Stop Your Whining! ~ God (Sabbath Meditations)
We Christians do a lot of whining.
As I write this, understand that I have one finger pointing out and three pointing back at me. We whine to God about so many things big and little.
It’s not as if we whine like spoiled little children. “Wahhh, that’s not fair!” “Wahhh, I want that toy! Give me that toy!” We know that wouldn’t fly with God. So, our whining is more refined, more … spiritual. “Please, most powerful high benevolent God …” or “Oh merciful Father, who knows all of our needs and answers all of our prayers, please …” and then we proceed to pour out our litany of requests and petitions.
It’s not that asking God to provide for us is a bad thing. If it were, we wouldn’t be instructed to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” God wants His children to come to Him with their physical needs and concerns. But, there is a thin line between asking and whining.
“God, why do you allow our family to keep struggling financially?” “Why did you let my children abandon their faith?” “Why can’t you give me the perfect church to attend?” “Why can’t you change my husband or my wife?” In short, “Wahhh … I follow you, why aren’t you blessing me?”
When we question God, aren’t we really questioning whether He loves us? After all, if He really loved us, He would take care of all of the problems in our lives, wouldn’t He?
Thus, we measure whether God really loves us by how He provides for our well being. God becomes a kind of magic ‘genie in a bottle’. If we rub that magic bottle by doing all the right things and obeying in every way, God will fulfill all our heart’s desires. We get so focused on all the things we don’t have that we forget the one huge thing we do.
The children of Israel spent a lot of time questioning God’s love. From the day they were delivered from Egypt, their voices were a constant stream of whining and complaining. It started with their sojourn in the wilderness and didn’t let up, even after entering the promised land.
God addresses their whining in Malachi 1:1-3, “The burden of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi. I have loved you, says the LORD. Yet you say, wherein have You loved us? Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? says the LORD: yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.”
Notice how God cuts to the chase here. He doesn’t waste time addressing their litany of complaints and unmet requests. He gets to the heart of it. “You don’t think I love you?! For crying out loud, I chose you! I set My name on you! You are blessed above all the nations. Isn’t that enough?!”
In God’s words to Israel there is a powerful, perspective changer for you and me.
In John 3:16 we read, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Isn’t that amazing! Doesn’t that blow your mind? God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, loves you so much that He sent His Son to die on a cross for you. He made a way for those He would call to become part of His Family. He chose you. He set His name on you. If you never receive one more thing from God in this life, isn’t that enough?
Apparently Paul thought so.
In Philippians 4:11-12 Paul writes, “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.”
It’s not that Paul didn’t petition God to provide for his physical and emotional needs. He did. But regardless of the outcome of those requests, he didn’t question God’s love for Him. He knew he had plenty for which to be thankful and in that knowledge, he was content.
Notice it says that Paul learned these things. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Paul was a whiner. But it does seem that he didn’t always have the right perspective. It’s possible, that at one time, Paul had to learn to see beyond his physical condition, his physical needs and wants, to appreciate the one amazing gift he did possess.
In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 Paul says, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
God used this situation, only one of many in Paul’s life, to teach Him to be content in the grace that God had provided. God had redeemed Him. God had chosen Paul according to His purpose. God said, “Paul, if you get nothing else from Me, my grace should be enough.”
It’s that lesson that allowed Paul to declare in Romans 8:18, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
I find it encouraging to think that if Paul, a man mightily used by God, can learn to see beyond today to the awesomeness of tomorrow and let that hope be sufficient to sustain, strengthen and drive Him, then maybe there is hope for this whiner. Maybe I can stop treating God like a genie in a bottle and truly give thanks for the awesome grace that I have been given through the loving gift of His Son. And maybe I can truly come to the place where, from my heart, I can say, “your grace is sufficient for me.” It is enough.
Divided … We Stand (New Horizons)
Many brethren continue to hanker after the dream of a single unified church embracing all the varied assemblies, large and small, corporate or independent. Indeed one church group insists that all of us must gather under its roof in order to escape their projected terrors ahead of us.
