On the first day of October, Chris Harper Mercer murdered eight students and their professor in an English writing class at Umpqua Community College in southwestern Oregon.
Mercer asked the class members, “Are you a Christian? Do you believe in God?” When one would say yes, he said, “Good, I’ll send you to God. You’ll be visiting God pretty soon.” And then he shot them.
Outrageous. But even if he hadn’t targeted Christians, our outrage would be the same. His mental issues may explain his actions but they are no cover for his evil and the suffering he has caused.
At least one school shooting per week has popped up on my “Breaking News” app for many months now. The shock of what happened at Columbine High School in Colorado over 16 years ago is now a weekly event.
How do we as followers of Christ respond?
In Oregon, from 18 year old Quinn Glen Cooper, who in his first days of college, to his 67 year old English teacher, Lawrence Levine, the depths of grief are paralyzing.
“We are in shock this happened,” Quinn’s family said. “No one should ever have to feel the pain we are feeling.”
People in the midst of such suffering do not need theological justification to explain the reality of evil – they are reeling from its impact. Presence, comfort and empathy are the gifts they require.
But in those moments when emotions are not raw, the problems of moral evil and suffering can stalk the heart and mind of even the most committed follower.
Where is God?
Well-known atheist Bart Ehrman claims the reality of evil in the world convinced him there was no God. Professor Ehrman wrote: “A large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering…. To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking.”
If God created the world good, what happened? And why doesn’t he do something about it?
This is a question as old as humanity. In the early third century BC, it is said Epicurus argued if God really existed, he would want to eliminate evil. So why is it still here?
A Biblical Worldview
It is at this point the biblical world view speaks. God does not shy away from addressing evil and suffering – and what he has to say is not what most people would expect. Nowhere in the Bible does God deny, excuse, or gloss over the reality of evil. In fact, its awful presence is woven in to the fabric of all human history and experience.
Four major truths help us with a biblical perspective.
“There is a mysteriousness about evil we simply cannot understand,” says Christopher Wright.
The Scriptures are clear: God created everything “good.” Evil is not the antithesis of God’s good; rather, it is good twisted, perverted. Evil is a parasite and cannot exist on its own.
Biblically, we have poetic accounts of an angelic fall into rebellion (Isaiah 14:12-15; Ezekiel 28:14-19), but we don’t know enough to understand completely the how and why. Speculative theological explanations are helpful but the bottom line is God allowed something to pervert the good of his creation. As several theologians have said, God did not create evil, but he created a world in which evil was possible.
The subsequent sin of our first parents in the garden set in motion an avalanche of abysmal consequences hurling humanity and the world on a downward spiral of depravity.
Those who consider evil and suffering as reasons for rejecting God will find no help from the Bible. God does not try to explain away or give complicated answers for them. C. S. Lewis boldly claimed: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”
A broken world caused by evil is entrenched in the deepest truths of Scripture.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble . . .” (John 16:33).
“Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).
The Apostle Paul was driven to “know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and the participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10).
Philosophers develop syllogisms demonstrating why a God of love would have eliminated evil and kept his creation from suffering. But again, Lewis speaks to this faulty perspective: “The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word “love”, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake.”
Even more shocking from the biblical perspective is that God took his own medicine. He is not above all the suffering unleashed on the world though sin. The incarnate God suffered deception, betrayal, injustice, brutality, and death. At the foundation of the Christian message and hope is Christ crucified. He suffered with us and for us. Grace is a bloody cross.
Not only does the Biblical worldview speak honestly and openly about evil but we find we are not alone in our anger towards the pain and anguish of life. We are in a long line of God’s people who express their dislike for what was happening:
Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)
God has wronged me. . .He has blocked my way. . . (Job 19:6, 8)
Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? You [God] are to me like a deceptive brook, Like a spring that fails. (Jeremiah 15:18).
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1)
The list of laments in the Bible is long, but in almost every case, the troubled, angry soul expresses trust and hope in God:
But I trust in your unfailing love; My heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, For he has been good to me. (Psalm 13:5-6).
