Meditations on Clarity: About the Bible, the World and Being a Christian

“Sometimes you can just be in a funk creatively or, you know, as a person, and it’s like there’s a fog around you and you can’t see out of it, but that’s part of the journey.” – Andy Mineo, “Clarity”

“Faith isn’t certainty, it’s adventure, something you’re going to come back from dusty and bruised, having seen and done things you never would have even considered before.” – Pete Holmes, Comedy Sex God

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of something being “clear” or “transparent.”

In journalism, clarity and transparency are very important. Without those two things, we can’t really do our job right. If the truth isn’t clear, it’s our responsibility to dig and ask questions and figure out what is true. Transparency is vital, and it’s one of our main goals as reporters to be both transparent ourselves and to hold others to the same standard.

For most of my life, the faith journey as a Christian has been about gaining understanding and clarity, about trying to see God as transparently as possible and know what He says and what He wants. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I learn, it seems, that things aren’t as clear as I thought they were — with the Bible, with the world, what it means to be a Christian — and life seems to be more about the journey, about working through the fog instead of getting out of it.

These are my mediations on that thought.

THE BIBLE

Growing up, the message I got on the Bible was pretty clear: it’s God’s Word, it’s all true and it’s all applicable to us today.

In fact, the Bible was God speaking to us, a love letter, a manual, “basic instructions before leaving earth,” as it were. It was direct communication from God to me, with directions for how to live as a Christian. And I spent most of my life living that and believing that. 

But in the last year or so, as I’ve dealt with more of real life and grown as a person and a reader, I’ve seen that the Bible, to my understanding, was never meant to be that. I’m choosing not to get into here what exactly led me to that, but I’m left with this uncertainty.

So when someone says something is “biblical” now, I’m left asking questions because, and I’ll throw you this bone here, the Bible is a very complex, complicated, ancient and diverse book. Its sections were written over thousands of years to several different groups of people by several different authors with varying motives, some of them clear and some of them unclear.

For example, near the end of his Gospel, John writes that “these [words] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). But not every book of the Bible is that transparent in its meaning and purpose, so we’re left making well-educated, and often well-intentioned, guesses. 

What are the psalms for? In some cases, it seems to be David’s personal journal, pouring out his heart before God — and for a choir director to put to music. In other cases, it’s a recounting of who God is and what He’s done. In other cases, it’s asking God to put enemies to death and provide victory on the battlefield.

For us to look at the Psalms as a whole and say it’s all trying to say one thing would be a bit silly, wouldn’t it? A bit intellectually dishonest? Ignorant of proper literary criticism? 

Why should we not apply that method to the whole Bible? Yes, there are central themes — God, His relationship with Israel, the coming Messiah — but the whole Bible put together is not ultimately about one thing. 3 John covers hospitality and calling out one dude in the church that Gaius, the letter’s recipient, is running. Obadiah covers a prophecy from God about the land of Edom and Israel’s final triumph. The books of Esther and Song of Solomon don’t even say the word “God” in them. For us to claim the whole Bible is an instruction manual/“for us”/a love letter is at best a stretch and at most an improper appreciation for what it is.

It’s diverse. It tells different stories of different peoples at different times from us — or at least, my general perception of “us,” mostly-white America in the 21st century. The original recipients of the Bible’s sections looked nothing like us, spoke nothing like us and had a very different culture than we have. And since we didn’t live like them or experience that culture, how can we say for certain what specific things mean? 

That’s not to say there’s nothing for us. There are timeless truths and indelible wisdom throughout the Bible that we can apply to our circumstances, our lives and our situations today. The book of Proverbs is chock full of wisdom both practical and spiritual. The life of Jesus and His characteristics as shown in the Gospels are perfect and worth trying to emulate in our own context, and we can learn object lessons from the stories in Exodus, 1 Samuel and the Kings, among others. And, most importantly, we can learn how to be in relationship with a perfect and loving God and be forgiven of our sins.

But I think it’s crucial for me, at least, and for all of us to take into consideration that the Bible isn’t quite clear on everything. There are contradictions, and there are instances of historical context that undergird everything we read. We need to take that into account when we read the Bible and give ourselves and it space and time to understand and be understood.

Stephen Covey’s seven habits for highly-successful people are well-known, and one particular one sticks out to me as I meditate on this: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Before we go and try to put our spin on the Bible, it’s vital that we take the time to really understand what’s happening in the historical background of its pages before we go making pronouncements of our opinions on it. Where that might lead us — to the disappointment of many, including me — is uncertainty and murkiness. 

And that’s so opposite what we’re taught as Christians. We are the bastions of absolute truth, of what’s real, of what’s clear. But in reality, if we take the term “biblical” at its most literal, which we should, there aren’t a lot of things that are really “biblical.” There are things that are “godly” — like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) — and things we can and should “think on” — like truth, honor, justice, purity, pleasure, commendation, excellence and worthiness (Philippians 4:8) — but to apply statements to the Bible as a whole, I think, is missing the point. It’s not always “clear” or “transparent.”

THE WORLD

In sixth grade, I started going to school dances, at which I’d hear the popular music of the day while standing against the wall and, every once in a while, getting a cute girl to dance with me. She wouldn’t look at me much while we were dancing, something I always thought was weird, but now I see that as “I’m just trying to be nice to you, but I’d rather be slow-dancing with somebody else.”

Sorry, this isn’t supposed to be about me re-living past trauma.

I entered sixth grade in 2004, so some of the songs I heard included great songs like “The Reason” by Hoobastank (No. 6 on the Billboard Year-End chart), “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5 (No. 35) and “Sorry 2004” by Reuben Studdard (No. 53). Some of the other songs were a little less innocent: “Yeah!” by Usher with Lil Jon and Ludacris (No. 1), “Lean Back” by Terror Squad (No. 10) and “Get Low” by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz with the Ying Yang Twins (No. 70). 

