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Friday, December 28, 2012

Mass Shootings in Today's America

From the November-December 2012 issue of Forerunner.

The end of 2012 came with a bang. Many bangs, a reported 152 of them. The December 14 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, not only took the lives of 27 people, including 20 children, but the horror of the mass murder also reverberated across America, immediately spawning a national debate on school safety, mental illness, and of course, guns and the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Occurring less than six months after the Aurora, Colorado, "Batman" shooting, which killed 12 and injured 58, the Sandy Hook tragedy seems to have caused many Americans to say, "Enough is enough."

Such a reaction is natural. It is upsetting and disheartening to learn of the deaths of so many children, realizing that they were mercilessly slain by an assailant whose demons were his own. Without defense against the young man's murderous and insane rage, they died essentially alone and without comfort. It chills the heart of any parent or of any feeling person.

The death of anyone at the hands of another is cause for grief and consternation. It should cause law enforcement, government, and those involved to review what happened and ask the hard questions: Did the school, the school system, local police, and government do enough to provide a safe learning environment? Were there lapses in the safety protocols? Were reaction times fast enough? Was the school sufficiently hardened against assault? Were school employees trained in how to react? What additional measures could prevent such atrocities in the future? Responsible citizens consider it a solemn duty to undertake such an investigation to prevent anything like this massacre from happening again.

Some of these questions have been asked, but the final one on prevention has received the most ink. From what appears on the news, it seems as if the only "additional measure" that many in public office want to discuss is banning so-called assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, not to mention tightening licensing guidelines and limiting ammunition sales. Their fellow travelers in the mainstream media also jumped to this conclusion almost immediately, inaugurating a gun-control campaign as soon as the news hit the wires.

In an instant, progressive forces in America decided that the tragedy in Newtown was the perfect crisis to help erase over two centuries of constitutionally unrestricted freedom to own firearms. In defense of their crusade, they also downplayed and dismissed suggestions from Second Amendment advocates to place more armed guards in schools or to arm teachers themselves, as occurs in Israel. Gun-rights groups like the National Rifle Association were marginalized, with many in the media rolling their eyes in disbelief that anyone could defend the ownership and use of firearms.

However, they are the ones who are out of touch. According to a Harvard study, the average gun-owning American household contains about five firearms. America's more than 300 million citizens own more guns than there are cars on its streets. As a whole, these firearms collections comprise nearly half of the world's guns, a real deterrent to both internal tyranny and foreign invasion, as the Founding Fathers intended by including the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights. It is not surprising, then, that those who favor greater governmental control—as progressive political thought advocates—would desire to limit further gun sales and even reduce the number of firearms in private hands. Middle America, though, stands in their way.

Knowing a little about the reported mental state of the Sandy Hook shooter, a thinking person might wonder if some sort of mental-health measure could be effective in preventing similar tragedies. Some have suggested that a psychological checkup be added to the background check required for licensing a gun, but this idea has been dismissed as overly intrusive and open to both wild subjectivity and easy corruption. Besides, a mentally unhinged individual will find a weapon if he wants one badly enough, no matter how illegal it is for him to possess one.

Another factor that is only just beginning to be discussed is the known link of psychiatric drugs to mass killings. The Citizens Commission on Human Rights International reports in "School Shooters Under the Influence of Psychiatric Drugs" (http://www.cchrint.org/school-shooters):
Between 2004 and 2011, there have been over 11,000 reports to the U.S. FDA's MedWatch system of psychiatric drug side effects related to violence. These include 300 cases of homicide, nearly 3,000 cases of mania and over 7,000 cases of aggression. Note: By the FDA's own admission, only 1-10% of side effects are ever reported to the FDA, so the actual number of side effects occurring are most certainly higher. (See also, "A Brief History of Psychotropic Drugs Prescribed to Mass Murderers"; http://www.ladailypost.com/content/brief-history-psychotropic-drugs-prescribed-mass-murderers.)
The article links to 31 school shootings in which such drugs played a part, resulting in 72 dead and 162 wounded. Its findings do not include the Sandy Hook shooting, but its perpetrator had been prescribed Fanapt® (iloperidone), a controversial anti-psychotic medicine used to treat schizophrenia.

