Thursday, September 29, 2005
The tyranny of the stronger
The principle of Christian liberty has been especially important during my lifetime. Within evangelicalism, there has been a strong tendency towards adding laws to the Law of God. Who among us hasn't been warned against drinking this beverage or listening to that music by someone who warns us that by indulging we risk falling into sin? Now, Scripture does teach that the Christian ought never sin against his conscience, so certainly I ought to abstain from a thing if my conscience reproaches me for partaking of it, but not all Christians have a conscience that's as sensitive as mine: some have weaker consciences, whereas others have stronger. In his great exposition on Christian liberty (Romans 14), Paul warns believers against imposing their scruples on each other. The weak are not to cajole the strong to give up their liberty, but the strong are not to parade their liberty before the weak, lest they cause the weaker brother to stumble.
In my experience, the most common error regarding Christian liberty has been that of allowing the weaker brother to dictate the behavior of the stronger. Let's call this error the tyranny of the weaker. Let's say I enjoy a particular kind of music, a pleasure that isn't explicitly or implicitly forbidden in Scripture. Although I can enjoy it with a clear conscience before God, you feel that that type of music isn't proper for any Christian to listen to, and you tell me so. What should I do? Must I stop listening to this music? Yes and no. If my weaker brother is fellowshipping with me, I ought to respect his conscience and refrain from playing the music in question whenever he's present. It may also be wise for me to avoid discussing that music with him. Thus, I am free to enjoy my liberty but I avoid causing my brother offense. But what if he drops into my house suddenly and hears me playing the offensive music? Have I sinned? No, because I did not deliberately do so to offend him. Had I known that he was going to visit, I would have made certain to not play that music during his visit. Although some teach that the stronger brother, although he's technically free, ought to abstain at all times in order to avoid all possible offense of this type, I would argue that this is a foolish teaching because it turns Christian liberty into something that can be enjoyed only in theory but never in practice.
Although the tyranny of the weaker has long been the most common error regarding Christian liberty, I have lately been seeing rumblings of a new, perhaps even greater, danger: the tyranny of the stronger. In this error, the liberty of the believer of stronger conscience is of such great importance that it is to be defended even at the imminent risk of causing offense to those of weaker conscience. Although I have just argued that accidental offense is always possible and often unavoidable, the error I see lately seems to feature a tendency for the strong believer to parade his liberty in front of the weaker brother, in effect saying, "What I'm doing isn't prohibited by God, so I'm going to enjoy it whether you like it or not. What's more, I'm going to make sure that you know exactly what I'm doing." This hypothetical sentence is, I fear, all too suggestive of the cocky and self-centered attitude I'm seeing in some believers of stronger conscience.
When I first found my way to Reformed circles, I was rather surprised to learn of an interesting phenomenon that's sometimes called the "Spurgeon societies." In these little clubs, Reformed Christians--usually only men--get together and talk theology while they drink wine or other alcoholic beverages and smoke cigars. I believe that Spurgeon's name got tacked on to these groups on account of his well-known love of fine cigars. As a newly Reformed believer who'd come out of the tyranny of the weaker brother, this came as a small shock to me, but as I became better acquainted with the Bible's teaching on Christian liberty and observed the lifestyles of the men who participated in these groups, I came to accept this practice. I think the conduct of the participants in these groups played a large role in reconciling myself to it. Without exception, I noticed that these men took pains to enjoy their liberty quietly without the slightest hint of parading it in front of those who might stumble over it. Moreover, their way of life betrayed no sign of addiction to any of their pleasures, and they generally lived healthy lifestyles: proper diet and exercise, etc.. Their pleasure did not rule them, and they practiced it in such a way so as to not cause others offense. Now, I personally can't stand cigar smoke and I don't particularly enjoy most alcoholic beverages so I cannot imagine ever joining a "Spurgeon society", but I do enjoy other pleasures that might cause others to feel pangs of guilt. Although I doubt I'll ever join the Spurgeon guys, I must say that I respect what they do and that I've learned much from their example of how to go about enjoying Christian liberty in a proper, God-honoring manner.
In the recent movement towards the tyranny of the stronger, I've not seen such a pretty picture. Whereas my Spurgeon friends enjoy their liberty in a peaceful, quiet, and responsible manner, I'm learning of some Christians who will tell you all about the things that they feel free to swallow, inhale, wear, and pierce, and they will defend their right to do so with much vehemence. In some cases, especially regarding body piercing, tattooing, and clothing, they'll display their liberties for all the world to see: both stronger and weaker. Whereas I've never had occasion to watch my cigar-smoking friends enjoy their indulgence, the uber-liberated are happy to show me just how strong their consciences are, with little or no regard paid to how strong my conscience may be.
My friend, Christian liberty is a precious gift, one that ought to be preciously guarded against those who would seek to bind our consciences to any law save God's Law, but it ought not be exercised in a way that causes unnecessary or purposeful offense to those who possess weaker consciences. I am sincerely grieved to see the rising tyranny of the strong, and pray that God will grant His church a balanced Biblical understanding of how Christian liberty is to be enjoyed.
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
Unholy love songs
Of the lyrics I heard, I can say one thing in the group's favor: they weren't ashamed to name the name of Jesus. Good for them! However praiseworthy their boldness might otherwise be, I must still give their performance a thumbs-down, because their songs fell into the same trap that's ensnared much of today's praise and worship music: they sing freely of love for Jesus, but yet they utterly fail to truly praise and worship Him.
In Scripture, the Psalms of David and others extoll the many perfections and attributes of God with perfect throughness and depth: His goodness, righteousness, omnipotence, holiness, and justice, etc.. With the onset of the great revival we call the Protestant Reformation, such hymn writers as Isaac Watts, John Newton, Charles Wesley, and William Cowper added many new songs to the church's repertoire which, although uninspired, often do an excellent job of exhorting the church to praise God in his fullness. Many of these hymns speak of the believer's love for God in terms of intimacy and endearment, to be sure, but they invariably make it clear that the God whom we worship, although very near to His Elect, yet remains holy, exalted, and very, very high above us.