That last one is particularly, well, explicit in its exploration of the artists’, well, appreciation for the female form while dancing. The popular line in the chorus — “to the window, to the wall” — would ring through my ears throughout the ride back home in my parents’ car. 

I remember one time after a dance saying that I liked the music, the instrumental background, but some of the lyrics were nasty. I still think some of them are. For real, just ugly and disturbing. 

There’s two reflections I have on this. First, I think it says more about Americans as music consumers than the artists as composers that songs like “Get Low” was that popular. It was No. 11 on the year-end Billboard chart in 2003, behind the classics “Ignition (Remix)” by the now appropriately-shamed R. Kelly (No. 2) and “Right Thurr” by Chingy (No. 7). 

I could slide in references to these songs all day, but the second reflection I have on this time was a subtle lesson I learned: the world can’t be trusted. The world has it all wrong. They’re focused on the wrong things. 

My perspective started to shift when I saw a tweet from then-Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson. He wrote about how bad pornography is for a relationship and how it harms you. 

My mind was blown. This guy, who was an arrogant guy from all appearances, was saying something good and positive. Johnson has certainly had his off-the-field (and on-the-field, for that matter) issues before and after that tweet, but the message still stands. 

Perhaps it was my misunderstanding what the church was trying to teach me about the world in the first place, but my mind was changed. The world wasn’t all bad.

In modern Christian culture, we often use “the world” as shorthand for non-Christians, usually in a context like, “The world does this, but you shouldn’t do that. You should do this. You should be different.” That was the general reasoning given for avoiding things from R-rated movies to alcohol to cigarettes to cursing. There were other reasons, but that was the underlying motivation. Having that mindset led to me having a judgmental attitude toward friends in high school or college that would watch and love R-rated movies (particularly ones with sex in them), cuss, do physical stuff with their girlfriends and more. 

But as I got older, I learned more about why people did what they did, and I found it wasn’t so clear and obvious like I was taught. Sometimes people drink for more reasons than sin — it can be fun, and just like playing a board game or a round of golf, bonding can happen over a beer. R-rated movies can be good entertainment and even teach us lessons about life that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. 

Basically, I learned that not being a Christian didn’t mean you couldn’t be a good person, that you couldn’t make a difference, that you weren’t worth listening to and understanding and appreciating. Non-Christians shifted from a salvation project to people and friends. Not being a Christian slipped from my list of judgment-worthy qualities. To be fair, it’s a list I probably shouldn’t have developed in the first place. 

It’s not clear that the world is all bad, or that it’s just something we should “be in, but not of.” I think Paul argued this point: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22). His example is stunning, as is Jesus’ as he spent time with sinners and tax collectors (many times, but particularly in Matthew 9:10). In a society where the “righteous” Jews didn’t associate with outsiders and pariahs, not only did Jesus speak to them — see the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 — He ate with them and went to their houses — like Zacchaeus in Luke 19.

The examples are endless. Jesus and Paul not only observed the world and knew about, they engaged it because they knew it wasn’t as clear as “bad.” It was usually a little more complex and complicated.

BEING A CHRISTIAN

Similar to the Bible, I had what I thought was a pretty clear picture of what it meant “to be a Christian” when I was growing up, and one of the major stipulations was no cursing.

One time after church, I wrote a Facebook status about how Christians who cussed were bad Christians or missed the point or something like that. A school classmate of mine commented and said something about how that’s not necessarily true, and she was offended that I had said that. I wrote something back about Proverbs 4:24 — “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips” (NIV). 

Looking back now, I feel like I was misguided about a couple things. First of all, I don’t know if the writer of Proverbs was talking about those four-letter words that start with certain letters. Second, where in the Bible does it say that Christians aren’t supposed to use those words? Third, I wasn’t going to win that classmate to my side with a snide Facebook comment lobbing Scripture — however wise it is — at them from the other side of a phone screen.

That story is an example of where I let the culture around me tell me what it meant to be a Christian when the reality is much different. 

Because the Bible isn’t a clear, monolithic book, to me at least, there is no one version of “Christian” today. There’s the Southern Baptist Christian, the Methodist Christian, the Episcopal Christian, the Democratic Christian, the Republican Christian, the male Christian, the female Christian. Our faith and the wisdom of the Bible affects all of us differently and leads each of us in different ways that are not necessarily bad. They might contradict at times, but that shows even more that while the Bible may be “clear” about something to one person, it’s “clear” in a different way for somebody else.

To my knowledge, the Bible only gives one or two “clear” instructions for what it means to be a Christian: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, ‘Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame’” (Romans 10:9-11). Man, Romans is so good.

So what it objectively means to “be a Christian” is in one sense clear and obvious and in another a little muddier. There seems to be clear instruction for how to become a Christian, but after that, some of the practicals are up in the air.

Baptists believe in baptism after salvation. Methodists believe in infant baptism. The PCA and PCUSA, while both “Presbyterians” by denominational title, have several differences of opinion. But who am I to say that one is a Christian and the other isn’t? If they choose to follow Jesus, who am I to disqualify them for differing beliefs? 

THE FREEDOM OF CHRIST

For a long time, I didn’t quite understand the idea of freedom in Christ. After all, if we’re Christians, aren’t we supposed to be restrained from doing certain things because what it means to be a Christian is quite specific? 

Speaking about the “freedom” for which “Christ has set us free,” Paul writes in Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:1,6). 

Circumcision is a a topic in several of Paul’s letters. The Jewish Christian crowd was using it as a sign of faithfulness. Paul rebukes that idea in Romans 3:29-30 — “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” Here in Galatians, Paul argues, in Christ neither being circumcised nor uncircumcision means anything. The only thing that counts, he says, is faith working through love.