In all this finger-pointing, do we, as Christians, see anything missing from the discussion? To most of the politicians and pundits pontificating on the issue, the problem is inadequate safety measures, firearms, mental health, or drugs—or other factors like violent video games, a violent culture, or societal inequalities. We see that, yet again, they have left God entirely out of the picture. America's once staunchly Christian value system is fast eroding, and in its breakdown, its citizens have lost most of the internal controls that keep atrocities like these from occurring so often.

So comes to pass in modern America a fulfillment of one of the most horrifying of the Bible's prophecies: "Because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children" (Hosea 4:6).

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Christian's Information Filter

We live in the Information Age. News hits us from the four corners of the earth, making the journey in mere minutes. Images flash before us on the screens of televisions, computers, and phones. The Internet hums and thrums in and out of our lives many hours every day, bringing us data on a million subjects, major, minor, serious, absurd, useful, and useless. We have access to more timely information than we know what to do with.

It is becoming harder to remember what it was like before this incessant glut of information enveloped the world. Children and even some young adults have lived their entire lives "plugged in" to the digital universe, facts and figures and fun at their fingertips at any time, day or night. To them, using all the new gadgets and gizmos is as natural as running and jumping. How many grandparents call their grandchildren to help them when the computer or DVR "acts up"? Today's technology is intuitive to them, almost organic and simple.

Even so, it was not very long ago when we were doing things with paper and pencil. Perhaps the big corporations and learning institutions had mainframe computers to crunch heavy data and store important information, but most of us were still using rotary phones and real card catalogs. Many older folks have had a difficult time making the transition from analog to digital. Some refuse to conform at all, conceding only when they have to and only as much as they have to (some may have given up the corded phone but refuse to touch a cellphone). In any case, while the computing and communications industry giants urge us to purchase the newest and fastest technologies, not everyone is so eager to join the information revolution.

And it is no wonder. The level of information inundation is already higher than most people can handle. While the human brain is far superior to any computing device ever made or even imagined, because it is part of a conscious, critical, organic entity, it easily overloads. Unlike a computer, which uncomprehendingly stores all data as strings of ones and zeros, the human mind is aware to some extent of the value, ramifications, and usefulness of the information it receives. People make judgments—sometimes consciously, but probably more often unconsciously—about what goes into their minds, and this has an effect on them over time.

Speaking of good, helpful information—particularly, God's instruction—Solomon advises us about this in Proverbs 4:20-23:
My son, give attention to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them depart from your eyes; keep them in the midst of your heart; for they are life to those who find them, and health to all their flesh. Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life.
Other proverbs bring out a similar thought, along with its opposite:
  • "The mouth of the righteous is a well of life, but violence covers the mouth of the wicked" (Proverbs 10:11).
  • "The words of the wicked are, 'Lie in wait for blood,' but the mouth of the upright will deliver them" (Proverbs 12:6).
  • "Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit" (Proverbs 18:21).
The principle that derives from such scriptures is that good words—good information, truth—has a beneficial effect, while bad words cause problems. The Bible, then, supports the well-known catchphrase, "Garbage in, garbage out." We have to make sure that the information we allow into our minds is true and good, while filtering out and rejecting what is false. This has probably never been more critical for Christians to do than in this information-heavy age of the world.

One reason that this is so vital to do is because we are required to make moral and ethical choices on a daily basis, and we make such decisions based on the information we have at hand—or, more correctly, in our minds. If we make a decision—a judgment—based on faulty data, it is probable that our decision will itself be flawed. If we are constantly hearing from the world that 2 + 2 = 5, and we have allowed that information to pass uncritically into our minds and thus into our daily life, then it will not be long before 2 x 2 = 10 and fifteen apples make a dozen.

