The Emotional Turmoil of A Truly-Held Belief: A Review of Netflix’s ‘Come Sunday’

“I can take that Bible and denounce what I’m teaching.” – Carlton Pearson, NPR

I don’t write a lot of movie reviews, at least not anymore. I used to write a ton. But I’m taking it back up because “Come Sunday,” a new movie on Netflix, challenged me, my heart and my faith in a way only one or two movies ever have.

The story follows Carlton Pearson (played by the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor), a popular evangelical Pentecostal preacher in Tulsa, Alabama. His church, affectionately referred to as “Higher D” by members and staff, is growing and popular. It’s fully integrated, with blacks and whites worshipping together in harmony. Pearson is counseled by Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen, who plays President Bartlett in The West Wing) and supported by his right hand man Henry (Jason Segel from How I Met Your Mother) and wife Gina (Condola Rashad).

But one night while watching a television broadcast about the suffering in the Rwanda genocide of 1994, Pearson hears from God. Hell can’t be real, because why would God let children who’ve never heard of Jesus go to hell? That God would be worse than Hitler, Hussein. He forms what becomes known as the “Gospel of Inclusion” — there is no hell, everyone goes to heaven when they die because Jesus died for all.

The film explores how Pearson responds to this new belief he has, how those around him react and the decline of his church. Come Sunday is based on a “This American Life” episode titled “Heretics,” which you can listen to here. I listened to the episode, and it seems that the filmmakers captured actual events pretty well.

This will not be a traditional film review. That being said, I enjoyed the performances, particularly of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Condola Rashad. It was fun to see Jason Segel in something like this, and Lakeith Stanfield — appearing as Reggie, a worship team member struggling with homosexuality — was great.

I want to dive into a couple of the themes throughout the film and how they affected me as a Christian, a person and someone interested in the culture of religion and the church.

‘The Gospel of Inclusion’

The crux of the film’s story is Pearson’s acceptance of what he later terms the “Gospel of Inclusion.”

He explains it using the Bible. He points to verses like 1 John 2:1-2, which say, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Based on the text of that Scripture, he says, how does the blood of Jesus not cover everyone’s sins? Who are we to say that the blood is not that powerful? 

I think it’d be easy for us to just write off this theology as obviously flawed. There are so many biblical passages that preach the need for repentance and belief in God — the film particularly cites Romans 10:9 — that contradict Pearson’s view. Even the original Greek of 1 John 2:2 states that “the whole world” referred to Gentiles, or anyone besides Jews. It means the forgiveness of the Gospel is available to all, not just freely given to all without repentance.

But can we for a minute try to understand where Pearson is coming from? It’s obviously a more appealing message, for one thing, and from our human understanding, it seems to be more reflective of the God we worship. Why would a good God send people to hell, goes the common question.

But for us to solely focus on the “goodness” of God in His grace and mercy is to leave out his passion for justice and righteousness. He will not let sin go unpunished, unless it’s taken on by Jesus on the cross. Then it is still punished in the form of Christ’s death.

I sympathized tremendously with Pearson and his search for understanding God. He just missed one of the biggest parts.

The Interior Turmoil

Pearson wrestled with this change in his theology. He said he heard from God directly that what he had believed all his life was in error, and that he needed to change.

In the evangelical Pentecostal vein of Christianity Pearson operated, hellfire and brimstone were as common as speaking in tongues and shouts of “Hallelujah” during worship time. The acknowledgement of sin of any kind would be replied to with, “It’s gonna send you to hell.” In his interactions with Reggie, who’s told his hero Pearson about his struggle, the pastor says he can’t “save” Reggie until he gives up his homosexual leanings.

It’s in this background that Pearson’s change of heart is explored, and it’s tough for him. He knows that he’s bucking years and years of church tradition and what he’s believed. He’s concerned about people leaving his church. He’s worried about how it will be taken. But it’s his new heartfelt belief that everyone goes to heaven, and he can’t ignore the strong conviction in his heart.

If we are unable to sympathize with Pearson, even while disagreeing with him, we are lacking. He just wants to love people, and based on what he believes God told him, this is how he can love people. There’s a couple times he almost changes his mind because of how those around him react, but he sticks to what he believes.

As Christians, we are called to love those around us with what we believe to be truth, just like Pearson. We might face backlash for our stances and what we believe, but it’s our call to stick with what God has revealed to us in Scripture.