Being a Christian, he argues to the Galatians, is not about doing certain things or acting a certain way. It’s about faith. The Greek for working is energeó, and properly means, according to HELPS Word-studies, “working in a solution which brings it from one stage (point) to the next.” Love, Paul argues, is energizing faith. Love brings faith from one point to the next. 

Whether that’s love of God or love of others, Paul does not specify in Galatians. But as Jesus says, the two greatest commands are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,39). The Greek root for “love” in those verses and Galatians 5:6 is the same — agapaó, “to love.”

I think this gives us a snapshot of a framework by which we can look at the Bible and look at life. Faith, being increased and improved by love, is the guiding light. From there, we can determine what it means for us to be a Christian. Of course, we should take into account loving God and loving others; this is not a free-for-all where we define it for ourselves. The Bible shows us helpful wisdom and guidance. 

But trying to define what a Christian should act like on our own terms, without taking into account love and true wisdom, is a dangerous mission. I think it’s a lot more gray than we’d like it to be. 

That means this, even as I write this to you, is an exercise for me. I have to give you space to live the Christian life you choose just as I ask you to give me space for me. They may be different – heck, in some ways, they may be completely contradictory. But as long as it’s not sinful — the Bible and the Holy Spirit can help us understand that — it’s usually A-OK.

DOES CLARITY EXIST?

So here’s the real question: does true and clear and black-and-white clarity exist? No.  And yes.

There are some things that seem to be pretty clear. Gravity. Man as sinful — theologian Reinhold Neibuhr (the same guy that composed the “Serenity Prayer”) wrote that the doctrine of original sin was “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Salvation by grace through faith.

But there are a lot of things that aren’t clear. It’s dangerous, therefore, for us to paint with a broad brush, especially when we jump into conversations with other Christians. Cussing isn’t universally accepted as sinful. Voting for a Democrat who supports abortion rights isn’t universally accepted as sinful. Supporting the maintenance of Confederate monuments isn’t universally accepted as sinful.

So it’s good for us, in light of this, to carefully enter conversations and define terms. Because clarity doesn’t exist as much as we might think.

NOTE: All Bible verses quoted come from the New Revised Standard Version, except where otherwise noted.

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I Like to Impress People. Even Though It Annoys Me When Others Do That.

I went to a Christian college ministry conference during the New Year’s weekend of my junior year at Elon University and met Shai Linne.

Shai is a Christian rapper whose rhymes are often characterized as “lyrical theology.” He attempts to explain spiritual truths and theological points in hip-hop form. He performs one of my favorite songs of all-time, “Mercy and Grace” with label mate Timothy Brindle.

In fact, it was Brindle I brought up when I met Shai. After the normal, “Hey man, I like your music,” thing that you always say when you meet a musician you like, I mentioned that I liked a lot of the guys on Lamp Mode Recordings, his label. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but it went something like this:

ZACH: “Yeah, I love what all you guys on Lamp Mode do — S.O., Timothy Brindle, God’s Servant — it’s good. Particularly Tim’s new stuff.”
SHAI: “Have you listened to Tim’s album ‘Killing Sin’?”
ZACH: “No, I haven’t, not yet.”
SHAI: “Bro, it’s so good.”

Within a couple days, I had bought the album.

Again, I don’t think those are the exact words that were used, but that’s generally how the conversation went.

I was reflecting on that conversation recently as I was listening to an S.O. song. While I may not remember the exact words in the conversation, I remember my motives. I wanted to impress Shai Linne. I wanted to be that guy that, as he left the conference hall that night, he remembered. 

I still carry that attitude in a lot of ways. I’ve had similar conversations with comic book store owners, movie reviewers, journalists, pastors, etc., people whom I’ve tried to impress with my knowledge whether or not that knowledge was actually impressive.

I think there’s a part of all of us that wants to impress people, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But here’s where I get tripped up.

It’s one of my pet peeves when other people try to do that to me. I just think they’re trying to make it all about them and what they know and how cool they are. But I do the same thing!

As I pondered this in my car the other day, I shook my head and said to myself, “Zach, what are you doing?”

Impressing people, I think, is part of being human. We want others to think well of us, to remember us, to think we’re pretty awesome, so we try to impress them. There’s the classic scene in the romantic comedy where the guy tries to do something to get the girl’s attention but ends up making a fool out of himself. There’s the politician who tries to spit off the best statistics to support his/her argument. There’s the friend you debate on Facebook who puffs his chest after owning you in an argument. 

And while the root of trying to impress people isn’t necessarily bad, the danger we encounter could be an even bigger mistake: not being ourselves.

Speaking of the coming Messiah, Isaiah says, “…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:2b-3). 

Jesus, when He came, was nothing special, and nothing He did was ever to impress anyone. He lived and spoke and work in a way that brought glory to the Father, not to Himself. He never pretended to know something He didn’t, never brought something up in conversation to try to make someone think He was awesome.

In fact — in something that has always confused me — He often told people to not talk about what He did for them. 

If I were Jesus, I’d be trying to find ways to bring up what I could do and what I knew. I like to think of myself as a pretty humble, non-assuming dude, but when it comes to conversations like the one I had with Shai, I prove that totally wrong. I’m just an attention seeker like everybody else. 

God did not call us to draw attention to ourselves. His call for us, I believe, is like what Paul says to the Romans is their’s: “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of (Jesus’) name among all the nations” (Romans 1:5). I believe that’s our’s too. We aren’t called to bring about people thinking we’re awesome and that we know a lot. We’re called to bring about people believing in Jesus.

That’s not to say we can’t have conversations about things we know about, that we can’t share the knowledge we have with someone else for the purpose of establishing a connection. Why do we do it? Why are we trying to impress people? 

I think we can impress people, but for the sake of Jesus. We can impress them with the beauty of His grace, the depth of His love and the gravity of His compassion. We can impress them with the prophetic way God and His people spoke and wrote of the world and of humanity. We can impress them with the way we take His words and His example so seriously that we can’t help but live like Jesus.

