Sunday, April 23, 2017

CONFRONTATIONAL EVANGELISM





Some years ago, I asked a missionary, “What is the most important principle you’ve learned for talking to non-Christians?” He explained a simple truth that I haven’t forgotten:

·       I first come to them, and then I slowly draw them to me (Christ).

He learned that he had to first enter into their world, their thinking, before he could draw them to his thinking. I was impressed but also convicted. How unlike me! I confront; I go right for the jugular. I first attack the place of disagreement and conflict, and then I am surprised to find that I have sown only disagreement and conflict.

Yes, I knew Paul’s teachings on this subject:

·       For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

However, for some reason, these teachings didn’t take root in my approach to evangelism. To my shame, perhaps I’d been too addicted to a competitive spirit. However, for whatever reason(s), I now see that I was failing to love the non-believer as I should, putting his needs first.

Instead of listening, acknowledging, and taking time to ask questions in order to understand him better – and this is what love requires - I was on the offensive, like a coiled snake looking for the right opening to attack. Instead of taking time to listen, I was already thinking about what I’d say next. However, Scripture warns us:

·       Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)

Our first duty is to hear and only secondly to speak. This is what love requires. Even though I knew enough to not get angry, the unbeliever was in my crosshairs, whether he knew it or not, and I was poised to bring down his argumentation.

I now intend to keep the unbeliever in my crosshairs, but not to beat him but to show him the love of Christ. This is my intention. I might fail dismally at this. It is so against my nature. However, honoring my Lord is the most important thing, more important than my natural inclinations.

This doesn’t mean that I am rejecting confrontational evangelism. There is definitely a place for this. However, where I can, I want to lead with the mercy and indulgence that my Savior has extended to me. Let us all pray accordingly.


Friday, April 21, 2017

STOICISM AND ITS GLARING VACUUM





I admire the principles of Stoicism. They are remarkably like our Christian values. However, it becomes quite apparent that something is obviously missing. For example, a leading Stoic philosopher wrote:

·       “I don’t see the point of dreading a state of non-existence, especially considering that there is absolutely nothing I can do to avoid it [death].”

I responded:

“True, but perhaps irrelevant, in view of our humanness! We might know that it is not helpful or even reasonable to dread losing our job or rejection. However, such fears and insecurities seem to be hot-wired into our nature.

Consequently, I think that we need something more than our own logic, something else that has been hot-wired into us – the knowledge that we are being cared for from Above.”

CAN WE CONSISTENTLY LIVE THE COMPASSIONATE LIFE WITHOUT JESUS?





An atheist argued that a belief in God is unnecessary and irrelevant to living a moral life:

·       “If you think the positive outcome is a place of great love, then select actions that will increase love in the physical world, and you will find they tend to be what you would already define as morally good. I think we all share a similar understanding of positive/negative sensations and thus can come up with a set of generally acceptable… set of rules to operate under.”

Actually, I agree with you. We are wired in a way that equips all of us to know moral truths, and when we show compassion, we all (ideally) experience a satisfaction, a sense that validates the supremacy of love.

I even agree with you that we do not have to have a belief in God in order to experience the surpassing reality of love. As humans, we all share this (because we are created in the moral and cognitive likeness to God).

However, living a life of compassion is not easy. This is why we do not observe it as often as we would like. Why not? Because compassion can often prove inconvenient and even costly! It requires patience and sacrifice, if we are to live compassionately.

Besides, many of our neighbors represent a threat to us in one way or another. They might have competing views or they might even want to hurt us. How are we to love and forgive them? I think that this is only possible if we are convinced of the surpassing truth and requirement of showing compassion to others.

In this regard, our Savior instructs us to forgive others as we have been forgiven. This requires us to put his truths above our feelings and even our immediate well-being. Instead, if we live by our feelings and baser instincts, we tend to seek revenge or even a preemptive strike.

Then how do we live according to compassion? We have to know that when hurt and threatened and even when we face the prospect of death, we are supremely protected and loved. Therefore, loving others doesn’t require that they reciprocate by loving us back. Why not? Because we know that we are loved from Above.