They cry, “I am angry and perplexed, not only at my circumstances but often at you, God. Do you really care? Do you really love me? But, I trust you. Please help me.”
The reason God’s people can trust him is they know the reign of evil and terror has an endpoint. Paul refers to his sufferings as “light and momentary” compared to the outweighing “eternal glory” to come (2 Corinthians 4:17).
The early Christians lived this truth and transformed an empire. For them, suffering for whatever reason was a call to action. Wherever there were needs, Christians showed up to help, even if it meant sacrificing their own lives. When plagues struck the Roman Empire in the third century, Christians rose to the occasion. Dionysius (ca. AD 260) wrote, ““Heedless of danger, [Christians] took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected with the disease . . .”
A Distant Memory
We all know that pain and suffering alerts us when something is wrong whether in our bodies or in our culture. Sometimes it is the only way God can get the attention of an easily distracted people.
Yes, Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble . . .”
But he went on to say, “. . . but take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).
Christ’s victory through his death and resurrection established a beachhead in God’s ultimate triumph over evil. The victory is not yet complete but God is on the move. Today, almost 80,000 people will come to faith in Christ – 10,000 of them Muslim.
The biblical worldview assures us that tragedies like the Oregon shootings will one day be a distant memory from another time. Until then, we weep, we mourn and then join in God’s triumphant restoration of all things.
Every day, my expectations are pretty high for God to allow me to interact with people who will broaden my love for his world and the people he created. I need to see the world through other eyes as often as possible. Otherwise I grow stale.
And the conversations that happen are wonderful. I have found that every conversation either builds or tears down. Rarely, if ever, is it neutral in its impact.
A person’s life and influence are the same.
Paul echoes the teachings of Christ when he said, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
Last week I went to a rural coffee shop nearby to get some work done. A man came up to my table, shuffling with a cane while balancing a cup of tea. He asked me what I was doing so I invited him to sit with me.
What a treat!
Dan was ninety-seven years old. I could tell he was a man of keen insight because he thought I was thirty-five years old. He never finished school but had quite a career in the army throughout World War II and beyond. He told me a few war stories from the Pacific theater. All of them would make good movies.
But his greatest battle was fighting for his granddaughter.
His daughter had married, “the worst SOB in North Carolina,” he said (without the acronym). His granddaughter was raised in the mountains and away from interaction with others. “You had to throw a log across the creek to get to their house,” Dan said.
His granddaughter’s life was not only secluded but abusive. She couldn’t read or write and her father made her work the marijuana field behind their little home. That’s how he made his living.
When she turned 13, Dan intruded himself into her life. Dan was in his late seventies when he started to help her. He took her to a learning specialist who diagnosed her with severe dyslexia. It took a while but she learned coping skills to learn to read and write. Dan told me that he would bring her to his house and they would spend hours watching science and nature programs. What an education.
He dedicated himself to his granddaughter’s growth. The world came alive for her. Soon, it became apparent that she had an incredibly brilliant mind.
Fast forward to the present.
Now, now in her early thirties, she has two PhD’s and is a professor at a prominent Midwestern University. She has written tens of thousands of pages of research. Her work has brought in millions of dollars of funding to advance scientific study in her field of study.
Her current endeavor is raising funds for girls and women to find careers in science.
When it was time to leave, Dan thanked me for listening. Most people won’t spend the time, he said.
I couldn’t help but think of the countless number of children – and adults – who are abandoned in a private life story cul-de-sac. Unless someone takes the time to stop and help, the emptiness and despair deepens. Dan did that for his granddaughter.
A business friend who attends Alcoholic Anonymous meetings every day tells me that he starts to slip when he keeps his eyes on his own problems. “The only way to help yourself,” he said, “is to help others. Getting involved in another person’s life seems like it would be a burden but it’s the opposite. When I started doing that, my life began to change.”
Why? Because that’s how God made us. We begin to find ourselves when we give ourselves away and “. . . in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”
In all of his fascinating life, Dan says his granddaughter is his “greatest achievement.” He doesn’t seem to be a follower of Christ, but when I asked him he noted that investing in his granddaughter has brought out some spiritual yearnings.