It doesn’t take much study of the Scriptures to demonstrate that this condition of ‘corporate unity’ has never existed—not in the New Testament church of God, and certainly not in the ensuing centuries under the shocking and corrupt history of the mediaeval church.
In the New Testament each assembly was self-governing while respecting other assemblies. Perverse human nature drove a move for domination by power-hungry ‘Christian’ leaders and the distortion of the title ‘bishop’, with the proliferation of myriad pseudo-religious ‘titles’. Church leadership titles—even up to ‘pope’—for over a thousand years became a commodity for sale to the highest bidder, or for sexual favours.
The simplicity of those first assemblies evolved to a multiplicity of church offices, becoming a secular world-dominating organization whose tentacles all but strangled the Christian faith. All dissent was smothered by the infamous Inquisition—enthusiastically endorsed by eighty popes over five centuries—by which thousands were hideously and callously maimed and murdered and massacred, in the name of Jesus Christ. Those few who remained faithful to the Bible were more often than not cruelly martyred by the ‘church’.
We are, perhaps, more civilised today (and civil law forbids murder). But the same tendency to dominate underpins the multiplicity of our denominations. Assemblies with little to divide doctrinally gather to worship separately, sometimes in the same building at the same time! The clue? The ruling clique, the apostle, the ‘king’ inherits a band of devoted, but often unthinking, followers in support. Once the reins of power have been gained, leaders tend to keep a tight grip on their authority—and impose it.
It’s time for change. Not to organizational union, but for a return to the New Testament pattern of individual assemblies, serving the church and proclaiming the Good News of salvation through Jesus, and in co-operation with one another.
Judging by the Label (Sabbath Meditations)
I’m by no means a wine connoisseur. In my twenties and early thirties, I believed White Zinfandel to be a fine wine. You can hardly fault me. Prior to that, my exposure to wine had been limited to the occasional swallow of watered down Mogan David in a small paper cup, a treat usually reserved for special occasions such as the Night to Be Much Observed or at the Feast of Tabernacles. I think our church should have owned stock in the stuff. That said, for me, White Zinfandel was definitely a step up.
As I’ve grown older my wine palate has matured somewhat. I’ve graduated into an appreciation for Pinot Grigio, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Although far from an aficionado, I’ve not only developed a taste for different types of wine but also an interest in the subject of wine itself.
That is why a blog post by Jonah Lehrer caught my attention. He recounted the details of a wine tasting experiment in 2001. The results were intriguing. Lehrer wrote, “In 2001, Frederic Brochet, of the University of Bordeaux, conducted two separate and very mischievous experiments. In the first test, Brochet invited 57 wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn’t stop the experts from describing the ‘red wine’ in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its ‘jamminess’, while another enjoyed its ‘crushed red fruit’. Not a single one noticed it was actually a ‘white wine’.
The second test Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle was a fancy grand-cru. The other bottle was an ordinary vin du table. Despite the fact that they were actually being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the differently labeled bottles nearly opposite ratings. The grand cru was ‘agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded’, while the vin du table was ‘weak, short, light, flat and faulty’. Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only twelve said the cheap wine was.”
My conclusion upon reading this?
• My affinity for Trader Joe’s ‘two buck chuck’ maybe isn’t all that crazy after all;
• How easily duped we are by what we see on the label.
Jesus spent a lot of time while on this earth condemning those who, from a spiritual perspective, were wrapped up in the externals.
The Pharisees spent a great deal of time focusing on externals. Jesus wasn’t too kind to them. In fact, He went to great lengths not just to condemn their shallow, skin deep religion, but to model the complete opposite. In many ways His ministry on earth was a study in contrasts between a religion focused on the outside and one focused on the inside.
While the Pharisees made wide their phylacteries and enlarged the borders of their garments in order to set themselves apart as the spiritual leaders of the people, Jesus sought out a man dressed in camel’s hair and leather belt.
While the Pharisees loved the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, Jesus purposely let it be known that the Son of Man had no place to rest His head.
While the Pharisees chose to hang out with the who’s who of their day, Jesus hung out with sinners, tax collectors and publicans, those considered to be the dregs of society.