The External Backlash

The climactic scene of the film is Pearson’s appearance before a council of charismatic bishops who are deciding whether or not to allow him to continue as one of their members. Pearson speaks passionately, even directing some words straight to the chairman of the group. I won’t spoil the scene because it’s powerful and you need to watch it on your own.

But he’s in a room full of people who are ready to crucify him. And that’s after months of criticism — to his face, on television, at the grocery store to his wife, everywhere. He loses the blessing of his mentor Roberts, the support of his ministry partner Henry and the large majority of his congregation.

How many of us Christians have lost friends and seen family abandon us based on what we believe? I hope no believer who sees the film is able to watch that and not feel sympathy. Just because we don’t agree with the reason for his change in belief doesn’t mean we can’t feel for Pearson.

It’s heartbreaking, honestly, and Pearson takes it hard.

Church culture usually doesn’t take too kindly to people who rock the boat. I understand the need for correction for incorrect theology, but the way we often go about it is displayed near-perfectly in Come Sunday. There are some in the film, particularly Henry, who do approach Pearson the right way, the biblical way. But for the most part, people speak about Pearson in a harsh, negative, unloving manner.

And that’s not what God would have wanted.

Summing Up

I don’t believe God would have wanted Pearson’s change of heart either. But I understand where he’s coming from.

And that’s what makes Come Sunday a compelling watch. Agree with him or not, Pearson and his quest for what he believes is truth is incredibly relatable, and I think it would be good viewing for all believers. Not just as a movie, but as a learning experience.

Advertisements

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.

Breaking the Lock: An In-Depth Look at Insecurity and How to Face It with Jesus

Author’s Note: This was originally written as a chapter for a book I was working on. I have decided to scrap that book idea and pursue a different direction with it, but still wanted to share this chapter. It’s a bit long, but I hope it’s helpful. The text is altered to reflect its status as a blog post and not a chapter in a book.

As I labored — and I mean labored — over how to structure and write this post, my insecurities came out.

Let me list them:

  • No one will really care what you think.
  • You’re not even qualified to do this in the first place, are you?
  • You’re not even Christian enough for this.
  • You’re just a 25-year-old guy from Sanford, North Carolina. You won’t go anywhere, and your writing certainly won’t go anywhere.

Writing, while being one of my favorite things ever, exposes many of my doubts and many of my insecurities. So it’s only fitting that, while trying to write a blog post about insecurity, they all come out.

I write now about insecurity because I know for a fact that it’s one of the major stumbling blocks in being vulnerable and being transparent with others. I write that because I’ve experienced it myself.

I’ve always struggled with completely being myself with others. Yes, that’s in the present tense. It’s very likely that, as you read this, I’m somewhere struggling to completely be myself. It’s kind of funny as I think about that, but it’s the truth.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Private School Blues

From my 5th to 12th grade years, I went to this place called The O’Neal School in Southern Pines, N.C. It was a great education. I had great teachers and I learned a ton and felt pretty prepared for college. For a place that describes itself as a “college preparatory school,” I guess they succeeded, at least with me, at least a little bit.

At O’Neal, I learned a few things about myself. Mostly: I’m kind of a nerd and I’m not super comfortable socially. These two things led me to not be the most popular kid in school. If I had to rank myself amongst my fifth-grade colleagues, I’d probably be the bottom 5 or 6 when it came to “popularity.”

And that always bugged me. It shouldn’t have, at least I don’t think so. But I was 10, 11 years old. What else was I supposed to think? I saw the kids that everyone liked (at least I thought everyone) and I was jealous. I quickly became known as one of the smart kids — if you had a problem with your homework, ask Zach! It became my thing, I guess.

As I moved into the latter years of middle school, I began to realize how much people didn’t really care for me, at least at school. A couple of girls that I liked basically rejected me. True story: one of them told me that I “kind of freaked” them out. Hard to come back from that.

As I look back now, I realize that I liked them because I thought they were pretty and that was about it. No real connection.

But that’s what you do in middle school: you “like” other people. And you get built up or torn down by that. At the time, my best friend was one of the “popular” kids who girls liked all the time. I saw him and all the girls line up to be his friend and whatever it was in middle school guys and girls did, and I was jealous.

As high school began, I started to make a few more friends, a couple of whom I still stay in touch with 10-12 years later. But I still felt like I was on the outside.