We will pick up the conversation next time. He may be ninety-seven, but I think he will be around for quite a while.
I have been asked a lot about the Colson Center over the past seven days since it was announced that I will be the Senior Fellow for Worldview and Culture and the National Director of the Colson Fellows Program. I am humbled to fill this role. Many of you were not aware of the great work of the Colson Center and so asked me to tell you about it and why we want to serve with them.
Thanks so much for the kind words. I am humbled by the honor to follow in the steps of Chuck Colson in the incredible vision of the Colson Center.
And yes, I will continue to help lead WorldAPP and travel to Boston and overseas periodically. They are a wonderful group of people and we have made significant progress with the company. It is very exciting.
When John Stonestreet pitched to me the idea of joining the Center as the Senior Fellow of Worldview and Culture and to Direct the Colson Fellows program, my first response was, “Thanks a lot, John! (satirically).” Why? Because Lynne and I would have to seriously think about this. We have been very busy helping to lead WorldAPP and keeping a full speaking schedule. When offers came our way, we had “Thank you but no thank you” as a macro in our e-mail. We were happy and busy.
Then John sent his e-mail.
I have been tangentially involved with the Colson Center for several years. The mission to inform, equip and unite Christians to engage the culture with the heart and mind of Christ is so important now that I could not shake the opportunity out of my head.
As many of you know, John Stonestreet was one of my students at Bryan College. Way back then, I developed a program called “The Worldview Team” that went to schools and churches to help high school students and adults understand the culture around us from a worldview perspective. Bryan students went with me on these trips to perform clever skits, present current songs, movies and tv shows as examples of worldview influence and serve as role models for the younger students.
John Stonestreet was on one of those teams. Even then he was articulate and passionate.
At the time, these presentations were radically different from typical youth group programs. The students and youth leaders loved the Worldview Team presentation.
Some of the church leadership despised them.
What else is new?
Jesus and Paul taught us to see the world through the eyes of Christ. They showed us that the message of the Gospel is not merely a presentation but a conversation, a redemptive relationship. To love those whom He does and how He loves is the most important work we do.
In today’s world, most people think serious Christians are condescending, judgmental hate-mongers; waving signs and condemning anyone who disagrees with them.
Some do. And they get all the press.
But the reality is there are millions of Christians all over the world living lives of quiet inspiration. Following in the steps of Jesus as he asked us.
Lynne and I want to continue to be a voice for Christ-centered, pro-active cultural engagement. We always ask God, “Where are you working and how can we help?” We are blessed to join The Colson Center in its unique mission. And the opportunity to work with John Stonestreet is too good to pass up.
Thanks for your encouragement in our lives. Since we left the university, our lives have exploded in so many directions. It has been amazing what God has been doing. Now, we are going to re-calibrate a bit and focus on this important work.
And by the way, why don’t you study with us for nine months or so? Business people, teachers, students, full-time moms (and dads!) from all over the world will get involved in the next Fellows Class that doesn’t start until Fall 2016. Think about it. I would be thrilled to study together. Check out the Colson Fellows Program. My photo is not there yet, so don’t be alarmed (at least not as much as people will be when my photo is there).
Keep dreaming big!
The world is changed by our example, not our opinions.
Way back in 1987, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty sang as if they were a married couple blaming each other for all that had gone wrong in their lives. The song’s title is the most memorable line of the chorus: “You’re the Reason our Kids Are Ugly.”
Blaming others for what goes wrong in the world is what we do best. Even (especially?) Christians have made it into an art form. We blame social media, education, the government, entertainment, and mostly each other for the fast and furious cultural shifts over the past few years. So much has gone wrong, they say – legalized marijuana, gay marriage, illegal immigration, . . . – and it’s your fault: “you’re the reason our culture is ugly.”
But how much of the finger-pointing should be at ourselves? Maybe we are uglier than we realize. Our children learned from us to value pragmatism over principle, riches over righteousness, a Mercedes over mercy. Jesus has become merely an app in a superficial but complicated, social-media-dominated Christian life.