In Matthew 23, Jesus, condemning their shallow, external religion, said, “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within you are full of extortion and excess. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but are within full of dead men’s bones and of all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”
Before we shake our heads in disgust at the wickedness of the Pharisees, it’s important to remember that there is the potential for a little Pharisee in all of us. If there weren’t, God wouldn’t have seen fit to devote so much attention in His Word to the contrast.
Someone recently shared with me the story of a couple who lost their luggage one year en route to observe the Feast of Tabernacles. Showing up to services for the first few days, wearing basically their travel clothes, they were shocked by the disapproving glances and judgmental stares they received from the brethren. These poor believers, because they didn’t look the part, were made to feel like outcasts in a sea of dark suits and dresses.
Our human nature’s proclivity for judging based on the externals isn’t limited only to clothing. How easy is it for us to put labels on the man on whose breath we sense the smell of cigarette smoke or alcohol, while embracing the guy who may be cheating on his taxes or, worse yet, his spouse? Both men might be struggling and striving to overcome their weakness, but we are quick to judge the one before the other based on what we see. We make judgments about what’s in the bottle based purely on the label.
In I Samuel 16:17 God instructs Samuel, to whom He had given the task of searching out a King to rule Israel, “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
To summarize: God isn’t impressed with what’s on the label. He’s all about what’s on the inside of the bottle.
I don’t think my palate nor my pocketbook will ever allow me to appreciate the difference between a quality aged wine and the two buck chuck I enjoy from my local Trader Joe. Based on the results of that wine tasting experiment, I take consolation in the knowledge that it probably doesn’t really matter. If what’s in my glass tastes like fine wine, that’s good enough for me.
God grant me the spiritual depth and maturity to see my brothers and sisters in Christ the same way.
‘Face Plant’ (New Church Lady)
Have you ever actually fallen and landed on your face? I wish I could answer “no” to that question. I’d have to say “Yes.” It happened just a few weeks ago. I tripped on a curb, because I was looking down at my phone, trying to understand Siri’s next direction toward my destination. I’m not sure how I fell with so little damage from my 5’ 9” height – except to think that God mercifully protected me. However, I did actually land on my face after taking the first hit on my knee. I busted my lower lip and scrapped my upper lip. But didn’t break anything. Praise God. This tumble was a very public spectacle and several strangers rushed over to help. I was equally grateful and mortified.
What about sin? Has sin ever tripped you up and given you a ‘face plant’ moment. Yes, me too. And sometimes, very publically.
I found three Greek words translated ‘sin’ in the New Testament. With very little difference, they have this selection of meanings:
• to be without a share in
• to miss the mark
• to err, be mistaken
• to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honor, to do or go wrong
• to wander from the law of God, violate God’s law, sin
We can miss the mark, or wander from the path of uprightness or wander from the law. What do those three meanings have in common? I’d say, not watching where you are going.
My recent face plant was definitely a ‘miss the mark’ moment. I was trying to step up onto the sidewalk. I missed in a big way. I wasn’t watching where I was going. I was distracted. And that is exactly how sin trips me up. I get busy with my job, with family, with exercise, with any one of scores of other things that claim my time and attention. Perhaps I miss some time in prayer or study time. I’m unfocused instead of being vigilant, as the Bible warns us to be in 1Peter 5:8 [NKJV] “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”
In an interaction with another person, I might be focused on being right instead of gaining understanding. I might be looking at how hurt I am instead of hearing the other person’s pain. I might be worried about their actions instead of my own. Any of these can lead to sin.
The Bible has a few things to tell us about watching. Here are some that jump out at me:
Psalm 141:3 ‘Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips.’
Matthew 26:41 “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed [is] willing, but the flesh [is] weak.”
Luke 21:36 “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
1 Corinthians 16:13 ‘Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong.’
1 Timothy 5:6 ‘Therefore let us not sleep, as others [do], but let us watch and be sober.’
These scriptures seem to tell me that the key to avoiding sin is to watch where I am going – watch my thoughts, my heart, my words, my steps so that I don’t miss the mark or wander away from the path of righteousness.