The thing about private school is that cliques, which you’ll find at any school, are exaggerated, and the differences between people are exaggerated because the numbers are smaller. I had 48 kids in my graduating class. My brother, who graduated two years later, had something around 35 students in his class. We were on the high and low ends, respectively.

If you’re on the “low end,” in this magical formula, you feel it. And I did. I felt like I was from a different planet. My junior year was especially hard. I was able to start driving to school, so I had my car on campus. During lunch and my free periods, I would go sit in my car and watch The Office on my laptop or read or do homework. By myself. I remember walking out of many rooms because I didn’t think I belonged. I legitimately thought people didn’t want me there.

There were some good things in high school! I was part of the track and field team in my sophomore and senior years, which was one of the best experiences in my early years. I was a thrower — I was “eh,” skill-wise — but it was a great time with friends and I was in good shape at the end of track season. I got half-decent at making short films for a high school kid, and I had some great teachers who taught me great lessons.

Side note: One of them told me that the best stories you can tell and the best writing you’ll ever do will come from experience. Has stuck with me ever since, in case you can’t tell. It came after I wrote a short story about secret agents on some Mission: Impossible-style mission. It was not good.

After high school, I went to Elon University. I experienced some of the same things when it came to being around people and not feeling like I fit in. I wasn’t the most comfortable socially, I was kind of nerdy and my faith and morality kept me from some of the activities that the friends I had made, especially in my first two years, participated in. I don’t regret that last part, but it definitely hindered my security among them.

When I was part of a different group, a Christian ministry during my junior and senior years, I felt the insecurity, but in a different way.Funny enough, I didn’t feel as accepted as I had my first two years.

The friends I had made as a freshman and sophomore liked me and hung out with me despite some of my differences. I eventually learned to be myself among them. My nerdiness was common among my friends, so it didn’t set me apart. Some of the insecurities remained, but I was much more comfortable.

When I basically switched friend groups, the discomfort and insecurity remained. I eventually developed new friendships within I could be myself and not give a care in the world, but among the main group, I was struggling. My insecurity was at an all-time high again, like I was in middle school.

The Ins and Outs of Insecurity

Insecurity robs you of your safety and your peace. It’s right in the word.

“Insecurity” is the combination of the prefix “in-” and the word “security.” “In-” attached to the beginning of a word means the opposite of, or “not” that word, the lack of. So “insecurity” means the lack of security. Security comes from having peace and safety. It’s why people buy security systems for their homes or their businesses. They can feel at peace in their home at night, or feel that their possessions are safe when they’re away from their business.

When you’re insecure, ironically, you’re actually locked up tight. You’re hiding things from the world because you don’t feel safe and at peace with yourself. It’s a restricting feeling. I can think of so many times in my life I didn’t make a joke or say something because I was afraid how people would react to me. I kept it inside. I might have chuckled to myself, but I kept it all inside.

There have been other times where I haven’t put myself out there or haven’t shared something I’d created for the same reason. I didn’t feel safe in doing that. I was afraid of what people would say or concerned about how they’d react, and it would prevent me from letting it go.

For instance, my first book (shameless plug) was called In the Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. It’s five days away from releasing on the iBooks Store as I write this. I held onto it for more than 18 months because I didn’t know what to do. Besides, if I shared it, who would read it? A couple weeks ago, I decided to just share it. What’s the worst thing that could happen?

But even still, I’m insecure about what’s going to happen. Is anyone going to read it? If they do, what will they think? Will they think I suck as a Christian? Will they think I’m a bad writer? It’s the risks that come with being a writer, but everyone experiences them in some way. When you come up with an original thought and decided to share it, you take the same risks, whether you put it out in a conversation with your best friend, share it at a party or post it on social media.

Why on earth do we doctor our Instagram photos? We want to find our best side, put on the best filter. It’s literally called a filter! Filters are used in everything from Instagram photos to air conditioning systems to cars to make sure things are produced as flawless as possible.

We try to filter out our insecurities. We hide them. We do it when we go to church just as much as when we go to work.

I’ve known just one person in my life that seemed completely free of insecurities. His name was Jimmy. He just did whatever he wanted, no matter who was watching. He’s a great guy, loves the Lord, loves other people. What some people do only when they’re drunk — sing karaoke, run in the snow in a singlet and short shorts (he was a cross country runner in high school and college), post crazy videos on Snapchat — he did completely and truly sober.

I think we talked about it once or twice, but he obviously had insights as to why and how to break the locks of insecurity on our hearts, mouths and minds. I’m not talking about doing crazy stuff all the time. That’s not for everybody. I’m talking about being honest, being open and being yourself despite any weaknesses you may have.