The influence of the church has attenuated dramatically over the past two decades at a time when the availability of teaching, preaching and education has exploded. Now, the advantages once taken for granted are at risk; from non-profit status to religious liberty.
What has gone wrong?
What if God is answering our prayers for a revival of faith and depth of relationship with him? What if God is taking away the political and economic substructure that Christians have relied on to perpetuate their lifestyle? What if God is making it so that Christians have to start living the Christ-centered life and not just talk about it?
British philosopher Bertrand Russell, one of history’s most well-known atheists and skeptics, spent his life fighting for a “rational society” and the eradication of religious belief. Required reading for every Christian is his, “Why I am Not a Christian.”
Forty-five years after his death, Russell remains as the embodiment of secular philosophy and social activism. The poster figure for the “Onward Atheist Soldier” cause: brilliant, articulate, passionate, confident.
But his daughter tells a different story. His whole life, she says, was a search for God. Having become a Christian herself, she wanted him to understand the reality of the hope found in Christ. “But it was hopeless,” she says. “He had known too many blind Christians, bleak moralists who sucked the joy from life and persecuted their opponents; he would never have been able to see the truth they were hiding.”
“Bleak moralists?” . . . “the truth they were hiding?”
A depressing description of what is supposed to be good news.
We have all experienced Christians who come across as mean-spirited, vindictive, and patronizing. Why? Even Christ said he did not come to condemn the world.
The way he lived
Recently, I made mention that Christians should actively engage the gay community by caring and serving to demonstrate the light and hope of the Gospel; to open the door for substantive conversations about life, Christ and salvation.
One person responded quite aggressively to my suggestion:
So are we to lovingly embrace those who have brought and assisted bringing suit against Christians for living out their convictions to not be party to, or assist in any way, practices they believe are immoral, and also lovingly embrace the public officials who have assessed fines upon those Christians which take away their livelihood and lifetime’s fortune, and all those in the crowd who have spurred them on?
First, this writer wins the award for the longest sentence posted on the internet that day.
Second, his misunderstanding of a Christ-centered response yields an implicit reprisal toward those who attack Christians for their beliefs and commitments: “We can’t let them get away with the way they have treated us.”
But a quick look at the life of Christ yields a much different approach. This is where I think we have forgotten that we are following him, not a political or theological agenda.
Jesus always makes us uncomfortable since his responses to those who oppose him are completely different then we would expect. In fact, he wants to make certain that those who are watching his life are not missing the points he is making:
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).
Jesus leaves nothing to the imagination. His action words are: “love . . . do good . . . bless . . . pray for.”
Just in case anyone is confused by what he said, he says it again and goes even further:
“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back” (Luke 6:35).
Yikes! So, these people who have been hating, cursing and mistreating you, you are to show love to them, do good to them and – (ahem) – lend them money and not expect to be repaid!
Those who claim they are followers of Christ, children of God, Jesus says that this response to those who hate and abuse you results in: “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High.”
Why? Because God is “kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:36).
The way he lived; the way he died
Not only in his life but in his death, Jesus modeled an incredible response to those who brutalized him. He suffered the ultimate betrayal and humiliation yet he never uttered a word of retribution.
One writer wryly exposes our own sinful default to vengeance when he asks us to remember Christ’s post-resurrection response:
Remember how resentful he was? The anger He displayed? Remember how He stepped out of the tomb vowing vengeance? Remember, even as He rose He spat on the ground and cursed Caiaphas and Ananias? Do you recall how he swore vengeance on all His tormentors and placed curses on all those who crucified Him?
Of course, Jesus never referred to the events surrounding the crucifixion. Not once. Not even a word of rebuke to his disciples who denied him and fled.
Over the next few years, professionals experienced in the law will advocate for Christians on the legal and professional challenges. But the real battles will be fought in the trenches. And the battles are not against nonbelievers but are the struggles we will have to align ourselves with a Christ-centered life.
