Two Ways

Psalm 1

In the little expositions that I’ll do in the weeks to come, I won’t include the text of the Psalm. It would be best to read the following comments with a Bible opened to the passage being highlighted. Psalm 1 is foundational to all the psalms because, in many respects, it is the key to reading and properly applying the rest.

The Way of the Righteous – 1-3

The righteous is doubly blessed! “Blessed is the term regularly used in the Old Testament to describe a person who is in a good situation and deserves to be congratulated. The Hebrew word does not mean precisely that God blesses, or rewards, such a person; rather it means that such a person is happy, or fortunate, deserving congratulations.” (UBS Old Testament Handbook Series). It’s used here in the plural: “Oh the blessednesses! Oh the happinesses!” – possibly for added emphasis, as in “doubly blessed” or “twice as happy.”

But ultimate happiness in God’s world has conditions attached. If we want God’s blessing, we must meet the conditions. On the negative side of the ledger, here is one who:

  • Walks not in the counsel of the wicked
  • Nor stands in the way of sinners
  • Nor sits in the seat of scoffers

Notice the progression or movement:

  • Walks – stands – sits
  • Counsel – way – seat
  • Wicked – sinners – scoffers

On the positive side, this person finds delight or takes joy in the Law of the LORD (v. 2). He “meditates” on it – a content-rich concept in Hebrew with a range of meaning that does not necessarily connote silence: to moan, growl, utter, speak, or muse. Robert Alter argues that the Hebrew verb “means to make a low muttering sound, which is what one does with a text in a culture where there is no silent reading.” (The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007, p. 3). Constant muttering could certainly lead to meditation. In a print media or digital media culture, silent reading is abundant, but ancient cultures fostered the practice of reading and even meditating out loud. It may be that the words of the mouth and the meditation of the heart are much more closely related in ancient Israel than in the modern civilization (cf. Ps. 19:14). This suggests that the recitation of scripture on the outside can evoke a transformative process on the inside. The same connection between heart-meditation and mouth-verbalization is found in Joshua 1:8 – “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night…” In Job 27:4, Ps. 35:28, and several passages, the word indicates verbal utterance. Oftentimes, the “mouth” is what “speaks” or “meditates” (Ps. 37:20; Prov. 8:7), as well as the “throat” (Ps. 115:7) and the “heart” (Isa. 33:18).

The focus is on the “law of the LORD.” “Torah” (“law”) means teaching, instruction, or guidance, but the Jews referred to the first five books of the Old Testament, the most foundational part, as “Torah.” Generally speaking, God’s “Law” is God’s written record in scripture, including the whole Bible. Our interest in it should be all-consuming: “day and night.” Warren Wiersbe says, “We must be directed by the Word” and “We must be delighted by the Word.” Compare the sentiment in Psalm 119:97 – “Oh how I love your law; it is my meditation all the day.” As already suggested in a previous installment, we should strive to get into the Psalms (read and meditate), let the Psalms get into us (conceptualize and memorize), and then get the Psalms out of us (articulate, sing, and pray).

In the battle for the mind, what kind of “counsel” will govern our actions? There are many counselors vying for our attention, and wicked counselors are everywhere. God’s Word, on the other hand, should be the foundation of our lives. Ultimately, it is more important than food (Job 23:12), wealth (Ps. 19:7-11), and sleep (Ps. 119:147-148).

A person who builds his life on God’s Word will be “like a tree.” He will be planted – i.e. not going anywhere, with firm roots. He will be watered – “its leaf does not wither.” He will be fruitful – God blesses him so that he might be a blessing to others. And he will be prosperous (cf. Deut. 29:9 – “Therefore keep the words of this covenant and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do”).

The Way of the Wicked – 4-5

In contrast with the righteous, “the wicked are not so.” There is a clear line of demarcation. All these great things the Psalmist says about the righteous do not apply to the wicked. Positively, again with the use of a simile: “he will be like chaff that the wind drives away” (vs. “like a tree…”). After harvesting grain, the next step is the threshing floor. “After the cut grain stalks were tramped and crushed on the threshing floor, they were pitched into the air by use of a winnowing shovel. The grain fell to the ground and the chaff (or, straw) was blown away.” (UBS Old Testament Handbook Series).

The future of the wicked is transitory. “The wicked will not stand in the judgment” – i.e. before God (I Jn. 4:17-19; Rev. 6:12-17). “Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous” – i.e. before God’s people. Notice the metaphor of “standing,” as well as the company one keeps (cf. v. 1). Godly people will not stand with evil influences (cf. 1 Cor. 15:33; Eph. 5:11). A day will come when evil people would give anything to “stand” with the “congregation of the righteous,” but the entrance into that fellowship will be denied them.