If it involves running in the snow in a singlet and short shorts, that’s up to you.

The Wrong Source of Security

The first thing that we have to realize is that far too often we look to the wrong place to find security, safety and peace.

In middle and high school, I looked to my classmates for security. I would hope to get a laugh out of a joke, or a smile back from a cute girl, or some type of in-class accomplishment. Maybe I had the winning answer in the day-before-the-test game that would earn my group the bonus point on the test. Maybe I hit a sweet shot on the basketball court at lunchtime that earned props from the guys I was playing with. Maybe I held a door open for a cute girl and she thanked me with a smile.

Any of those things would bring me a bit of confidence, a bit of swagger and a bit of peace in who I was. I felt like, just for a moment, that I was enough on my own! A few seconds later, though, I’d be back to where I was, searching again for that self-confidence that was gone.

What I eventually realized is that finding security in the world is fruitless. It’s not fulfilling. Scripture gives us a couple hints to that.

Is Not Life More Than Food?

In Matthew 6, Jesus is giving the “Sermon on the Mount.” Starting in verse 25, he tells the crowd to “not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.”

In middle school, shoes were the thing. Nike Shox were the biggest deal. They were basketball shoes that had four circular columns in the middle to the heel of the shoe. They were supposed to help you jump and run better, and I did play basketball in eighth grade, but I got them because they looked good. They were expensive — so my parents really got them for me — and they were hot stuff at the time. So I usually got some attention the first couple days I wore a new pair. I think Nike still makes them, but more for running now.

As I read Matthew 6 earlier this morning, those shoes came to mind, particularly for the latter part of verse 25 — “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

Life is more than the things we own. Life isn’t limited to what we wear. Existence goes far beyond the Nike Shox I had in seventh grade or the new laptop I got in ninth grade or the new hoodie I wore in eleventh grade. It goes beyond the spaghetti I’d bring for lunch or the new bumper sticker on my car.

Jesus says finding security from the things we have or the attention we get from people because of the things we have is a fool’s errand because life is much more than those things.

For the Former Things Have Passed Away

Revelation 21 is pretty awesome. John is recounting what Jesus showed him about the end of time, and he’s seeing what it will be like when there’s a new heaven and new earth and God reigns over every dang thing in existence forever. In verses 3-4, a “loud voice from the throne” starts talking.

In verse 4, the voice says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, and neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the further things have passed away.” Verse 5 continues, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”

At the end of time, these verses tell us, everything that causes us pain will be wiped away. The Scripture says they will “have passed away.” They’ll be gone.

Why seek security from things that will pass away? The approval of man will be gone one day. The things you (try to) find contentment in will be gone one day. The things of earth are not stable or strong enough to provide that security.

The Right Source of Security

Remember the definition of security from earlier. I’ll repeat it here: “Security comes from having peace and safety. It’s why people buy security systems for their homes or their businesses. They can feel at peace in their home at night, or feel that their possessions are safe when they’re away from their business.”

Where else would we find the most peace and safety in who we are except in the God who created us and knows us better than anyone else?

He (Literally) Is Our Peace

The latter part of Ephesians 2 dives into the relationship that Christians now have with God after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It also explores what relationships between the members of the body of Christ should have.

It’s a relationship that centers around peace. Verses 14-16:

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the last of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”

Jesus’ goal is peace. Verse 17 says that Jesus “preached peace” to those “who were far off…(and) who were near.” Isaiah 53:5 prophecies that the Messiah’s punishment by death on a cross for our sins will be “the chastisement that brought us peace.”

The verses in Ephesians 2 specifically focus on peace between the Gentiles and the Israelites, two different groups of people that viewed things completely differently. But God intervening, through Jesus Christ, was designed to create a unity around peace.

We can have peace with others and in our relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Why? It removes our sinfulness before God. It doesn’t remove the fact that we sin, but it breaks down the barrier there. And it tells us that God loves us no matter what. Anything that might hold us back from being real with others doesn’t hold God back from loving us. So we can feel comfortable in who we are because God loves us as we are.

This doesn’t mean we just let sin slide, of course. We gotta fight it with all we’ve got. But we’re at peace with God, so we can relax.

God Is Our Refuge

Safety. It’s why kids wear those little arm floaties in the pool when they’re little. They can’t swim, so they need them to stay afloat.