The contrast between the God portrayed in the Psalms and in the great hymns with the God of much of today's contemporary worship music could hardly be greater. On the whole, the picture you get from this music is little better than a series of love songs to Jesus. In fact, it would take very little work to recast many of these lyrics into a secular love song. Don't get me wrong: I'm not condemning all secular love songs. Instead, I am expressing my deep concern with the manner with which a sizable portion of the church sings of Jesus as though He was little more than a lover or friend. To be sure, the sinner can know no better friend than Jesus, and surely the believer ought to love Christ with all his heart, but is our love for Christ to be expressed in the same manner we might express the love for a beloved human being? God forbid that it be so! I would go so far as to say that many of these love songs to Jesus so belittle and demean Him that they verge on blasphemy.
Although the believer enjoys a great and tender intimacy with God through Christ, he must always remember that His God and Savior is high and lifted up: Holy, Holy, Holy is He!!! When we forget God's holiness in our worship of Him, we fail to worship Him Biblically. Love songs can be proper when sung to a proper subject (especially one's husband or wife), but our God deserves a type of praise and adoration that is reserved for Him and Him alone. May the church come its senses and purge God-dishonoring "worship" from its midst!
Saturday, September 24, 2005
Another subject which I've researched is drug addiction. Frankly, I find the very idea of addiction to be pretty scary. Contrary to what you might think, drug addicts really aren't that different from non-addicts. The only thing that makes them different from me is that God has seen fit to mercifully guard me from falling into such bondage. Besides, I think I understand a bit of what it's like to be a drug addict, because I was once addicted myself: not to drug-induced highs but to "spiritual" highs. I was addicted to my religion: the Charismatic Movement.
My life as a religious addict began like that of many addicts: as a "chipper" or experimenter. I dabbled with speaking in tongues, faith healing, etc.. It all seemed rather strange and uncomfortable at first, but yet I felt myself drawn in to the life. It seemed to be somehow mysterious and powerful. As a shy, awkward young man, I felt quite helpless and adrift in the world, so the type of empowerment that was promised by the Charismatic "baptism in the Holy Spirit" was intriguing. Still, I wasn't 100% sure that this was the right way to go, so I sat astride the fence for a season.
As the weeks went by, I continued to experiment, first tentatively but later with increasing boldness. My first breakthrough: I spoke in tongues. I had the baptism of the Holy Spirit! Once I'd broken through that hurdle, the subsequent milestones came more and more quickly. Soon I was praying for the sick and speaking words of knowledge. Also, I was having dreams and visions of things to come, including a great revival in which I was going to be mightly used by God. Oh, the excitement I enjoyed during those times, and it seemed that just when I started to get hungry for a little more, more is what I got! By the time I began to be called out in revival services to receive prophecies that God was preparing me for a mighty work, I was hooked.
What a honeymoon it was! It was a lot like the "good times" that many junkies look back on with fondness long after the ravages of addiction have taken their toll. It was a time when my spiritual gifts all worked, all of my visions and dreams seemed to be on the verge of coming true, and all of my prayers seemed to be answered in record time. It all seemed wonderful, but for one problem: I wanted more, and once I got more, I wanted even more. I was told that this was a good thing--I just wanted more of God, after all--so I saw no harm in it. Oh, I heard the occasional criticism of Charismaticism, but I knew better than to listen to the warnings and discouraging words of the non-Spirit-filled. After all, my experience proved all of their well-meaning words in error. What did they know? They didn't even speak in tongues!
However, there was a dark cloud lurking within this silver lining, and it was growing and growing and growing. You see, I'd started to build up a "tolerance." I was no longer satisfied with the "highs" that had thrilled me before. I craved for more...much more. My Pentecostal church which had seemed so "on fire" at first began to seem dead and cold, so I began to attend revival services at other churches as well as home prayer meetings that featured the extra amount of prophesying that I'd come to desire. To my pleasure, my increased dosage worked for a time. Although I'd started to have doubts about my dreams, visions, and prophecies, I received some timely "confirming words" that temporarily revived my faith in them. For the time being, at least, I felt pretty good.
But yet, something was very wrong. Oh, I had my spiritual highs alright, but I was no longer reading my Bible, and I no longer cared much about Christ except to use His Name as a means to receive answers to my prayers or to rebuke the Devil. Far from loving Christ, I'd come to love me: my spiritual gifts and my spiritual "highs."
Needless to say, this situation couldn't last forever, and it didn't. I think the long death of my addictive faith began when I heard a series of sermons that proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the Charismatic teachings on which I'd based many of my practices was founded on heretical doctrines and plagarism. My pastor, himself a Pentecostal, did all too good of a job of exposing the lies of the extreme form of Charismaticism with which I'd cast my lot. Thus began my season of doubt.
Almost immediately, I realized that I'd lost my source of spiritual joy. The practices I'd once used had been proven to be a sham, so I knew that I could no longer rely on them, but as I had no solid foundation for my faith underlying those false practices and beliefs, I was left to doubt not only my spiritual gifts, but also Christ Himself. My withdrawal had begun. Although it was spiritual rather than physical, it yet showed many parallels with what I've read of the wrenching misery of the heroin addict as he is weaned off his once-beloved dope.
In my case, I found myself in hopelessness and despair. As far as I could tell, the heavens were as brass to me. It seemed as though God wasn't listening to my prayers at all. To make matters worse, I came to doubt not only the personal "words from God" that had come to nothing but also the Bible itself. I asked questions such as, "God, if you lied to me about that prophecy, how do I know that you're not lying to me in the Bible?" So it went, for year after year, at least five years in all, until at last the tide turned and I found mercy in the sight of God.
