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10 Mistakes People Make When Reading the Bible

Posted on January 6, 2017

Donita had started reading the Bible two years before. She read it a lot and made copious notes of her impressions while reading. I later learned no one had actually shown her how to read the Bible or what dangers she might run into while reading. That is like telling someone food can be found on the other side of six-lane freeway and then putting a blindfold on them and pointing them in the right direction. They might make it okay, but it’s not likely.

She was frantic on the phone. “Pastor Mike, I am just sick about something. I guess I’m supposed to know how to fold the Holy Spirit, but I really don’t”. Yes, she said “how to fold the Holy Spirit”. I couldn’t believe it either.

“What are you talking about Donita?”

“In Revelation. I was reading along and several times I read about the Seven-fold Spirit of God. I don’t know how this folding works? Do I do it or does someone else?”

I rushed over to her house for what ended up being an enlightening 20 minutes for her. There is no such thing as ‘folding the Spirit’. The phrase ‘seven-fold Spirit’ means there are seven aspects or characteristics of the Holy Spirit regarding His work in our lives. When I explained this to her, she wanted to know what they were. I explained that in the first century, Greek philosophers liked to catalog the various characteristics of the gods of Olympus. The community of John who wrote Revelation had ideas about the various works of the Spirit in our lives. They mention most of these in Revelation. I went through the ones I knew and encouraged her to read the book in light of that understanding.

For several weeks after, I did a short teaching with her on how to read the Bible correctly. To this day, she regards that season as when she really began to appreciate what God gave us through the many authors of the Bible. She was appreciative.

I find people still make the same mistakes with the Bible as they were making a half century ago. There truly is nothing new under the sun. There may be many more than just 10 mistakes, but these cover a lot of the most common ones.

  1. Applying All Bible Promises to Your Life: There is a book called “All the Promises in the Bible” and it catalogs 7400 different promises God made in the Bible to various people. The author of this book has taken all of these promises and listed them under different headings. They have titles like “Promises of Rescue”, “Promises Regarding Healing”, “Promises about Money”, etc. All a person has to do, according to this writer, is look up your need, find out what God has promised, and claim that promise for yourself.There are several things wrong about this approach. First, it ignores the possibility of situational promises. In the Bible, God made promises to people which very clearly apply to the situation there were in. In Acts, Paul promises the Philippian jailer that he and HIS WHOLE FAMILY would be saved. Does this mean that every head of a family who believes will result in their whole family following God? I have heard a number of people claim exactly that. In the book of Joel, the Lord promised Israel after an attack of locusts that every one of the crops would start growing again in great amounts. Does this mean God is promising every farmer that bad crops will be followed by bountiful crops? Does this mean God promises everyone who goes through dark seasons that good times are just around the corner? I know many people who apply this exact situational promise to their lives. It is nothing more than wishful thinking at times.Many times these are conditional promises. For instance, in 2 Chronicles 7:14, God promises that “if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, seek my face,  turn from their wicked ways and follow me, then I will come and heal their land.” This may be the most quoted promise from the Bible. But it is a conditional promise. God will not heal a land where the people do not pray, or do not turn from their wicked ways, or do not humble themselves. In Romans 8:28 it says “for we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love him, who are called according to His purpose.” People read that and see a shorthand version of it: “We know God works all things together for good.” Or, we shorten it even further, “Good is going to come out of this.” But that is not necessarily true. There are many evil things in this world which God cannot do anything with. The key to the verse is this idea: “To those who are called according to his purpose” This means, God will orchestrate things when, and only when, a person is lining up with God’s will and obeying the next thing God shows them to do. God does this because helping these people also helps God’s plans.

    When reading a promise in the Bible, ask yourself these two questions:  Who was this promise given to?  and Is there a condition attached to this?

  2. Relying on Only One Translation:  Unless you are reading the Bible in the original languages (i.e. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) you are reading a translation. All translations have been done with meticulous care. And though every translator sought to keep their version free of theological and cultural bias, no one can do that perfectly. This is not to say there aren’t better translations than others. Each of us who teach the Bible have our favorite translations for various reasons. But any time you translate a word from one language to another, you will lose some of the inherent meaning. So how can an English reader get the most out of the Scriptures without losing the meaning?The best way is to have two or three translations open when reading. I find it helpful to have one translation which focuses on the common way of saying things (eg. The Message, The Living Bible, The NET Bible) one which focuses on textual accuracy (eg. The New American Standard Bible) and one which seeks to translate idioms best (eg. The New International Version, New Living Translation). You could add an interlinear Bible (the Greek and the Hebrew are right beside the English) or any number of other bibles which have versions in parallel with each other.

    At the very least, if you’re studying the Bible for understanding, have a few different translations to get a fuller flavor of the original words.

  3. Not Asking Holy Spirit to Help You:  Even highly trained people can make mistakes reading the Bible. I think it is best for a Christ-follower to ask the indwelling Holy Spirit for guidance. He inspired the Bible to be written, and He understands what it means. I believe if you start any time of reading the Bible with a short prayer asking Holy Spirit to give you understanding, your time with the Bible will be rich and more fulfilling.
  4. Reading the Bible Only in Small Amounts:  Here is a pattern I am seeing more often in this busy world. People are reading no more than 2 or 3 verses in the Bible at a time. Or they may read one Psalm, a few proverbs and a small portion out of the New Testament. Though that certainly isn’t a bad way to start, especially if you find it hard to fit Bible reading into your life right now, there is a mistake inherent in this. With the exception of Psalms and Proverbs, the rest of the books of the Bible were meant to be read in one sitting. They were not meant to be chopped up into little pieces. The only reason there are chapters and verses is to make it easier to find where you left off your reading. They do the same thing with Chaucer’s works and Shakespeare’s plays.I advise people to have at least one or two times a week where they practice “chunk reading”. During this time, you read entire books of the Bible or very long sections. Rather than having a time limit, keep reading so you get a bigger picture. Though the majority of Christ-followers have never read through the Bible even once (yes, you read that correctly), even those who have do it over such a long period of time they often lose the sense of the bigger picture. The Bible actually does have a unified theme, which is hard to see if you only read little chunks. Even a relatively slow reader (i.e. 200 words a minute) can read the entire bible straight through in about a month if reading 2 hours a day. Give chunk reading a try and see if it doesn’t open up a broader understanding of the Scriptures. More about this in a moment.
  5.  Over-Reliance on Tradition When Reading:  Most cult leaders tell their people, “Don’t read the Bible for yourself. Instead, rely on my interpretation of it.” That insistence on listening only to one viewpoint is a hallmark of all cults. However, many churches, denominations and church traditions can do the same thing. This is one reason I’m not a fan of so-called “Study Bibles”. These are bibles which have commentary at the bottom or on the side of every page. If you rely upon those notes too much, you will only see one theological point of view as you read. This can be true of those who grew up with certain creedal traditions, who rely on certain liturgies to understand the Bible or who follow certain commentaries when reading the Bible. 1 John 2:26,27 is pretty clear we should not rely on any man to teach us the Bible. This means, we should  not lean too heavily on one point of view when reading the Bible.
  6. Under-Reliance on Tradition When Reading: The opposite is also true. When you read the Bible and rely solely on your own understanding, you will probably come up with very novel and interesting interpretations. This can be helpful occasionally, but often leads people into very dangerous territory. This is the mistake Donita made when she was worried about “folding the Spirit”. When you are reading the Bible and you see something which seems to teach something very radical or dangerous, you should rely on tradition to help you. This is what commentaries and other bible teachers are for. If you’re the only person in the world who has a particular interpretation of the Bible, you ought to be careful of walking it out in real life. I remember a guy who called me and asked about the verse in the Sermon on the Mount regarding sexual temptation, where it talks about “cutting off your right hand”. He thought this literally meant disfiguring himself. I had him come by my office and we talked at length about figures of speech like hyperbole and why we need to understand the purpose of them. He left my office and to this day has two  hands (I think).
  7. Errors in Applying what you read:   The best teachers of the Bible have said there are three steps to studying the Bible:   a) Observation (what does it say; b) Interpretation (what does it mean); and c) Application (what do I do with it). There are many people who read the Bible who don’t do anything with it. For them, the Bible is a magical book which makes them feel better just for reading it. This is not enough. The Bible was written so we can observe what is written, understand what it means and then live it out in our lives. But the application must be built on careful study beforehand. You don’t just read a verse and then jump out and start living it a few seconds later. As opposed to a self-help book, the Bible needs to be meditated upon and prayed through before leaping.I remember a young man who read in the Bible how a rich ruler was told by Jesus to go sell all he had and come follow him. This man owned several parcels of land. He believed he needed to follow this advice and do the same. He came in one day and wanted to give all the money to the church. As the pastor, I was quite willing to take the money. After all, we had a number of projects we were working on which would be much more easily financed through this money. But I asked him what led him to do this and he told me about the Bible verse. I asked him if he and his wife had prayed about it. He didn’t even tell his wife what he was doing. I had a little talk about how to stay alive in marriage and sent him on his way. A few weeks later, he made a gift to the church–a much smaller gift than before. He did talk to his wife and he did scale back some of his enthusiasm. This was wisdom.
  8. Treating the Bible as an Academic Book:  My undergraduate degree is in Theology. I took over 60 credit hours in studying various books of the Bible. I took four different theology courses. In the final course, one of my professors, Dr. John Dahms warned us at the beginning of one class: “Be careful young bible scholars you don’t misconstrue the intention of the Bible. It wasn’t compiled and inspired by God to be studied like a textbook. It is a living thing. God moved men to write it, God moved people to translate it and he moves you to study it. But it is all about God and man. In this, you should end up finding God. In this, you should end up finding yourself. Don’t miss God and don’t miss yourself here as you parse verbs and argue over predestination.”Those are wise words. It is not the intelligent who inherit the earth; it is the meek. The meek are those who know they don’t know it all, and keep searching to learn true meaning to things. If you seek God as you read the Bible, then you will find him if you search with all your heart.
  9. Failing to Recognize the Cultures to Which it was Written: There are many, many things mentioned in the Bible that only mean something when you consider the background of the culture. This is not easy to do, but it is so necessary. Almost every book in the Bible contains references to practices, beliefs, and reference points which are foreign to us. This is the value of not jumping to conclusions when you read the Bible. When you look at issues like slavery, place and roles of women, role of government, idol-worship, demons, head-coverings, sinful practices, etc. it is necessary to know what the people of that day believed and how God was trying to guide them. Then, when you have seen that, look for a universal principle to apply.One very common example should help. In the city of Corinth at the very southern tip of Greece, they practiced many, many strange sexual acts. The temples of that city were devoted to prostitution. Those prositutes, know as the Melissae, were experts at certain types of sex. They were the only women in Corinth who went around town with their  heads uncovered. For the most part, women in Corinth did not leave their homes because they didn’t want to be accosted. That’s how many prostitutes were in that city. If they did go out, they wore full head coverings, similar to the burkas worn today in some cultures. If a woman went out without one, she was declaring herself to be a prostitute. For some reason, some women in the church in Corinth taught that since they were free in Christ, they could go to church with their heads uncovered. Therefore, Paul told them to cover their heads when they went to church. Otherwise, they would bring great shame on their families.

