The Words Matter

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Gentle Reader,

I’m not Amish. (Obviously). I don’t think that Christians have to buck every fashion trend. Nor do I think we have to shun technology. I don’t think that anything righteous comes out of sneering at any and all art, literature, music, live theater, movies or television. It’s not sinful to use an electric guitar in a worship service or to use a Bible app on a tablet or smartphone (though the latter does make me twitch). We shouldn’t close ourselves off from society in the pursuit of holiness.

That said, I loathe the whole “we must make Christianity relevant” thing. I despise it and have from the moment I had realized that what this “relevancy” really amounts to is post-modernist nonsense wearing a thin, cracked evangelical mask.

A hallmark of post-modern thinking is that words have no meaning beyond that which the reader assigns them. It is relativism liberally applied to sentence structure. Thus, I might say that “the sky is blue” and three different people may read that statement and draw three different conclusions. One may accept the statement, another reject it and the third spend hours attempting to determine what “sky” really means. Each one is supposedly equally accurate.

Insert eye-roll here.

We run into massive problems when we attempt to strip words of their meanings or give them new meanings altogether. For example, relevant is defined as “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.” But is this what anyone really means when they talk about the relevance of Christianity? Is this what Rob Bell, Brian McLaren and Phyllis Tickle (among others) are talking about?

No. This isn’t what they’re talking about at all. (I don’t have time right now to get into exhaustive quotes from the above-mentioned or others, but by all means do some reading yourself). The “relevancy” imagined here actually makes Christianity entirely irrelevant. It addresses no real issues. It provides no hope. Central concepts such as sin, redemption, resurrection and judgment are redefined or done away with completely. It is feel-happy teaching. You’re good just as you are. There’s really nothing to believing in God. Doesn’t require any real change on your part. Oddly, it also winds up being elitist teaching; those of us who don’t jump on the fuzzy-warmness are just poor, bigoted, unenlightened souls.

It’s all packaged differently, but really this has been going on for centuries. Pretty much from the moment Christ stepped out of the tomb. There’s always someone claiming to have a “better” or “new” understanding. Nothing new under the sun. Nothing new at all.

Look again at the definition of relevant. Pretend for a moment that words really do have meaning. Then please, tell me: What is possibly and more profoundly relevant that the Gospel message of Christ who died and rose again? How can we not see that the beautiful truth that we are sinners in need of a Savior transcends time, culture, geography, class and gender? What person doesn’t need to know that he is so loved in his wretchedness that God, infinite and majestic, wrapped Himself in a tiny human frame to bring about redemption? What person doesn’t need to be brought to her knees in a deep, abiding awareness of her complete inability to save herself? What person doesn’t need to feel God’s hand on his shoulder, doesn’t need to hear God say, “I adore you far too much to let you stay here”? What person doesn’t need to be radically changed?

Do you see? Do you understand how important language and definition are?

When we strip words of their meanings, we wind up with statements like this from Bell, spoken in the context of a discussion about gay marriage but impactful in a much broader sense: “…the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.”

There is so much in that sentence. So, so much.

The Church is defined by Scripture. What she is – the Body, the Bride. Who she is – people saved from their sins by the grace of Holy God. Her mission – to share the truth, the light of God with the dark world. The Church cannot be separated from the Bible. She ceases to be the Church without the mind, the thoughts, the heart, the will of God splattered in ink onto the page at the hand of His servants.

Two-thousand-year-old letters? How about “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (Matthew 24:35)? How about “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)? How about “this Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8)? How about

Oh, how I love Your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies;
For they are ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
For Your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the ancients,
Because I keep Your precepts.
I have restrained my feet from every evil way,
That I may keep Your word.
I have not departed from Your judgments,
For You Yourself have taught me.
How sweet are Your words to my taste,
Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through Your precepts I get understanding;
Therefore I hate every false way. – Psalm 119:97-104

The quickest way for the Church to become irrelevant is to reject the words of God, which can only lead to a rejection of the Word of God, Christ Himself. I desperately want someone to tell me how it is possible to believe in Jesus without holding Scripture in high esteem. Everything there is to know about Jesus is found in those 66 books. I cannot imagine the level of cognitive dissonance required to dismiss the Bible while claiming to love Christ. It just doesn’t make sense.

“Did God really say?” is the oldest question.

How are we answering it?

Grace and peace along the way.

Five Minute Friday: Open

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Gentle Reader,

You know what time it is. Kate and the crowd and some chocolate. A little humor and a little prayer.

We: open.

Go.

“Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” 

Rob Bell is causing a fuss again, although I don’t know why anything he says catches anyone by surprise. He hasn’t changed his stance on anything, really. I read Velvet Elvis years ago and wasn’t impressed by either the theology or the writing style. I saw a couple of the Nooma videos and found nothing substantial in them. I perused enough of Love Wins before chucking it across the room to know that it was just the same, tired, old “relevant” religion in a slicker, hipster-pleasing package. (Seriously, where does Bell get his clothes? During his interview with Oprah he sported some pretty sweet cuffed skinny jeans. And, oh, the boots!)

Side note: I won’t even get into how silly it is to take spiritual direction from Oprah right now.

I’ve never met Bell. I have no idea what he’s like in person. But based on his writing, I can say with certainty that what he sells isn’t the truth. The mishandling and even dismissal of Scripture, the constant harping on being “relevant,” (so bizarre to me, because what can possibly be more relevant – and transcendent – than Christ and Him crucified?), the outright call to travel along the world’s trajectory….

There’s nothing new under the sun. This kind of stuff has been preached and plastered everywhere for centuries. Bell is simply the latest, hippest peddler.

We have GOT to know the truth. We have got to be steeped in it. We have to know it backwards and forwards and inside out.