Such a flawed judgment has happened in the recent mass murders in Newtown, Connecticut. A troubled young man, said to have been a social misfit and prone to rages, gunned down his mother with her own weapon and then proceeded to the local elementary school to kill six adults and twenty students. Hearing of this terrible and tragic event, the nation poured out its sympathy and its desire for justice. In the aftermath, the news has been full of debate about the Second Amendment to the Constitution and the need for stricter gun-control laws. Social media have been inundated by advocates on both sides of the issue, many of them stridently pushing their views on their friends.

It is clear that the American Constitution gives citizens the right to own and bear arms. The Second Amendment was specifically included in the Bill of Rights to allow citizens to fight against, and if successful, overthrow a tyrannical government. The Founders believed that an armed citizenry was the best deterrent against overreaching federal power. Of course, citizens could also own firearms for hunting, shooting, and collecting.

Into this fray have plunged a good many members of God's church, almost all of them on the side of gun and self-defense rights. Christians have the right and freedom to own guns, and many do, using them for hunting and shooting. There is no problem with that. However, some church members have no qualms about owning guns for self-defense, and it is at this point that some serious moral questions arise. If a Christian has a weapon for self-defense, and he and/or his family were attacked in some way, would he use it and would he be justified in doing so? How would God judge his actions, whether he killed the attacker or not? Is killing in self-defense willful murder? Unpremeditated murder? Voluntary manslaughter? Involuntary manslaughter?

Perhaps to begin answering these questions for ourselves, we first need to ask, "Have we ever truly considered what God thinks on the matter, or have we just absorbed what the world says about it?" On questions like these, we need to filter out all of the world's chatter on the subject and find out what information God has provided to us in His Word that reveals His mind on it. If we fail to do this, can we be sure that we have reached a godly decision? As God says in Isaiah 8:20, "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them." There we will find true words to steer us right.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

RBV: Matthew 24:12

"And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold."
Matthew 24:12

That this verse "randomly" came up in the random verse generator seems none too coincidental today. Yesterday saw the senseless massacre of twenty kindergarten children an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, plus six other adults. A day later, we still have not been informed of the shooter's motives, although we have been told that he was "troubled" and perhaps "autistic" and "weird." His grade school classmates and neighbors are not surprised at all that his life ended this way. He seems to have been a time-bomb just waiting to go off.

Obviously, his actions in killing so many people--and children especially—show no love at all. One would have to be "cold," without feeling, to do such a thing. It brings up another verse, II Timothy 3:2, where the apostle Paul prophesies that the last days would be dangerous because "men will be lovers of themselves," and in verse 3, "without self-control, brutal." It seems we are seeing this prophecy fulfilled in ever-greater frequency, as people seem to have less and less compunction about terrorizing and taking the lives of their fellow human beings. Under the grip of a merciless narcissism, many are losing their humanity.

Even so, Matthew 24:12 is not speaking about such people; it is not addressed to the people in the world at large but directly to Jesus' disciples and their spiritual descendants. How do we know this? Jesus uses the word agape for the love that grows cold. Such spiritual love, godly love, is unattainable by those driven by the spirit of this world. This agape love—the love of God—is the kind that is "poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit [which] was given to us" (Romans 5:5). Jesus, then, is warning His church that the wickedness of the world will increase to such an extent that it would sap the spiritual heat out of His own people, causing their love to grow cold.

This has two major ramifications: 1) People in God's church will love Him less, and 2) they will love each other less. These are the two recipients of godly love. We will see the effects of this drop in the temperature of our love in reduced time and respect for God and in deteriorating relationships between brethren. We will ease off in our prayer and study, relax our formality before God, and behave carelessly ("sin in haste and repent at leisure"), assuming that He will forgive us our every trespass. Yet, we will gossip about our church friends, take advantage of their kindness and forgiveness, betray them when convenient, and judge them mercilessly even for their most minor faults. None of these things express godly love; they all portray love growing cold.