    This is a strange teaching to apply today. Certainly, there are cultures which still require women to wear head covering, and other cultures which attach specific meaning to head coverings. The dominant culture in North America of course, is not one of those. We have other standards which we could apply here. We have both male and female expectations regarding clothing, jewelry, perfume/cologne etc. which may be violated by Christ-followers. The key when translating truth from one culture to another is to learn what a Scripture passage meant to the culture. Once you have done that, then strip away the culture from the Scripture and see what the universal truth may be. Ask God how you might apply that universal culture to your life.

  10. Failing to Read the Bible as One Story:  As I mentioned earlier, the story of the Bible is one story. When you only read your favorite parts, or only read small little sections, the bigger story is not clear. In a nutshell, here are the Cliff notes for the Bible. You only get this when you have read it all through in a short period of time.

    God created everything. God, being perfect, wanted to create a being who could choose to know Him and love Him. In order to make this choice a real choice, he gave mankind the ability to choose freely. This choice God gave them was to follow what God directed them to do, or do it their own way. The first humans, when they became aware of what God wanted, chose to do it their way. They walked away from God. And every generation of their children has been selfish, godless and destructive. God spends centuries looking for individuals who would seek after Him. He found one. A man named Abram. That man trusted God and followed as best he could in faith. God decided to use his family and descendants as a people-group to introduce God to the rest of the world. But Abram’s family went back to being conceited, violent and godless. Occasionally, there were members of that tribe who followed God and obeyed God. He used some of these people to write down truths. Eventually, through that family, God decided to be born as a human being. His name was Yeshua, a variant of Joshua. We today call Him Jesus. He lived as a human, even though he is God. Many people followed him and believed in him. In the 33rd year of his life, he gave his life as a sacrifice. He was killed by some of the selfish children of Abram because he claimed to be God–which He was and is. Then, He rose from the dead a few days after dying. Because of this, He is able to pay for all the selfishness all humans have done or will ever do. God allowed the punishment that Jesus suffered to be enough for humans. For this to be effective, each person has to accept this death and resurrection as real and want forgiveness. Many people did that and became a new family of God. That family included many from Abram’s family and many from other tribes. From that day until today, the followers of Jesus in the Christ family have been spreading the news that anyone can be in a good relationship and standing with God. Then, at the end of the book, God tells us how things are all going to end. Selfishness will battle the Family of Jesus and then Jesus will return to start a new age.

 

—The End—

 

Spirit of the Joy Robber

Last Friday night, my wife and I attended a banquet as guests of a close friend. The speaker for the evening was a man I had met almost 20 years before when we lived in Montana and I was excited to hear and meet him again. His name is George Otis, Jr., President of the Sentinel Group and a man who studies spiritual revivals as they are happening around the world. His message that night was riveting–as always–but that is not the point of this article.

I had an unusual encounter with the spirit realm years ago. It was through reading one of George’s books I was armed for the battle.

In 1997, I read Otis’ book “The Twilight Labyrinth: Why Does Spiritual Darkness Linger Where it Does?”  George and his company, the Sentinel group,  are researchers. They explore the stories and statistics behind trends and happenings around the world. For years, their business was to help entities understand markets and market trends. But George himself became fascinated with trends in the spirit realm. He conjectured that some geographical areas see positive spiritual things happening and other places mostly negative spiritual results. In this book, he categorized his findings and theorized on why this might be.

He spends several chapters writing about a particular area of the world which seems to have more demonic, satanic, and shamanistic practitioners than anywhere else. For this article, I will not mention the name of the place, but you can certainly buy the book and find out where it is. I read the entire book in one day; it was that fascinating. I have had encounters with unclean and dangerous spirits over my years in counseling and pastoring and I wanted to know more about that realm.

In the book, George relates how shamans in this particular place would occasionally give spirits an assignment to rob joy out of their enemies. It is thought in that culture if a person has no joy left they will die. This may or may not be true, but I have seen what it is like when people have no joy, and it is certainly ugly and life-threatening. I had no trouble believing this is sometimes the result of the occult. The Twilight Labyrinth claims this is a common practice in this part of the world. I mentally noted all of this and went on with my life.

Two weeks later, a group of cowboy evangelists, known as “Cowboys With A Mission” asked me to do a debriefing weekend with them at a ranch north of our town in Montana. Their team of about 20 people had just returned from spending several months overseas and they would soon be returning home. During their time away, they had done preaching and rodeo demonstrations on another continent. When I agreed to speak, I had no idea where they had been.

On the Friday night, I did my first debriefing talk. The second I began to teach, I felt a spiritual storm start. I am sometimes aware when things change in the spirit realm, but this was too obvious to miss. Both my wife and I knew we were fighting something at a deep spiritual level. The students literally looked and sounded like they were dying. I am not exaggerating. Even their pallor was deathly. No one asked any questions and their vacant stares were as creepy as a horror movie. What had I stepped into?

After the evening was over, I asked to meet with the five leaders of the team. I told them about my spiritual discernment and they were not surprised. That’s when they casually told me where they had been living the previous few months. It was that exact place mentioned in the Twilight Labyrinth. When I heard this, I asked a simple question: “Does it feel like someone has sucked all the joy out of you?” I had no idea the response would be that dramatic.

The wife of the key leader began sobbing. Within 30 seconds, all the other leaders were crying as well. Something had beat up these people. I quickly explained what George Otis had written in his book about a joy-robbing spirit, and asked if I could employ the power and name of Jesus to help them. They agreed between tears. Very simply, I took authority over any spirit which had been sent on assignment to bother them. Instantly, they all settled down. Then Kathy and I laid hands on them one by one and asked God to fill them again with joy. I won’t go into great detail what happened next. But we spent two hours seeing the fruit of joy flowing into them and out of them as well. It reminded me of what can happen when a lot of people get into a keg of beer. Only in this case, no one lost their mind or said regrettable things.

The next morning, I invited the leaders to come and together we did the same thing for all the students. We commanded the joy-robbing spirit–I have no idea if it had a name or if that is what it is, but it is certainly what it did to them–to leave them all alone. That entity, that unclean spirit, left immediately. The name of Jesus Christ is more powerful than any spirit on this planet and they must obey Him.

Then the leaders laid hands upon the students and they were all filled again with joy. For the rest of the weekend, we mixed in simple teaching on demonic realities with more mundane instructions on how to get re-integrated into their home life and culture. I have kept up on the Internet with several of those students and they continue to tell me about the dramatic change that weekend wrought in their lives. One of the men is now the CEO of a company and he told me God is using him to pray protection over several branch offices. He was never a believer in spirits, but he now believes they exist after what he experienced.

Last Friday, as George spoke, I was reminded of the Cowboys weekend and thought to myself, “I wonder, with all the shamanistic practices people are now toying with in our nation, if people really know what they’re fooling around with?”