I encourage you to do that as well … also, never look at your phone when you should be looking where you are going.
Tis the Season to be Jolly (Sabbath Meditations)
Feeling jolly, are we? Frankly, many of us who hold strong convictions about being true to what God’s Word teaches find much in this season about which to be downright cynical. The empty hype, the commercialism, the rituals and timing of the season, adopted so blatantly and obviously from ancient pagan rituals; all of it has many of us muttering a collective “bah-humbug”.
It’s very easy this time of year to wear our cynicism on our sleeve and to feel, well, somewhat smug in our spiritual correctness, isn’t it? Could it be that, while sulking in our cynical smugness, we actually miss opportunities to witness the true gospel of Jesus Christ?
“Now wait a minute! You’re not suggesting that we start erecting Christmas trees in our living rooms or singing Christmas carols around the neighborhood, are you?!”
Absolutely not. In Jeremiah 10 God commands us to “learn not the way of the heathen.” God hates the worship of pagan idols. God detests all things pagan, and we should as well. So, you’re not about to see a tree in my window or a glowing plastic Santa anywhere on my property.
But, having said that, there is a way of approaching this season that, while not compromising our conviction against participating in its pagan practices, allows us to use the core intent of the season to advance the truth of the gospel.
In Acts 17:22-23 is the recounting of Paul’s preaching on Mars Hill.
“Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus.”
Here he was, standing among carved idols in the midst of a city wholly given over to pagan worship. Now, Paul had some choices, didn’t he? I’m sure that, as he stood there next to that pagan idol, his bah-humbug meter was off the charts. He could have easily let his disgust for all that is pagan take over. Instead, he chose to take a decidedly different approach.
“…and [Paul] said, ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you’.”
Rather than launch into a full frontal assault on the evils of idolatry, Paul made a conscious decision to focus on what he was for, rather than on what he was against. He dialed down his bah-hum bug meter and used the opportunity the moment presented to witness to the Gospel.
His example is instructive for you and me.
In Luke 2:10 we read: Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
If you’re like me, when you read this passage, especially during this season, your ‘bah-hum-bug meter’ elevates a little. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s … uh … in the Bible, it might be tempting to reject it outright as just more Christmas drivel. But it really is a very meaningful, powerful passage. And, if we choose to tone down our ‘bah-hum-bug meters’ just a little, we might even see our way to actually use this passage as our own Mars Hill moment. How?
Most Christians during this season focus on the baby in the manger, don’t they? They read passages like this one and see only the “there is born to you this day … a Savior” part, while overlooking or downplaying the meaning of the powerful words that follow, which declare Him as “Jesus Christ the Lord.”
And really, that is much of the problem with modern Christianity’s approach to the gospel. Focusing only on the loving, merciful, accepting and forgiving aspect of the gospel, but failing to acknowledge Him as Lord of their lives. For many of our Christian brothers and sisters, the concepts of obedience, striving to overcome our sinful natures, preparing for His second coming as Lord of Lords and King of Kings is just not part of the lexicon of this season, let alone the rest of the year for that matter.
And therein lies our greatest opportunity for sharing the gospel. In that omission lies our Mars Hill moment.
Who knows if, rather than turning others off by our sour demeanor and cynical attitude, we might be used as tools in God’s hands this season to bring tidings of even greater joy to someone whose eyes God might be opening to understand His plan as revealed in the full Gospel.
It’s possible, but only if we make the conscious decision to take advantage of the Mars Hill moments this season may provide. Only if we determine to, ever so slightly, dial down our ‘bah-humbug meter’.
Turning the Other Cheek (Morning Companion)
In an otherwise well-balanced article in Christianity Today (‘The Biggest Loser in the Alabama Election’) concerning the recent special election for the U.S. Senate, there was this:
When a public Christian is accused of some immorality, the honorable and moral thing to do has been to take a leave of absence until the matter of settled. This is precisely what [Roy] Moore, who sees himself as a godly and moral candidate, has refused to do.