The Parting of the Ways – 6

“The LORD knows the way of the righteous.” “Knows” implies an intimate awareness. “Way” here is distinguished from the “way of sinners” (v. 1).

“But the way of the wicked will perish.” The reason why the destinies of the righteous and wicked are different is because they choose two different ways, roads, or pathways. Which road will you travel? (Mt. 7:13-14). Our eternal destiny will be determined by the sum total of the choices we make in life, combined with the consequent blessing or curse of God as a result of those choices.

Mike Wilson

“The Lesser of Two Sinners”?

In 95 AD or so, the apostle John wrote:

“We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”  I John 5:19-21

No matter how you interpret the finer points of this passage, one thing is clear: there are only two realms in the world in which it is possible to live: the realm of God or the realm of the “evil one.”  There is no third world, no middle earth.

Yet I hear people speak of “the lesser of two evils,” almost every election season. The free dictionary defines the idiom as,

“…the somewhat less unpleasant of two poor choices. This expression was already a proverb in ancient Greek and appeared in English by the late 1300s. Chaucer used it in Troilus and Cressida.”

It’s an old saying, but for Christians, it’s not an accurate saying. Of course, you’ve heard the arguments for or against Trump and Clinton based on this principle. And you’ll find plenty of articles entitled along the lines of a recent one, “Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils is Still Choosing Evil.” You’ll hear some TV political wonks debate — endlessly — who is more evil, and it seems to be a close race this time.

But look at the text again: there are only two realms, overseen by two beings — the realm of God and the realm (world) of the evil one. Of the second one, John says “the whole world” lies in his power. That’s pretty ominous: if you are not “of God” you are under the power of the evil one.

To be “of God” means you are born of God, walking in the light as He is in the light (1:7), and do not practice sin (3:9). But John is not saying that those in the realm of God are perfectly sinless individuals — if one says that he is, he’s a liar (1:8, 10). Those who are “of God” are forgiven sinners who continue to need forgiveness. And, because they never forget that they have been forgiven they are the least judgmental people on the planet. I didn’t say they don’t make judgments: Christians are also the most discerning people on the planet — they have no fellowship with “darkness” (1:6; cf. Eph. 5:11).

But those who are “from God” have an understanding of what is true and what is not (we know that Jesus is the source of truth, not the world). In our modern day vernacular, we might paraphrase this to say that our “worldview” comes from God. We can identify good and evil and our lifestyle is to practice the good while steering clear of the evil.

“The lesser of two evils” myth suggests a hierarchy of “evils.” But there is no list in the New Testament that prioritizes evil. It’s not as if there is:

  1. Minor league evil
  2. A little worse evil
  3. Almost really bad evil
  4. Really bad evil
  5. Even worse evil
  6. You better not even think about it evil

There is no list. Evil is evil is evil, even if the consequences of some acts of evil are worse than others. But you cannot make the argument that one sin is on a higher or lower scale than another, in God’s eyes.

Romans 1:29-31 puts to rest any attempt to scale sin. Paul follows his discussion about idolatry and homosexuality with terms like “covetousness,” “strife,” “gossiping” and “disobedient to parents.” If you say you are free of all of these things, then the sin of “haughtiness” may well apply to you. You can’t escape.

And that’s the point Paul is making — we are all sinners, every one of us. His list at the end of Romans 1 proves it but then he goes on to say “none is righteous, no not one” (3:10); and, famously, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (3:23).

The lesser of two evils statement is flawed for Christians because it is not possible to have evil and less evil. The category doesn’t exist in the lexicon of the Christian.

Political Elections  

So, if this is true, what’s the impact? First, when it comes to personal decisions on how to act, I agree with Charles Spurgeon who said, “of two evils, choose neither.”

But something about applying this cliché to political elections has been bugging me. In the first place, when we apply this to elections, we are applying it to people, not our own actions. In the current election, we are making a judgment that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are evil people.

Maybe I’m wrong, but that smacks of making a final judgment on these individuals. I have said to someone’s face, “you did an evil thing when you…” But I have never said to someone’s face, “you are evil.” I leave that to God.

Sure, there seems to be plenty of evidence that both of the candidates have done evil things and, if you listen to Fox News or CNN, you’ll hear that one is more evil than the other. But is that a term Christian should use to describe anyone?

In fact, what if we changed the saying to, “the lesser of two sinners”? Doesn’t that change the narrative? Two things come to mind. First, we’re still using a flawed category: sin is sin; there are no “big” sinners and “lesser sinners.”

