Thursday, January 18, 2018

BRAVING THE ATHEISTS





Can we be good without God? This is the claim of atheism - that they don't need God to live a virtuous life.

However, right from the get-go, the atheist encounters insurmountable problems. Can they even talk coherently about what is good if the good and the virtuous do not exist outside of their own imagination?

Do they really believe that good, right and  wrong, and justice and injustice are simply mental constructs, which are socially created? Yes! They do not believe that these moral realities have any existence outside of our own thinking and biochemical reactions.

Consequently, our moral sentiments and conscience represent a fire-alarm bell that rings without a real external fire. They experience a guilt and a shame signifying nothing. However, if this bell does not serve to alert us to a real fire, why even bother listening to it? Instead, why not disable the annoying alarm!

This is exactly what many will do to their conscience through the use of alcohol and drugs. Others will resort to strange beliefs, even to denying freewill. If they can convince themselves that they couldn't have acted otherwise, they can soften their guilt and shame.

More commonly, Western culture resorts to a philosophy called "moral relativism," which claims that morality is merely relative to our tastes, desires, will, and evolving social norms. Consequently, moral truth and its divine Author cannot judge us because they really don't exist.

However, atheists insist that they do not need God to be good. However, without God, a real moral good cannot exist, just a multitude of human claims about what feels good to them.

It is like imagining that one has a family so that he can enjoy them in his imagination with any of the costs involved in having the real thing.

Last night, my friend and I braved our way into an atheist meeting where people were sharing about the good things that they were doing. When my turn came, I confessed that I am selfish and would have had little interest in living virtuously unless I was convinced that a moral law and a law-Giver actually exist. Otherwise, I would have taken a hammer to the fire-alarm.

I should have anticipated that this would be taken as a blow to the atheist solar plexus. Therefore, in unison, they insisted, "We do not need God to be good. Perhaps you need this myth, but we don't."

I tried to explain that without this conviction, our life, which we have devoted to virtuous living, will soon erode. Against their protests, I tried to explain:

  • Virtue is costly. Without an adequate rationale for such a sacrificial life, our selfish desires and fears will gradually prevail.

While we were riding home, my friend and I reflected on what we had seen and heard. We observed some commonalities. We all want community, goodness, and a meaningful life. However, we are pursuing them in such different ways that we live in opposing armed camps, without any reconciliation in sight.

PRIDE POISONS THE WELL





We love to think that we are morally superior and deserving. However, this attitude will create distance between ourselves and God, who wants us to understand that He alone is the Savior, and that any good thing we receive comes as a gift and not a deserved wage.

Simon the Magician thought that a payment would entitle him to a gift from God. He had wanted the power that he observed coming from the Apostles John and Peter. They were able to lay their hands on people who would then receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. However, Peter was horrified by Simon's offer to buy this gift:

  • Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, "Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." But Peter said to him, "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity." (Acts 8:18-23 ESV)

The belief that we can purchase or earn anything from God is abhorrent to Him (Romans 11:35; Luke 17:10). Peter therefore told Simon to repent of this belief, this attitude of heart.

Let me try to illustrate the problem. If you give me a beautiful painting that you have painted, but then I take credit for painting it, you will be deeply offended. If I refuse to humble myself to confess my sin, it might be the end of our friendship.

If we believe that we have earned or purchased what God has given us as a gift, this belief will offend God. Consequently, I have learned to give God the thanks for all the good that comes into my life.

The Apostle Paul even thanked God for his hard labors:

  • But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

But don't we reap what we sow? Certainly, but we sow by the grace of God. When we understand this, we then understand that we cannot take credit for the blessings we reap. Why not? Because they too a part of the gift of God!

Understanding that good things come to us by the grace of God and not because we deserve them is essential. To believe that we are deserving of the gift is to alienate the gift-Giver. It is also prideful, not thankful. And pride will poison the well.

THE SECRET OF FAITH AND TRUST





We grieve that, at times, our faith seems to be flimsy, no more than a passing mist. Even worse, we fear that God will not answer our prayers because of this faith deficiency.

However, we are in good company. Even the Apostles seemed to lament their lack of faith:

  • The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" And the Lord said, "If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you. "Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and recline at table'? Will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink'? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'" (Luke 17:5-10)

However, according to their Master, they were asking for the wrong thing - a greater amount of faith. Jesus responded with two parables. The first demonstrated that even with the smallest amount of faith, they could move mountains and trees.

Well, if it wasn't the amount of faith, what was it that would enable them to move mountains? It was a matter of understanding their relationship with the Mover - that He is the Worthy One and they are unworthy and undeserving. He is the only One worthy of trust, while they deserved absolutely nothing good from Him, even a "thank you," no matter what their accomplishments.

Meanwhile, they thought themselves quite worthy of the blessings of God. They had reminded Jesus of how much they deserved from Him because they had sacrificed everything to follow Him (Matthew 19).