Late in his life, the apostle John wrote almost exclusively about agape love. Most of his audience probably thought it was an obsession with him, and they likely turned a deaf ear to him, complaining that the old man was ranting about his pet subject again. But perhaps John remembered hearing these words from Jesus' lips decades before and realized that love was what the church needed to be reminded about. "This is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another" (I John 3:11). "If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?" (I John 4:20).

Clearly, he saw the practice of godly love in the church as critical to those living in his day. How much more critical is it to those of us who live so much nearer to the horrors of the end time and the return of Jesus Christ? The horror of the murders in Newtown, Connecticut, should remind us that we need to stoke the fires of God's love as we see the Day swiftly approaching.

Friday, November 23, 2012

RBV: Matthew 6:24

"No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon."
Matthew 6:24

Most people who are familiar with the Bible are aware of this statement made by Jesus during His Sermon on the Mount. This teaching on the inadvisability of trying to serve two masters comes at the end of a line of comparisons between two major elements of life. Earlier, He had spoken about two different kinds of treasure, the earthly kind and the heavenly kind. Then He mentioned the good eye and the bad eye, or perhaps it would be clearer to call them the focused ("single," KJV) eye and the confused eye, which illustrate a person's outlook on his life. Obviously, Jesus is trying to help us see the dichotomy between God's way and the way of this world, man's way, or Satan's way, however we may wish to look at it.

In this verse, He moves on to the human will, telling us that it is impossible to give full allegiance to more than one entity, whether it be a family member, a boss, a cause, or even football teams!  As He says, one of them will always be slighted in some way. One's true loyalty will soon be revealed when circumstances conspire to force a choice between them. At the fish-or-cut-bait moment, we will choose to give our time and attention to the one that we really love, and the other we will "hate" by comparison.

As a native of the Steel City, I am a Pittsburgh Steeler fan and always have been. Yet, I have lived in Charlotte since 1992 and have been a fan of the Panthers since the team's first NFL game in 1995. I know a great deal about both clubs, watch most of their games, and avidly follow their player acquisitions and moves. It is good that the Steelers are an AFC team, while the Panthers are an NFC team, so they rarely play each other. But what happens when they do? There is no question: I root for the Steelers. My choice shows that I "love" the Steelers and "hate" the Panthers; I am "loyal" to the black and gold and "despise" the black, Panther blue, silver, and white. In such a situation, I cannot cheer for both.

In the last phrase, Jesus makes it clear that the choice often comes down to God on the one hand and "Mammon"a word that denotes wealth and possessionson the other. True, His audience, mostly Jews, had and still have a reputation for pursuing wealth overmuch, but His true audience is everyone. We all want more things, and we sometimes go to extreme measures to get them. When faced with the decision of following God or following the money, too many pick the latter, and in doing so, reveal our true loyalties.

He desires His disciples, therefore, to take note: The true Christian puts God first in everything. If a promotion at work means that a Christian will have to work on the Sabbath or blur some of his principles, he needs to choose God and turn down the promotion. If he can avoid a heavy tax assessment if he fudges the numbers a little on his 1040, he should choose God and submit an honest return. If he finds a wallet filled with cash, he must choose God and return it to its owner. In every case in which we must decide between obedience to God and gaining for the self, God must be our constant choice.

While this may seem somewhat onerous, this kind of total devotion and commitment is what God demands. Jesus is also the one who said,“No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62), and “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:26). Even in the verse under discussion, Jesus speaks of “serving . . . masters," which is an allusion to slavery. But we can gladly choose to serve God, the most gracious and beneficent of masters.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Past the Tipping Point

Every four years here in the United States, we hold a national election that is billed by many as "the most important election in the history of this country." It is often framed in black-and-white terms: good versus evil, the end of our Republic, a vote for individual freedom, a titanic battle of worldviews, a triumphant return to Constitutional America, the death or salvation of "the land of the free," and so forth. In most cases, such descriptions are so much hyperbole, red-meat marketing phrases guaranteed to rev up each party's base of supporters. Usually, however, the election is not truly quite so epochal. The electorate's choice is typically between two fairly similar candidates, one politically slightly right of center and the other slightly left of center.