But second, using the “sin” category instead of “evil” should cause us to think about ourselves. That is, if they are sinners… well, so am I. So, “the lesser of two sinners” is meaningless when viewed in terms of Romans 3:10, 23.

Voting for a Sinner

Whether you agree with that or not, does voting for a “sinner” cause you to sin? The answer is “Yes,” if it offends your conscience to vote for a candidate you feel you shouldn’t vote for. But that raises some questions. Have you consistently voted only for candidates that you knew were moral people? And how do we define a “moral” person, when it comes to a political candidate?

Let’s just limit it to votes for President. I think my first vote was for Richard Nixon in 1972. Oops. In 1980, Jimmy Carter was the “moral” Southern Baptist running against Ronald Reagan, the former actor. I enthusiastically voted for Reagan even though by doing so, I helped elect the first President who had been divorced. And, for the record, if all the reports are true, his divorce and remarriage to Nancy probably would not be approved by God.

And then many of us voted for a Mormon — Mitt Romney — last time around. Yet, the doctrine of mormonism is a direct assault on sound doctrine: Jesus as the true Son of God, the Bible as the final revelation of God’s will, and a host of other false teachings “revealed” to Joseph Smith and perpetuated by young Mormon “elders” in white shirts reading from something called “The Book of Mormon.” How do we justify that, if we must justify our vote at all?

I don’t remember a huge debate about “the lesser of two evils” during Romney’s run. We liked his “morality” and his fiscal policies, I suppose, so he was OK.

I’m not trying to ruffle any feathers. I’m trying to get us to think about whether voting for a particular individual is engaging in evil. I think I am perfectly safe in saying that I have never voted, at the national level, for a Christian and probably never will. I cannot imagine a Christian — as defined and described in Scripture — ever getting onto a national ballot in this country in the first place.

If that’s true, then look at what John said again in I John 5:19-21. There are only two worlds, or realms: the realm of God and the realm of the evil one. There are not shades and grades of evil or good. There is God (good) and evil.

Most likely, I have always voted for someone who is “of the world,” not one who is “of God,” but someone under the power of the evil one. I have never voted for “the lesser of two evils” in my life because that assumes a scale of evil, which I reject.

Everyone I have ever voted for was a sinner, just like me. None, as far as I know, embraced Christ to the degree that Christ demanded of his disciples. So we have always voted for the person whom we perceive to be the “lesser of two evils,” although I think there’s a better way to say that.

I have always voted for the person who I felt at the time would make the best moral decisions and who, at least in general, shares my vision of what the country should look like when my grandchildren grow up.

In the last few years, my choice has come down, almost exclusively, to the person whom I believe would nominate judges for federal courts who will uphold the constitution, not “legislate from the bench.” And I’ve done that with a perfectly pure conscience.

And it’s important that, whatever we do, we do it conscientiously. I would never judge another for a choice he or she makes on that basis.

In Order to Really Appreciate the Psalms…

I have a confession to make. I did not always like the Psalms. I found the book too flowery, poetic, repetitive, and lacking in action scenes. I could relate to Philip Yancey, who mused that at one time in his life, he “wondered why the Bible needed 150 psalms – wouldn’t 15 suffice to cover the basic content?”

In an Old Testament Poetry class in college, I learned something about the structure and poetic craft of the Psalms. I learned that the chief characteristic of Hebrew poetry was parallelism, in which a city might be destroyed in one line, then be turned into a heap of rubble in the next. I studied word pictures such as simile, metaphor, hyperbole, anthropomorphism, and personification. I discovered alphabetic acrostic arrangements and chiasms. I studied the various authors, the major categories (praise, thanksgiving, history, messianic, imprecatory, royal, laments, ascents, etc.), and even the musical terms (selah, maskil, mikhtam, etc.). But I was still impoverished. Again, as Yancey admits, “In my fixation with the details of the psalms – their categories, interpretive meaning, logical consistency, poetic form – I had missed the whole point…”

It was not until I turned my right brain on and entered into the imaginative “thought world” of the Psalms that I began to really appreciate them. As my friend Brian Segers said, “If you really dig into this, it activates the imagination.” Or Yancey, who experienced a similar transformation: “More than any other book in the Bible, Psalms reveals what a heart-felt, soul-starved, single-minded relationship with God looks like.”

The Book of Psalms has the ability to transform our vision. It gives us comfort in trial, peace of mind, and the satisfaction of intense spiritual desire. Most Americans are deficient in the praise gene. We have trouble expressing our praise to God in well-thought-out, articulate words. And, besides, as C. S. Lewis once wondered, why should God in any sense need or want our worship? He likened it to “a vain woman wanting compliments, or a vain author presenting his new books to people who never met or heard of him.”

