drive wedges between them. Amazingly, it is often those who stand fast against falsehood who get labeled as divisive. The church often trusts a smiling false teacher ahead of a frowning defender.
False Teachers Give People What They Want
As Paul wrote his final letter to Timothy he warned that the time was coming when people would not endure sound teaching (and hence, sound teachers) but instead they would have itching ears and demand teachers who would satisfy this itch. False teachers do this very thing. Their concern is not for what people truly need, but for what people want. The concern of the Christian is the exact opposite—the gospel does not address what we want, but what we need!
False Teachers Are Not Innocent
False teachers know they are false teachers. This may not be true all the time, and perhaps some false teachers deceive themselves before they deceive others. But I believe most know who and what they are; in fact, I believe most know and delight in who and what they are. They are not naive people who have taken a wrong turn in their theology, but evil people who are out to destroy others. Their attack on truth is far more brazen than we may like to think.
False Teachers Cannot Tolerate the Gospel
False teachers simply cannot tolerate the gospel. At some level and in some way, they will always add to or subtract from the pure and sweet gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. They may affirm the Trinity or inerrancy or the deity of Jesus Christ, but they will never fully affirm the gospel of the Bible.
Your turn. What other characteristics of false teachers have you observed? Share in the comment section below.