And it is happening. Christians around the world follow Jesus’s example and throw themselves right in the middle of controversy, hatred, and sin.
Like the young man who showed up at an adult bookstore that had just opened. Christians were protesting and picketing across the street. He went inside and offered to clean the bathrooms of the porn shop. Taken off guard, they allowed him to do so. Over the next few weeks, he came back several times, always leaving the bathrooms spotless. When they finally asked why he was doing this, he told them, “The Lord wants me to serve you and this is the only thing I could think of.”
The resulting conversations about Christ and the Gospel were life-changing for several of the employees.
Or, of the ladies who provide meals for the girls who work at a local strip club. One of the ladies said, “These girls don’t eat very well so we provide home cooked meals for them every night.” So, there they are, in the strip club dressing room with pots and plates full of meat loaf and vegetables. The care and concern by these women have resulted in dozens of girls leaving the business and many of them coming to Christ.
Or, Army Chaplain Thomas Bruce, who launched the movement, “Adopt a Terrorist for Prayer” (www.ATFP.org). He posts photographs of known terrorists with insightful articles and suggestions on how to pray for them. Some people are critical of his approach as being unrealistically soft on terrorists whose purpose in life is to destroy us.
Or, the well-known story of Julio Diaz, who was confronted by a mugger in a subway station. Julio handed over his wallet and then offered the mugger his coat (because it was cold out) and then invited him to dinner. He accepted.
Not long ago, American culture transformed itself every 25 years; the length of a generation. Public values, acceptable moral choices, and communication methods would slowly develop to merge into a new paradigm.
Now, culture reboots itself every five years.
The center of public consciousness, interest and morality a few years ago is old news today.
A little over five years ago, Miley Cyrus was Hannah Montana, Dmitry Medvedev was President of Russia, and there were no iPads.
What doesn’t change is what it means to follow Christ. It is not merely more Bible study and better teaching; it is putting into practice what Jesus taught us and showed us. We make the choice to follow him or merely listen and nod approvingly.
This reminds me of what the demon Wormwood told his nephew Screwtape when the person he was assigned to demonize became a Christian: “The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. . . Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it. . . Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will.”
Still ugly but loved
We are still pretty ugly. But we ugly people can live beautiful lives. And we cannot ever forget that Christ said our unity and love for one another are the two marks of his followers (John 13:35; 17:21).
The song, “You’re the Reason our Kids Are Ugly,” is actually a love song.
In the chorus Loretta and Conway sing that the deficiencies of the other spouse aren’t fatal:
“Looks ain’t everything,
And money ain’t everything,
But I love you just the same.”
(Yes, it rhymes. Country music fans understand how that can happen. So they tell me.)
I met a Nazi sympathizer this week. Actually, she is a former Nazi sympathizer. She sat next to me on the plane to Asheville, is 88 years old and was reading a book on the history and politics of the Middle East.
The greatest joy of traveling as much as I do is to meet people and hear their stories. I couldn’t wait to hear this lady.
While her English was perfect, her thick German accent added a depth of realism to her story. As a teenager, growing up in Germany during the reign of the National Socialists was exhilarating, she told me. Life was good and getting better under Adolf Hitler and his promises for a utopian society.
Like most people of that time, she would go to the movies several times a week. The feature film was always preceded by 30 minutes of news, “usually Hitler speaking. People would cheer. It seemed that everyone was so happy and hopeful,” she said. “We were excited about the future.”
Then the time came when she and other young people her age were taught to shoot a gun and prepare to fight. The anticipation of future bliss darkened, though no one would say this out loud.
Then foreign armies marched into her city. The war was over.
Over the next few months, the veneer of Nazi propaganda was stripped away by the Allied forces. She remembers Russian trucks coming into her city every day and rounding up men to take them to the concentration camps. Not as prisoners but to show them the true terror of Hitler. She said the Russian soldiers would accost every man they could find: businessmen on their way to work, professors going to lecture. Everyone. They made them spend the whole day in the camps. Cleaning the debris, caring for survivors, burying bodies.