Then he noticed that people spontaneously praise whatever they value. We all do the same thing: “It was a great vacation! You should have been there!” “This is a fantastic film! You have to see it.” “That’s the best book. You’ve got to read it!” Lewis surmised, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.” Then why should we not do with the supremely Valuable – our great God — what we cannot seem to help doing with mundane earthly discoveries and experiences which we value?

The Psalmists teach us how to make God the gravitational center of our lives – and how to give fitting expression to this longing. They instruct us on how to take the full range of human emotions and experiences – our gratitude, our despair, our frustrations, our doubts, our fears, and our sense of wonder and awe – to God’s throne! In fact, the Book of Psalms is the perfect vehicle to transport you to the heart of God.

If you really want to get into this portion of the Bible, let me suggest three simple steps:

  1. Get into the Psalmsread, study, meditate
  2. Get the Psalms into youinternalize, memorize
  3. Get the Psalms out of you – articulate, recite, pray, sing!

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said of the final step, “The only way to understand the Psalms is on your knees, the whole congregation praying the words of the Psalms with all its strength.”

Mike Wilson

Observations on the Psalms

In the church at Santa Clara, where I preach, we’re doing a yearly theme of “Loving the Old Testament.” We’re reading through the Old Testament together, and many of the classes and sermons supplement the daily readings. Since it’s such a rich quarry of material, members have recently asked me to supplement these lessons with some extra material on the Psalms. Consequently, in the next few weeks, I’ll post several blog posts pertaining to Israel’s ancient musical book of prayer and praise.

Each time I go through a section of scripture, I gain a few new insights, or I notice a few things that haven’t captured my attention in quite the same way before. In this go-around on the Psalms, here are a few of those observations.

  1. The passion and intensity with which the psalmists speak. There is an incredible desire to cry out to God and be heard, and this is intensified with the powerful metaphors they use. I’ve dubbed Psalm 139 the “Search Warrant” psalm, Psalm 51 “Healing a Broken Heart,” and Psalm 73, “Is Godliness Really Worth It?”
  1. How they address God. The Psalmists speak of the LORD (Yahweh) as a Rock, Deliverer, King, Shepherd, and personal God. They extol His virtues, they sing His praises, and, in Psalm 63 for example, they wake up in the middle of the night thinking about Him.
  1. The manner in which the psalmists speak to others. They curse their enemies (Ps. 137), they dismiss evil men and they challenge their fellow servants to sing the praises of the LORD. In fact, they commit to talking about the greatness of God to others, including the next generation (Psalm 78:1-8) and the “great congregation” (Psalm 40:9). No one is going to silence them!
  1. The manner in which they talk to themselves. This time through, I’ve noticed a lot of contemplation and self-reflection going on. Have you ever talked to yourself? The Psalmists seem to do it often. Psalm 103 helps us put gratitude back into our attitude. There is the repeated refrain: “Bless the LORD, O my soul…” (vv. 1, 2, 22). Ps. 42:5 says, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God….” It is a sentiment that we should be talking to ourselves about!
  1. The mixture of intensely personal information with corporate praise. When I learned to pray publicly, I was told to keep the “personal stuff” at home and to mention things “appropriate” to the group as a whole. That distinction is largely missing from the Psalms. In Psalm 40, David fights off depression, and he goes out of the “mire” into the “choir”! Other psalms speak of personal challenges, personal enemies, and personal sins, yet their private sentiments become the public property of all the Israelites, and to us as well. I believe that part of the reason for this is that human beings struggle with largely the same issues, and God is allowing us all to grow spiritually by identifying with them.

Mike Wilson

A Grandma’s Last Letter

About a week before my first wife, Cheryl, passed away, she wrote five letters to her future grandchildren. I just delivered the fifth and final one following the birth of Anna Brooke Wineinger, who has her grandmother’s red hair. This letter was written six and a half years ago, and it reveals a window into Cheryl’s faith and character. This was her last letter…

To my 5th angel grandbaby, 

Can there really be five grandchildren? Yes, there are! I am happy that you are here. I bet you look like an angel. Your mother looked like an angel to me from the day she was born. Take a look at her baby pictures. 

There are a few things that I want to tell you about your parents. They are very good and they love God. They will tell you lots of things about God. You listen carefully and obey God with all your heart. You will make me very happy when you do this. 

I have prayed for you many times and I love you. I send lots of kisses with this card. 