That’s the type of impressing I need to work on. 

God Is Greater Than Satan. Duh. And We Benefit.

Image courtesy of Calvary Chapel Birmingham

I think sometimes, as Christians, we can overemphasize how much we give up to follow Jesus the way we do.

God asks us to lay down our lives for Him. It’s all over the place in the Bible. Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says. The woman who gives all she has to the offering is following God’s will, Jesus says.

That is all beautiful and significant, but we must not forget that God has given us so much in return for our faith. We have received and will receive far more than we will ever sacrifice to follow Jesus. I think of two Bible passages in particular that show me that abundantly.

The first I read just now in 1 John 4. He is writing about spirits that come into the world through false prophets, spirits that lead people astray from the true way of Christ. The right spirits, the ones you know are from God, John writes, are those that confess “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (v. 2). They say that Jesus is God, that He was and is the image of the invisible God. Remember, at this time, Jesus’s physical presence on earth wasn’t that long ago.

John continues to write encouragement to his audience, particularly in verse 4:

Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.

1 John 4:4

First of all, I love that John calls his readers “little children.” He’s done it before, in 2:28 and 3:7, and I just love it. It’s very fatherly and compassionate and wise-sounding to me.

Secondly, his emphasis is that God is greater than Satan. Duh. This seems obvious, but I don’t know if we always get it.

So often in Christian culture, I feel, we get so worried about the state of “the world” and how it will harm the church and the youth and society. While there are things in “the world” that are harmful and destructive, I think that, in those moments, we forget what God is capable of.

God is greater than Satan. Any move that Satan makes in the world, God is so much greater than Satan that not only can He match Satan’s move, He can one-up them, easily. We may not always see God’s moves the way we see Satan’s moves so often, but they’re there and they’re accessible.

Correct, they’re accessible. John says that his audience has “overcome” those false-prophet spirits because God is greater than Satan. And this leads us to our second passage.

In just one book prior, 2 Peter, the disciple of Jesus starts off his letter by explaining that as believers we have access to something very special because we are God’s children:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

2 Peter 1:3-4

God has made us “partakers of the divine nature” through His promises. What did He promise us? He promised us His Holy Spirit, by which we know how to live and be godly. He gave us His Word, Jesus, so we know how to live and be godly.

Because He’s given us this power, we can fight sin! We can choose right over wrong. We can see who is a false prophet and who is not.

We can be like God in those ways. There are many ways we can’t be like God, and thank Him for it. But we need to remember that we can access that power in moments of weakness, moments of temptation, moments of happiness.

He is there, and He is for us. And He is greater than Satan. Alleluia, amen.

God Can Handle Your Questions

As a journalist, I make my living asking questions. 

Questions are important. Questions are vital to our lives because, as limited humans, we don’t know everything we need to know, and we don’t know most of the things we want to know.

A lot of times in journalism and reporting, it’s about asking the right question, not necessarily the right amount of questions. A journalist at the White House recently got in trouble for asking the president supposedly “too many” questions, and while I won’t get into the politics here, I can see both sides’ frustrations in that issue. Sometimes you can be pesky and ask the wrong questions and be obnoxious.

Recently, I’ve been asking a lot of questions of God, particularly as it relates to the Bible, Christian culture and my personal choices and experiences in life. I won’t get into those questions here — maybe someday — but it’s caused me to think about how we in the church handle people questioning God.

For many, I believe, church isn’t the place where difficult questions can be asked safely. Questions like “How can I be saved?” and “Can I join the church?” are pretty easy to handle, I think, but there are some that we as a body of Christ don’t always do a good job responding to well, particularly when it comes to doubts over the reliability of the Bible and certain political positions.

As I’ve wrestled with questions of my own, I’ve come to one particular answer: God can handle our questions. He can handle when we doubt Him. He isn’t put off by us wondering whether or not He’s right. In fact, as we can see in a few passages of Scripture, He isn’t despondent or critical when we wonder whether or not He’s all He claims to be. He’s the exact opposite.

The Meat and the Fleece

The story of Gideon is fairly well-known if you’ve been in church for a while, but I’ll give the short version.

In Judges 6, God is shown to be pretty upset at Israel, His chosen people, so he gives them over to the military might of the Midianites and Amalekites. One day, “the angel of the LORD,” often believed to be Jesus Himself, comes to a guy named Gideon (v. 11), and tells him that he will lead the army of Israel against Midian. 

Twice, Gideon asks God to show him a sign. First, in v. 17-24, the angel of the LORD sets meat and cakes on fire via supernatural spontaneous combustion from a rock. Then in v. 36-40, God twice made a fleece wet with dew while keeping the ground around it dry.

God had spoken to Gideon and directly told him, “Hey man, you’re going to lead the army of Israel against Midian, your country’s oppressors, and I’m going to give you the victory.” 

But my man Gideon — seeing himself as “the least in (his) father’s house” and part of the “weakest” clan in his country (v. 15) — doubted. He asked God question after question, even put Him to the test with the fleece. Both times, God answered Gideon’s questions. In the next chapter, God used Gideon and 300 men to defeat a whole army of Midianites. It was the original 300.

This is not the only time in Scripture God responds to questions of those He calls. 

I think also of Moses in Exodus 3 — “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Then there’s Jeremiah in the first chapter of his eponymous book —“Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” 

All of these men questioned God’s call on their lives, His specific, pointed direction for their future. But instead of belittling them and ignoring them, He went a step further and spoke directly to their fears. God Himself even initiated physical contact with a man (Jeremiah 1:9) and turned a staff into a snake (Exodus 4:3), as well as His multiple interactions with Gideon.

If God can handle their questions, He can handle yours.

Are Doubters and Questioners Really That Bad?

An article on the popular evangelical website The Gospel Coalition sparked my thought process and interest in this topic.