My answer is “probably not”. I have talked with people recently who have cursed family members and they have no idea there are opportunistic spirits who love to take people seriously when they curse others. A curse is simple. If you utter a desire or wish that someone else be harmed or attacked, that wish becomes a spiritual curse. Let everyone reading this be aware that these things work. But they often backfire and create much more damage than people realize.

Bless you George Otis for your faithful speaking and writing. It has helped so many more than you will ever know.

Making Sense of Glennon Doyle Melton and Elizabeth Gilbert

melton-and-gilbertI prefer to be late to an opinion party. Rather than reacting when something newsworthy happens, I savor ideas and questions for a long time. When I get to writing, most ideas have already been launched by other writers and perhaps forgotten. Sometimes out of the ashes of burned ideas come deeper  questions. Hopefully this article contains a few of them. I’m sure it doesn’t contain any answers.

Earlier this year, Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of “Eat, Pray, Love”, announced she was divorcing her husband because she was in love with a woman. Her husband is the man who appears at the end of “Eat, Pray, Love” and then is featured in the next memoir, “Committed: A Love Story.” She realized she loved her long-time best friend Rayya Elias, an artist and recovering cancer patient.

A month later, renowned Christian blogger Glennon Doyle Melton (known affectionately to her readers as “G”) announced she was divorcing her husband. G’s announcement came just days before she was about to release her long-anticipated book “Love Warrior” which chronicles the four-year struggle she and her family went through to recover from her husband’s infidelity. G’s life has always been lived on the outside as she used her blog Momastery to show the world how God helped her recover from substance abuse and many other problems.

Though the timing of her announcement was inconvenient, coming days before she took her first victory lap for the publishing of this book about her marriage success, she realized she needed to tell the world about her divorce online.  She informed the world she had come to grips with not wanting to be married to her husband any longer.

They now live just a few houses down from each other. They make meals together and share the parenting duties. Other than a change of location, many things have stayed the same.
Except something has changed. A couple of weeks ago, G announced she is dating soccer star Abby Wombach and has fallen in love. She announced it on Facebook and then answered a few questions. Here is one of the quotes from that announcement:

Remember in Love Warrior how hard I struggled to understand what being in love meant?
I get it now.
I get it.
I am in love.
And I’m really, deeply happy.

Here are two seemingly straight women who have opted for a love relationship with another woman. Both of them are authors who have focused on their marriage relationships both in writing and speaking.
Both of them refused to identify if they are lesbian or bisexual, and have said the distinction is unimportant.

But is it? Oh, certainly they have a right to believe it is unimportant, and for them it is. They have the right to love whom they will. They also have the right not to over-analyze it. But I have the right to ask some questions about this trend. It is a trend for seemingly straight women to come out, admitting to being in love with a woman.

This is a trend you seldom see with men. Yes, there have been men who adopted women as “beards” (i.e. taking a straight partner so you appear straight yourself) in the days when homosexuality in the public eye was not contemplated or accepted.

But look at the roster of women who have been straight and then became bisexual: Katy Perry, Angelina Jolie, Drew Barrymore, Megan Fox, Anna Paquin, Megan Mulally, Evan Rachel Wood and many more. Most male celebrities who are bisexual have never been married, but almost all of these women have. So why are women seemingly more inclined to identify as bisexual than men?

There are many qualities which constitute some level of attraction in a woman’s sexual identity.  Respect, compassion, acceptance, safety, security, humor, kindness, and showing attention are all factors which help women feel more attraction. Some women endure marriages where these things are not given or shown. Is it possible some women eventually see beyond natural sexual barriers and desire some of these other qualities even if it is a woman who brings them?

On a physical level, women appreciate the beauty seen in other women. Observe when a woman posts a cute selfie on social media. All her female friends gush over it. I cannot imagine men doing that with another man. Is it possible women can be attracted to other women on a non-sexual level, and that given the right conditions this will translate to passion?

I wonder also how many women go through seasons of bisexuality after having years of difficult marriage relationships? There are no studies done to identify these, but several of my counseling clients who practice bisexuality certainly endured difficult marriages?

And how much do examples like Melton and Gilbert affect women who may be considering bisexuality?

These are trends to note and ponder. I am sure some of you will see spiritual forces at work here as well, and perhaps that is correct. Perhaps the spirit of this age is a “try new kinds of love out” type of spirit. I don’t know. Time will tell, but I wanted to pose a few questions. I’m not really looking for the definitive answer to all of this.

One final question. Gilbert and Melton have received a mostly warm reception to their announcements. I wonder if that would still be the case if they had left their husbands for men?

Donald Trump and an Accurate Interpretation of Romans 13:1-2

 

Recently, I had a friend tell me that not only did God ordain that Donald Trump be elected, but that God always ordains every person in power, no matter who they are. Because of this, all Christians must submit to all governing authorities, no matter who they are.

I asked him the inevitable question: “Do you mean a person in North Korea is to submit to Kim Jong Un?” “Yes, of course” was the answer. “Hitler?” I ventured. My friend hesitated and eventually said, “I am pretty sure. Yes.” “How about Nebuchadnezzar, if he is telling you to bow down to a statue of himself he had made? Do you have to submit to him as well?” My friend, though not a strong Christian, knew the Bible enough to realize he better stop while he was confused. He thanked me for the lunch and left the restaurant looking dazed.

I was not sorry I had done it. I am weary of explaining Romans 13:1-2 to friends, antagonists, and Calvinists. If Romans 13:1-2 does not immediately jump into your mind, here it is in the New International Version:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

I use the NIV here because it is rife with translation ambiguities which encourage people to jump to spurious conclusions. After we examine it closely here, I hope you will agree with me that:

  1. We do not have to agree with or support all governing authorities
  2. There is a legitimate place for public protest
  3. God does not set up most political leaders and endorse them
  4. We do not have to be agreeable and supportive of any political leader. We can disagree with them, stand against them, and even advocate their overthrow.

 

Allow me to use historic bible interpretation techniques to show why I draw these conclusions from Romans 13:1-2

Contextual Background

The practices of good bible interpretation are called Hermeneutics.  In Hermeneutics, the first step in the proper interpretation of a bible passage is to discover the context. Context relates to three things

  1. What cultural ideas would the original readers be aware of?
  2. What do the chapters before and after this one talk about?
  3. What does the rest of the Bible reveal about the subjects covered in these verses?

 

We call these the Cultural Context, the Textual Context, and the Theological Context. These three contexts will provide a better understanding of what the Apostle Paul was emphasizing.

  1. Cultural Context: At the time of the writing of Romans, the Roman government had been in power for over 100 years. They had effectively conquered the Greek, Persian and Egyptian Empires as well as less powerful Median, Ethiopian, Gaulish and Germanic kingdoms. Caesar was the head of the nation and could act with impunity. Though citizens of Rome could vote, the conquered people could not. They had little say over how their lives were lived. The Roman laws were absolute, and they could not violate them without severe penalties.The Roman Empire was autocratic and absolute. Unless you were Caesar or a Senator, you had virtually no power over your own life.This was the political climate Paul was writing into. It resembles modern-day North Korea. The China of Mao’s communists, Stalin’s communists, Castro’s communists, the farcical “democracies” of Venezuela, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Angola have all shown elements in common with the Roman Empire.But there was a positive side to all this autocracy. The Roman legions kept the peace and prevented warring tribes and nation-states fighting against each other. They quelled local rebellions and kept roads and waterways in good repair. The so-called “Pax Romana” was truly a  time of world-wide prosperity and relative peace.But peace came with a price: Freedom.When Paul is speaking to people about the governing authorities, he is referring to a government under which they had no vote and few choices. In this sense, their situation is very different than ours in the Western democracies. One of my theology professors, Dr. James Cheung, used to tell us that the people of China understand better than Americans what it would mean to live in the world of the Romans. He said Paul wrote this book to people who had no way to change their government other than total rebellion and anarchy. That contextual understanding affects what Paul says in these verses.
  2. Textual Context: In Romans 12 Paul examines the value and beauty of a life in surrender to God. Verses 1 and 2 may be the most sublime expression of what it means to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit and to stay away from sin’s grasp.

    From that, Paul logically applies this spirit-led life to a practical application. He advises each person seek to be used by the Spirit in service to others in the body of Christ. The focal point of living in the Spirit is not to meet our own needs or improve our image. It is to serve. We submit to God and He fills us with his Spirit. The Spirit flows out of us to serve others. We might show kindness, hospitality or respect out of this spirit-led love. Or we might exercise a supernatural gift of the Spirit. From this base, Paul then applies this loving attitude toward two other groups of people. First, he addresses how the spirit-led person will act toward those who persecute them. Then, he follows this up with the approach to be taken in conflict. We are to be at peace—as far as it depends on us—with everyone.

    This is the chapter context leading into chapter 13 of Romans. Paul is not thinking particularly about politics. He is not as concerned about world leaders and political ideologies. Rather, Paul wants to apply the basic principle of being “transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Romans 12:2) to every difficult situation in life. Fellow church members, enemies, interpersonal conflicts, and the oppressive governments of that day immediately came to his mind.