I think my recovery began with surrender. During my season of withdrawal, I'd clung tenaciously to the scraps of my precious spiritual gifts, including certain prophecies on which I'd pinned high hopes, but now I was whipped, so while praying one day, I told God that I was going to put my gifts and prophecies on the shelf and concentrate only on the Scriptures. In case there was any truth or value to what I was shelving, I told God that He was going to have to make that very clear to me, because otherwise I was going to have nothing more to do with that which had so far brought me only misery and despair. Yes, I finally saw the true nature of the fruit of my spiritual addiction: far from being good for my soul, it stank to high heaven. I'd had enough of it, and wanted nothing more than to get it out of my life.
Incidentally, I'd not yet made a formal change of my doctrinal views regarding the gifts of the Holy Spirit. At this point, I still allowed that there might be some true gifts in operation today, but on the other hand I was well aware that if there were such gifts, I had never seen them even once. I was not yet a cessationist, but I'd already come to the place where I denied the validity of all the gifts I'd seen exercised in the churches I'd attended. It wasn't until a couple of years later that I came to embrace the Reformed faith and the sufficiency of Scripture.
Through the wonder that is the Internet, I sometimes encounter Charismatics. How much they remind me of myself during my honeymoon days, when the excitement of my spiritual gifts was so strong! Although I take every opportunity to share this testimony with them, they are just as blind and deaf as I was. Their spiritual pride is still too strong for them to consider that their "walk with God" has degenerated to something that's little better than an addiction to allegedly spiritual highs. Sadly, it seems that no one sees the devastation and misery that awaits once the honeymoon is over. May God use my testimony as well as that of other ex-Charismatics to warn these poor souls and bring many to their senses before it's too late!
In more recent times, since giving up my old Charismatic beliefs, I continue to hold strong convictions (albeit not exactly the same ones). Much like my Charismatic days, I will respond if you raise objections to what I believe, but unlike those days, I will most likely respond in a substantially quieter and more thoughtful manner. This change has not come about because my convictions have weakened, but rather because they have become stronger as my knowledge of and confidence in God's Word has increased.
When I was young in the faith and steeped in Charismatic practice, much of my "faith" was based on experiences I'd had: prophecies, dreams, visions, still small voices, etc.: various types of what I thought to be direct "words" from God. Upon receiving such a "word", I'd first hold it with much confidence and enthusiasm, but inevitably the doubts would come: "What if this word isn't from God? Perhaps it's from my imagination, or it could be a deception from Satan." Try as I might, I could never manage to accept with 100% assurance any such "word" as being from God.
Thus, when a person would raise any type of question or concern about my latest "word", my already fragile faith would be shaken to the very core. I perceived that my most precious faith was under attack, and reacted by defending my precious "word" with much passion and vigor. At the time, I fancied that this proved the strength of my faith, but later reflection revealed that the very vehemence of my defense revealed a rather different state of the heart: doubt and uncertainty. Although I professed to hold to the "word of faith" teachings of Hagin and company, my faith was a sham, built upon a foundation no more stable than quicksand. The very vehemence of my protests against the attacks of my enemies merely confirmed the truth: that I had deep, unsettling doubts about the very "truth" that I professed to hold so dear.
Much has changed since those days. As I came to realize that my "words from God" had either failed to come to pass or had led me away from Christ and the Scriptures, I made the decision to put every one of them on the shelf and concentrate instead on what I could know for certain: the Scriptures. Since then, I've come to know the Scriptures much better. Questioners and doubters still come my way, but my old insecurities are little more than a fading memory. Far from being in doubt regarding my bedrock of hope and inspiration, I am at peace because I know exactly what God has said regarding Himself and my salvation. I have no more "words" from God, but I have His inerrent, inspired, sufficient Word: the Bible. Although I often find myself defending the Word with passion and vigor, I find that I do so from a position of confidence rather than insecurity. Unlike the old days, when I was tossed and turned with every wind of doctrine, and concentrated my efforts on defending myself from doubts and uncertainty, my faith in the Scriptures alone has freed me to defend the Gospel of Christ from its enemies.
My friend, in what do you put your faith? Do you put your faith in uncertain experiences or in certain truth? When your faith is under attack, do you respond defensively or offensively? If you often find yourself lashing out against your critics, I encourage you to examine your heart to see whether it may be fear, insecurity or doubt rather than strength of conviction that fuels your reaction. If so, I encourage you to lay aside uncertain "revelations" and begin to feed upon the true and trustworthy milk of the Scriptures.
Friday, September 23, 2005
The housefly and the scientist
As I see it, naturalistic science bears many of the marks of a religious system. In particular, it has a system of doctrine. Some doctrines are considered to be open for debate if not open disagreement, whereas other doctrines are held to be non-negotiable or, to put it another way, fundamental. The doctrine of naturalism is one of those fundamental doctrines, so fundamental that if you dare to deny it, you will be accused of not practicing true science. You will surely be branded as a scientific heretic!
By naturalism, I refer to the belief that the natural realm--matter, energy, space, etc.--is all that exists. In naturalism, if something exists, it will somehow be observable, or it must be possible to logically or mathematically deduce its existence from objects that are observable. Since all who hold to naturalism are human beings, it follows that whatever constitutes the natural realm is presently observable (or deducible) by humans or someday will be observable (or deducible).
If you think about it, this is a huge presupposition. The naturalist is invariably an evolutionist, so he would hold that man, although the highest of all known creatures, is a mere animal who evolved over many billions of years through the process of natural selection. Anyone who's familar with the animal kingdom would readily confess that a lower animal such, say, a housefly is very limited in its powers of observation and reasoning. As a lower animal, the housefly has utterly no hope of unlocking the secrets of the universe. Compared with the housefly, man is much, much more capable in every way. In his powers of observation and reasoning, man vastly outstrips the lowly insect, and is thus vastly more capable of unlocking the secrets of the universe. Indeed, it almost seems foolish to compare the two.