Grandma Cheryl 

The Christian and Race Relations

Paul speaks to racial and status distinctions in Galatians 3:28,

“…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is speaking to baptized believers about their spiritual equality in Christ. He is not speaking of function or addressing roles. In his time, Jews and Greeks did not lose their Jewishness or cease to become Gentiles; many remained slaves and it goes without saying that males remained males and females were still females. (Unfortunately, it’s necessary to make this point because some have tried to use Gal. 3:28 to justify women taking leadership roles in the church, in spite of Paul’s clear teaching in I Tim. 2:11-15).

So, Paul is speaking to the church and forbids making any spiritual or quality-of-person distinction whatsoever; we can infer that we are not to judge on the basis of race, nationality (cf. Acts 17:26), status or gender (need I say the  gender of your birth? Ugh).

Other than Pokemon Go, race relations have dominated the latest news cycle more than any other subject, and for good reason. The events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas (not to speak of the murder rate in Chicago and other major cities), have riveted our attention on the way human beings in America view and treat each other.

As a child of the 60s, who witnessed the civil rights movement up close, I was naively under the impression that the major issues had been addressed. I lived in LA (not Louisiana) at the time and the policy of segregation was foreign to me. I found it hard to relate to the images I was seeing on television of separate water fountains for black and white and of black young people being arrested for sitting at soda fountain counter.

The crisis became more real to me when, in 1965, I went to a concert at the Greek Theater and saw, in the distance, the smoke and fire emanating from the Watts district. I even heard gunshots during the concert.

Then, in 1968, two champions of civil rights, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated — the latter at the Ambassador Hotel, less than a block from where I was living at the time. This was after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. But you can’t legislate morality or spirituality, can you?

Several Southern Democrats (the “Dixiecrats”) opposed the Civil Rights legislation. I don’t mean to push a political agenda here, but it seems a reminder is in order: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was opposed by six Senate Republicans while 21 Senate Democrats opposed it. In the House, 96 Democrats and 34 Republicans voted against it.

But, race relations is not a political or “policy” issue, anyway; it is a moral issue — more accurately, it’s a spiritual problem. It’s hard to imagine that even churches in some parts of the country were segregated in the past. Perhaps even worse, as eminent historian Ed Harrell documents in his book, The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century, there was a kind of tacit segregation practiced by some preachers and members of churches of Christ. Black preachers who came to gospel meetings were sometimes ushered to pews other than the front pews.

James speaks to the ugly injustice of favoring one person over another based on the way he is dressed, let alone his color. He says people who do that are “judges with evil moments” (James 2:1-7).

Prejudice is an issue that goes to the heart of the gospel.

“For God so loved the world,that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

God loved the world… not some of the world, not certain races in the world, but the world. There is no excuse for prejudice of any kind. People will say, “well, that’s the way they were raised,” or “he gets it honest,” or “those were different times.” All of those statements are probably true of certain individuals, but none of them excuse the prejudice and injustice practiced by them. It’s evil, regardless of its source.

In fact, the title of this article is faulty. I used it because it’s common to talk about “race relations.” The Bible doesn’t talk about “race relations” however. In fact, when we find it necessary to talk about relations between races, we are admitting that we recognize some difference between the races. But that seems to be the source of the problem.

Look at Acts 17:26 again: “…and he (God) made from one man every nation of mankind…” Paul asserts that there are different nations but that everyone came from one man (Adam). Yes, some of us have different features and some are men and women of “color” (although “white” is the absence of color and “black” is the sum of all colors… not sure if that means anything but it’s interesting to contemplate). Every race is beautiful in its own right — that’s what God intended. Yet, we all come from one source, one man and one woman.

That’s a wonderful thought, a great reminder that we are all equal in God’s sight because he created us.

Wait… this is a side-note, but it just occurred to me that the theory of evolution — at least Darwinism — depends on the principle that men are not equal, at all, but that we are the way we are due to “survival of the fittest.” Evolutionists must admit that their theory leads to the conclusion that there are groups of people who are more “fit” than others. That’s inherently prejudicial, regardless of their arguments to the contrary.

But back to the main point: Christians are blind or they are not Christians. They are blind to color, nationality, race, physical characteristics, abilities, or disabilities, talents, celebrity, age, education… what have I left out?

We cannot be blind to lifestyle choices or actions that are works of the flesh, although — as the common saying goes — we are to love the sinner while hating the sin (see Jude 23). But we must never forget Paul’s oft-quoted, sometimes unapplied, truth that “none is righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10; cf.. 3:23). In other words, we should not overreact, even to immorality; as we sometimes say, we shouldn’t expect non-Christians to act like Christians.” The ugly response of some so-called Christians to the shooting in Orlando is evidence that some just don’t get it. We love everyone, even our enemies — if we are truly following Jesus.