    There are some who feel Paul makes an abrupt change of topic in chapter 13. But I disagree. If you read the rest of the chapter after the first seven verses, you see that Paul returns to this topic of walking in the Holy Spirit with an attitude of love. Verse 8 says

    Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law“.

    Therefore, good contextual hermeneutics suggests we read Paul’s teaching on our attitude toward government in the light of love and walking in the Spirit. This is not his treatise on government systems, God’s sovereignty, or man’s response to oppression. This is Paul’s way of applying the concept of love to down-to-earth difficult situations.

  3. Theological Context: Since many people approach Romans 13:1-2 as if Paul is addressing the Christian’s viewpoint on government systems, let’s see how the rest of the Bible approaches that issue for comparison. Since these verses seem to suggest we are to believe God establishes every government, and that we are simply to obey the governing powers and not rebel against them, does the rest of the Bible support this?Actually, it doesn’t. Even a cursory glance at the Bible nets a completely different result. Israel did not submit to Pharaoh, but rather fought against his rule. They blatantly disobeyed when he ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill the newborns. They plundered the Egyptian leaders and lied to them when they left captivity. Later in Israel’s history, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down to a statue of Nebuchadnezzar. They refused to do as the leader of the country ordered. A few years later, Daniel also refused to obey the government and was thrown into the lion’s den as a punishment.David disobeyed Saul, though passively.Most of the prophets disobeyed their kings, especially the evil ones. Nathan the prophet chastised David the King to his face. In Israel’s post-exilic history, the nation fought against every ruling authority which took over their land. The Maccabees were especially rebellious. At no time after the exile did the people of Israel respect or obey those who ruled them.Even when the Herods came to power, the people were constantly rebelling against them. John the Baptist spent much of his ministry rebelling and fomenting rebellion against the Herods. The rulers of Jesus’ Israel, besides the Romans and the Herods, were the Sanhedrin. Jesus constantly confronted them and their interests. He called them a bunch of snakes, flouted their rules, and mocked their disciples.

    Jesus criticized publicly most of their decisions and even went as far as to overthrow the money-changers tables in direct rebellion against temple rules. Few people in this world went out of their way as much as Jesus did to tweak the nose of the ruling establishment.

    What about after Jesus died and rose again? His disciples carried on in his footsteps. After being ordered by the government to stop preaching and to stop teaching about Jesus, they steadfastly refused and rebelled by doing the very thing they were ordered to stop doing. They were not respectful of the government and followed only the laws which suited them. They schemed to hide from the government officials who sought to arrest them. Paul even pitted one government against another when he appealed to Caesar during his second trial. When thrown in the Philippian jail, Paul felt no obligation to stay there even though ordered to jail by an appointed official. He not only escaped jail, but befriended his jailer along the way.

    There is one other theological context to address. How deep does the influence of God go in terms of elections and appointment of rulers? Since the main reason people refer to Romans 13:1-2 is to support the idea that God establishes all human rulers, does this make theological or logical sense? I contend it does not.This teaching is firmly ensconced in the idea of God’s sovereignty and determinism. This is a slippery slope doctrine and most people who believe it will agree.

    It is remarkably easy to take it too far. The problem is, if you are going to believe in the full doctrine of God’s sovereignty then the only way for it to be consistent is to take it too far. Here is what I mean.Logically, if you say God has control over all things, then all things are under God’s control. If all things are under God’s control, then God wills that all things happen as they do. Nothing happens unless God wills it. At this point, the believer in God’s absolute sovereignty wants to hedge their belief. They will say there is a difference between what God allows and what God wills. But logically, that makes no sense. If God allows something, God wills it.

    If I am able to stop my child hitting me, I have control over that. I can no longer blame the child for hitting me if I do nothing to stop it. If you say God is in control of all things, then God wills all things. This is what led a famous modern Calvinist to remark on the death of children in a schoolhouse massacre: “God desired that each of those children be killed, or it would not have happened.” At least this teacher is honest with his belief system.If you say that God’s allowance of an event is different than willing that event, then I have one thing to say. We both believe there are limitations on God being in control of everything. I just have more things I don’t think God is in control of than you.

    If God truly wanted Donald Trump to be President, there is only one way to do it. God had to force every person to vote exactly as they did. And God had to prevent people from voting if their vote would have affected the outcome. Unless God affects them all, the outcome is indeterminate. So, when you say God wanted Donald Trump to be President, you are saying there was no other way it could have happened. This eliminates the choice any person would make in an election.

    This also makes God out to be a monster and a puppet-master. This is not how God has revealed Himself to be. There must be limits on God’s sovereignty or else God is responsible for everything, including sin. Since we believe God is all-powerful—and I do believe that by the definition of God as Creator—then how is God to be limited?

    The Arminian teaching is that God is self-limiting. No person can limit God, but God can limit Himself. God cannot sin for instance; that is a limit God places upon himself. God will not violate human choice unless God wants to accomplish something. That is another limit God places on Himself. This is what is shown in Romans 9 with Pharaoh. God can overrule human choice, but He chooses to do so infrequently.

    For the most part, our sin and violence has mangled the beauty God created. Evil rulers have taken power whom God did not choose or ordain. What then is Romans 13:1-2 talking about if it is not addressing God’s overarching sovereignty? To answer this, we must look more carefully at the text itself.

Examination of the Text Itself

To fully understand what Paul says here, let’s note the key words and phrases in these two verses. Then, when we have finished that, we will put it together into a logical process. I will then note two alternate translations which show the full nature of what we find here.

  1. The first phrase is a command. The command “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities” means to recognize there are higher powers and authorities than yourself. The purpose of writing this is to counter the idea that anarchy is God-ordained. There were many in Paul’s day who advocated overthrowing all human authority and simply falling under God’s authority. The best translation of this verse has this idea: Every soul in this world must continually recognize there are higher authorities than themselves. You are not in charge of the world.
  2. Now we come to the crucial misunderstanding and ambiguity of this verse in the original Greek language. The NIV translates it this way: “For there is no authority, except which God establishes“. Going through the Greek words and the simple grammar, it would sound like this: “For there is no authority, except under God.” There are literally three ways this could be legitimately translated:
    1. There is no authority except those God establishes
    2. There is no authority that doesn’t come under God’s authority
    3. There is no authority except God’s authority.
  3. I personally think the second translation is the best one. Every government pales in comparison with God’s government. So even though we recognize that humans can seize control and rule over others, this rule will always be temporary in both time and extent. God’s rule is more powerful. God allows humans to be kings and rulers. God allows us to vote in whomever we want. And even though God doesn’t often interfere with what human rulers do, God is always the ultimate authority.Though the Third Reich killed six million people there were miracles which happened to prevent this holocaust from spreading to the rest of the world. I have no idea why God didn’t intervene earlier or cause Hitler to die earlier, but He didn’t. But there is a reason there is no Third Reich in the world today. God used people to overthrow Hitler and his regime. But if no people had been willing to do so, Hitler would have hurt many more. We humans must come under God’s authority and serve Him for anything to change.
  4. The next phrase “the authorities which exist have all been established by God” has the same translation difficulty as the last phrase. To be consistent then, the best translation is “All existing authorities come under God’s authority ultimately.”
  5. Putting together all these thoughts into one verse would sound like this: “Every soul must recognize there are higher authorities than themselves. For there are no authorities who do not come under God, for all existing authorities ultimately come under God’s authority.”
  6. The next phrase flows logically out of the verse before it. The phrase starts with the word “therefore” which implies what comes after is the application of the truth. The truth is that God is the one who allows humans to govern. If you have trouble with the concept of other people ruling your life, you have a problem with God. All attitudes of anarchy and rebellion are attitudes against God. Therefore, King David did not want to overthrow King Saul but rather to protect him, even when Saul was trying to kill David. David recognized that he didn’t want to come against the King out of his respect for God.Most legitimate rebellion means to stand up against what a ruler does and says, not against their right to be rulers. The concept of authority is something God allows people to have. This is an interesting theological conundrum. When Israel originally approached Samuel the prophet and asked him to question God about this idea of having a king like the other nations around, here is God’s answer to Samuel:10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

    19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
    21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”God warns them if they seek after a human ruler it won’t always go well with them. The ruler will expect tributes and money and power. And when they complain to God, God is going to ignore their complaints. But to rebel against this idea of any ruler and to want anarchy is to rebel against God. This is the point of the first part of verse 2 of Romans 13.

    Therefore, we may do all we can to change our leaders, and even our form of government (a la the American Revolution), but we must not discard the idea of others having some authority over us. That is anarchy and God does not sanction it.

  7. The final part of verse 2 lets us know the consequence of rebelling against all authority. If you fight the concept of authority over your life completely, you will find you keep getting judged over and over. You will find that rulers keep hurting you. The person who sneers at the police wonders why the police pick on them. The sports star who calls the referees names wonder why they get called for so many fouls. The anarchist organization who fights the government at every turn wonders why the government fights back. The person who says “no one is allowed to tell me what to do” will force everyone to tell them what to do.