When previous campaign seasons have not gone their way, those who believe that America is special among the world's nations—the common usage speaks of "American exceptionalism"—have always consoled themselves with the belief that the country is still basically Christian and conservative. The pundits describe the country as still having a "silent majority" of God-fearing, fiscally cautious citizens who comprise the backbone of the nation. When the more conservative candidate stumbled, supporters could be heard to say, "He may not have won, but we are still a right-of-center country."

Not anymore.

On Wednesday morning, after surveying President Obama's electoral victory over challenger Mitt Romney, conservative author and political commentator Jedediah Bila tweeted to her followers: "I always hear ‘We are a center-right country.' No. A center-right country does not elect Barack Obama twice. Time to re-evaluate." On her blog, she expanded the thought:
Would a center-right country re-elect the man who ushered in massive government overreach into the health care system? Would a center-right country welcome an Obama Doctrine that reeks of weakness on the international stage? Would a center-right country embrace class warfare rhetoric and redistribution of wealth? Not in my book.
We can look at the famous Red-Blue County Map of the nation's voting preferences and see that, except for a seeming handful of blue (Democrat-majority) counties, the country appears mostly Republican red. This seems convincing and reassuring until the map is overlaid with population density statistics, and then the truth becomes clear: Many of the blue areas are urban centers, and others are concentrations of minorities that traditionally vote Democrat. As one blogger put it, the Red-Blue Map "fails to allow for the fact that the population of the red states is on average significantly lower than that of the blue ones. The blue may be small in area, but they represent a large number of voters, which is what matters in an election." (The Electoral Vote Cartogram also shows this.) When looked at this way, America appears to be a majority left-of-center country.

What does "left-of-center" mean? The simple Left-Right political spectrum is a gauge of several attitudes toward government. Historically, Rightists have supported traditional governmental structures (thus the conservative moniker), while Leftists have felt free to try new ways of governing (thus, the progressive label). The most common American view is that those on the Left—liberals—favor big government and more governmental control and largess, while those on the Right—conservatives—prefer smaller government in all areas of life. More important to Christians is the fact that most traditional Christians and their denominations have aligned themselves with conservative principles, whereas secularists, evolutionists, and atheists mostly support liberal views.

Since true Christians do not involve themselves in the politics of this world, one might think that the ascendance of American liberalism should matter little to us, that we can continue to practice our beliefs just as well in a left-of-center nation as in a right-of-center one. But that would be na├»ve. Such a view ignores the lessons of history—both recent and biblical. When a nation goes past the tipping point of morality and upholding Christian principles, the angle of decent quickly steepens and recovery becomes nearly impossible.

Why? The answer appears in the selfish disposition of base human nature combined with the law of inertia, which simply put is that "an object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced force." Human nature, desirous of self-satisfaction, will do everything it can to keep the "unbalanced force" from correcting its course. People who reject God and His Word consider themselves to have thrown off the chains of His demanding way of life and think of themselves as "free" (see Romans 8:7). God observes in Jeremiah 5:31 that people do not want to be corrected but love deceit so they can continue in their sins, and Jesus agrees, saying in John 3:19 that "men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil."