THE CHRISTIAN IN-CROWD?



A skeptic had challenged that Christians are divisive:

·       The evangelical narrative is concerned with separating Insiders from Outsiders, Us from Them.

Firstly, I have to acknowledge the truth of this critique. We do (and the Bible does) make such distinctions. However, I think that it is necessary to point out that we all make such distinctions, however much we might want to affirm the oneness of all humanity. Let me just list a few examples:

·       “Receptive Skepticism” (a Facebook group) even refers to itself as “receptive skeptics,” as opposed to others who are not. However, I think that this is fine. You even have a secret in-group for the real RSers. That’s fine too.

·       We distinguish democrats from republicans, males from females (although this distinction has now become politically unacceptable); senior citizens from non-seniors; adults from youth; educated from non-educated…

·       You have even distinguished Evangelicals from non-Evangelicals.

However, these types of distinctions are not only unavoidable but even helpful, but here’s the potential problem – that we might regard our group as superior and more worthy than others, and, subsequently, look down on and degrade others.

This is something that we must not do. In contrast, we Christians are commanded to love all others, even those who wish to take our lives. We also have been taught that we have no basis to look down on others. If anything, the Bible teaches us that God scraped the bottom of the barrel to get us (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). (And this is certainly true of me!)

This is why we seek to be peace-makers, even with those who have wrongly maligned us.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

MASOCHISM: WHY DO WE HURT OURSELVES?



Why do we resort to masochism? We all want to be happy! How then do we explain self-mutilation and other forms of self-punishment? When we look only at sadomasochistic sex or at people who cut or torture themselves, we’re tempted to regard these phenomena as pathological. However, when we recognize the full range of masochistic behaviors, we’re forced to seek a more global answer—perhaps one based upon our common humanity and having a common rationale. I’m going to try to identify the thread that ties all of the individual manifestations of masochism together.

First of all, let’s take a look at a form of masochism with which most of us are familiar. Masochism seems to be at work when we silently endure painful relationships, ones we need not endure. How does this work? We feel guilty about something and, therefore, want to “atone” or compensate for this guilt by enduring the discomfort. Strangely, there seems to be a subconscious life-script or inner logic that requires us to transact a mysterious deal: we pay the price by enduring the discomfort, and we receive a reduction in guilt.

Similarly, according to this hidden contract, after having paid the price of suffering, we entitle ourselves to enjoy the things that are more important to us, like sex. I too had participated in this script, which determined what pleasures I could enjoy. Over-consumption would make me feel guilty. Consequently, if I restricted myself to a three minute shower, I was entitled to feel that I was a good and worthy person. If I exceeded the limits that my legalistic script imposed upon me, I’d have to compensate with some form of saving-the-planet. Similarly, when I’d get an “A” on a test, I’d feel worthy and entitled to buy a chocolate milkshake. However, if I failed to receive the “A,” the milkshake wouldn’t have felt quite right going down. Somehow, I understood that my coveted sense of worthiness came at a price. Either I would have to earn it or suffer for it. In conclusion, we are in bondage to an uncompromising slave-master.

In many religions (or perhaps all), self-denial and/or self-flagellation have become the price for righteousness or feelings of OK-ness. Sometimes they take the form of puncture wounds or walking on hot coals or even knives. As an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther endured walking on his knees, walking barefoot in the snow and long periods of sleeplessness in a vain attempt to prove himself to God. The faithful prove themselves by what they suffer.

In other religions self-denial is accomplished by making costly sacrifices, sometimes human, in order to earn the favor of their deities. As the plague stalked Europe in the 1300-1400s, a flagellant sect arose. They thought that the plague was a sign of God’s displeasure and punishment. Therefore, the flagellants paraded through Europe whipping one another, convinced that this would earn God’s favor. And for this, they received high grades from their admirers.