None of the men were ever the same afterwards, she said. Some of the men lost their minds from what they saw.
From the heights of expected utopia to the depths of despair – life became unbearable and oppressive. “I didn’t want to get married. I didn’t want to have children. I didn’t even want to live,” she said.
Her parents sent her to England for schooling; to get her away from her war-ravaged country. But the betrayal that was Nazi Germany was never far from her.
She went through the motions at the school until she was made to read the Bible to answer some questions for a literature paper.
Lights came on in her mind and heart.
“I kept reading and reading,” she said. “God gave me hope. Out of all the horror and death under the Nazis, I saw that God had himself suffered at the hands of evil.”
And now, over 70 years later, after a wonderful marriage, and two children, she tells me about her growing love for Christ.
She lives with her husband in the western U.S., in the desert (“I don’t like cities,” she told me).
“There is so many terrible things happening in the world today,” she said sadly. “But there is always hope with Him.” She smiled and pointed to the sky just as we started to land.
The dust won’t settle for a long time following the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage – and I believe God has given us an incredible opportunity. Let me explain.
But first, two unrelated observations about the ruling.
But the most important dimension of the ruling is how Christians respond.
But is a “biblical response” merely listing Bible verses and a conclusion as to how they apply? That’s a start; but for too many that where it ends, too. We Christians are addicted to the idea that just because we say something we’ve actually done something.
A popular mantra coming from Christian leaders is to say to supporters of same-sex marriage, “You are wrong but we love you.”
I understand the point being made, but I cannot think of any ongoing relationship that began with someone saying to me, “You’re wrong.” I cannot even remember a second conversation with anyone that started that way.
But do we really mean it when we add, “I love you?”
Seeing the Issue; Ignoring the Person
As followers of Christ, we cannot be distracted from our primary role as his ambassadors. The evangelical church has been caught up in social battles and culture wars for so long we have forgotten how to live lives dripping with the fruit of the spirit; lives that commend the truth of Christ’s Good News to a world desperate for hope, joy, forgiveness and redemption. We have bought into the values of a sex-obsessed society and lost sight of our own failures.
“If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasure of power, and hatred….a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.” ~C. S. Lewis
Are Christians going to complain, condemn and further tighten the circle, or start providing opportunities and ministries to change the conversation? It can no longer be business as usual. God is giving us an incredible opportunity that is unprecedented in our life time.
A biblical response?
A magazine listed four common complaints from nonchristians about Christians:
One writer adds: “Christians fail to communicate to others because we ignore basic principles in relationships. When we make condescending judgments, or proclaim lofty words that don’t translate into action, or simply speak without first listening, we fail to love – and thus deter a thirsty world from the Living Water.”
We look in vain for New Testament strategies outlining large-scale political and social movements to address moral issues in culture. Maybe we should realize that a biblical response is really a Christ-centered response. Maybe we should engage as Christ showed us.
If we really love them, we will go out of our way to engage, listen and know them.
So, what is a Christ-centered response?
Jesus said that he did not come to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17). Jesus waded into the crowds, looking them in the eye; talking, touching, weeping with them and for them. And it wasn’t just the hale and hardy religious types. It was anyone who was in front of him. We see him in action with people identified as immoral, prostitutes, adulterers, and swindlers. To the Samaritan woman at the well, he asks for a drink of water and then promises her eternal life. To the woman caught in the act of adultery, he offers forgiveness. To the swindler Zacchaeus, he invites himself over for lunch. After the meal, Zacchaeus makes restitution (and then some) to everyone he defrauded.
We don’t know all the details of the conversations, but what is recorded is how Jesus reached out, accepted and loved them. He didn’t need to say, “You are wrong.” He pointed them to forgiveness and hope. The Samaritan woman was stunned by how Jesus treated her. Jews would never talk with a Samaritan, let alone a woman. And then he matter-of-factly let on that he knew she had been living with a man not her husband (probably not her first time). She was overwhelmed. Here he was offering not only to drink from her cup but to give her eternal life . . . even when he knew everything about her! (John 4: 1-42).