But yet, to the naturalistic thinker, man remains an animal. As such, man must surely have limits of his own. Indeed, man's powers of observation have been greatly enhanced through modern techology. Why, men have repeatedly sent space probes to visit comets, asteroids, and planets. Man's outreach to the universe has vastly increased since that apple struck Dr. Newton on his head, and the available data about our universe has grown exponentially. We've gone far beyond the once-amazing realizations that the earth is a globe that revolves around the sun, and now realize that even our galaxy is just one amongst countless other galaxies. All of this we have learned through man's increasing powers of observation.
But yet, the most brilliant scientist yet has much in common with the common housefly. Even with his amazing instruments and computers, he remains but a creature. Even with all that he can observe, both directly and indirectly, he remains limited, so limited, in fact, that he cannot even see his limitations. The housefly buzzing around my office has seen only a tiny fraction of the city in which I work, but as far as he is concerned, he's seen all that there is to see. Likewise, our scientist assumes that what he sees is all that there is to see, and if there's anything he can't see right now, scientific progress will eventually make it possible to see it.
All this our scientist assumes, but how does he know that his assumptions are any more valid than those of the housefly? How does he know that everything this _is_ can be, or will someday be, observable? After all, isn't man just a creature?
All of these assumptions and more must be accepted by those who accept the doctrine of naturalism, but yet man, being a mere creature, cannot get beyond the simple truth that he cannot and will not ever know or observe all things. If there is a transcendent, personal God who exists beyond time and space, man would of course never see him with his scientific instruments or deduce him with computerized calculations, but yet the believer in naturalism must assume that because God cannot be seen, that He does not exist. Our housefly no doubt believes that the earth is flat, a belief that we would rightly ridicule, but is man truly so far above the fly that he can get by with his presumption that what he sees is all that there is to know?
In today's world of scientific orthodoxy, naturalism is a fundamental doctrine, and evolution is hardly less fundamental, so much so that anyone who espouses a belief in beings or processes that are unobservable will be laughed out of the laboratory. The evolutionist recognizes that creationism and intelligent design deny the doctrine of naturalism, so he denounces them as heresies beneath contempt. He must do so, of course, because they deny the very doctrines on which his system of belief is founded.
On the other hand, the Christian holds to presuppositions of his own: preeminently, that God exists, and that the Bible is His Word. On these presuppositions the Christian builds a worldview that is diametrically opposed to that of naturalistic science. Of course, the Christian would not consider calling his presuppositional beliefs into question than would the naturalistic scientist. The two simply cannot come to agreement. Both cannot be right.
Thus, so long as naturalism prevails as the orthodox doctrine of the scientific community, the models of creationism and intelligent design will never be given serious consideration, and God will continue to be ignored and denied in the classroom and in the laboratory. But yet if there is a God--a God that cannot be wished out of existence by any presupposition--He must and will have His way, and if He is indeed Creator of all things, He will make this known to all creation in due time. Although I won't go far as to say that it's wrong for the church to strive to have creation or ID taught in the schools, I submit that it will be far more fruitful for the church to faithfully preach the Scriptures at every pulpit, proclaiming the Word of the God who is not only Creator but also Savior.
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Love is free
The Scriptures have a good deal to say about love, most famously in Paul's great chapter in 1 Corinthians 13. In Scripture, we learn that love is self-sacrificing and self-denying. It gives and does not demand to receive. The man who walks in love is content with what he has and thankful for what he is given.
In a sense, contentment with God's providence for your life is essential if you're going to be thankful for what God graciously gives you. If you are satisfied with the little that you have, you will be all the more thankful when God provides you with unexpected blessings just as He so often does. Conversely, if you demand and expect much from God and man, you're unlikely to be thankful for what you receive.
When you are accustomed, then, to other people living up to some man-made standard of behavior, whether that standard is based on local custom or on your own private notions, you may find yourself rather disappointed when others fail to attain to your standard. This should not be surprising, because in so doing you've added commandments and precepts to the perfect Law of God. Given that God's Law is in itself impossible for any man to perfectly obey, the addition of even more laws to it will only make perfect obedience even more impossible! What's more, you've robbed yourself and others in two important ways:
- You've robbed yourself of the joy of unexpected blessings and kindnesses on account of your high expectations.
- You've robbed others of the joy of freely giving to you, and forced them to do that which they may well have done willingly.
In my experience, extra-Biblical expectations and demands within a relationship are a certain way to rob both partners of the joy of giving. By forcing me to do this or that for you in order to stop you from complaining, you've robbed me of the joy of voluntarily striving to please you, and you've robbed yourself of the joy of receiving the often unexpected gifts I'd otherwise seek to bring you. When love is mixed with a demanding--that is, an discontent--heart, it becomes a joyless thing, but when it is allowed to give freely, it becomes a delight.
Beloved, let us not scold or upbraid one another when we are disappointed. Instead, let us be content with the little we have, that we may be free to receive even more with joy. Yes, love is a duty to both God and man, but it is a duty that ought to be fulfilled out of a free, willing heart.
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Confessions of a Christian rebel
You see, I too, "The (In)Scrutable One", am a rebel against society. Caring nothing for what society thinks of me, I submit to only one law, and refuse to bind my conscience to any other law, whether it comes by the word of man or angel. I own no switchblade or leather jacket--not even a motorcycle and I don't have enough hair to slick up, down, or sideways, but I am, my friend, a Christian rebel!
So just what is it that makes me such a menace to society? What is it about me that has made a growing number shrink back from me, fearing the lawlessness that I so boldly espouse? It is simply this: I am a Christian, Elect of God, and as such I am unwilling to bind my conscience to obey any God save God's Law.
What is God's Law? For starters, it's the Ten Commandments, but it's also every moral law found anywhere in Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. In fact, the Ten Commandments is a summary of the entirety of God's Law, and that Law may be further summarized in the Two Great Love Commandments: "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength" and "you shall love your neighbor as yourself." As Christ said, in these two commandments are summarized all the Law and Prophets. Although as a Christian I am saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, without any work of the Law, I learn from Scripture that I am obliged to walk in love, and that I do so by obeying God's Commandments. Thus, the Law of God doesn't save me, but it does provide me with my sole and sufficient rule of life.