Posted on Nov. 13, writer Alisa Childers’ “3 Beliefs Some Progressive Christians and Atheists Share” caught some flack from people on my Twitter timeline, especially for this final paragraph:

“After all, the contemporary views that many people call ‘progressive’ aren’t progressive anyway: they’re very old, echoes of that primordial question, ‘Did God really say’ (Genesis 3:1), signs of the most wicked rebellion imaginable. And we all know where that ends up.”

In the piece, Childers criticized the thoughts and positions of authors like Rachel Held Evans, Peter Enns and Rob Bell who have expressed doubts about the traditional understanding of the Bible. Childers’ reasoning was that doubting and questioning that understanding was one of the first steps to complete atheism. She extended that criticism to those who “may have an unresolved answer to the problem of evil” and “may affirm a culture-adapting morality.”

Along with quoting some of her targets’ work out of context — Evans’ book Inspired, which Childers quoted multiple times and I have read personally, was the most misunderstood — Childers’ article left little room for conversation, understanding and nuance. Instead of trying to really understand where people were coming from and speaking directly to their doubts and questions, she name-dropped those who don’t fall exactly in line with the traditional evangelical thinking and ignored the nuance and stories of their lives.

And here’s the final issue: by comparing these modern “progressive Christians” to the devil himself, she’s also comparing Gideon, Moses and Jeremiah to the serpent. Those men questioned God’s word to them to His face! Gideon was like, “So God, I know that you told me this, but did you really? Prove it to me.” Moses was like, “No, I mean, I know you said this, but I can’t do that. Are you sure you got it right?” Jeremiah, likewise, basically said, “Um, I can’t speak for you, I’m not good enough. You must have picked the wrong dude.”

It’s in these rough assessments like Childers’ piece of questions and those who question that we as the Church lose the skeptics. We don’t make ourselves as accessible as our God is to those who doubt and those who wonder. 

The Holes in the Hands

My new favorite story about doubt and questions is found in John 20:24-29. It’s about “Doubting Thomas,” which is really an unfortunate nickname because we tag the guy with a very small part of his life.

Jesus has recently resurrected Himself and has spent time amongst the disciples, save for the deceased Judas and Thomas. For whatever reason, the latter wasn’t with them the first time. The other disciples told him, “Hey man, we saw Jesus. It was sweet!” He responded, quite rationally, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (v. 25).

A little more than a week later, Thomas and the disciples were “inside again” — which I assume means that they were dining on some KFC and playing Boggle — and even though the doors were locked, Jesus showed up. The Scripture records that He goes to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (v. 27). Instantly, Thomas believes.

Jesus took some time — eight days, in fact — to answer Thomas’ doubts, but He answered them. He came to Thomas directly and said, “Hey man, here’s the answer.” Jesus, God Himself, was willing to acquiesce to the questions of man and the doubts of those who questioned Him. 

We have no right to question Thomas’ questions. Indeed, how often do we doubt something true we hear about Jesus? That He is with us in the storm? That He loves us in our sin? That He really wants what’s best for us? 

Doubt and questioning in and of itself is not sinful. Exploring those doubts and seeking answers to those questions is not sinful in and of itself. As the body of Christ, we must give the Thomases, the Moseses, the Gideons and the Jeremiahs the room to explore their doubts and questions. We must be willing to walk alongside them as they seek answers, not immediately write them off as “not believing the right thing” and certainly not comparing them to Satan. As Paul told the Areopagus in Acts 17, God made men “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him…he is actually not far from each one of us” (v. 26).

God can handle your questions. May we be a church that does the same.

When Your Sin Doesn’t Go Away

Whenever I get sick — cough, allergies, fever, etc. — I think it’s never going to go away.

I sink into it. I’m of the mindset that I will be sick for the rest of my life and nothing will ever change. I’m always going to have this cough, this nausea, etc. I don’t know how I got this way. Maybe it’s the cynic in me coming out. But that’s how it works.

I feel that way all the time with my sin. Whatever it is — lust, pride, laziness, jealousy — I don’t think it’s ever going to go away.

Well, and this is the bad part, it never will, this side of heaven.

My greatest desire in life is to be perfect, to not mess up, to not do anything that would be an offense to God, to my wife, to my friends, to my family, to anyone. I long for the day in heaven when I will be free of the sin nature that cloaks me every day. “What a day of rejoicing that will be,” as the hymn goes. My imperfections are the things that keep me up at night, that cause the most depression.

Sin is a nasty beast, lurking around every corner. You can feel as confident and comfortable in your pursuit of righteousness, I believe, that you can forget that sin is even possible. I know I feel that way sometimes. But it’s in those moments in particular that I am most susceptible.

It makes me wonder, “Will I ever stop sinning?” Or even, “Can I quit this one sin?”

The answer to the first question is a flat out no, at least here on earth. The answer to the second question is a little different.

Throughout the Bible, we see stories of men who have their obedience and righteousness worked out, only to lose it later. David is a strong and mighty warrior of God, faithful to trust Him enough to not kill his enemy when he’s a knife slash away. But he pursues the body of a woman not his own, and it leads to murder. One of my favorite Bible stories is in 2 Chronicles 14-16, where a king named Asa trusts God so intensely, but gives it up in the face of one army mounting up against him. Paul wrote half the New Testament, but still admitted he was the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).

So maybe the besetting sins in our life, the ones that seem to haunt us, will never go away on earth. Maybe it’s a battle we’ll continue to fight.

It’s comforting, to me at least, to know that grace is there whenever we fall. Always. It’s a cliché to write that, sure, but it’s true. The Gospel comforts us in our repeated weaknesses.

But ask yourself this, as I am right now: Do you really truly desire God more than that besetting sin? It may be that way 90 percent of the time, but beg the Lord to make it 100 percent. If we’re pursuing righteousness, if we’re pursuing obedience, that in itself is glorifying to God, and honoring the Father.