In other words, human nature, influenced by Satan the Devil and his hatred of God and of good, has an inbuilt resistance to repentance. People tend not to like to reform. The repentance of Nineveh was a rare and marvelous exception, as Jonah's astonished reaction attests. God speaks of this reluctance to return to righteousness in Jeremiah 8:4-6:
Thus says the LORD: "Will they fall and not rise? Will one turn away and not return? Why has this people slidden back, Jerusalem, in a perpetual backsliding? They hold fast to deceit, they refuse to return. I listened and heard, but they do not speak aright. No man repented of his wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?' Everyone turned to his own course, as the horse rushes into the battle."
Thus, America's lurch to the political Left is tangible evidence of her moral and religious decline. She no longer teeters on the fulcrum, indecisive, faltering between two opinions (I Kings 18:21), but she has chosen to follow her own counsel and continue to ease God and traditional morality from the culture. In the coming years, Christians can expect to find themselves increasingly marginalized and ridiculed for holding "antiquated beliefs." Religious exemptions may well begin to disappear. If the United States follows Europe's lead, among other consequences, churches will empty, religious voices will be ignored, fewer will marry, abortions will rise and even wanted children will be scarce, euthanasia will be seen as a practical option, and ultimately, life will cheapen. The decline of Western civilization, built on the foundation of Christian values, will have successfully leaped the Atlantic.

To those who have been watching it closely, the nation's trend toward liberalism has been evident for many years, but the recent election may have confirmed it as permanent and irreversible. If that is the case, the promised curses will not be long in coming (see Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). It is time to make sure that God finds us faithful.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Endangering Our Children

From the September-October 2012 issue of Forerunner.

As the American mainstream continues to become more politically liberal, as recent election results indicate, long-held conservative beliefs seem to be facing increased marginalization. For instance, as minorities in the United States inch toward majority status, the conservative position on immigration—no amnesty, tightened border security, tougher punishment for illegal entry, limited welfare to illegals, etc.—is labeled "extreme right-wing," "unbalanced," and "unworkable." In the same way, fiscally conservative economic ideas are considered to be "harsh" and "partisan."

A particular area in which liberals feel especially empowered lately is homosexual rights, particularly on the subject of "gay marriage," a misnomer if there ever was one. Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage, while Rhode Island recognizes such "marriages" performed in other states and California recognizes them on a conditional basis. While this is hardly a majority (39 states prohibit it either constitutionally or by statute), gays are crowing and even telling conservatives to shut up and go away on the issue. As one activist put it, echoing the President's words after his 2008 election victory, "We've won."

However, objective research and empirical evidence still tilt heavily in the traditional, conservative direction. Yet, even in the face of the facts, gay and lesbian activists and their cohorts in the media feel the winds of public opinion to be so strongly on their side that they will attempt to intimidate and destroy any scientist or researcher who dares to show that the "gay" lifestyle is detrimental in any way. Lately, they have done this despite research showing that children raised in "gay households" suffer from that environment.

For instance, in July 2010, Dr. Walter Schumm, a Family Studies professor at Kansas State University, released his comprehensive study in the Journal of Biosocial Science on the effects of "gay parenting." He found that children raised by gay parents are up to twelve times more like to identify themselves as gay—58% of children of lesbians and 33% of children raised by gay men call themselves gay. Yet, only three percent of the general population is gay.

Dr. Schumm quickly felt the wrath of the homosexual lobby. He was labeled a fake and a fraud—and perhaps most biting of all politically, a "conservative plant." Though his work cannot be assailed, the personal derision sent a message to researchers that telling the truth about the many downsides of homosexuality is likely to get them publicly lampooned and pilloried.

Fortunately, fear of public ridicule has not stopped some. This past June, Social Science Research published the study of a team led by Dr. Mark Regnerus at the University of Texas-Austin. The website on their work summarizes the findings: ". . . the data suggest rather clearly that children who were raised by a parent who had a same-sex relationship were on average at a significant disadvantage when compared to children who were raised by their married, biological mother and father."

On this research, Karla Dial at CitizenLink.com writes:
According to his findings, children raised by homosexual parents are more likely than those raised by married heterosexual parents to suffer from poor impulse control, depression and suicidal thoughts, require mental health therapy; identify themselves as homosexual; choose cohabitation; be unfaithful to partners; contract sexually transmitted diseases; be sexually molested; have lower income levels; drink to get drunk; and smoke tobacco and marijuana. ("University Vindicates Mark Regnerus")
Homosexual activists and academics cried foul, calling Regnerus "homophobic" and demanding the university fire him. They lied in the media, saying that his findings were false, but could provide no proof against them. After a rigorous investigation, the university found that Regnerus' research had been conducted properly and without any kind of scientific misconduct.