Masochism takes many forms. Benedict XVI wrote about another form of masochism. He notes how Western culture has turned against itself and its own Christian heritage in a vain attempt to purchase self-validation:

·       “This case illustrates a peculiar western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological. It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure…Multiculturalism, which is so constantly and passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one’s own heritage.” (Quoted by Jean Bethke Elshtain, First Things, March, 2009, 36)

Self-castigation is subconsciously understood as a reasonable payment for self-validation, a necessary defense against shame. It works something like this: “I am a good and worthy person if I champion the interests of others and am willing to criticize my own traditions.” (It is not my intention to devalue good deeds, but rather their self-righteous motivations!)

Can we ascribe all of these phenomena to pathology or to the idiosyncrasies of a limited number of cultures? Obviously, there is something more global taking place. Ordinarily, it would have been more in keeping with our pleasure-seeking nature to believe, “I make my gods happiest with me when I’m thoroughly enjoying myself.” However, this type hedonistic religion always seems to give way to its more masochistic forms.

Why haven’t we become more proficient in rewriting our scripts to eliminate the necessity for pain and to maximize pleasure? Why has this mysterious script proved itself so impervious to editorial “improvements,” especially in view of the encouragement given to hedonism by our permissive age? Evidently, there is something else indelibly taking place in humanity’s game-plan. This is why human history consistently testifies that we are more than ready to pay the price of self-mutilation and self-deprivation.

I don’t think we’re ready to answer this question until we have expanded our inquiry to include the sister of self-denial—self-indulgence! They both address the identical problem of shame and unworthiness and seem to be opposite sides of the same coin. Writer and psychotherapist, John Bradshaw, points out that these opposite responses are both shame-generated:

·       “The most paradoxical aspect of neurotic shame is that it is the core motivator of the super-achieved and the underachieved, the Star and the Scapegoat, the “Righteous” and the wretched, the powerful and the pathetic.” (“Healing the Shame that Binds You,” 14)

Interestingly, both self-indulgence and self-denial are closely associated in the practice of Eastern religions. Some of their practices attempt to dry up desire and lust through the fires of self-mortification, like rain evaporating on hot Florida asphalt. By extinguishing desire, they hope to transcend the “world of delusion.”

However, the opposite teaching of self-indulgence is often taught as a more appealing alternative. Instead of trying to burn away their desires, some gurus teach radical self-indulgence. As one Hindu mystic commented, “Fasting will only increase desire, and you will only think about food. Instead, consume as much honey as you can, and you won’t desire it anymore.”

The Doors’ Jim Morrison had a similar outlook. As is the case with all of us, his sense of shame wouldn’t be silenced by self-denial. Instead, he believed that it had to be saturated with self-indulgence until it fell apart, like a soggy paper towel. He was convinced that this would result in freedom and spiritual purification:

·       “Sensuousness and evil is an attractive image to us now…It’s like a purification ritual in the alchemical sense. First you have to have the period of disorder, chaos, returning to a primeval disaster religion. Out of that you purify the elements and find the new seed of life.” (Quoted from “Hungry for Heaven,” Steve Turner, 96)

How do we explain self-mutilation and self-indulgence in the same breath? Is there a common thread connecting them? All humanity experiences guilt and shame. Psychotherapist John Bradshaw claims that these feelings are so powerful that they are life-controlling. Guilt and shame tell us that there is something the matter with us and compel us to do something about the disturbing alarm they sound. We therefore resort to denial, self-mutilation, self-indulgence, drugs and even workaholism to convince ourselves that we’re worthy people, in the face of our persistent shame. We cut ourselves and for a few moments feel that life is good. (Clinical studies have shown that after an act of self-mutilation, cortisone production, directly associated with stress, is reduced.)

We deprive, afflict, and sacrifice ourselves for good reason, but why should self-castigation make us feel better? We are created in the image of God. Therefore, we are highly moral creatures, and we are painfully aware when we violate our internal God-infused rule book. In addition to this, we also have a sense that there must be retribution for our infractions. We’re then confronted with two choices: either we confess and seek the mercy of the One who created the rules, or we deal with the problem ourselves. If we have a problem with God, we usually deal with the problem ourselves. This is exactly what Adam and Eve did. They covered their sin and shame with fig leaves—hardly an adequate solution. We, however, do the same thing. Instead of fig leaves, we cover ourselves with good deeds, accomplishments, or self-affliction. We convince ourselves that we are fully able to pay the price for our guilt and shame. And we often do such a good job of this that we actually become convinced of our own righteousness, superiority, and entitlement.