The safety we find in God is not necessarily a physical safety from harm or danger, but an emotional safety we can turn to when we’re stressed or insecure. Psalm 46:1-3 captures the idea pretty good:

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though the its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”

People run to a refuge when they’re seeking safety, protection, a comfort zone. “Refugees” are people seeking safety. God is our refuge in that He is a place we can find safety. We can completely be ourselves with Him. We can shed any insecurities and unload our fears, concerns, doubts, worries and more onto Him. That comes through prayer and confession of sins.

In turn, that can help us become more vulnerable with others. It helps break the lock of insecurity by realizing we are safe and secure with Him. So even if others question us or don’t give us the reaction we want, we can feel secure with God.

As flawed human beings whose brains don’t always work, we will struggle with this idea.

Insecurity is the natural course of man in a lot of ways. In the constantly-changing atmosphere in which we live, it’s hard to stay stable. So we’re going to have weakness and we’re going to have flaws. It’s hard to think that we’ll ever get to a point where we won’t be insecure about something.

That’s where it’s best to rest in the grace and mercy of God. That same peace that we have through Christ to help with insecurity helps when we feel the weight of our sin. We’re freed from an eternity without God to an eternity with God, as one of God’s own. So freeing and refreshing, isn’t it?

I had a lot of insecurity about my sin. I’ve mentioned before in this book how my Christianity became the most important thing to me because I though that’s how others judged me. Whenever my sin becomes evident, I feel that insecurity all over again. I feel the weakness, and it feels exploited. I don’t feel strong enough to fight through it.

But then I have to lean on the grace of God. I am so much more than my sin, He says of me. He says that I’m good, that I’m set.

Let the storms come to hunt us and hurt us. They can’t take our Lord from us, bro, He got us a verdict. Not guilty, He’s with us and He stays present. Never leaves me, He even gives me stage presence. – Trip Lee, “I’m Good”

Sometimes I’m so thankful for Your loyalty. Your love, regardless of the mistakes I make, will spoil me. My confidence is, in a sense, a gift You’ve given me. And I’m satisfied to realize You’re all I’ll ever need. – Relient K, “I Am Understood?”

‘A Place to Rest’ — In the Midst of Madness Preview, Pt. 5

NOTE: This is the fifth preview excerpt of my book In The Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. The book will be available on Jan. 12, 2018.

A Place to Rest

Late in high school and then in college, when I was struggling with my relationship anxiety, my mother shared Matthew 11:28 with me many times. It’s a crucial truth to remember for any Christian, but it speaks almost specifically to those with anxiety.

Jesus is speaking about how God has given wisdom to little children and how we can know the Father through the Son. Then, verses 28-30:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus tells his audience that He is the place where rest can be found, where those who work hard can be relived of their weariness. So He tells them, “Come to me. I am the place where you will find rest.” What He asks of them, He says, is not heavy. It’s not something heavy to carry. Just listen and learn, and you’ll find rest for your souls.

That part is important. It’s rest for your soul. Following Jesus doesn’t mean that you get to be lazy and do nothing. It means a spiritual rest, a rest for your soul, a rest from fearing whether or not you were on God’s side.

The Jews he was speaking to at the time had lived for years in a spiritual state where laws had to be followed, rules had to be observed, or else you were disobeying God’s law and you were looked down upon by others. The Hebrew law was all about working your way to salvation. I don’t know about you, but if I had to work my way to salvation, I would never be at rest spiritually.

What Jesus offered them and offers to us is a spiritual rest. It’s a rest that means we don’t have to work our way to salvation or to God’s favor. We don’t have to do a certain number of things or be a certain number of things before God loves us and cares for us. We don’t have to believe all the right things all the time. There is no standard of “doing enough for Jesus” that makes Him love us any more if we reach it or any less if we don’t.

When we come to Christ, He offers us a rest that goes far beyond anything that humanity can construct on their own. He literally says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

For some of us, our souls spend so much time striving to be the “right soul,” to think and believe and do and say the right thing every single minute of every single day. But all that Jesus asks is that we come and believe and trust Him. That’s it. We’ll get all that other stuff worked out in time as we follow Jesus, as we get closer to Him.

One thing to remember is that it’s not the perfect people who come and get rest. The people who were found the most around Jesus while He was on Earth were the outcasts, lepers, rejects, drunkards, losers, gluttons, tax collectors, sinners. The lowest. The pariahs. There’s nothing preventing you from coming to Jesus and finding rest for your soul, finding relief from the anxiety and the nervous thoughts that prey on you, because, at the very least, He’s used to people like you and actually likes hanging out with people like you.