Centuries—millennia actually—of experience and wisdom show that the best environment to raise children is in the home of their biological parents, each having a father and a mother. It is the family unit that God endorses. Anyone who cares about humanity, and particularly, humanity's children, should want the best for them, but not the militant homosexual lobby and their supporters. In their lust for control over what society accepts as good and moral, they are willing to condemn children to substandard lives or worse. This tells the observant that they will let nothing get in their way.

In this little slice of modern society, we see Paul's prediction of the perilous times of the last days coming to pass (II Timothy 3:1-5). If they are willing to jettison the next generation of children to enhance their political power, what else are they willing to do?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Recovering Civility

A session of the British Parliament, particularly the House of Commons, can be almost hilarious. Speakers there are frequently interrupted with hissing, booing, and other forms of caustic disagreement, but through it all a kind of strange (and hypocritical) courtesy exists between the MPs. One of them might thoroughly demolish another's ideas, crushing his proposals with sledgehammer blows of ridicule, all the while calling him "our Distinguished Colleague" or "the Learned Gentleman." It is a strange mixture of courtesy and near-hatred.

In America, we have something similar in talk radio. Depending on the host, the atmosphere ranges from amiable to vicious. Every once in a while, even on the normally placid shows, someone calls in with venom dripping from his or her voice, and a verbal melee ensues. If the two sides were in a ring, it would be a death-match. On talk radio, everybody hates something and feels the need to vent it in public. It is refreshing to hear the rare caller who respectfully pitches his side of the argument and then takes his leave to let someone else have a turn.

And of course, we are thankfully near the end of another mudslinging political campaign. Politicians drag the country through the muck and the mire every election, something they have done for more than two centuries. They always begin by declaring to campaign cleanly and only on the issues, and it always ends up that they really focus on the other candidate's determination to take away Grandma's retirement or to sell the nation down the river. The electorate often chooses the candidate with the lesser amount of mud still sticking to him.

Such incivility filters down to all levels of society. When was the last time you heard a kid other than your own say, "Yes, ma'am," or, "No, sir"? When was the last time you saw a young person give up his place in line or his seat to an older person? When was the last time you noticed a young person not sullen or disrespectful to any authority figure like a policeman?

The April 26, 1996, issue of US News and World Report published a cover story by John Marks titled "The American Uncivil War: How crude, rude, and obnoxious behavior has replaced good manners and why it hurts our politics and culture." It featured a then-recent poll that revealed that 90% of Americans thought incivility was a serious problem, and almost half considered it extremely serious, "evidence of a profound social breakdown." The article continues:
More than ninety percent of those polled believe that it contributes to the increase of violence in the country; eighty-five percent believe that it divides the national community; and the same number see it as eroding healthy values like respect for others. 
Talk to Americans, and a picture emerges of a nation addicted to the pleasures of an unruly society with emphasis on individual expression, flouting convention, and its free vent of emotion, but shocked at the effect of this unruliness. Americans feel embattled in their personal and professional lives by a rising tide of nastiness. 
Says Martin Marti, a philosopher of religion who has written on this subject, "The alternative to civility is first incivility and then war."
It is good to remember the principle that if a thing happens in the world, it will eventually find its way into the church. Human nature will find a way to rear its ugly head. Living in the culture day by day, we find it difficult not to absorb its attitudes and behaviors and begin to practice them. We have to be especially concerned about this in terms of our children, who often encounter the world in full force at the nation's godless school and on the playground.

The apostle Paul calls these evil attitudes and behaviors "works of the flesh," listing a number of them in Galatians 5:19-21:
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
We will cull out five of those mentioned in verse 20: hatred, contentions, outbursts of wrath, dissensions, and heresies. A few short explanations from commentator William Barclay in The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians will help us grasp what kind of attitudes these are.