At this point, you may ask, "So what's so shocking or rebellious about that?" Nothing at all insofar as what the Scriptures teach, because my stand is simply that which is plainly taught in Scripture. However, I have sometimes found that my stand has provoked even people of good character to question my character, to think that I am some kind of rebel against society. But how could they think this? If you were to ask anyone who knows me well, they'd tell you that they find me to be a man of tender conscience, who diligently strives to avoid causing unnecessary offense who all with whom he comes in contact. By God's grace, I am normally a lamb, not a lion.
As I mentioned earlier, God's Law is summarized as love towards God and towards one's neighbor. It is God, not man, who obliges me to treat you in a loving manner. However, only some of the whys and wherefores of brotherly love are set forth in Scripture, and it is only the Scriptural commandments that ought to bind my conscience. All other commandments are at best applications of God's Law. As such, they do not directly bind my conscience. For instance, if God had explicitly commanded all men to maintain a pristine clean-shaven appearance, you could have justly and rightly taken me task for disobeying God's Law, but since He's made no such commandment, I am bound only to obey any such Scriptural commandments that address all aspects of my conduct. Regarding matters that aren't specifically addressed in Scripture, but which pertain to my loving relationship with you, I ought to strive to do what is pleasing to you to the extent that is permissible according to God's Law.
At this point, I would submit that clear and specific violations of God's Law ought to be treated as being far more severe than a violation of my brother's tastes, preferences, or scruples. Although you have every right to bring a matter to my attention when my behavior displeases you, and I ought to be willing to do whatever is in my power to please you so long as doing so doesn't compel me to disobey God's Law, it is unwarranted for you to treat such a matter as being of similar or equal gravity compared with a violation of Scriptural Law. In fact, when my brother or sister offends me regarding any matter that's not explicitly dealt with in Scripture, I ought to strive to address the issue with brotherly kindness and respect, giving every possible benefit of the doubt regarding motives.
The other day, I wrote about how I've often struggled with to be correctly understood in written communication. As I've thought about that issue, it's occurred to me that it is precisely the issue that I've addressed in this article that's caused a number of online misunderstandings. Since I'm a sometimes awkward bachelor, I do sometimes inadvertently cause offense regarding matters of social nicety, and when I do so I most certainly want to make matters right, but when this happens, I'd very much appreciate it if you'd keep in mind that I haven't broken God's Law, so it's really not appropriate for you to talk about how badly I've offended you. Instead, let me know I've displeased you, and I'll be happy to make it right.
So, why do I make such a big deal about this? If I'm going to submit to please you anyway, why make a fuss about it? Simply this: as a Reformed believer, I consider myself to be obliged to obey God in all things. I will allow only His Word to bind my conscience. Although I also submit to the laws of the land, I do so because the Scriptures command me to do so, but I will not obey any commandment of man that would compel me to do what God prohibits or not do what God commands. Thus, it is a matter of conscience for me that the only true law is God's Law.
Having said all that, I hope you can see that my "no law but God's Law" stand isn't really that rebellious after all, for instead of obliging me to obey all sorts of man-made laws (written and unwritten), it obliges me to obey a far higher Law, one that compels me to do right to and for you, both in deed and in attitude. Although my conscience demands that I reject obedience to the rules of men, God's perfect law of love compels me to go far beyond what man requires: to do what is right not out of fear of social reprisal, but in order to please and honor a holy God. This, my friend, is the nature of my rebellion.
Friday, September 16, 2005
At first glance, this is a rather strange problem. You'd think I have all sorts of advantages that would make the Internet a great communications vehicle for me. For one thing, I'm adept with computers and software, and for another, I'm blessed with an above-average ability to express myself in writing. In fact, I find that there are many thoughts that I can express far more easily in writing than by speaking.
So what's my problem? Why is it so difficult for me to express myself to others or for me to rightly judge others via the written word? Why do I have such difficulty with this whereas so many folks gladly tell of how they met their "special someone" online?
Part of the responsibility, I think, I must claim for myself. Whereas some people are gifted with personalities that are easily "read" even via written communication, my personality is such that I tend to project an Internet image that can seem quite different than what I'm really like. For instance, on this blog I boldly hold forth at length on many subjects, but in conversation I'm often content to sit and listen while others share their ideas. Now, the picture you may get of me from my writings on this blog do give you an accurate impression of what I'm thinking, but this picture is incomplete: there's a great deal about me--what I think, do, and feel--that isn't reflected in this blog, whether because it's difficult to express it in writing or simply because I haven't yet gotten around to writing about this or that. Perhaps I'm the type of person who's difficult to size up based upon a first or second impression. If so, this would help explain why it's been so very difficult for me to get to know people online.
As for the rest of the responsibility for my difficulty, I continue to be persuaded that there are fundamental limitations to email/IM/etc.--nay, the written word in general--that make it difficult to impossible to express many things. As such, these limitations hinder not only my efforts to reveal myself to others, but also the efforts of others to reveal themselves to me. With all due respect to stop-gaps such as emoticons, email offers no substitute for the cues of body language, tone of voice, etc., that are available in face-to-face conversation. Moreover, email provides no good means for interactive conversation. If I'm talking with you over lunch and I say something that strikes you as odd, you can ask me for clarification, which I would then willingly offer, and so forth, but if I write something in email that strikes you as odd, my words sit there on your computer's monitor as though they were set forth in granite for all time. You have all the time you wish to read and re-read my words and develop whatever interpretation seems most likely to you, but this liberty also affords you the potential to misinterpret what I've written, something that's exceedingly easy to do, especially when ours is a new acquaintance and you lack the necessary context information with which to understand my meaning. If you do encounter a passage that puzzles or mystifies you, you of course have the liberty to ask me for clarification, but once my reply arrives in your inbox, you are once again left to interpret or misinterpret my words.