Application of These Verses

What can we conclude from all this? Paul, writing with the idea of applying the love and power of the Holy Spirit to every part of life, warns us we cannot walk in the Spirit and keep believing no one should tell us what to do. We recognize the right of leaders and governing authorities to exist because God allows them to. This doesn’t mean God set every leader up or endorses all they do. It means that God allows human authorities to call the shots for a while. We do well to honor that.

However, God allows us to disagree with ruling authorities. They have a right to exist, but we have a right to vociferously demand they change their ways if they are evil or misguided. In the culture Paul wrote to, Christians could not make changes in their governments. Paul basically tells them not to waste a lot of time on it. We face much different realities in the Western cultures. We can and do make our voices heard. We can march, write, speak out, defy and even be jailed for our beliefs. These all fall under the aegis of this chapter’s teaching. At the same time, if we act as if we are the final authority in life, we will find that existing authorities want to hurt us. And God will allow that.

The attitude of rebellion is a wasting disease, and God wants the spirit-led Christian to stay away from it.

This implies God did not determine Donald Trump would be the winner of the election. Neither did God want Hilary to be the President. Or Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. God allowed us to have whomever we wanted. But we must live with our choice. We may biblically protest, criticize, engage, applaud, impeach, march against, yell at, and satirize our leaders. But let us not invalidate the concept of leadership. That invalidates God and his ordinances.

Here are the other two translations I mentioned so you can compare them to the translation I put together:

The Message:

Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible.

New Living Translation:

Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.

Types of Theologians

Posted on August 10, 2016

The university founders and leaders in the high middle ages considered Theology to be the “Queen of the Sciences.” They borrowed this phrase from Thomas Aquinas, but they were applying it accurately. A science was defined then as a legitimate study of any subject involving human existence. Because they had not bought into the Enlightenment separation of the physical and spirit realms, they saw any endeavor to understand something as a science.

Theologians were elevated to a high place in those years. They were given places of honor and privilege at universities and every institution had chairs of theology. The oldest of our world’s schools still have chairs of Theology: Oxford, Tubingen, Bologna, Paris, Cambridge, they all recognize the value of theology.

If you vaguely know what theology is, the name is pretty simple: It is the Study of God and all things to do with God. That sounds accessible and simple, doesn’t it?

Theologians are some of the most brilliant and influential people in the history of the world. You know many of their names, but probably didn’t connect them with theology. They became known for starting churches, changing nations, launching quests and ruining the plans of oligarchies. We need the theologians, even if we don’t like them. They challenge us, settle us, ground us, unsettle us, explain us and leave some things unexplained for now.

But there are more than one kind of theologian. There are, in fact, seven different kinds of theologians. For those who love theology, see if you can recognize the value of each of these. At the end, I am going to propose the need for a type of theologian not often seen.

The “Heretic” Theologian

This is the one who looks at it all a new way and says it in a new way. Sometimes this person actually is a heretic in terms of the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Sometimes they are not, but they push the boundaries of what we believe to be true. Martin Luther, Pelagius, Samuel Rutherford, Meister Eckart are all examples of this kind of theologian. In contemporary church circles, we have too many to count. But we need them so when we think we have God all nailed down, these ones push the envelope beyond our comfort zones.

The Systematic Theologian

They lay it down systematically so that generations later, other people can see what was said and believed. Without this theologian our creeds would be a mess, our churches would be struggling to survive and we would have no way of being able to say “here’s where we’ve been”.  Examples of this theologian: Berkhof, Chafer, Calvin, Hodge, Scofield, and Grudem.  They all have a slant to their systematic theologies, but they at least have a system and a coherence. They help us with a launching pad we can shoot off of into other discoveries.

The One-Note Theologian:

They see one point of theology that has either been overlooked or under-appreciated and they keep hitting this note with clarity and vision. Without this theologian, we would count all theology as equally important and miss what Holy Spirit is saying to today’s church. Examples of this person: Finney on Revivals, A. B. Simpson on healing, E. M. Bounds on prayer, Wesley on the Holy Spirit, Warfield on the Millennium, etc. Every generation needs a couple of these. Our generation has spawned several, but we will wait for history to tell us which were most important.

The Academic Theologian:

This theologian takes the works of many and drills down into their works to see the implications, the nuances, the potential pitfalls and the connections between one theologian and another. These theologians see the broader gamut of what has been taught and published and can put all of theology into its categories. Unlike the systematic theologian, they aren’t looking for a system that works together. They are looking for all the varieties of theology that make up the variegated Truth of God. Examples of these: Karl Barth, Carl F.H. Henry, N. T. Wright, Roger Olson, R. C. Sproule. These are the classic theologians we are used to in university circles. Often, these are the theologians everyone reads. I have many Calvinist friends who read Sproule but have never read Calvin. That is often the way.

The Pastoral Theologian:

They are always looking at how theology can be explained simply and practically to those who need to know. They care as much about the non-academic as the academic. They do not want anyone to go away shaking their heads in confusion. They will use a parable instead of a treatise, a story instead of attributions. They are just as solid as any of the other theologians, but they are looking to communicate truth in a way that even the least-educated person will understand. We are so thankful for theologians such as Aimee Semple McPherson, G. Campbell Morgan, William Lane, Greg Boyd, Crysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jeanne Guyon, John Piper, George Whitfield, Kay Arthur, the Apostle Paul, etc. They explain the deepest concepts in the simplest terms and we get it.

The Watchman Theologian:

These recognize there will always be those who carry their own little heresies too far, seeking to devour followers. These theologians are the “watchmen on the wall” that the prophets tell us about. They guard the orthodoxy of the faith so that any “new” revelations will have to pass the test of scrutiny. The danger of being this kind of theologian, is you run the risk of becoming a permanent skeptic. But some have done it successfully. Walter Martin, Ravi Zacharias, Donald Barnhouse, and Hank Hannegraaf are a few people who do this today. Of course, the Inquisition was full of them as well. This is a potentially dangerous group of theologians, but necessary at one level.

The Practical Theologian:

This theologian cannot stand to see Academia take charge of truth. They do not consider theology to be worth talking about unless it can be lived in the real world. They defend the widow and the orphan, feed the hungry, defend the downtrodden, fast to loosen the chains, preach only to change an evil world, and they study the Bible only to live it. Today’s church is seeing more and more of these. They are tired of people who just study the Word and not do it. Shane Claiborne, David Platt, Rachel Held Evans, James Dobson, Oral Roberts, Bill Johnson, Mother Teresa, Jim Cymbala and many others are in this group. They tend to be the most popular of the theologians and many times are not even thought of as theologians since they don’t really care for sitting around discussing theology for hours. They prefer to just get ‘er done.

But there is one more theologian needed in this group. In today’s church, this person is needed more than ever, because there are so many theologians around and all are speaking their own language.

I refer to…

The Bridge-Builder Theologian:

I believe what is missing in this collection of wise people is the theologian that knows how to talk the language of all these theologians. They are the rarest of theological breeds. They help each of these different groups talk to one another and share what they have learned with the rest in a way in which it will be understood. There are a few of these, and even though few people will agree with what they personally believe, their job is not to develop theology, but help each of these different types of theologians to understand each other. They have the true gift of interpretation. They explain what the others are saying in a way we get it. They may go too far and start advocating for these, but they know how to get the point of someone else across well. In the lingo of Malcolm Gladwell, these are the Information Maven Connectors. Examples of these:  Donald Carson, Rick Joyner, Francis Chan, Jack Hayford, Lisa and John Bevere, Donald Miller, George Otis Jr., Leonard Sweet, Rick Warren, and Brian McLaren. They don’t develop new theology, they just explain it so we can understand. May their tribe increase.

A Father With Borrowed Wisdom from God

Posted on June 19, 2016

jack phillipsMy father was 41 years old when he died after having lung cancer for only six months. I was one month short of 17 when he passed. This week, I turn 59 and because it was just Father’s day  and  the preacher this morning talked about his dad in such loving detail, I started thinking about my own dad.

I have now been alive for 42 years after his death. That is longer than he was alive. But years don’t matter all that much–what matters is how much life and love we squeeze into those years. And my dad did love me.

I won’t rehearse the problems my dad had in life. Suffice to say that he struggled with addiction all the years I knew him. But he was a friendly guy who never had problems getting along with others. He could be hard on my brother, sister and me. He expected a lot and he didn’t do a lot to help us work through our problems. However, one time he did help me changed my life.

As a boy, I was easily talked into mischief. One summer afternoon, three of my friends proposed a game I had never played before. We went to the end of our alley and looked out into the busy street. Cars whipped by us going 40 MPH. That’s when my friend Derek explained the rules of the game. Each of us would pick up a rock. We would wait until a passing car came close to us. Then we would throw the rock across the road. The one who came closest to hitting a car–without hitting one of course–was the winner.

The other three guys went before me. Each of them threw their rocks across the road with lots of time to spare. I figured I could easily beat them all. When my car came, I’m not sure what happened. I don’t know if he sped up, if I hesitated out of fear, or if my young brain miscalculated.