If you’re a Christian, you no longer have to work for God’s approval. You don’t have to fear. You can trust and believe. And then you can rest.

“The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself” — In the Midst of Madness Preview, Pt. 4

NOTE: This is the fourth excerpt from my upcoming book In the Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. The book will be available on Jan. 12, 2018.

“The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself.”

In November 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then the governor of New York, won the United States presidential election by a ridiculous margin: 472 electoral votes to just 59 for Herbert Hoover, and by more 7 million votes in the popular vote.

It wasn’t that surprising, with his predecessor Hoover overseeing an America with an estimated 20-plus percent unemployment rate and a huge stock market crash. During the campaign, “voters threw objects at (Hoover) when he was campaigning in public.”

Rough.

With the country in dire straits, FDR’s inauguration speech was heavily anticipated. He had promised a lot during the campaign, and this was his first chance as the American president to assuage his constituents. He began with clutch words: “I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels.” He’s about to give it to them straight. He continued:

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

The words that have lasted from that address, as part of the italicized section above, are these: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The only thing to fear, in the midst of a nationwide economic depression, sky-high unemployment rates, was fear itself, the new president said.

The fact that FDR, or whoever his speechwriter was, addressed fear was evidence of the reality of fear in the American people. After the “Roaring 20s,” the Depression was crushing American wallets and American spirit. So he pointed out the dagger that fear is.

Google defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat” (as a noun) and “to be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening” (as a verb). It seems to me that fear shares a lot of similarities with anxiety, doesn’t it? Synonyms of fear include panic, distress, worry and unease. So it makes sense that fear and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. They are not the same, but one often begets the other. 

An example: If you are afraid of a situation, you are likely to feel anxious about it. I feared getting into relationships and as a result had anxiety about them. If you are anxious about something, you’re likely to feel fear. I was anxious about how to handle my Italian class and as a result was scared to go to class and try to learn.

As FDR defined fear in his speech, for me and likely for you, it was “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Fear is like the thief Jesus describes in John 10:10 — it “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” As Jason Gray sings in his song “No Thief Like Fear”:

“Fear will take the best of us

Then come back for the rest of us,

Its raging hunger never satisfied.

It’s closer than a brother,

And more jealous than a lover

Who holds you while it swallows you alive.”

Think about the times when fear has held you back from doing something. I’m not even talking about things you have anxiety about. Maybe you don’t ride the roller coaster because you’re afraid of going upside down. I’m guilty of that one. Maybe you get out of your parents’ pool when frogs started jumping in late at night because you’re afraid of them touching you. Again, that’s me. It’s the arachnophobia (spiders) and the ophidiophobia (snakes) and the acrophobia (heights) and the claustrophobia (tight and enclosed spaces), the popular fears.

Those fears held you back from experiencing certain things that may or may not have been harmful. Sometimes fear can hold you back from dangerous things, and that’s helpful and good. I’m afraid of swimming in a pool full of poisonous snakes because that’s a terrible and most-likely fatal decision. But I know that I don’t have to be afraid of going on upside-down roller coasters because plenty of people do it just fine.

But I’m still not going on upside-down roller coasters. I don’t think I’m missing a whole lot.

It’s that fear that steals from us. It’s fear related to anxiety that steals us from so many things. And if we are to beat anxiety at any level, we have to realize that it is not a battle just to overcome the anxiety and the anxious thoughts, but also to overcome the fear that holds us back.

The only thing we have to fear in this situation is fear itself. Fear is what is holding us back. And thankfully, we have a reason to not fear.

‘Our Anxiety Is for Our Good’ — In The Midst of Madness Preview, Pt. 2

NOTE: This is the second preview excerpt of my book In The Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. The book will be available on Jan. 12, 2018.

Our Anxiety Is for Our Good

You might not believe me. And I wouldn’t blame you for doing so. If you suffer with the amount of anxiety that I do, I totally get it.

It sucks! It’s one of the worst things that you encounter on a regular basis. Sometimes it keeps you in bed. Sometimes it keeps you from interacting with those you love. Sometimes it keeps you from prayer, study of God’s Word, resting in His promises. But if we are to believe that Word and those promises, we have to accept and believe that our anxiety is for our good. Romans 8:28 says:

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Those who love God and are called according to His purpose, that’s Christians. We who are Christians love God, and He’s called us to do all things for His glory, His purpose for our lives. So that’s us. And the Bible says that all things work together for good. Our good. Our best.