To be honest, I think this problem with written communication is less severe for some folks than it is for me. As I suggest in the title of this blog, I can be a bit "inscrutable" in some ways, especially during the early stages of an acquaintance, whereas other folks put themselves across more readily via writing. In other words, they're easier to figure out compared to folks like me. Assuming that there's any truth to this observation, it may help explain why certain folks manage to start lasting, thriving relationships online whereas others (like me up to this point) have no success.
Given this seemingly insoluble problem with email and the old-fashioned letter, what is one to do when one can't visit or talk on the phone? Well, the Internet has given us a new tool: instant messaging. Now, at last, we have a means for using the written word as though we were having a face-to-face or telephone chat, right? In my experience, no. With the IM clients I've used, they provide the means for sending short messages just fine, but where they fall woefully short is in providing ways for the parties to keep in sync with each other. The client I've used most often does tell you when the other person is typing a message, but I find that this feature is less than accurate: sometimes my chat buddy is typing something more, but just as often he's waiting for me to say something (I suspect the "Joe is typing a message" feature can be fooled if Joe starts to type something then backspaces over it). Moreover, IM, like email, provides very poor tools for expressing emotion and inflection. With IM and email, there are precisely two tones of voice--"normally loud" and "VERY LOUD" (all caps denotes shouting)--and no good way to distinguish, for instance, an off-hand humorous comment from a statement you wish to be taken at face value. What with all these shortcomings, I have come to dislike IM even more strongly than email.
However, I have not come to bury the written word. A thousand times nay! Instead, I am firmly persuaded that written communication is unparalleled when it is used for the purposes for which it's suited. I think email is well-suited for business use and casual friendly banter, so long as both parties adopt the attitude of interpreting each other's words in the most positive light whenever possible, because if they have a misunderstanding via email, it's going to be very difficult to straighten it out without recourse to good old fashioned conversation. Also, I think the written word is a fine way for intimate acquaintances who are separated by distance to keep in touch. Although the same type of misunderstandings I've discussed earlier can arise for those who are close to each other, I think the risk is greatly reduced because in this case the parties have enough context with which to interpret what the other has written. For an example of this use of written communication, I recommend Ken Burns' 1990 documentary, The Civil War for its many quotes from personal letters of people of that time, especially the marvelous letter of soldier Sullivan Ballou to his wife.
So what of the plight of a Christian single such as myself? How am I to safely and wisely use the Internet to meet single Christian women? This is a matter that I'm still wrestling with, but at this
point I've settled on this procedure:
- A new acquaintance that's carried on exclusively via email/chat/etc. is to be considered to be casual, period. Any thoughts that the relationship is anything but a casual friendship ought to be rejected.
- Should the two parties start to think that they'd like to see about a more "serious" relationship, they ought to start talking on the phone at very least, and ideally start having regular face-to-face meetings. This is not to say that visits automatically make a relationship serious--it can be perfectly appropriate for casual online friends to meet face-to-face within certain bounds--but rather that a serious relationship will concentrate on face-to-face or verbal communication and downplay the use of email.
- As the two parties become intimately acquainted with each other, learning more of each other's true character, they may feel free to use email/chat/etc. as a secondary means of communication.
I am hopeful that if I hold my use of the written word within these constraints that I will avoid, and help my new friends avoid, the common pitfall of written miscommunication and misunderstanding.
Monday, September 12, 2005
The forgotten sin
Please don't misunderstand me. I'm no social revisionist. Instead, I'm a Biblical literalist who accepts the Bible's teaching that homosexuality is sin and is in every situation a manifestation of the sin of fornication. But, I take issue with the prevailing view within the Religious Right that homosexuality is the most reprehensible form of fornication, which given the volume with which it's denounced it must be, and I would go so far as to say that if we are going to contend against our culture's love of sexual immorality, that there is an even worse form of fornication that we ought to denounce with even greater fervor.
As I see it, homosexuality as well as many of the various forms of hetrosexual promiscuity which occur outside the bounds of marriage are inherently hedonistic. Clearly, hedonism--the pursuit of selfish pleasure without heed to doing what is honoring and glorifying to God--is a grevious sin, but when neither of the parties involved in homosexual or hetrosexual hedonism are not involved in a covenant relationship, their sin is primarily harmful to two people. Such sin--indeed, all sin--is punishable by eternal damnation, but in this case only the consenting individuals are party to the sin. In other words, all parties involved are guilty and none are innocent.
Thus, we come to what I see as the more severe variety of sexual immorality. Although it is often winked at by our present wicked generation, it remains a sin that involves not only the consenting parties. It is the old-fashioned sin of adultery.
In my opinion, if there is a sexual sin the Church ought to cry out against the most loudly, it is adultery, for it involves not only rank hedonism but also the violation of a covenant relationship that one or more of the consenting parties had previously entered into before God and man: the covenant of marriage. Marriage is a most sacred covenant, for in it the husband and wife are to model the relationship of Christ with His church. It is so sacred a covenant that Christ recognized only one legitimate cause for dissolving that covenant: adultery. When a man and woman enter into an affair in which one or both of them are presently married, they have gone beyond rank hedonism: they have treated their existing covenant relationship(s) as a contemptible, unclean thing. They have called unclean what God calls clean.
Moreover, adultery is utter foolishness. If I were to enter into an affair with a married woman, I'd be the greatest of fools, because I would have deluded myself into thinking that a woman who was so willing to forsake her covenant husband would be faithful to me. Why, her very unfaithfulness ought to be enough to convince me that she is not a woman to be trusted! This is in itself sufficient reason to flee adultery.
As if this were not enough, there are all too often innocent parties who are severely harmed by the adulterous affair: the innocent spouses as well as the children. This is yet another evil that is found in adultery that's absent in pure sexual hedonism. Is it not understandable that a child whose parents divorced on account of the adultery of one or both parents would forever after have trouble believing in true sacrificial love? To such a child, "love" would very likely become the name for the lust that tore his mother and father apart.