But my rock went through the side window of the passing car. At that moment, all of us scattered like shrapnel from a grenade. I hoped the man who slammed on his brakes couldn’t figure out who threw the rock as he saw boys running every which way. But when I looked behind me down the alley, I was the only one he was chasing. He had figured it out. I ran into our backyard, past the babysitter and up the back stairs. As I went by her, I shouted out,

“There’s a man chasing me who wants to hurt me!”

I admit, I left a few details out of that description. The babysitter sopped up her courage and refused to let the man into the house. I watched from my bedroom window to see if he was coming in. The two of them talked for a long time. Then, the man wrote some things down on a piece of paper and gave it to my babysitter. I may not have been that old, but I knew he had written a note for my father.

And just as decidedly, I knew I would suffer severe consequences.

So I hid in the basement. There was an alcove cut out of the wall behind the furnace and it just fit my tiny body. I hid there and waited until dad came home. When he finally did, I sat quietly, listening for the inevitable explosion. After about five minutes, I began to hear the rumble. Dad was tearing apart every room looking for me. He didn’t know my secret hiding spot, so all he could do was search, yell, and voice threats. The more he described what was going to happen to me, the more I decided to say nothing and stay hidden.

At one point, things got quiet. Then my mother started pleading with me to come out. She even began to cry softly. I couldn’t take it any more, so I slithered out of my hole and slowly went upstairs. I won’t describe the initial scene as my parents saw me come out of the basement door. It was complicated.

I went to bed early, without my dad punishing me as he promised. But the next morning, he got me out of bed at 6:30 a.m. This was strange: He never got up early, and this was summer vacation. I never got up any earlier than I had to. But dad told me I had to make a decision. I needed lots of time depending on what decision I made.

Dad had called the man whose window I had broken the night before. He had already paid the man for the window and now it was time for my payback. I was sure a spanking with the belt was involved, but that is not what happened.

My dad just looked sad. He told me how disappointed he was with me. He had expected so much more out of me than I had shown. I cried. I was steeled with resolve to withstand a beating. i never expected this.

Then dad explained my choice. I could pay for the window one of three ways:

  1. I could give up allowance for the rest of the year.
  2. I could do 20 hours of work in the yard over the weekend. This involved back-breaking labor (dad took delight describing all I would do).
  3. I could go over to this man’s house and work for him for as long as he wanted.

 

I chose number two because I wanted my allowance and I was afraid of this other man. So dad started me in right away with the work. That Saturday, I must have put in 12 straight hours of work. I was so tired, I didn’t even eat dinner. The next morning at 6:30, dad got me up and worked me again. The second day was even harder than the first.

Then something happened after lunch. Dad came out with his work clothes on and began to help me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. So I asked him.

Didn’t you say I had to do all this work myself?

Yes, I did. But this is my punishment and my rules. I can help you if I want to.” For the next two hours, dad helped me do all the chores I had left. Then, when we were done, he told me to have a bath and put on some good jeans and a shirt. When I came out, dad told me we were going for dinner; just me and him.

He took me to a diner across the street from his work. It was great food and we had a fantastic time together. He told me about all the things he got in trouble for as a boy . He warned me never to tell my siblings or my mother about that conversation.

At the end of dinner, we just sat in silence for a while. Then dad looked at me and said, “I’m proud of you son. This was worth the broken window to see you work like a man.”

I cannot think back to that day and not feel the weight of his love. It still sits on my shoulders.

You May Never Get It Back

Posted on June 13, 2016
gone foreverTrigger Alert. Trigger Alert. Trigger Alert.
Someone will be triggered by just about every line in this short essay. It is designed that way. Don’t read on if you have made a vow to never be triggered by anything again.
I teach, counsel others, and write. I see the mucky, degraded side of people’s lives often. I occasionally get to see beauty too. And I know the God of Creation who loves me and others. But I still see muck.
During this last week, I have witnessed three dead marriages. I don’t mean divorce, I mean people who are still married and hate each other. One couple gives each other permission to cheat because they don’t give a crap any more. I heard about a child who was sexually groomed and controlled by a youth pastor. His church–my church–hid this reality from the public for years. I read, with you, about the massacre of people in a night club. I helped a friend prepare a funeral for a teenager. I talked a person out of running away from their spouse and children. But the voices inside their head won’t stop saying “run away”. I sat with two alcoholics who had tried to be sober and couldn’t do it. I spoke with a woman who kicked her sister out of the house for using meth for the 1,000th time. She loves her and hates her.
Should I go on, or are you depressed enough?
I want to speak to those who believe in Creator God for a moment. I believe God will remake this earth and give us a Forever Life that is mind-exploding. I know Jesus will never leave me. I am certain I am forgiven, loved and accepted because of what Jesus did for me.
But I also know this doesn’t change the things I’ve lost–or what you’ve lost. Some of those things are never coming back. Think about this. Did Job really get everything back at the end of the book? Yes, he was eventually blessed with twice as many possessions as he had before, but they weren’t the same possessions. It was now a different house. And knowing how his wife responded, it may have been a much different marriage than he had before. And certainly, his children didn’t come back. His dead children stayed dead. And though we are told the daughters of Job were the most beautiful in the land, the memory of his dead children would never have left him. There probably wasn’t a day that he didn’t long to hold one or more of them.
Don’t you see? Even though we have hope going forward, there are things that are gone forever. There are people we will never see again in this life. There are dead marriages that cannot come back to life. You can claim all the promises in the Word of God you want, but it won’t happen. I can assure you. That friend will probably never apologize to you. That lost opportunity is never coming back. You can’t go back in time and have dad un-abuse you. There are no “born-again virgins”. That ship has sailed. You can’t un-see the time dad hit your mother. You can’t un-remember the time Mom called you the filthiest name any human has called you. You can’t change the person you killed with your car after a night of drinking with your sorority sisters. Those things are gone.
If you walked out the door and abandoned your children, even if you go back, it will never be the same. If your laziness meant you could never go to college because you punted every year in high school, there is no going back and fixing that. You can apologize for sins and mistakes–and you should–but it won’t change them.
People have robbed our joy, lived their selfish goals out at our expense, crapped on our dreams, ruined our plans, lied to us, hurt us, mangled us, taken our possessions. And we will never get any of that back. Even the parents whose stolen children miraculously come back to them realize they didn’t actually get their children back. They find a sad facsimile of those kids, who spend all their lives trying to heal.
Why is all this important? If you’re not getting these things back, why are you holding onto them so tightly? What would happen if you let go of needing those things? The answer to that question is the answer to the rest of your life.
Jesus said it clearly, “He who seeks to preserve his life will lose it. The one who abandons his life will find it eternally”. What he means is this: If you pine away for all the lost things, you will never live today. If you have a bonfire of memories and throw in all the things you can’t have back, all of a sudden you begin to live again.”
Remember Tom Hanks in “Sleepless in Seattle?” He wasn’t living on that houseboat. He was simply existing. Even his 10 year old son knew that.
What would happen if today you let go of that which you can never get back? What would happen? If you have a gut answer to that question, then ask God for his perspective on it. God’s answer will set you free.
But for all of the garbage you have had to endure, you will never get those days and things back. You just won’t.

Phantom Affairs

Posted on June 10, 2016

phantomAuggie and Tami felt the emotional distance between them. They fought, made up, fought some more, made up less often, fought more vigorously, didn’t make up any more. They didn’t know what the other was angry about, but constantly replayed their own story of hurt in case anyone asked. No one did.

Tami filed for divorce first, but Auggie was willing too. They settled their legal differences amiably and spared the world the bother of having to listen to their public complaints. A year later and they legally didn’t have to contact each other for any reason.

Yet for some reason, they kept in close touch. They met for lunch and endlessly dissected the reasons why their marriage fell into the toilet. That’s when and why they came for counseling. They didn’t desire to resurrect their relationship, but they wanted me to do a post-mortem with them on the corpse that was their marriage.

After meeting three times, I discerned the basic reason for their marriage failure and I shared it with them. At first, they were both confused. Then they denied it was true. It was almost a year later Tami came back and admitted I was right. I don’t know if Auggie ever agreed with me.

Here was their problem. They both had someone else. They both had chosen another person over their partner.

Yet neither of them had a physical affair. Neither of them had met in clandestine circumstances to give their love to another person. But they had still chosen someone else. Once they began doing that, it was inevitable it would ruin their relationship.

We wrongly assume that affairs have to actually involve knowing and interacting with the other member of the tryst. Today, there are multiple warnings about emotional affairs, relationships between married people that do not result in sex. These can be devastating of course. As Laura Berman observes,

Emotional cheating (with an “office husband,” a chat room lover, or a newly appealing ex) steers clear of physical intimacy, but it does involve secrecy, deception, and therefore betrayal. People enmeshed in nonsexual affairs preserve their “deniability,” convincing themselves they don’t have to change anything. That’s where they’re wrong. If you think about it, it’s the breach of trust, more than the sex, that’s the most painful aspect of an affair and, I can tell you from my work as a psychiatrist, the most difficult to recover from.