Time to be Different
So, the world awaits our Christ-centered response. The time has come to take the initiative and engage. Like Jesus, love is never passive. It gives, it acts, it cares, it reaches out. Love has no agenda; only a vision. So let’s not merely post our responses and throw around the word “love” and think it gets us off the hook. If the love is real, you are hooked. And it is awesome because you know what it’s like to be loved and accepted and forgiven so you can’t help but share it.
We may say, “We love you;” but that doesn’t mean that we wait around for them to come to us on our terms. We go to them. Let’s invite leaders of the gay community to sit and talk. Let’s communicate our concerns and solicit their help in the possible erosion of religious liberty. Let’s be preemptive with our love. Let’s develop relationships where we honestly engage the personal, social and spiritual aspects of what it means to be broken sinners in a broken world. We can speak the truth with genuine love.
Some conversations will be difficult and emotional. Most of them will carry on for weeks, months, years. That’s what love does.
When you do this, there will be certain kinds of professing Christians who will criticize you and accuse you of compromise and even heresy. Their time has long passed. If we try to appease that group we will serve the rest of our lives in impotent obscurity.
In a culture that is rapidly becoming formless and void, Christ can use us to create incredible light. And it will be good.
“Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs” (Proverbs 10:12).
“Who am I? I am Jean Valjean!
Who am I? 24601!”
Some time ago, I taught a class at Bryan College entitled, “Bible and Contemporary Life.” One of my favorites. Each year I would take the students on a tour of the evolving moral and social landscape. We explored contemporary cultural issues in an attempt to understand and respond to them from a biblical worldview.
This was an upper-level class so they did most of the work (this is why college professors like to teach upper level courses). But I did my homework, too, since I had a vested interest in making sense of the world. I wanted the students to dig deep and get behind the headlines, the clichés, the talking points and the bumper stickers. We wanted to uncover the foundational beliefs within culture that explained and predicted the public acceptance or rejection of issues.
Each year, the moral critical mass became clearer: the “self” was becoming the fulcrum on which society was pivoting. Rather than God, society or moral standards, individual choice was the beginning and the end of moral reasoning.
The extent of personal liberty and the rights associated dominated discussions.
We all knew the times were changing and the landmark turning point had been Roe v. Wade (1973) when a woman’s right to an abortion was grounded not in any transcendent moral truths but in a woman’s right to privacy. If a mother had the right to choose the life or death of an unborn child, then almost any other social issue was open for re-interpretation.
The Roe decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court 19 years later in Planned Parenthood v. Casey when the court majority added another twist to human choice: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” At face value, this sounds reasonable but when it becomes the lowest common denominator for determining public policy and morality, the result is a carnival of confusion. The human quest for truth, good and beauty collapses. No one can claim to know what is right for anyone except themselves.
Predicting the Future – Today!
There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
~ “For what it’s worth” – Buffalo Springfield
We began to predict what the future held for American society if long-accepted moral and social standards were fundamentally changed to reflect the individual choice.
Here are some of what we came up with:
*Entertainment technology would be the most obvious example of personal choice. All communication and entertainment would become localized in one piece of technology and personalized. Broadcast television would give way to a person’s ability to choose to watch whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted (we predicted this in the early 1990’s before cell phones were common).
*Marriage would be redefined to accommodate individual’s choices:
Same sex, multiple spouses, group marriages, and other polyamorous relationships;
*Recreational drugs would be legalized and left up to the individual to decide whether to use or not;
*Educational curricula would become boutique – specialized for the individual’s desires, schedule and goals;
*Self-identity would become an obsessive abstract. That is, people would no longer talk about “who am I” but “what am I.” Since a person cannot change their actual identity, they will choose how they want to be identified by others.
The last prediction has been accelerated by social media where a user can identify themselves any way they choose. Identity markers proliferate in order to provide more options for self I.D.
Stories like male Bruce Jenner choosing to identify as female Caitlyn Jenner or white Rachel Dolezal choosing to identify as a black woman are front page news now but soon will become passé.