He then follows up this assertion with a quote from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount about ‘turning the other cheek’. (Matthew 5:39)
Clearly, Jesus was not joking around or simply making a suggestion when he made such a challenging statement. Turning the other cheek is exactly what Jesus did while being tried before the kangaroo courts of Pilate, Herod, and the Sanhedrin. But does this principle always apply? Or have we misunderstood what Jesus was trying to teach us?
With no intention of passing judgement either way on the character of candidate Moore and/or his accusers (that debate is for elsewhere), one must question the conclusion of the commentator from Christianity Today. His suggestion would effectively give any opponent of any Christian candidate the equivalent of a heckler’s veto. Under this principle any candidate’s campaign could be terminated by mere accusation of wrongdoing, whether fabricated or not. Anyone who thinks that this would not be abused in the rough world of politics is violating another of Jesus’s statements, to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. (Matthew 10:16)
So in this context, how should someone apply Jesus’s difficult statement to ‘turn the other cheek’? Did Jesus always ignore accusations against him? The Gospels illustrate numerous examples of Jesus responding to false allegations, and the book of Acts has numerous examples of the Apostles doing the same.
John 8 records an extensive public exchange where Jesus parries a series of false and politically motivated charges against him. When reading the text, one can sense the tension and temperature rising with each accusation and response. Note my paraphrase of his opponents’ verbal slings, all designed to discredit him in the eyes of the public, and all of which were false:
You are a braggart and a liar. (Verse 13)
You talk about your ‘father’. Where is he? (Verse 19, making reference to the curious circumstances surrounding his birth)
He is deranged. He’s hinting at suicide. (Verse 22)
Who do you think you are? (Verse 25)
We’re God’s chosen. We’re free. Abraham is our father. (Verses 33 and 39, and note that this comment is a prelude to their accusation that Jesus wasn’t really Jewish, but an interloping Samaritan).
We aren’t bastard children. (Verse 41, a not so veiled reference to Jesus’s birth story)
You’re a filthy Samaritan, you suffer from mental illness, and probably are a tool of Satan. (Verse 48)
You’re demon possessed! Your words prove it! (Verse 52)
Your arrogance is saying you are greater than Abraham? Who do you make yourself out to be? (Verse 53)
Notice that Jesus in this public debate did not turn the other cheek or ‘take a leave of absence’ in order to allow for a thorough investigation to clear his name. That would have taken him out the game entirely and probably forever, because you can bet his enemies would file false charge after false charge just to keep him permanently out of the arena. And even if every charge were false, the court of public opinion is not only fickle but also impressionable. His character would have been called into doubt and the mission would have been destroyed.
Rather than have that happen, Jesus answered every one of their barbs. He fought them with the truth. Paul, after all, in Ephesians 6 tells us to fight with the full armor of God, and the sole offensive weapon he gives us is the Word of God, which is the truth (Ephesians 6:8, II Timothy 2:15). He does not tell us to become a punching bag.
But Jesus really did tell us to ‘turn the other cheek’. What is the wise but harmless way to do this? Hopefully we can see that this does not mean caving in. Jesus is really telling us not to allow personal insults to rattle us or cause us to retaliate in kind, thereby derailing our mission. When you turn the other cheek, you are not conceding a thing, nor are you backing down, nor are you giving up the fight. Read John 8 and notice that Jesus never lost his cool when being personally insulted. Every time he responded with his message and purpose. It takes an extreme level of psychological health, not to mention an overwhelming ability to offer grace, to refrain from defending one’s ego and to stay the course for a greater cause.
That’s why Jesus turned the other cheek when he was on trial for his life. He was not backing down. He was fulfilling his mission.
Avoiding the Ruts of Christian Tradition (Sabbath Meditations)
Did you know that the space between rails on all railroad beds is exactly 4 feet, 8.5 inches, no more, no less? Why? Because that was the standard distance between the wheels of a Roman war chariot. Sound ludicrous? It’s true!
Chariot wheels on ancient dirt roads created deep ruts. As Roman chariots gave way to covered wagons, it was necessary that the distance between the wheels remain constant so they could travel smoothly in these ancient ruts. To change the distance between the wheels would make for a very uncomfortable ride, not to mention shorten the life of the wagon itself. Of course, specifications for building wagons were brought with the settlers to the new world of America and when wagon trails gave way to railroads, the traditional distance between ruts became by default the standard distance between the rails. It’s not changed to this day. Why? Because it’s always been done that way.