However, neither Auggie nor Tami were enmeshed in emotional affairs. They did practice some of the alternative ways one can tie themselves to another person anonymously. Let me outline the most common ways this is done:

Old Flames: A healthy person continues to process their memories long after they have experienced the original event. This must be done to remain emotionally grounded. We need to understand what has taken place in our lives so we don’t develop the wrong ideas about our history. But when we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about past romances–and especially when we do this to replace time spent thinking about our spouse–we conclude that those days were better than these. The current troubles always pale in comparison with these idealistic memories.

Romantic Novels and Movies: One wouldn’t think you could form attachments with fictional characters, but psychology has proven that this is not only possible, but widespread. Yes, there are women who imagine themselves in the arena with Peeta, or men who see themselves as Danaerys’ companion. This explains the almost fanatical appeal of some fan-bases. This practice intrudes on a marriage when the spouse replaces their affection and admiration for their partner with the character they have obsessed upon. People can also imagine celebrities and read every article about them, taking time and mental energy away from their spouse and pouring it into a famous person.

Pornography: Most people assume porn is all about taking affection away from a spouse. Actually, that reason is not  as common as with the first two examples. Most men use porn as a mechanism to deal with relational pain, especially when they use porn to stimulate themselves.

But there are indeed some men and women who picture themselves with the people in the videos. This causes them to make constant mental comparisons between the porn stars and their partners. As I said, this is not the most common use of porn–it is most likely a pain manager–but it does exist. When a person uses porn to mentally replace their spouse, it can destroy a marriage.

Co-workers, neighbors and professional acquaintances: Throughout life, there are people who treat others well, affirm their value through words and deeds, and give  comfort to the emotionally distraught. A neglected or mistreated spouse will place great value on the person who is willing to give them these things.  Doctors, nurses, teachers, pastors,  therapists etc. all have to set careful and obvious boundaries so clients do not expect to have inappropriate relationships. But just because there are boundaries, the person receiving help can fantasize about how wonderful it would be to have a deep intimate relationship with their help-giver. Perhaps neither party acts upon this and the two of them maintain a professional relationship. But the one person still wishes for a deeper bond. This also can be done with people at work, neighbors we have come to know more than casually, and family friends.

Horror stories are told of people who assumed someone else felt as strongly as they did in the relationship, only to find out the affection was completely one-sided. The mind has the ability to fill in both sides of the relationship, assuming the kind words and actions are proof of an intimate connection.

Auggie and Tami both had these phantom affairs and had maintained them for a long time. The upshot of this error is that every mistake their spouse made was compared to these phantom ideal people. In their minds, the phantoms would never have treated them this way.

In Auggie’s case, he obsessed about old girlfriends. Tami focused on a man who lived across the street who appeared to treat her with the respect she had always longed for from her husband. Neither of them sought out a romantic partner outside of their marriage, but the phantom partners provided the manure for all of their resentments to grow.

Strangely enough, a year after divorcing, Tami dated the man across the street. After the second date, she realized he was a jerk. Coming home that night, she cried over her lost marriage. She began to see how great a mistake she and Auggie had made.

 

Imposter Syndrome is not Humility

Posted on March 24, 2016

imposterI was listening to a famous American preacher this month telling his audience why he wrote his current book. The title of the book suggests that the author doesn’t feel he has a lot of reason to be in the spotlight. In fact, many people have told him that he isn’t a big deal, and he personally agrees with them.

But then he made this statement:

“If they only knew how I really feel. I sit there some days and tell myself “So many people could do a better job of preaching and teaching. Some of them are in the congregation every Sunday.”

He used that thought to build a case for the power of humility. He waxed eloquent about how God loves to take broken and cracked people and make them into incredible stories to the glory of God. You could hear the congregation getting louder and louder as they affirmed the truth he was throwing at them. They began to believe they could be used by God.

All that is well and good. And I agree completely that humility is a foundation of God’s power in our lives. Without humility, we will never see the Lord’s plan for us. We will never know how his power could change us and others through us.

But what I do take issue with is the entire underpinning of the message. Unfortunately, this famous preacher is wrong about one thing. And that one thing is so crucial, he may be hindering others from finding the same path he did. In essence, he is confused about humility. Or maybe he isn’t…but what he said is confusing and I want to clear it up.

Here is the reality. That guy is a really good preacher. He effectively communicates truth and he keeps people’s interest as he does it. I’m a harsh critic of public speakers and I have to admit that he does a really good job. So, when he gets up and says his inner thought life centers on the idea that he is not a good preacher, that lacks all the qualities of humility.

It is actually called something else. Psychologists correctly refer to this as “The Imposter Syndrome”. Imposter Syndrome is an internal dialogue where the person believes it’s just a matter of time before you’re found out as a talentless fraud. Strangely, this is a condition that exists more with successful people than unsuccessful ones. It is estimated that 70% of the CEOs have this constantly. Though no surveys have been done of pastors and missionaries, I suspect from experience that most of the pastors of big churches have this thought pattern.

Imposter Syndrome was first identified in the 1970s by  Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. They noticed that many of the most successful people who came to see them for counseling exhibited many of the following symptoms:

  1. Every time they are praised, they fear they won’t live up to expectations.
  2. Fear that others will discover how little they know.
  3. The feeling they have to work harder than others to accomplish anything.
  4. They seek external validation, but don’t believe it when it is given
  5. They  keep their real life accomplishments secret from your peers.
  6. They attribute their success to luck
  7. They are always afraid others are more intelligent than they.

 

Imposter Syndrome robs people of joy. It takes their legitimate achievements, for which they should have great satisfaction, and vacuums all of the real joy out of it. Imposter Syndrome is one of a handful of successful joy-robbers that cause Christians to live less than a fulfilling life.

So how is this different than humility? Perhaps the confusion always arises because the word humility and humiliation are so close cognates to each other. But from a biblical point of view, these are almost opposite concepts. Humiliation has to do with Shame, and we are told there is “therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” It cannot be possible for humiliation and humility to be connected to each other.

We are told in the Old Testament of the Bible that “Moses was the most humble man who ever lived.” Is this referring to the time at the Burning Bush when he told God he was not a good enough leader to go before the nation of Israel and speak on God’s behalf? No…the Bible tells us that Moses was the most humble man in the world “because he saw, as it were, God face to face.” Humility is about intimacy with God, a complete dependence on God for life, breath, and direction. Moses was humble because he kept returning to God to find out what God wanted him to do next.

In Deuteronomy 8, we are told the nation of Israel was humbled by God when he caused manna to be on the ground every morning. Every Jew had to collect a day’s worth of manna if they wanted to eat. How is that a humbling experience? When you have to depend upon God daily for  your food, you recognize your dependence on God. Humility is solely about dependence. Yes, to be dependent, you must know your own limitations. But that does not imply we must castigate ourselves and believe we’re imposters. That is not humility. It is actually so unhealthy.

Some of you may be thinking of Paul who said he was “less than the least of the apostles” and “The chief of sinners.” If you read too much into those statements you are going to fall into error. Paul wasn’t saying this to put himself down. He was saying it to show that no one can be disqualified to serve God because of their past. The past is buried with Christ in the tomb. We do not have to accept the shaming that goes on with Imposter Syndrome.

If you find that you have this condition, don’t explain it away like the preacher did. Ask God to show you the truth about your abilities. Ask God to speak into the idea that you’re a fake and a phony. You will most likely find God doesn’t agree with your imposter assessment.

The True Meaning of the One Ring

Posted on March 18, 2016

ringThough J. R. R. Tolkien didn’t want his readers to speculate on deeper meanings in the Lord of the Rings (LOTR)–he wanted them to focus on the story itself–he did admit over the years that some parts of the series had much more complex meanings.

The most important of these is the One Ring itself. What does it mean? What does it represent? I contend it stands for the same thing as the biblical picture of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And like any great metaphor, it sheds light on a very complicated truth.

One question my LOTR friends and I have asked each other is this: “How do you think the One Ring would have affected you?” Though for years I doubted it would have had much influence on me, as I get older I realize how foolish that position is. But let me give some background before I explore the questions about the Ring further.

Some of you reading this are not familiar with the Lord of the Rings or the Ring itself. It would be impossible for me to do an adequate summary, but I’ll try to catch you up.

In Tolkien’s cosmology (world-making), God’s name is Illuvitar, which means Creator. After Illuvitar created all the original Valar (equivalent of the Angels) one of these went rogue and created evil in the world. For all of time, the battle between Good and Evil would take place. In this sense, the world of Middle Earth is exactly like our world. It is the problem the human race has always encountered.

A while later, these Eldar also created other beings; that is when the Elves came into existence. The elves were immortal and were full of light and joy. They were created to be a living shield against the works of darkness.

But the evil force in Middle-earth created other beings who hated the elves and all immortals and sought to control them. Chief among these was Sauron. Sauron noticed that one of the most influential elves, Celebrimbor, was especially gifted in creating beautiful rings. Sauron secretly hoped to use those rings to control the elves.