These reasons why adultery is the wickedest of sexual sins are just the tip of the iceberg. Why is it, then, that the church is nearly silent about the subject compared to its vocal stand against homosexuality, abortion, and other sins? Countless professing Christian families and churches have been torn asunder by this evil, but yet it seems to not be worthy of any outcry.
Before I close, I feel that I ought to remind you that although the church ought to stand against the sin of its generation, it ought not do so only out of a desire to find fault. No, the church is to be a redemptive organization, with its goal being to provoke repentance. Adultery, homosexuality, and sexual promiscuity of all kinds are damnable sins worthy of loud condemnation from every Bible-preaching pulpit, but none of them are unforgivable. When the church speaks out against these sins--as it ought to do!--it must take care to remind our fallen generation that God has provided a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is well willing and able to forgive all manner of sin. When I am sick, my doctor needs to diagnose my disease in order to properly treat it. Likewise, this wicked generation is in need of godly rebuke in order that it might turn to Christ.
To the church, then, this is my call: be careful not to single out only certain sins for criticism, but be diligent to cry out against all manner of sin and ungodliness. As we do so, let's be careful to not forget about sins such as adultery, because they may be just as bad, if not worse, than the sins we preach against so loudly.
The gift that keeps on giving
At this point, I'm going to use a twofold approach to cope with this unwanted musical background. First, I'm going to reserve the right to pay return calls on my neighbor whenever he gets especially loud. Second, when his volume is annoying but not overwhelmingly so, I'm going to deliberately and cheerfully forgive him and use whatever means are within my power to mask his, er, music. What with my vast collection of CDs and DVDs, I'm certainly not lacking for means. :-)
Having said all that, I think I'm coming to realize that this may one of those afflictions which the Lord has seen fit to trouble me for at least a little while longer. As such, I'm going to have to see how I might profit from it. No, I'm not thinking about printing up tickets and charging admission for my neighbor's impromptu concerts. :-) Instead, with God's help I'm going to see if this situation might be useful in refining my character. On the off chance that I might be overly sensitive about such annoyances, it may be good for me to learn how to bear with it with graciousness and cheerfulness. Seeing as how God has had a good purpose for all my past afflictions, not to mention the troubles of all of His Elect throughout all time, I think I'm safe in assuming that He has a good purpose for this affliction, too.
As for what His precise reasons for this affliction might be, I have no idea, but I can certainly imagine lots of possible reasons, some rather fanciful. For instance, if God is one day pleased to give me not only a wife but also a broodful of leather-lunged little tykes, I might be glad that I started to learn how to manage with a little bit of noise today.
The Golden-Eared One
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Spiritual aches and pains
More recently, I've been dealing with another physical problem. This time, my problem has to do with gastro-intestinal symptoms that often make me feel uncomfortable and occasionally make it impossible for me to eat certain foods or more than a small quantity of food. In God's mercy I've found some issues regarding what I eat and how I eat it that have brought me a measure of relief from my symptoms, but I still suffer to some degree. I recently saw a doctor to see if he could offer me any assistance, and he asked me an interesting question: "Are you under any stress?" When he asked me, I didn't think I was under any real stress other than over the physical malady that had brought me to his office, but afterwards it occurred to me that I presently have several people in my life towards whom I have persisted in holding a grudge. Although I've been outwardly polite and tolerant towards every one of them, I have held onto a bitter and resentful attitude towards them. Now that I've realized this, I've been seeking God's help in forgiving them and learning to treat them with neighborly love and grace. Hopefully as I learn to forgive those who offend me, God will also grant me a measure of relief from my physical affliction as well. Already I've noticed that my symptoms do seem to come and go with my "stress", so I'm optimistic that I will enjoy at least a measure of deliverance as God conforms me more to the image of Christ regarding these folks.
In view of these two situations, I can testify that excessive stress can indeed be a contributing factor in physical afflictions, and that at least some of this stress can come about as a result of sinful attitudes. Therefore, I thank God for allowing me to be thus afflicted, because by doing so He has made me aware of remaining sin that not only does harm to me and my neighbor but more importantly is dishonoring to God Himself. May God continue to sanctify me through whatever means are necessary to conform me to the image of Jesus Christ!
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
Sharing the gift of music
However, there are other situations when I'm not in control of the music. I lay much of the blame for these situations on the doorstep of the mad genius who invented the subwoofer. Why, oh why, do cars and SUVs need to have their cargo areas stuffed full of a speaker whose primary purpose seems to be to vibrate the neighborhood within a radius of at least a mile. I try to take good care of my hearing--I even wear ear protectors when I mow the lawn or whack the weeds--so for better or worse, I can hear both higher and lower frequencies quite well. I am reminded of my excellent hearing whenever one of these mobile monstrosities passes my car or my house.
At work, I sometimes run into a similar situation, although I can't think of any rational reason why there ought to be a problem. I work in Information Technology, so naturally everyone in my office has at least one PC, and every one of those speakers has a sound card with speakers attached. So far so good. It can be very useful to hear an alarm when new mail arrives or an appointment is approaching, and sometimes it's handy to be able to listen to the audio portion of an online technical seminar. On the other hand, it escapes me why a subwoofer is necessary for such work-related purposes. Answer: it isn't necessary, but it is nice, apparently, for non-work-related purposes such as entertaining oneself with background music, as some of my collegues sometimes have a notion to do. The resulting low-frequency barrage is rather similar to that I hear from the aforementioned buckets of four-wheeled bolts.
All this is bad enough, but some time after moving into my house, I discovered another possible source of uninvited bass, and in this case, midrange and treble: a neighbor who's a member of a rock band. He usually practices fairly quietly, but sometimes he gets the notion to crank up the volume a bit, the result is an ongoing stream of background, er, music for which I lack a remote volume control. Hmm, perhaps I should retract that last remark. Just recently, after stewing intermittently for several years about my neighbor's music, I walked over to his garage to inform him that I could hear his guitar playing in my house even though I had the doors and windows all closed. Any expectation I'd had of an argument was disappointed, because he readily volunteered to turn down his volume, and actually admitted that he didn't really need to have it turned up so loudly after all. Well, that was simple. Oh, the self-inflicted aggravation I could have avoided had I taken that walk years ago!