If we keep these things in mind, we’ll judge words and actions correctly — judging the words and actions themselves without imposing artificial, prejudicial interpretations on them because of the race, nationality or political leanings of the person.

I’ve touched a nerve in myself even as I write this. There are leaders of various political groups who I believe have proved that they do not have their constituent’s best interest at heart, but are mainly concerned with keeping their place of power — and I can barely stand to listen to them, no matter what they are talking about. Just hearing their voice makes me want to… let’s say, change the channel.

That’s a kind of prejudice — not racial, by any means, but individual. But it’s still prejudice and I need to be open to listening to these people without prejudice. Sometimes, they have something worthwhile to contribute. And if we get in the habit of writing off a priori those in the pubic square, whether it’s Trump or Obama, then we are likely to do that at the local church level as well. Prejudice is not limited to national politics or race relations, as we see in the James 2 passage. It can become a nasty habit.

So, let’s sum up. “Race relations” should not be an issue in the church since we are not accepted on the basis of race or any other characteristic over which we have no control. Likewise, racism, in any form, should be summarily rejected and condemned by all Christians.

That cuts both ways, though. It means we do not give anyone a “wider berth” due to their race or nationality, either. Political correctness has reached a ridiculous level and some people are hypersensitive — they will play a game of “Gotcha” if you use the wrong term to describe them (“Indian” is out, “native American” is in, unless you live in Cleveland. Here’s a little history lesson: From 1930 until 1972, Stanford’s sports teams had been known as the Indians, and, during the period from 1951 to 1972, Prince Lightfoot [portrayed by Timm Williams, a member of the Yurok tribe] was the official mascot).

Not all of the PC conventions are nonsense, of course, but many of them are and they cannot affect our application of Scripture or the need to be discerning in who we spend our time with and how we react to sin and falsehood. And you are not a racist because you didn’t keep up with some group’s desire to be referred to by another name on the rare occasion we find it necessary to refer to a person’s race or nationality. And I won’t even get into the frustrating double standard that is implied to speech.

Bottom line, Christians are not prejudiced toward any man or woman; we recognize the eternal truth that all men are equal, cut from the same cloth, and precious in God’s sight. We do make mistakes; our thoughts and words may get away from us at times, especially when we are the victims of prejudice or hear hateful language from some members of our society that the mainstream media ignores (examples are legion of the selective use of inflammatory language by media on both sides of the political spectrum).

Let’s avoid unrighteous judgment while keeping judgment in mind. I mean the final judgment when we will stand before Christ and give an account of our lives (II Corinthians 5:10). Let’s be able to stand before him with clean hands and a pure heart, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “with malice toward none and charity for all.”

The Enemies of Christianity

There is a lot of hand-wringing and whining about the government and society and culture and how they are all seeking to make Christianity a thing of the past in America. Yet, have we considered that our greatest enemy may be us — “Christians” who are practicing a diluted version of “Christianity”?

I don’t know the exact context of the comic strip that made the saying famous, but it may well apply to us. In 1971, Walt Kelly, the Pogo comic strip artist, has Pogo looking out on a garbage dump. He says to his companion, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Is it possible that Christians — or so-called Christians — are are the real enemy of Christianity? Isn’t it time to quit blaming the government and society for the dwindling number of citizens who attend churches or dare to call themselves a “Christian” and take a look in the mirror?

Certainly, government and culture has had an impact on faith in God; no question about that. Ironically, it is common for people in our culture to do the very things, in principle, that Christians were accused of doing in the past  — exaggerating issues; seeking to legislate morality; “thought control”; shaming people over trivial matters; chilling speech and censoring speakers. There’s an interesting article about that, entitled, Secularists Doing the Crazy Stuff Christians Used to Do.*

The media takes its shots at Christianity as well. When was the last time you saw a “real” Christian on a network TV show? Maybe in the 60s, at the latest? On one new medical TV series, God has been blamed for the refusal to use transfusions (a JW patient), for a refusal to treat a patient at all (Christian Scientist) and for a mother who stole someone’s baby because “God must have wanted me to have a child.”

But we can’t lay the blame of the decline of “Christianity” entirely on our culture. The truth is, “Christians” have been their own worst enemies.

I’m putting the term “Christianity” and “Christians” in quotes because the term “Christian” is applied with too broad a brush today, to include just about everyone who says they believe in Jesus. In the Bible, the term is applied  narrowly to those who followed Jesus — committed disciples — and were willing to suffer for him (I Pet. 4:16). The term is used a mere three times and the term “Christianity” is never used in Scripture.