But an entitlement mentality is a lethal poison. Because of their self-inflicted punishments, the flagellants convinced themselves and others that they were even more spiritual and entitled than the priests. Consequently, they entered the cathedrals, driving away the “less worthy” presiding priests, sometimes even beating them.

Guilt and shame cause such psychological turmoil that we can’t ignore them. We feebly erect a wall of denials and self-righteous rationalizations in a vain attempt to shield ourselves against their indictments. However, we find that they are like inflated balls, which inevitably resurface no matter how valiantly and persistently we fight to keep them submerged.

Are we condemned to vainly pursue an unattainable freedom from these slave-masters? Have we become servants of denial and image management to hide the painful truths about ourselves? It would seem so. If we need to feel that we are significant and worthy people, and our unalterable script tells us we’re not, we have a problem—a fatiguing quest after the transient feeling of worthiness. We need to always be in the right. This places others, our dearest relationships, in the wrong.

The Biblical faith affirms that we do have a very real problem—God (and even our God-given human nature) has been offended by both our sin and our inadequate, self-absorbed attempts to “atone” for our sin through self-righteous acts and justifications. We have covered ourselves with fig leaves in the form of accomplishments hoping that this would obscure the offense and silence the guilt and shame. When this failed to work, we ran from God and refused to meet Him in the light of true confession. And we have been running ever since.

However, He paid the price through mutilation by our human hands so that we wouldn’t have to suffer mutilation at His hands or even by our own hands. If we are convinced that Christ has paid the price for our sins in full, and that nothing will separate us from His love and forgiveness, then the sense of guilt and shame and the need to continually prove ourselves is neutralized.

Bradshaw claims that “By being aware of the dynamics of shame, by naming it, we gain some power over it” (23). He’s right, if, by “being aware of the dynamics of shame,” he means understanding that we have a real-live sin problem that only grace can adequately address. We do have to “name it” by confessing it, not in denying it or by covering it over by self-atonement or good deeds. Good deeds do play their very vital role, but not as a ploy to deny our guilt. As rain falls from clouds, so must forgiveness come from God. Any attempt to forgive ourselves is nothing short of masturbation and a refusal to grapple with the objective offense of our sins.

Martin Luther subjected himself to the most extreme and painful disciplines trying to earn God’s love. However, in the midst of his studies, the concept of grace and reconciliation through Christ suddenly came alive as never before. In his “Commentary on the Book of Galatians,” he wrote:

·       “Although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would satisfy Him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather murmured against Him…Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement, “The just shall live by his faith” [Rom 1:17]. Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Therefore I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through the doors into paradise.”

Luther discovered something that many of us have discovered—the Word of God is transformational! It and the God who gave it are the necessary antidote for masochism in its various forms. I still don’t enjoy taking long showers, but I no longer experience the need to prove my worthiness by keeping them under the three minute limit. In contrast to the reassurances of many psychologists that I was a “great guy,” it was only the Word of Christ that was able to convince me of this and free me from my internal shackles.

When we reject the gift of God’s righteousness procured on the Cross, we condemn ourselves to endlessly pursue our own righteousness, like Sisyphus self-condemned to push his boulder. When we fail to receive this payment for sin, we likewise sentence ourselves masochism’s vengeance, endlessly trying to pay off a debt that is far beyond our means to ever satisfy. Consequently, we are always paying, pushing, and trying to prove ourselves.

In retrospect, I find it so remarkable that Jesus’ death on the Cross is the only antidote for humanity’s obsessions. It’s also the perfect piece to complete the jigsaw puzzle presented by our confused lives. Pleasure seeking, denial, and masochism each had failed to fill the gap. This forces us to ask the question, “Why is there is such an incredible fit between this Bible-centered event that occurred 2000 years ago and my mental well-being?” Perhaps, Christ is the missing piece!