When You Find Out You Have an Enemy

When I was growing up, even into high school and college, I would read psalms and other passages of Scripture and not be able to relate to when there were references to “enemies.”

I never had enemies. There was a guy that I didn’t really get along with for most of high school — God sent him to the same college as me to work that out — but other than that I didn’t have anyone that I hated and he/she hated me, or that there was tension between.

So I’d read things like this — “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28) — I wouldn’t get it. It wouldn’t make sense.

That’s changed in the last year.

About one year ago, I did a series of stories on a hot topic in Lee County — I work for a North Carolina newspaper, for those of you that don’t know me. Everything was factual, accurate, well-researched and documented. I was proud of the work I did.

Almost instantly, for the first time in my life, I received an outpouring of backlash that’s continued to this day. People started giving me affectionate nicknames, like #FakeNewsZach or #NoFactZach, saying my reporting was #FakeNewsbyZacharyHorner. I had people who used to love me and praise me begin to fuss at me, call me a liar. I would say hello to people and they’d ignore me. They attacked my family. They spread lies about me and my family.

That’s about as much detail as I’ll go into here.

It really refreshed my view of verses like Psalm 5:8 — “Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.”

When we’re attacked, when our enemies go after us, when we get maligned and lied about, it’s a chance for us to grow in righteousness. David, the writer of Psalm 5, pleads for God to lead him in righteousness because of his enemies. When we’re attacked, we have the opportunity to show others what a life filled with Christ looks like — integrity, honesty, steadfastness.

It’s not an opportunity for us to bite back, to criticize, to hold hateful attitudes. I admit freely that my heart has not always been in the right place, that I’ve said and thought rude and mean-spirited things about my “enemies.” It’s a tough thing.

But it’s my desire daily to try to kill those thoughts, those feelings. I’m trying. And that’s where Psalm 5:8 challenges me. I hope it challenges you too.

 

The Fact That Jesus ‘Reclined’ Means We’re Safe

You guys ever been in that situation when you’re with someone and you’re just completely uncomfortable?

I think of the scenarios where icebreakers were used to get to know people. First of all, I HATE icebreakers. I was an RA for a year in college and I acted like I liked them, but I couldn’t stand them. Second, I’m SUPER uncomfortable around new people. Today at work, I had to go up to random people on the street and ask them a question for tomorrow’s paper. So awkward for me.

In those situations, I don’t feel like letting my guard down with people. I have a hard time being myself. I wouldn’t sit on a sofa and prop my feet up, even if I was at my own home. The comfort level’s not there.

Jesus was never that way, and He still isn’t. Just look at the dinner table.

Carried to the Table

A good example of what “being at the table” with someone is seen in 2 Samuel 9. It’s the inspiration for the worship band Leeland’s fantastic song “Carried to the Table.”

David was king. He desired to “show…kindness” to anyone left from the “house of Saul” for “Jonathan’s sake” (v. 1). The only person left was Mephibosheth, one of Jonathan’s sons. David called for him, and Mephibosheth came before him and fell to the ground in homage. We’ll pick up the story in v. 7-10 and 13:

And David said to him, “Do not fear, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always.” And (Mephibosheth) paid homage and said, “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?”

Then the king called Ziba, Saul’s servant, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s grandson. And you and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him and shall bring in the produce, that your master’s grandson may have bread to eat. But Mephibosheth your master’s grandson shall always eat at my table…

So Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he ate always at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both feet.

David showed incredible mercy to the grandson of his enemy Saul, the man who had sworn to kill him, because of Mephibosheth’s relationship to Jonathan. Instead of clearing house for fear of being overthrown, David sought to be good to people, to “show the kindness of God” to them (v. 3).

And in came Mephibosheth, a crippled man, unable to move on his own. David not only welcomed him in, but allowed him to eat from his table and be part of the “family,” as it were.

Reclining by the Table

Matthew 9 shows off one of my favorite stories in Scripture. Jesus has just called Matthew, a tax collector, the worst of the worst for Jews, to be one of his disciples. Immediately after this, Jesus “reclined at table in the house” with “many tax collectors and sinners.” They “came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples” (v. 10).

Much has been written about the position of tax collectors in Israel. They were often Israelites who were working for the Roman government, collecting taxes, sometimes grossly unfairly. You need only look at the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19 to see how these tax collectors would often take advantage of the conquered Israelites.

Not only that, but there were “sinners” in the house as well. To be with tax collectors and sinners was a no-no, and the Pharisees let him know it. They asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v. 11). Jesus heard what they said and responded. Verses 12-13:

But when (Jesus) heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

First of all, mic drop.

Secondly, we see Jesus’ purpose for coming to earth. He didn’t come down, God in the form of man, to hang out with all the “righteous” people, those who thought they had it all together. He came down to be with those who needed Him most. The Great Physician went to be with the sickest patients.

Safe at the Table

Both of these stories have two things in common: being at a table and mercy being shown to those in need.

Eating at a table with friends and family is one of the most intimate things we can do — as long as cell phones are put away. We’re sharing food, stories, memories, laughs and more. We’re being together.

What Jesus did with the tax collectors and sinners, both of them stated as “reclining” at the table, was unheard of. It was a prophet, a man claiming to be God, not only eating with sinners but letting His guard down with them. Relaxing. The same thing with David and Mephibosheth. The new king of Israel, letting a lame man eat at his table and blessing him with a house and land and servants. For no reason other than mercy.

And that’s the second point. Neither Mephibosheth nor the sinners and tax collectors earned their way to reclining at the table, fellowshipping with kings. If anything, they were the opposite of worthy of that privilege. It was given to them because of mercy and grace.

In the same way, we are safe at the table. Jesus sees us and says, no matter our weaknesses, injuries and illnesses, whether literal or physical or mental or emotional or figurative or spiritual, “I will recline with you. You are safe here. I came for you.”