In a society where the connection to ultimate meaning is banished, our craving for self-identity is relentless. Why? Not because it distinguishes us from others but because it connects us to them.
Which character are you most like in Shakespeare, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, Frozen, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, etc.? Labels multiply. Sexual identity dominates. It began as Heterosexual male and female; then homosexual, then Gay, then Gay/Lesbian, then LGB, LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA, . . . Face Book alone has over 50 choices for users to identify their gender and there are complaints that the list leaves out too many options.
Religion and politics don’t care what you call yourself because they flip the script and have taken the labeling frenzy to extreme. They can slap a label on someone and ruin their career or put their life at risk. It has become an art form.
Looking for Me in all the Wrong Places
All horizontal quests for meaning, purpose and identity end in despair. Nothing in this life can fulfill our deepest longings. Like the prodigal who humiliated his father and then wasted a fortune on himself, he found nothing but emptiness in his pursuits. He returned to his father, filthy and starving, hoping for a slave’s job, only to be enveloped by his father’s embrace and tears and welcomed back as his son. When the horizontal cravings turn vertical, and we look up, then we see all that we have been looking for.
In the musical version of Les Miserables, Jean Valjean wrestled with whether or not he should reveal his past imprisonment. He concludes,
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope, when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on
Then Jean Valjean admits to the public court that he was convict #24601. He could have lied and escaped but he refused to let an innocent person suffer in his place.
Valjean had every reason to reject God. He had been beaten and brutalized in prison for 19 years for stealing some bread to feed his sister’s starving children. But he was transformed when he received underserved mercy and forgiveness from a bishop. Now his connection to God and his awareness of God’s grace in his life was all the identity he needed. That grace changed not only the trajectory of his life but who he was. His life, his future, his moral choices were defined by the answer: “I am Yours.”
We can only answer the question of our identity when we return ourselves to the One who made us. He says we find ourselves when we give ourselves away; doing what we were made to do.
“You will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. . . Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
~C. S. Lewis
Well-known actor, Zachary Levi, (Chuck, Tangled) points out that the Hollywood milieu, dominated by celebrity, status and money, is a difficult place to talk about following Christ. “There are a lot of people who consider themselves ‘spiritual,’” he says, “but that can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.”
Living out his own faith in Christ is important. “I don’t really talk about it that often, because there’s too much talk in the world. Especially with Christians, there’s more proselytizing than there is actual living proof of it. That’s kind of sad.”
Living a Christ-centered life in a dark environment makes an impact, but when the stakes are not merely Hollywood values but life and death, following Christ can be powerfully life-changing.
Ray and Ruth Ann are friends of ours who live near Toronto. They described a conversation they had with a Muslim acquaintance from Iraq. They asked him what he thought of Christians.
“I did not learn hardly anything in my country other than Christians worship three gods.”
Then, he went on to talk about how Christians are perceived in Iraq: “In my country, Christians are often put in charge of finances because they are honest.”
When he left Iraq to study at a Scandinavian university, he started attending a church every Sunday. Why?
“My parents told me that Christians are very kind people – and they are!”
Because of the language difference, he did not understand the messages very well but he was constantly struck by the lives of the Christians he met. An Indian Christian gave him a Bible. He was glad to get it because, “He was a selfless person. He did most of the work on our team projects and never sought to be acknowledged. When others claimed to have done his work, he never got angry or demanded credit. But, I knew what he had done.”
“Living the life” is not something we have to do but we get to do. And it should be the natural outgrowth of our awareness of being loved, accepted and forgiven by Christ. It’s time we stop demanding respect as if we deserved it.
So, today, let hope be in our faces even if we are treated badly, and joy in our attitudes even when we are discouraged. We may be giving the best “commercial” for Christ to those who need it most.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4-5).
Dr. Bill Brown is a speaker, writer, leader and mentor. He has served as President of two Christ-centered universities and currently is the Senior Executive of an international technology firm with offices in Kiev, London and Boston. Dr. Brown travels extensively speaking and mentoring business and ministry leaders around the world.