One of the ways in which He works all things together for our good is how He brings us salvation. He took our sinfulness, something we can’t get rid of on our own, and forgave us for it by sending Jesus to die on the cross and come back to life on the third day.

But it’s not just in how He deals with our sin nature. He works all things together for our good. ALL THINGS. I can’t emphasize this enough. ALL THINGS. Every single thing in our life works together for our good.

This is kind of hard to comprehend. Especially when it comes to dealing with our anxiety. That doesn’t seem like something that can be used for our good. But here are three reasons why:

1) It shows us our weaknesses.

We as a human race don’t like to look at or acknowledge our weaknesses. We don’t like to think about how much we suck at things. We don’t want people to point out our flaws, our scars, our inabilities. We don’t desire for others to know our deficiencies, our blemishes.

Sometimes that leads us to spending so much time trying to remind ourselves of our strengths that we forget that we are weak. And it is absolutely vital that we realize just how much we are weak, just how much we screw things up. Anxiety is a weakness, unfortunately. Sometimes we have no control over when it comes, but it’s a weakness nonetheless. And when we’re reminded of it, we’re reminded of the soft spots on our skin, the chinks in our armor.

2) Our weakness shows us that we need God.

We won’t make it on our own in this life. We need God. Our weakness shows us that we need God. God is the only one that can help us through those weaknesses, that can bring us through the hard times with the direction and purpose that we so desperately need.

He shows us that it’s OK to be weak, that it’s OK that we suck, because He’s there to pick us up, to carry us when we can’t carry ourselves, to provide the strength when we don’t have it. He does it by working through His Holy Spirit, by encouragement and challenge from His Word, by the people He surrounds us with.

3) God grows us through our anxiety.

When we deal with anxiety on a regular basis, we can learn how to deal with fear, how to fight against lies we tell ourselves, how to share our issues with others in moments of lack.

Through the rest of this book, we’ll discuss how we grow through our anxiety in different situations of life. We’ll talk about anxiety in school, relationships and other circumstances we find ourselves in that bring about panic. We’ll also dive into what it means to beat fear, one of the most central ingredients of anxiety. And then we’ll talk about the hope that exists even in the midst of anxiety.

I’ll share a lot of how I’ve grown through dealing with my anxiety in each of these areas. This is a very personal area of life for me. Because I’ve dealt with it so much, I’ve been itching to share my experiences with others in a book. It would be a waste for me to go through this and not try in some way to help at least one person with the anxiety they’re experiencing.

So as we move forward, just know that I’ve got you on my mind. I’m praying for you. And I hope that what I’ve learned, what I’ve experienced, can help you as well.

Married to a New Master

I hate movies where a romantic commitment is violated.

For example, The Wedding Planner. It stars Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Lopez in your typical romcom. It’s a perfectly fine romcom except McConaughey’s character starts pursuing Lopez’s character while he’s engaged to someone else. It takes McConaughey’s character to get to his wedding day before he confesses to his fiancée.

I know there are tons of movies like this. The man/woman who leaves someone else is excused because the existing relationship is bad and it’s “true love” they’re seeking after. It’s just not right.

Not that I’m perfect in this area. I can think of a couple times in my life where I accidentally (maybe?) led a girl on and wasn’t forthcoming with her. Perhaps it’s my experience in the pain of that which makes me abhor movies that glorify that.

It’s painful to someone when you’re committed to them and then you abandon them for someone else. However, in the grand scheme of our walks with Christ, there’s a situation where not only is that OK, but it’s desirable, joyful and freeing.

Romans 7:4-6 says —

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

There’s a switch in spouses here that’s beautiful. The prior few verses talk about how a woman is adulterous if she is with another man while her husband is still alive, but if her husband dies, she is not adulterous if she marries another man.

It’s the same way when we come to Christ. Prior to our salvation, we were married to the law, committed to following its ways. Because of that, we would always fall short because we can’t meet the strict requirements of the law.

But when we were saved, we were released from that commitment and to a new commitment to Jesus, to God, to grace. It’s a marriage to a new master, and it’s a healthy, vibrant and live-saving one.

So in this case, ditching a relationship as quick as you can for a new one is perfectly OK. In fact, if you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to do it as soon as possible.

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.