Besides being humorous, this little known fact points out an interesting truth. We humans love to cling to our traditions. There’s powerful comfort in holding on to things the way they have always been done. Sometimes the traditions we cling to make sense, sometimes they are just plain silly.
It’s not surprising that some traditions that were began in the secular world have, over time, made their way into Christian practice. However, at times the desire to cling to tradition has run contrary to, even usurped, biblical teaching.
Around 155 A.D. Polycarp of Smyrna, a disciple of the Apostle John, went to Rome to deal with various heretics. While there he tried to persuade the bishop of Rome not to switch Passover to Easter Sunday. Irenaeus, a well known church historian of that time, records this:
‘And when the blessed Polycarp was sojourning in Rome in the time of Anicetus, although a slight controversy had arisen among them as to certain other points … For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp to forego the observance [in his own way], inasmuch as these things had been always observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep [the observance in his way], for he maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters who preceded him. And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other; and Anicetus conceded to Polycarp in the Church the celebration of the Eucharist, by way of showing him respect.’
(Irenaeus. FRAGMENTS FROM THE LOST WRITINGS OF IRENAEUS. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Excerpted from Volume I of The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors); American Edition copyright © 1885. Electronic version copyright © 1997 by New Advent, Inc).
Here were two church leaders at odds with one another. Polycarp, correctly defended the observance of Passover as he had received it from the Apostle John, who in turn received it from the Lord Himself. Anicetus, on the other hand, defended his observance of Easter, citing the tradition of previous church leaders in Rome who had been influenced by pagan worship.
To which one would you give more weight? It’s kind of a no brainer right? Well, apparently the appeal of tradition, despite the absence of biblical sanction, was so strong in the church at Rome that it trumped the practice and teaching of the Lord Himself.
Although, Irenaeus, surely pressured by the Roman church leadership to which he answered, tried his best to put a positive spin on the resolution to this discussion, other writings of Polycarp and his successor, Polycrates, reveal that the issue was far from resolved.
Writing some years later to the Roman Bishop Victor concerning the change of Passover to Easter, Polycrates proclaims, “I, therefore, brethren, who have lived 65 years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said, ‘We ought to obey God rather than man’.”
(Polycrates. Letter to Victor. As quoted by Eusebius. Church History. Book V, Chapter 24)
Unfortunately the sentiments of Polycrates were not echoed by the majority in the Christian world. Pagan tradition ultimately won out over biblical teaching. Today, the ruts of pagan tradition in the Church have run deep. Most of Christendom travels mindlessly in the tracks of false tradition, blindly accepting them as God’s divine path.
But pagan religious observances weren’t all that were adopted as tradition by the Church.
In his book, Lost to the West, Lars Brownworth, illustrating the influence of Roman culture on the practice of the Church writes, “Even the ceremonies of the church and the court had begun to mirror each other. Priests and courtiers dressed in luxurious vestments, elaborate processionals and singing choirs heralded the beginning of services, and incense and candles were carried as a sign of honor … There was a comforting sameness to it all, a familiarity that reassured each celebrant of the divine order.”
Unfortunately, this new focus on the externals of worship, the dress, the pageantry, while appealing to some who wished to assert the primacy of the Roman Church and its bishop among the Christian churches, only served to alienate many of the more ‘peasant’ churches. These poorer congregations neither had the means nor the desire, for that matter, to compete with the opulence of their Roman brethren.
As we know, Jesus had a great deal of criticism for those who would put tradition on an equal footing with His truth. Of these He said, “…you have made the law of God of no effect by your traditions … in vain they do worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:6-9)
Of course, compared to the damage done as a result of the adoption of pagan religious traditions into the practice of the church, adopting the pageantry and format of the royal court to the format of services seems rather innocuous. The danger becomes, however, when Christians attempt to attribute divine ordination to these traditions, placing them on a par, or even at odds, with biblical teaching.