How have “Christians” hurt the cause of Christ in the land? Let me count the ways!

Let’s start with the extreme — groups like the Westboro Baptist church, with its God Hates Fags website and sign-carrying protesters, even at funerals. The damage these groups — and individuals who support them — do is impossible to calculate. Those most critical of Christianity will smear a little Westboro Baptist church hatred onto every Christian.

Of course, we already bear the historical burden of “Christians” spreading global terror. Can you spell “Crusades”? Violence in the name of Christ is not uncommon.

There are other reasons, within the religious community. Churches that claim to be Christ-honoring are hopelessly divided from other churches because few churches seem to be interested in what Christ actually said about the way we should be “doing church.” Churches ignore Christ on issues like organization (setting up boards of trustees and creating the “senior pastor” fiction) and worship (focusing on entertainment instead of worshipping in spirit and truth [John 4:24]) and work (offering physical recovery programs that go far afield of helping people get spiritually well). And these are the “conservative” denominations.

Why would we expect the world to take Christianity seriously if Christians can’t even agree on what they should be doing in the churches? You can’t blame the culture for that; the blame goes directly to those who lead these churches.

But, let’s bring it closer to home. This may sting a little…

As a church, we claim to have the proverbial t’s crossed and i’s dotted. We are devoted to authority, down to the smallest detail. We are adamant about unity and local church autonomy. That’s all good and right.

But there’s more to being a child of God than getting in the right church. The church is not only the church when gathered at 900 E. Natoma. We are the church every day, every hour. And when it comes right down to it, Christianity is judged by the attitude and behavior of its adherents (“Christians”) who live and work and play in the real world.

The cause of Christ has been harmed most acutely at the local level. Generally, poor marriages, divorces, out of control kids, family discord of all kinds (not due to true Christian commitment, Mt. 10:27) leave the distinct impression that “Christianity doesn’t work in the real world.”

And, of course, an arrogant, self-righteous, overbearing “Christian” does more harm to the cause of Christ locally than seeing a Westboro Baptist protester on TV. A Christian who can’t or won’t say, “I’m sorry” to a non-Christian that he has offended carries a banner saying, “Christians are always right” even though they’ll pray in an assembly, “forgive me of my many sins.”

A “Christian” who yells at his wife and kids, in the earshot of his neighbors, gives all Christians a black eye and does damage to Christianity more directly than a Richard Dawkins’ tirade on YouTube.

TV preachers and charlatans aside, any preacher who makes stuff up in the pulpit so his sermon is a crowd-pleaser is no friend of Jesus and sullies the image of what a Christian is supposed to be — absolutely truthful and true to the Scriptures.

A Christian man who dates a non-Christian lady and makes sexual advances tarnishes the image of Christianity — possibly forever — for that woman.

The young woman who can’t keep a secret and insists on spreading tales about others says to all who hear her: “Christians endorse slander and gossip. Why would I want to be involved in that?”

Then there is our chosen lifestyles, for all to see. We accumulate goods at the same rate as the consumerist culture that we, apparently, identify with. We watch the same lewd and vicious TV fare as everyone else — and then comment on it on Facebook (“Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad” are two that come to mind).

Or, we live in our neat house, with our manicured lawns which, as one person said, “are the modern moats that keep the barbarians away.” We have our own Samaritans — people we despise and want no part of. The Pharisees among us say, like those of old, “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?” but they do not bother to ask why (see Mt. 9:11).

I can hear Paul say, “you didn’t learn Christ that way!” (Eph. 4:20).

True Christianity is disabled when, instead of seeking sinners, like Jesus did, we opt instead for finding “good people, just like us” to “join our little band” (the church). Christ said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt. 9:13). If I am of Christ, I will seek the same type of people Jesus sought, though it may make me uncomfortable at times.

The impact of Christianity has dwindled for lots of reasons not directly in our control. Perhaps it is healthiest, though, for us to look inward to see how we might be contributing to its decline. Perhaps, as much as anything else, the failure of Christianity to grow in the U.S. is becaue of US.

Clearly, constant evaluation of ourselves in light of the Word makes sense and is a command: II Cor. 13:5. We need to measure our actions and words and choices by the actions, words and choices of Jesus.

We are all painting a picture of what Christianity is, to those who see us. Or, as Paul put it, “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”  II Cor. 3:1-3

It’s good to remember that the world is reading us like a book. Life is too short to allow petty disagreements and squabbles, or poor moral choices to taint our lives. When our lives are tainted, it spills onto others. And their view of Christ and Christianity is affected, perhaps permanently.