Should we be open enough to consider ideas? To have conversations? Absolutely.

But let’s not be so open we lose that which is most dear.

Stop. 

Grace and peace along the way.

Pray the Sick Away

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* Sorry to include an image of false teacher Benny Hinn. It serves a purpose *

Gentle Reader,

My last post generated some good discussion both here and elsewhere. I appreciate the respect with which these conversations have been conducted. Appreciated even more that a friend pointed out that I failed to touch on something important. Something that honestly deserves its own post.

Chronic illness and prayer.

I’m choosing to address this topic in the form of a letter.

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Dear you,

Thanks for telling me that I should pray and ask God to heal me. For telling me that I don’t need medical treatment. For telling me that I just need greater faith. For telling me that I need to repent of whatever. Maybe this advice comes from a place of genuine concern and love. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. But here’s what you need to understand: Your advice is hurtful and possibly dangerous, not to mention theologically unsound.

Do you honestly think that I don’t pray constantly for God to take this from me? Of course I do! I wouldn’t wish this pain on my worst enemy, and I certainly don’t want it for myself. Do you think that I haven’t asked Him to reveal any sin that might be related to this? Do you think that I wouldn’t do whatever He asked of me if it meant getting rid of this suffering? Do you think that I haven’t spent hours crying, pleading, even shouting?

Don’t make assumptions about my faith. What you may not realize is that people with chronic illness and pain very often have a deep, fierce relationship with Christ. We have to. We are the embodiment of 2 Corinthians 12:9a (NKJV): “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.'” We can’t rely on our own bodies. We don’t take a single breath, a day outside of the house, a moment of fun for granted. We know that it is God who holds us up.

And this whole idea that sickness is always associated with sin? Well, you’re partly right. We live in a broken, fallen, sinful world. Things aren’t as they are supposed to be. So, in a general way, this connection is sound. But I direct you to John 9:1-3:

Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.'” (NKJV)

Did you catch that? Neither the blind man nor his parents had done anything to cause the problem. There was no personal sin at play. There was no repentance needed. His blindness just…was. It was just a result of living in a world where genetic mutations are basically never good. Furthermore, Jesus chose this man as an avenue for His glory. 

Now, of course, sometimes people make stupid decisions. Drug or alcohol abuse, eating poorly all the time. Sometimes illness flows out of the wrong choices we make. But did you catch that? Sometimes. People who are stricken with migraines, Autism, cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Fibromyalgia, Cystic Fibrosis…well, you tell me what whopper of thing they must’ve done. I doubt you can come up with one. If you can, then I want to come live in your world where things are so perfect and shiny and you never have any problems or issues.

Oh, wait…

So, if you’ve given this advice of “pray the sick away” to me and it really does come from love, here’s what you should know:

You are ignorant. We are never guaranteed perfect health in this life. Never. In fact, we’re guaranteed to have trouble (John 16:33). Happily that same verse also guarantees the peace of Christ as we walk through trouble. He never promises to take that trouble away, though. Look at the Apostle Paul. Let’s place the words from the 2 Corinthians passage I referenced above in context:

“And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 12:7-10 (NKJV)

We don’t know if this affliction ever left Paul, or what the affliction was, but we do know that at the point this was written healing was denied. God said no.

God can do that. God can say no. It doesn’t matter how sincere the prayer or how righteous the person praying. God can say no.

I don’t have space in this letter to get into the full scope of God, faith and illness. Suffice it to say that you need to do some study.

If you’ve given this advice of “pray the sick away” to me and it comes from a place other than real concern, here’s what you should know:

You are arrogant, and possibly more theologically unsound than the ignorant person. Take a look at your own life, buddy. Are you going to honestly tell me that you have no problems? You may not be sick, but is your marriage perfect? Do you never have issues with your kids? Is your job just fantastic? Are all of your relationships in harmony?

Actually, I hope that your life is good. I hope that it is wonderful. But I’m scared for you if you think that smooth sailing is directly connected to your faith in God. I’m scared of what will happen to you when the day comes (and it will come) when something doesn’t go your way. Is your faith strong enough to stand testing? Do you have eyes to see the Lord in the midst of the storm?

To both the ignorant and the arrogant: Stop shaming the ill. We didn’t ask for this. God isn’t punishing us. More often than not we didn’t do anything to bring it on. And even if we did, do you really think you’ve got the right to comment on it? Do you really think that you’ve got the right to assume that we never repented? And do you realize that in heaping condemnation upon a person, you’re actually doing the work of Satan, for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1)?

Now, at this point you’re probably thinking that I don’t believe in divine healing. Oh, I do. God can do whatever He wants. Just recently He lifted breast cancer off of a woman I go to church with. But He would have been no less God, and she no less a true Christian, if she’d had to go through a mastectomy and chemotherapy.

All of us, the ignorant, the arrogant and the sick, we would do well to mediate on these words from James:

“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” – 1:2-4 (MSG)

The sick need your support. We need you to pray with and for us; for strength, for peace, for wisdom in making treatment decisions. We need you to check in on us. We need you to take us to appointments, hold our hands. We need you to bring over a silly movie. In short, we need you to be a friend.

If you can’t be a friend, if you absolutely must air your views on how horrible we are because we’re sick, do us this favor: Don’t talk to us. Find someone else who agrees with you and go hang out in an echo chamber so your awesomeness will surround you all the days of your life.

Sincerely,

Me

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Yes, yes. This piece contains a good deal of snark. I really don’t know any other way to say it, though. The health-and-wealth, God-as-vending-machine, put-positive-energy-out-there garbage that passes for the Gospel these days is absolutely revolting. It’s not the truth and it helps no one, especially those who suffer.

Grace and peace along the way.