In the world of Middle-Earth, rings represented more than just jewelry or a covenant relationship. The maker of rings imbued part of his own power into them. Sometimes, other power could be placed in a ring if the maker had authority to do so.

Celebrimbor made 19 rings, all of which were supposed to be given to elves. But while he was finishing the making of the rings, Sauron devised a way to make One Ring which had the power to overwhelm and control the wearers of the other rings. He did this in secret of course; but the only way it would work is if he imparted most of his life-force (soul) into the ring. Therefore, if the One Ring is ever destroyed, he would be too.

Of course, this is what happens at the end of Lord of the Rings.

When 16 of the rings were made, Sauron–who had been involved with helping Celebrimbor make them–took the rings for himself. He was not aware at that moment that there were three more rings which Celebrimbor had fashioned in secret. Sauron took the 16 rings and gave nine of them to men and seven to dwarves. The One Ring Sauron wore openly on his own finger.

As a result, war began between the elven kingdoms and Sauron, which did not stop  until the One Ring was destroyed. The hidden three rings were given to elven rulers. As soon as they put on their rings, they could see the true evil nature of Sauron. They immediately took off their rings, preventing Sauron from having power over them.

We later learn that one of the Elven Rings went to Gandalf, a wizard. This comes into this article later.

In this article, I want to do two things. First, I want to show the meaning of the Ring and how that meaning applies to our lives today. Second, I hope to point how the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil encompasses the same meaning as the One Ring. I know that’s a lot to bite off, but please bear with me as I go through this.

At one point in the history of the Ring, Sauron’s hand is cut off and the ring falls into the river and is seemingly lost forever. But the Ring always had a way of finding its way back to Sauron. A young hobbit was swimming one day and he found the ring at the bottom of the river. He brought it up and showed it to his cousin Smeagol. The two of them both wanted the ring and so they struggled for it. Smeagol killed his cousin and ran off with the ring, becoming separated from all friends and  family.

If you think this sounds like the Cain and Abel story, you are not mistaken. Tolkien admitted as much in an interview before his death.

Just as the influence of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil touched everyone in Adam’s world, so the one Ring affected everyone for evil in Middle-earth. Centuries later, Smeagol (now called Gollum) lost the ring to another hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo’s time with the ring is told in “The Hobbit” and I won’t review that here. Bilbo eventually passed the ring on to his nephew Frodo who was the one to eventually carry the ring to its destruction in the Lord of the Rings books.

(Along the way, two other persons handled the ring as well, a friend of Frodo’s named Sam Gamgee, and a peculiar creature named Tom Bombadill. Neither of them were particularly impressed with the ring or overly affected by it. More about the two of them in a later article).

The ring had several effects on most people who carried it for any length of time:

  1. It caused the wearer to be invisible to the physical world and visible to the spirit realm where Sauron lived.
  2. It caused the wearer to be immortal while wearing the ring. They would not get much older.
  3. They fell in love with the ring. That love was all-encompassing and caused the wearer to become jealous and protective of the Ring.
  4. The wearer’s body would be stretched thin, as if they were disappearing from the realm of the world and sucked into the world of unclean spirits.
  5. When they put the ring on, the wearer was visible to Sauron and his servants and eventually Sauron could draw the wearer to the side of evil.
  6. The physical nature of the wearer would become deformed the longer they wore the ring.

 

So why would anyone want to wear the Ring if it had this kind of degrading effect? For the three hobbits who wore the ring most often (i.e. Smeagol, Bilbo, and Frodo), its appeal outweighed its dangers. As they wore the ring, they were safe from attack from the world around them. They could be invisible and thus find out things that others kept secret. They could control their world with stealth and relative safety.

And this is where the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil comes into the metaphor. The appeal of the Ring is the same appeal that the Tree had to Adam and Eve. The fruit of the Tree would please them. It would cause them to know deep things about evil. And it would allow them to do all this in secret, delving into mysteries with their own choice as the driving force.

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a proscribed tree. It was the only place Adam and Eve were not allowed to go. They could not eat of its fruit or touch it. If they did, a process of death would begin and they would be cut off from the other primary tree in the garden: The Tree of Life.

So what is the deep significance of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? Essentially, in life, there are two ways we can “know” something. We can learn about that something from a person who knows more than we do. I call that “learning by revelation.” You learn because you are taught. Or, the second way to know something is by trial and error. We call this “learning by experience.”

Both ways to know something are fraught with potential dangers. If you learn by “Revelation” you are at the mercy of the one who teaches you. There is a trust relationship required in this learning process. You are trusting the one who teaches to be accurate and helpful. If they give you wrong information or guidance, it could be very destructive.

But the same thing is true of learning things by experience. You may eat a poisonous leaf, cut off a finger on a table saw, break your neck while climbing a tree, etc. Learning by experience is a dangerous and dark road, only occasionally netting brilliant results. Yet, this is the road that leads to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

It is in God’s nature to instruct his children. Since there is good and evil in the universe, and has been since before mankind existed according to the biblical record, God would want mankind to know about it. But since we were created to be in a relationship with God, it is likely God wanted us to know good and evil by way of “Revelation”. The walking/talking relationship with God would afford that.

But the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the convenient shortcut to all of that. The moment Eve and Adam tasted its fruit, their eyes were opened. To what exactly their eyes were opened to will be discussed in a moment. But, the second they ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they knew the difference between the two by EXPERIENCE. And it taught them well. They knew immediately they had disobeyed and disappointed God. When God came to manifest His presence with them a little while later, they hid from God.

This is one of key parallels between the One Ring and the Tree. Both entities cause a desire for the person to hide away from others. The Ring manifests this by cloaking its wearer. The Tree does it by shifting the focus of life. Let me show you.

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, their eyes were opened. What does that mean? Up until this point in their lives, they lived naked and unashamed. Yet, the moment they ate from the experientially-based Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they noticed they were both naked and shame filled them. But does this make any sense? Is this just about shame?

They were married to each other. They had been naked all along and married to each other. There was no obvious significance about their nakedness. So we have to ask a different question: Why did they all of a sudden NOTICE they were naked? If they never realized the significance of it before, why did it begin to bother them?

I contend that Adam and Eve, before they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, were spirit-beings that happened to have physical bodies. Once they had tasted the forbidden knowledge, they changed natures. More accurately, they focused on a different realm. Now, they are physical beings that happen to have a spiritual dimension. This changed everything.

Before eating the forbidden fruit, they focused on things of the spirit realm. Even their vision of God and conversations with God were in that dimension. God is Spirit (John 4:24) we are reminded, and no man has SEEN God at any time (except Jesus…John 1:18). So if they were seeing God, it is in the realm of the spirit. These spirit beings, Adam and Eve spent most of their focal curiosity and fervor on spirit things.

Now, the focus is on the physical realm. They notice the nakedness and they infer meaning to that nakedness. They attach shame to their own bodies–this is the first dysmorphia. They physically hide from God, an action unthinkable if they were still operating from a spirit-realm mindset.

In short, as they realized good and evil by experience, they lost touch with the true reality–God and his spirit realm. Now, they could only see the realm of the body and the realm of the Evil One.

The One Ring does the same thing to its wearer. The promise of immortality and secrecy are alluring. Almost anyone would succumb to it. But not Gandalf. He is offered the Ring by Frodo and he is aghast. He instantly realizes it will give him a lot of power, but it will also make him a slave of the Ring itself. What LOTR tells us is that the more powerful the person, the more deadly their reaction to the ring. Galadriel would not take it, for she feared it would turn her into a Snow Queen, a woman of all-surpassing beauty who would rule with a cold, iron fist.

Tom Bombadil, a being of great joy and curiosity, has no desire for the Ring. Why? He lived his life simply accepting what life brought him. He does his laundry on days that it rains. He collects food from whatever nature would bring him. He is humble, satisfied and content. This is why the Ring has no effect on him.

Sam Gamgee’s reaction to the Ring is also profound. Though he uses the Ring to rescue Frodo from the clutches of orcs, he immediately removes it once he has Frodo out of immediate danger. He gives it back to Frodo, admitting that he is not worthy to have such a thing. He doesn’t like the feel of its power. In this sense, Sam is the model of the man who is pure in heart.

Here is the lesson for us. Gandalf and Galadriel fear that the ring would turn them into gruesome monsters. Tom Bombadil has no need of the ring. Sam Gamgee is afraid of what the ring offers. He would rather walk away from it and let someone else be powerful and secretive. Sam’s life is an open book. These fine people represent the cautious leader, the satisfied simple life and the pure at heart. These are the virtues that distinguish those who can overcome the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Internet and rampant media focus have lured us all into wondering how certain things would feel. People who would never have used recreational drugs, would never have had affairs, would never have gambled can do it all so much more easily now. They reason “I have to know what everyone else knows.” That is the essence of the Forbidden Tree. That is the One Ring. That insatiable lust to find out more, to experience more, to know more.

Sam, Bombadil, Galadriel and Gandalf all fought this. You and I can as well. But we must decide that Tree is too dangerous. That ring will cost us too much.

 

 

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