I recall years ago, sitting in a congregational meeting, where the suggestion was made that a relatively minor change be made to our traditional format of worship services. There were many expressions of support for the suggestion, that is, until a prominent member of the congregation stood up and stated his opinion that to change the format of services would be contrary to the order God had inspired the previous leadership of the Church to establish. With that, enthusiasm for the change was lost and it was tabled.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:12 Paul exhorts, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
As Christians, individually and collectively as a church, it’s important that we examine whether, in our desire to hold to tradition, we have in any way made void the law of God. And by way of examination, we should ask ourselves, and answer honestly, some basic questions:
• Have I/we given spiritual weight to a tradition or custom of men that can’t be directly justified by scripture? Or, does justification of our tradition require we engage in scriptural gymnastics or make large leaps of logic?
• Do any of our traditions or customs run contrary in their practice to God’s law of love? Are they in any way putting stumbling blocks in front of those whom God may be calling into our fellowship?
• Do I/we draw more comfort from rigid adherence to religious custom rather than responding to God’s instruction to grow in grace and knowledge, despite the uncomfortable places that growth might take me?
In short, is our measurement of truth based less on scriptural proof than on the fact that “we’ve always done it that way” – so therefore it must be true? That might work for turning ancient dirt roads into railroad beds, but it’s a poor way to guide one’s spiritual walk.
When it comes to navigating our walk as Christians, it’s far better to hold fast to what is true than to remain stuck in the ruts of our tradition.
You Gotta Serve Somebody (Morning Companion)
You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance,
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed,
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
— Bob Dylan
These lyrics came to mind after a recent Bible study that covered Romans 6, specifically verse 16: “Know ye not that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey, whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” (KJV)
Sometimes people think of law as a restriction on freedom, and especially so when speaking of the law of God. But in reality the law of God is all about freedom. James refers to it as such:
“But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:25)
“So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.” (James 2:12)
Think of the law as a series of guardrails. Stay within the guardrails, and they will save you a lot of trouble. You might think that plowing your own path based on your own rules will be liberating, but you’ll find out before long that those guardrails are there to protect you. They are instructions telling us how to make life work. The law tells us how to treat one another and how to live in a peaceful and respectful society. Which of these laws are a burden?
1. Put first things first, and God is first.
2. Don’t worship the stuff you make.
3. Watch your language.
4. Take time off.
5. Respect your elders, especially your parents.
6. Murder is evil.
7. Be faithful to your mate. Honor marriage.
8. Leave other people’s stuff alone. Work for your own stuff.
9. Tell the truth.
10. Don’t be jealous over other people’s good fortune.
If we took these rules and made them the basis of our culture, imagine how much better our world would be. Imagine if we as a society just lived by one of them — any one of them. We would have a world radically different from the one we have, one with more freedom and security than perhaps we can imagine given the state of the today’s world. Being free from such a law might seem to bring freedom (take whatever you want, sleep with whomever you want, say whatever you want, etc.), but what you’ll really have is a Darwinian world where the strong have the power and wealth and the weak perish. Think North Korea.
We can be servants of God and live in the freedom that his law brings or be servants of sin and experience a culture of death. Which will it be?
You gotta serve somebody.
Godly Selfishness …? (Sabbath Meditations)
Once upon a time there was a guy who was physically active. He worked out three, sometimes four times a week, enjoyed pick up basketball and tennis on the weekends and because, in his early twenties, he still had the metabolism of a teenager, didn’t really think too much about what he ate. No matter how much or what kind of food he put down his gullet, it just didn’t seem to impact his weight or his health. Then everything changed. He got married, began to eat three large square meals a day (often more), kids came along, work schedules became more demanding, the daily commute became longer. In short, life took over.
Exercise? … it gradually got tossed aside. There were just too many other pressing concerns. Physical fitness, staying in shape; that was just one of those self-indulgences that a family man, a primary bread winner, had to sacrifice.