We’re safe there. Just as Mephibosheth was safe from being destitute and poor because of his illness and his relationship to David’s former enemy, just as the tax collectors and sinners were safe from judgement as Jesus’ hand for their unrighteousness, we are just as safe despite our sinfulness because of Jesus’ grace and mercy.

Lastly, some lyrics from “Carried to the Table” by Leeland:

Wounded and forsaken, I was shattered by the fall.
Broken and forgotten, feeling lost and all alone.
Summoned by the King, into the Master’s courts.
Lifted by the Savior and cradled in His arms.

I was carried to the table, seated where I don’t belong.
Carried to the table, swept away by His love.
And I don’t see my brokenness anymore
When I’m seated at the table of the Lord.

4 Reasons Christians Suffer (With a Hat Tip to J. Vernon McGee)

My wife’s been reading through Hebrews and using a commentary by J. Vernon McGee. I bought the commentary when I was reading through the book myself.

Yesterday, she brought to me the words discussing Hebrews 12:6-8, which read:

“For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”

She then explained to me that McGee listed seven reasons why Christians suffer. I thought they were quite accurate, so I decided to share them in a blog post, along with some personal thoughts. I also adapted the list because some points seemed to repeat themselves.

So here are four reasons Christians suffer (with a hat tip to J. Vernon McGee):

ONE: Practical Consequences of Our Own Stupidity and Sin

“The first reason that we suffer as God’s children (and even as his mature sons) is because of our own stupidity and our own sin…The fourth reason we suffer is for our past sins.” – JVM

This affects Christians at every level of maturity. We are always going to be sinful people and will always struggle.

My favorite song right now is called “In the Blood” by John Mayer. Mayer asks about all these things in his life — the influence of his parents, his insecurities, his weaknesses — and wonders if they’ll be “washed out in the water” or “always in the blood.”

The answer to that is yes. When we become Christians, our sins are forgiven, and they’re no longer on our permanent record. But we will still feel the effects of those sins because we’re human.

And that’s not just sins we’ve committed in the immediate past. McGee tells the story of a famous evangelist who used to be a drunkard. While visiting a restaurant for milkshakes and sodas after a service, the evangelist simply got a glass of soda water.

“The others began to kid him about it,” McGee writes, “and he made this statement, ‘When the Lord gave me a new heart, He didn’t give me a new stomach.’ Liquor had ruined his stomach, and he was still suffering because of that.”

TWO: Standing for Christ in a Secular World

“I can guarantee that if you take a stand for truth and righteousness, you are going to suffer. How many men and women could testify to that?…Many people deliberately take a stand for God, and they have suffered for it.” – JVM

Jesus straight up told us that we would suffer for defending His name. Many around the world suffer as the disciples did, facing criminal prosecution, imprisonment and even execution. I hope I never cease from being amazed by those who willingly go through such lengths in the name of Christ.

In America, our suffering is more emotional and social. We might get made fun of or ignored for being Christians and not being afraid to speak the name of Jesus at our school or workplace. That’s OK, that’s part of being a believer.

An interesting note that McGee makes is that sometimes we can go overboard in our “standing for Christ” and feel like we’re suffering, but it’s unnecessary.

“One man came to me and told me that where he worked everybody was his enemy because he had stood up for God,” McGee wrote. “Well, another Christian man who was an official in that same concern told me that this man was trying to lecture everybody — even during work hours! He was making an absolute nuisance of himself by attempting to witness to people while they were busy on their jobs.”

THREE: Some Purpose of God We Don’t Know

“Job suffered because he was demonstrating to Satan and the demon world and to the angels of heaven that he was not a timeserver, that every man does not have his price and that he loved God for Himself alone. I hope I never have to suffer as Job did.” – JVM

This is one where there isn’t a whole lot of explanation. There’s some part of the will of God where suffering is meant for some kind of purpose that we don’t understand and probably won’t fully get until the other side of heaven. This kind of suffering could include an unexpected and seemingly-unwarranted loss of a job, the sudden death of a close friend or family member or a huge house repair or car expense that puts you in financial trouble.

In my experience, it usually leads to spiritual growth and increasing faith in Christ, but there might be something else it’s designed for that we won’t know until later.

FOUR: The Lord’s Discipline

“A judge punishes, but a father chastens and he does it in love. God uses chastening to demonstrate His love for us. And the writer makes it very clear that you are an illegitimate child if you are not chastened by the Lord, my friend.” – JVM

God makes sure we’re in line. When we start wandering away, He might do things or allow things to happen to discipline us. This ties back into the words from Hebrews 12:6-8.

I think sometimes this is another example where God allows us to suffer and we’re not entirely sure why. We feel the chastening of God but may not know that’s what it is. We may know we’ve been disobedient. But that discipline still comes because God loves us and wants what’s best for us.

The commentary my wife’s been reading is from the “Thru the Bible Commentary Series” by J. Vernon McGee, which you can find on Amazon or Christian bookstores.

God Paid for Me. What Am I Doing With That?

I like to buy music. Probably too much. But I like it. I like finding new music to listen to while I drive to work, while I write articles at work, if I’m just lounging around my apartment.

The newest music I bought was the album If I Never Speak Again by Hearts Like Lions. Before I bought the album, I listened through it on Spotify, considered music from their past (like their excellent EP These Hands) and weighed up how much I would listen to it. Considering those considerations, I bought it.

Worth it so far.

The question this leads me to is this: God paid for me. He put a lot of thought into it. Am I responding to that well?

Heavy.

It’s not a question in my mind that God paid the highest price for me. His Son died.

“But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” – Psalm 49:15

“He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” – 1 John 2:2

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” – 1 John 4:10

But what am I doing with that payment? God paid His Son to set me free from the eternal bondage of sin. There’s two ways I need to learn how to respond, two ways I need to deal with this better.