It’s amazing when you think about it: Christianity has survived the foibles, the misapplication, and the outright denial of its impact for 2000 years. If we succeed in messing it up completely in our time, in our nation, you can count on this: it will rise again and thrive in another time, in another, perhaps totally unexpected place. The fault is not in Christianity and certainly not in Christ. It’s always been true — its proponents are often the ones who do it most harm.

(Originally published in the View, the Folsom church of Christ’s weekly publication)

Imagery in the Book of Revelation

I sometimes say that Revelation is full of “earthly symbols” and “heavenly realities,” and that one cannot always decide between the two, because the visions defy explanation, insofar as human experience on earth is concerned. It’s a book revealed in pictures, and what John actually saw is the ultimate “interactive” journey — better than any high-tech, sci-fi thrills that man can dream up. 
But the images are intended to convey truth about the unfolding of God’s providential plan, the victory of the kingdom, and, I believe, the superiority of God’s forces over the persecuting monster (a role played then by the Roman empire). Sometimes in the O.T. prophets, as in Revelation, God reveals the future through apocalyptic visions — especially in difficult times when “earth shattering” events were about to occur. Such an appeal to the imagination has a way of capturing the attention and providing comfort in a way that straightforward narrative could never match. 
I believe we are approaching a time when these images mean even more to us….
– Mike Wilson

Thoughts for the Day

“Americans consume 80% of the entire global supply of painkillers.” (Gerald Celente)
Psychiatrist Paul McHugh: “Curt Shilling is of course correct with the science in saying that claiming to be a woman when you have the chromosomal and anatomical structures of a man does not make you such. You’re still a man no matter what you think or how you dress.”
The defenders of “science” sometimes are more interested in defending their own non-scientific agendas (and squelching dissent in a most unscientific way, as suggested by William McGurn yesterday in the Wall St. Journal):
  • On the abortion issue, a “fetus” is not an “unborn person,” unless, of course, a couple is happy about a pregnancy.
  • On the general theory of evolution, facts are facts… unless they are assumptions about the interpretation of data.
  • On climate change, McGurn suggests that “green enthusiasms can be used to push through a progressive economic and regulatory agenda.”
  • That “a man is a man” is “supported by DNA and those pesky X and Y chromosomes” (McGurn).
And this gem from yachting tycoon Larry Ellison: “Death has never made any sense to me.” Ah, this is another area where “scientific observation” at the end of existence will validate our faith.
— Mike Wilson

“That All the Earth May Know”

God promised the Israelites that if they would trust and obey him, he would bless them and make them successful. Even in military conflict against formidable foes, he promised, “Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand, and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword” (Lev. 26:8). Against “giants” in the land of Canaan, “No one shall be able to stand against you. The Lord your God will lay the fear of you and the dread of you on all the land that you shall tread, as he promised you” (Deut. 11:25).

Prior to Israel crossing the Jordon River, two spies were sent to Jericho. Rahab, a prostitute, hid them and confided to them: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction.  And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Josh. 2:9-11).

There are five powerful takeaways from this conversation:

  1. The word about Israel and its God had gotten out;
  2. Fear gripped the inhabitants of Canaan, just as God had promised;
  3. Rahab gave credit to the LORD God (Yahweh) for Israel’s success;
  4. She recognized that “the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” – unlike any ordinary (and impotent) regional pagan “god”;
  5. Joshua summed up the prospects for victory based on this report: “Truly, the LORD has given all the land into our hands. And also, all the inhabitants of the land melt away because of us” (2:24).

Those of us who grew up hearing the great stories of the Bible may underestimate the power of divine intervention in the Old Testament period as an impetus for faith in the one true and living God in the ancient world, let alone in modern times. Did Abraham overstate the case that “Moses and the prophets” contain enough to go on for an honest seeker to be convinced, even in the absence of a resurrection miracle (Lk. 16:29-31)?

The purpose of God intervening during great “turning points” of sacred history is so “that all the earth may know” (1 Sam. 17:46; cf. also 1 Kings 18:36-37). The combination of God’s amazing power and honest eyewitness testimony is a compelling one-two punch against skepticism in any age. Have faith in the Word, read the text with people, and ask honest questions. Gently help them come to an honorable conclusion. Even today, the “things written in former days” were written for our instruction, “that all the earth may know”!

Mike Wilson

Check out my new book, Inside Out: the New Covenant Written on the Heart, now available at Florida College Bookstore, http://bookstore.floridacollege.edu/store/product/55887/Inside-Out%3A-The-New-Covenant-Written-on-the-Heart.

Also, lessons with study questions and answers are available for all 13 chapters of the book. Write me at mikewilson777@yahoo.com if you’d like a free set.