However, Scripture condemns self-trust. Why? For one thing, we are unworthy of the trust we place in ourselves. For another thing, it robs God of the glory that only He deserves:

  • Thus says the Lord: "Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit." (Jeremiah 17:5-8)

Consequently, the more we trust in ourselves, the less we trust in God and usurp for ourselves the glory to which God alone is entitled. And, in the end, we will foot the bill:

  • He [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14)

When we trust in ourselves and our righteousness, we exalt ourselves to a glory we do not deserve, to a glory that only God can give us as an undeserved gift. Ultimately, we rob God.

Paul had to learn the lesson of God-trust the hard way:

  • For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)

Only in God can we trust. Consequently, Paul even credited God for his labors:

  • For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:9-10)

Why does God get all the credit? Because He deserves it all! When we understand this, we understand the secret of faith and trust - the understanding of our unworthiness and our Lord's complete worthiness. Without this understanding, we grow proud when we see that God is answering our prayers.

FRIENDSHIP EVANGELISM AND THE GOSPEL





Perhaps I am a bit anal, but I am thankful that we have a God who makes use of everything we bring to Him.

Here's what I mean. I need to resolve all of my theological issues before I can take a confident step in the area of evangelism, especially when it pertains to the question of  "friendship evangelism" (FE).

Questions about FE are on the cutting edge as we now live in a society which is increasingly hostile to Christianity and has contempt for the Gospel. As a result, we find ourselves living on the defensive and resorting to defensive measures. Therefore, it is now common to hear people say, "Evangelize always, and use words only when necessary," or "You need to earn the right to be heard."

Underlying these statements is the belief that no one will listen unless we first prove to them that we love them - hence, FE.

This strategy has sent me into a theological tsunami, resulting in a rethinking of the Gospel and reaffirming certain principles, in particular, the very bedrock of our faith. Someone had asked Jesus about the greatest commandment in the Law:

  • And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:36-40)

This teaching establishes our number one priority. It informed me that the Christian life is about our devotion to our Savior before any evangelistic strategies or any pragmatic considerations.

But how must we honor our Lord?

  • By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. (1 John 5:2-3 ESV)

How then do I love others and show them the Gospel? Simply by following its teachings! This meant that I couldn't resort to the benign deception of FE - presenting myself as their friend rather than as God's ambassador. Besides, this would keep me perched on the moral high-ground by presenting myself accurately.

This doesn't require me to forsake the idea of friendship, but it does require me to present myself faithfully. If instead I waited to establish a friendship, it would become difficult to later swing into evangelistic high-drive. It would also not seem genuine to my "friend."

There was also another question that i had to put to rest - What actually saves? Could I love my "friend" into the Kingdom? Could I woe him with my Christian character or sufficiently impress him with my virtue?

Such thinking was imposing an unnecessary weight upon me, which was eventually lifted by this verse:

  • For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

While it is true that our lives should speak the same message of God's love as does the Gospel, ultimately, it is only the Gospel that saves through the work of the Holy Spirit.

What a relief! It is God who does the heavy-lifting, not me. I am merely the messenger, a mere midwife of the new life God was already forming in the womb. However, I am called upon to faithfully handle the seed He has entrusted to us.

SELF-ESTEEM VS. SELF-ACCEPTANCE





Self-esteem (SE) and self-acceptance (SA) are polar opposites. While SE is the attempt to believe highly of ourselves, SA is willing to see and acknowledge self as it truly is, warts and all.

Most of us wish that we could accept ourselves as we truly are and not have to struggle to maintain a front, a obsessively manicured exterior. It just takes too much effort and angst.

But how can we accept ourselves when there are parts that we just don't like and are convinced that others will not like? This becomes even more difficult when our feelings about self depend upon how others regard us.

This, of course, makes us painfully dependent upon social approval, an oppressive and unrelenting prison. However, there is a key that will unlock the prison door. It is called "the Good News" of Jesus. Paul had written:

  • What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Romans 8:31-34 ESV)

If we are beloved by our Savior, what others think about us becomes relatively unimportant. It is His love that decisively defines us. If He loves us, who cares about what others might think.

SA is the definition of freedom. It allows us to laugh at our failures and the opinions of this world. If God accepts us as we are, we can begin to accept ourselves and even others along with their unsightly blemishes. 

SA is not afraid of being seen and known. It no longer has to maintain a facade and run from the truth. It can admit flaws, failures, and face the world in rags.

The assurance of God's love has become my Declaration of Independence from my devotion to proving myself. I had felt threatened and inadequate as a teacher, even feeling that I was a hypocrite as I stood before my students. Satan also condemned me with these thoughts, almost coercing me to hand in my resignation.

However, the Gospel was becoming a reality to me. It taught me that it was no longer about me and my attributes but about His (Galatians 2:20). My successes were no longer my own, and neither were my failures. Instead, I bore the identity of the One who had died for me.

Therefore, when Satan would come knocking, reminding me of how inadequate I am, I had learned to answer:

  • Satan, you are entirely correct. I am unworthy to teach the Bible or even to serve my Savior in any capacity. However, He has called me and cleansed me of my sins and ugly blemishes. Consequently, I now belong to Him. Besides, I am glad to be reminded of my unworthiness. This just makes me adore my Savior all the more.

I am now able to pass on this gift of SA to others, but I have to remind them that it is a gift of our Lord. Any secular alternative will prove to be a disappointment.