Jump forward sixteen years. Eighty pounds heavier, sitting in a doctor’s office, breathing heavily as he struggled to bend over and tie his shoes, the distance he had fallen hit hard. Having been diagnosed as obese with borderline high blood pressure and high cholesterol, teetering on the edge of adult onset diabetes and having just been warned by his doctor that, if he continued on this path, he would be dead before 65, it finally occurred to this guy that maybe he shouldn’t have considered exercise, staying in shape, a throw away activity after all.
And then, being a Christian, this guy began to think about where he had let his physical health slide in spiritual terms. Maybe, he realized, in his desire to sacrifice for his family and his career, he was actually robbing himself, and his family, his Church and even his God of the healthier, more energetic, happier person he could and should have been. Maybe he was robbing his wife, his children and his grandchildren of years of time which he could have given them had it not been cut short because of poor physical health. Maybe, by selflessly not focusing a little more on himself, he was actually being quite selfish.
So, he began to make some changes. He started making physical exercise a priority. It was a difficult transition at first, not only for himself physically, but for his family. Taking time to exercise meant he was taking an hour or so in the evenings, two to three times a week, away from them. Dinner schedules were disrupted, some responsibilities needed to be adjusted. There were a few stressful conversations between this man and his wife, who, although recognizing her husband’s steady physical decline over the years and the need for change, nevertheless was annoyed at some of the inconvenience his determination to claw his way back to health was causing her.
But as his weight came down, his energy increased, his mood improved and concerns about diabetes, heart attack or stroke subsided, she recognized the good that had resulted from his being selfish. She recognized that the time he was taking for himself was allowing him to give much more of himself back to her and the kids, not only now but perhaps for many more years than might have previously been available to him. And though she still grumbled from time to time, she lovingly encouraged him to keep up the battle.
In 1 Timothy 4:6 Paul writes to Timothy, “For bodily exercise profits little: but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.”
It’s easy to read the KJV and conclude that exercise has little or no value for the Christian. But that was not at all what Paul was communicating. The Greek word for little here is ‘oligos’, which refers to degree or intensity. Paul was simply stating, that in comparison to the importance of seeking to grow in godliness, the desire to grow in physical health pales in significance, because the benefits of godliness reach far beyond this life.
The New Living Translation puts it more accurately: “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.”
Paul, of course, had his own physical limitations, as do we all. He had a “thorn in the flesh”, which many believe was some kind of physical impairment that gave him difficulty in ministry. But regardless of disability, he didn’t use it as an excuse for not taking care of his temple. Though he doesn’t directly state it, his letters are filled with analogies and lessons drawn from the world of athletics and fitness which draw a clear picture of the important connection between the pursuit of physical health and spiritual growth. We are to “fight the good fight”, “box not as one beating the air”, “run that we might gain the crown”, “wrestle not against flesh and blood.”
Nowhere does he write “lie on the couch that we might wait for the Kingdom.”
The conclusion we can take from Paul’s analogies between the physical and spiritual can and should be applied both ways. Just as our spiritual health impacts our physical actions, so endeavoring to take care of our physical health contributes a great deal to our spiritual growth and well-being. After all, it’s difficult to lay down your life for your brother if it takes all of your energy to just get out of bed in the morning.
It’s silly to argue that setting aside time from our busy lives for prayer and Bible study is an exercise in selfishness. The same is true, it could and should be argued, for taking care of this physical temple.
Oh, about that guy clawing his way back from the brink of physical disaster? He’s still clawing, still lugging around some unwanted poundage, but steadily making progress. But the story doesn’t end there. His wife caught the fitness bug too. Now, two or three times a week he arrives home at night, finding that she has gone to the gym or hit the road for a bike ride, leaving him and the kids to leftovers from the microwave. It’s a little annoying at times, but overall it brings a smile to his face. She’s more active and more energetic than ever. And those tight bike shorts she sports around the house from time to time … well, enough said. Most of all, though, he loves the fact that she loves him enough to be a little selfish.
PostScript: If you doubt any part of this guy’s story is true, just ask his wife. She edits his blog every week before it’s published. So if it weren’t, you wouldn’t be reading it. And, though a little embarrassed, she even let him keep the part about the tight bike shorts. 🙂