First, I need to know that I am loved and forgiven. 

I can’t let myself continue to be burdened with my guilt and sinfulness. I need to recognize it, but not at the expense of remembering God loves me and cares for me. My sin sucks the joy out of me, yes, but it doesn’t take away the fact that He’s saved me from its eternal consequences. That is the most joyful and wonderful part of being paid for.

But that’s not it.

Second, I need to act like I’ve been paid for.

Just like Hearts Like Lions’ album is serving the purpose it’s been bought for right now, I need to serve the purpose I’ve been bought for.

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

What am I doing with the body and the life God bought for me, what He bought from the depths of sin and Sheol? Am I making wise decisions? Am I fighting sin with all that I’ve got?

Far too often, the answer to those questions is no.

So asking the question “What does it mean to be that God paid for me?” can be both an encouragement and a challengeIt can remind us of our blessed position before God, but also our call to be more for Him.

Criminals, Suspected or Convicted, Are Humans Made in the Image of God Too.

As a newspaper reporter, I get to see all sorts of things cross my desk, all sorts of news stories and photos and police reports.

One section I’m responsible for putting together is the “Cops” section, which curates the police reports from the local police department and local sheriff’s offices. You’ll see a wide range of things on there — people charged with failure to appear in court for whatever reason, stealing from Walmart (8 times in a 3-day span last week), and sometimes harder offenses.

Last week, there was one day where there were two men charged with several sex offenses – indecent liberties with a child, statutory rape, things like that. It broke my heart. I literally sat at my desk with my hand over my mouth for a good minute because I didn’t know how else to respond.

Turns out, in both cases, the kids weren’t viciously raped, but likely persuaded to participate in these acts by older people and the kids were too young to give consent. But that doesn’t excuse the actions. Justice must be served. The appropriate punishment must take place, if indeed those men are guilty.

At the paper, we often post these reports on our Facebook page with mugshots. Those posts are shared and commented on more than just about any other. It becomes a platform for people to be judges and juries without all the information. The newspaper simply reports what it knows, and we’re careful to not say definitively whether he or she is innocent or guilty, because we don’t know.

But what I’ve seen on those comments sometimes makes me just as sad. In the comments of posts like the ones involving those men I mentioned before, I saw pictures of nooses. There’s harsh words of condemnation. There’s lots of terrible things being said.

Yes, perhaps, some of those things are deserved. Raping a child, as these men were accused with, is horrendous and awful and terrible. If these men were indeed guilty, they deserve their due punishment. I’m not going to talk about whether they do or not because it’s clear, they do.

But the way the information is handled by the public on those things is nuts.

I saw a shining example of how it should be handled on the Facebook page this morning regarding someone arrested for drug offenses. The page is public, so this is readily available. I’m changing the name mentioned here because it’s not relevant to this post. Here it is:

I had the privilege of teaching TONI when she was in high school. She’s a smart, thoughtful, and caring person. It did not take long for me to identify the potential she had to accomplish great things. I do not condone criminal activity in any way. However, I notice that this post refers only to her arrest. It does not refer to her conviction. There are no details or evidence regarding what may or may not have taken place. I can not speak to TONI’s guilt or innocence. The piece in the (newspaper) does not speak to her guilt or innocence either. Why do so many feel the need to condemn someone based on a brief blurb in the (newspaper)? I have seen such harsh and heartless comments on this post, and other posts, referring to this situation. What is solved by berating and degrading TONI? If TONI was involved in this does this sort of language and abuse help her in any way? Where is our humanity? We as a society love to spout the evils of drug use, but fail to understand the power of addiction that can happen to people from all walks of life. To be clear, I have no knowledge of any crimes TONI may or may not have committed and I have never known her to use drugs. I am speaking only to the accusations thoughtlessly posted on social media. I admit that I know TONI only through a student-teacher relationship as opposed to a social relationship, but I think so much of her as a person that I have made a point to check-in with her as often as I can to see how she’s doing. I have seen the love she has for her two beautiful children. I have seen the loyalty and devotion she has for her family. I also had the privilege of teaching one of her sisters who is working towards a degree as a special education teacher. This family doesn’t deserve this treatment whether or not a crime was committed. There are many, many families out there that don’t deserve the kind of abuse I see splashed across social media. Take a moment before pressing “Post” and ask yourself if this is something you would want written about your loved one. If it isn’t, please press “Delete”.

I love this. I can’t really put it any better.

You can tell it comes from a teacher, by the way, a good one. There’s a reverence for and understanding of due process of law. There’s a care for Toni (again, not her real name) as a person because she is a person.

She is someone who was made in the image of God. She’s someone who, on that basis alone, deserves to be loved and respected. If she was guilty of the supposed crime, then yes, she deserves punishment as well.

But even if she is a criminal, even if those two men charged for horrible things with children are found to be guilty, they deserve our love. They deserve our prayers. They deserve to be cared for, even in our thoughts and especially on our Facebook pages. They deserve it because God made them and cares for them.

If we as Christians call ourselves pro-life and pro-love, we’ll care for those lives and we’ll love those people, even just in how we think about them. I’m not saying we ignore those affected by these supposed crimes. They deserve our prayers too. But we need to love those affected by sin and those who commit the sin.

We should see the cops reports as a prayer list. The report, in most cases, lists those who supposedly committed crimes and those who report them. If you want a head start, check out the Sanford Police Department’s list. It’s updated throughout the day with reports and charges brought.

Pray for those people to find Jesus or return to Him. Pray that they understand the weight of their sin. Pray that someone would be sharing the Gospel with them. Pray that their hearts would be healed. Pray for them like you do a family member who isn’t a Christian, or a brother or sister in Christ who’s dealing with sin in their lives.

These people are like Barabbas. Jesus died in their place. Will we pray for them? Will we love them with our thoughts?