So, anyway, that's the "hate" side of my "love/hate" relationship with music. By the way, could you turn down your music? I'm trying to concentrate on writing a blog entry.
Friday, September 02, 2005
A lot of folks will tell you, "I'd never consider becoming a Christian because the church is so full of hypocrites." To a point, I can sympathize with such a sentiment. Hypocrisy is one of the most odious sins. What is more appalling than a man or woman who claims to be "holy" when in reality they are anything but holy! Who in his right mind would want to associate with such people?
On the other hand, however terrible the sin of hypocrisy may be, it is not the only sin that's appalling in the sight of God. God is altogether holy, meaning that He is perfectly pure and set apart from sinful, fallen humanity. On account of His perfect holiness, He hates sin in all its countless forms: not only sins such as hypocrisy or murder, but also "smaller" sins such as lying, cheating, and covetousness, as well as other sins that are often winked at nowadays, such as all manner of sexual immorality (both heterosexual and homosexual). For a summary of the sins God hates, check out the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. As you read, note well that all of these commandments are to be obeyed out of love towards God and your neighbor. That is, you and I are not only to obey the letter of the law, but we must also obey it cheerfully and willingly, out of a sincere desire to please God alone.
If we were to think about God's Law honestly, we'd all have to admit that we don't come remotely close to obeying it. You see, it's not just the hypocrites and murderers who have a problem with God: we all do. Yes, every last man, woman, boy and girl who has ever lived since the fall of Adam, including Yours Truly, is a sinner in the sight of God. We are sinners by nature from birth, and thus we all eventually fall into a life of sin. This is not to say that we don't sometimes do some things that are good and right. We do indeed, but if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we tend to do the right thing for selfish reasons: fear of punishment, for instance, or perhaps because it makes us feel good. In other words, even when our actions are right, our motives are wrong.
In spite of these facts, all of which can be readily confirmed by an honest reading of the Bible, many people continue to persist in believing the fantasy that because I'm not as bad as this or that person--e.g., "I've never murdered anyone"--that I am in good standing with God and that I need not fear his judgment. My friend, nothing could be farther from the truth, for God requires nothing less than absolute perfection from every one of us. That is, the only way God would let any one of us into Heaven is if we never sinned, whether in action or motive.
Lest you think that I write this as someone who's never sinned or thinks of himself as being better than other folks, I need to tell you that I am just as bad a sinner as anyone else. In fact, my besetting sin has been one of the worst of all: self-righteousness. Sadly, I spent many years of my life either disregarding God or thinking that if He existed that He would no doubt allow me into heaven because I was much more righteous than many of those who claim to be Christians. Thus, if I seem to point the finger at you, please don't be unduly offended, because I am also pointing my finger at myself. I, too, thought that being better than someone else, such as being less of a hypocrite than someone else, was enough to give me a clean slate.
So far, I suppose I've painted a rather bleak picture: all of us are sinners who fall woefully short of satisfying God's requirement of perfect obedience. Bleak indeed! In fact, I would argue that if we rightly understand our true standing before God, all of our pride would be stripped away from us and we'd be left despairing of any attempt to please God by doing good deeds.
So what then? God is holy, and I'm anything but, so what hope is there for me? It depends. On one hand, if I persist in trusting in my own personal goodness, I will face God's eternal wrath in the end, thus making my eventual, inevitable death the most fearful thing imaginable, but on the other hand, if I could find mercy in God's sight through an Advocate who did indeed live a perfect, sinless life and who died for sinners like you and me, then and only then could I enjoy peace with God and eternal life. Thank God that there is such an Advocate--the Lord Jesus Christ--and that all who forsake trusting in their own goodness, repent of their sins, and trust instead only in His perfect righteousness will escape God's righteous wrath and enjoy life forevermore.
My friend, I urge you to search the Scriptures for yourself and see whether indeed what I've written here is so. Whatever you do, don't let the hypocrisy of professing Christians such as the televangelists I mentioned earlier hinder you from turning to Christ. In the end, God will judge every man, woman, and child according to his or her own sins, and many will find that blaming the hypocrisy of others offers them no excuse and no protection from God's wrath. Therefore, if you have thus far trusted in your own goodness, I urge you and plead with you to turn to Christ!
Thursday, September 01, 2005
Ten years ago
A few days ago, as no doubt the entire world knows by now, things changed dramatically in that area. Canal Street has turned back into a canal, with its many shops being ransacked by looters. The Convention Center has turned into a place where thousands of people, without proper food, drink, or medical care, are waiting desparately for evacuation. New Orleans as I knew it ten years ago is no more.
In the media's coverage of this terrible disaster, it gets one thing very right: Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is an Act of God. Although man no doubt contributed to the disaster by building a city in an incredibly risky location, it was God and God alone who unleashed the storm.
In this kind of situation, it's inevitable that people will start to ask, "Why? Why New Orleans and the Gulf Coast?" Only God knows the full reason for His mighty act of destruction, but one thing is safe to say: He didn't unleash this storm where He did because the people who live there are any worse than the people who live anywhere else. The Scriptures are clear: all men bear the sinful nature and do the sinful deeds of their father Adam. By nature, those of us who are enjoying peace, prosperity, and sunshine in, say, the Midwestern US are just as evil as those who lived in the area of the recent disaster. Given the nature of mankind's rebellion against His rule, God would be perfectly just to wipe every one of us out. Thus, the question ought not be, "Why was God so severe against the Gulf Coast?" but rather "Why is God so merciful to those whom He spared such calamity?"
As the people of the devastated region recover from this terrible disaster, I pray that it will lead our entire nation to repent of its wickedness and cry out to God for mercy through His Son, Jesus Christ. God is the author of both sunshine and hurricanes, and it is to Him that we owe our obedience and worship.