He writes, "The idea [of 'hatred'] is that of a man who is characteristically hostile to his fellow men; it is the precise opposite of the Christian virtue of love for the brethren." Hatred, then, is the exact counterpart of philadelphia love, love of the brethren. It is 180° removed from what God wants us to show in our lives. How can we love God if we hate one another (I John 4:20)?

"Contention" or "variance" (KJV), Barclay says, "more commonly . . . means the rivalry which has found its outcome in quarrellings and wrangling." It is competitive arguing, fighting another verbally to prove who is best. It is quarreling to win, to have the last word. Such contention occurs on talk radio every day, and sometimes our doctrinal "discussions" mimic it.

On "outbursts of wrath," which could be translated as "uncontrolled temper," he comments, "The word Paul uses means bursts of temper. It describes not an anger which lasts but anger that flames out and then dies." Normally placid individuals can be provoked to explode in fury and live to regret what their lack of self-control produced.

Of "dissensions" or "seditions" (KJV), Barclay says, "Literally the word means a standing apart. . . . Dissension describes a society . . . where the members fly apart instead of coming together." This word portrays a person who goes off on his own because he holds a different opinion than the group does. In this way, the group, community, or church fragments. Sound familiar?

Finally, Barclay writes, "[Heresies] might be described as crystallized dissension. . . . The tragedy of life is that people who hold different views very often finish up by disliking, not each others' views, but each other. It should be possible to differ with a man and yet remain friends." Unfortunately, "crystallized dissension" is the state of the church right now. One member will never again talk to another because they no longer agree on some point of doctrine. So we see many factions and a hardened and unbending party spirit. It is like the Hatfield-McCoy feud where the positions have concretized to the point that little chance of reconciliation remains.

These carnal behaviors reside at the roots of our society's incivility, creating the division and disunity that are hallmarks of our time. As II Corinthians 13:5 advises, we need to ask ourselves if, in the press of our daily battles, we have allowed some of these fleshly works to creep into our lives. A little more civility could go a long way in restoring unity among God's people.

Friday, October 19, 2012

*Little Choices

Before the political left hijacked the term choice, its philosophical meaning was "an individual's freedom to determine the moral course of his own life." This is, of course, what theologians and philosophers call "free moral agency" or "free will." God gives us the freedom to choose our path, but it is clear from God's Word that He has a path that He wants us to choose to take. God commands us in Deuteronomy 30:19 to choose life, but He sets before us both life and death, making us choose which way we want to go. As Christians, we are to choose to overcome sin and to live a life of godliness and righteousness.

Despite what many Protestant churches preach in terms of grace—preachers so often minimize the gospel to say that Jesus has done it all for us—Christianity is by no means a passive religion. True Christianity is a religion of constant vigilance in a conscious endeavor—striving, struggling, and making choices—to do what is right to please God.

Consider that, if God has done it all for us, why is the Bible not just one verse long? All that would be necessary is "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). All one would have to do is accept the sacrifice of the Son, and eternity would be assured.

Yet, look how thick a Bible is! It is over 1,000 pages long and absolutely packed full of instruction. Each word in the Book is pure—purified seven times (Psalm 12:6). It is written concisely; everything in it has value. And Jesus tells us, "You shall live by every word of God" (Matthew 4:4Luke 4:4Deuteronomy 8:3). The Bible contains many pages of words because there are many necessary instructions for us to learn and follow.

Why? The overall answer is that God wants us to conform to the image of His Son, to put on His mind and character, a goal cannot be accomplished by fiat. Character is built little by little through the process of making right choices. We have to choose to conform to Jesus Christ. God will not make the choice for us. He will make it clear what He wants us to do, and He will do His best to incline us in that direction, but ultimately, we have to choose.

In choosing God's way of life, each mental and physical activity to do good, or conversely, to forsake sin, begins with a choice. The choices that we make may be conscious—when we actually stop to think things through, getting out paper and pencil to jot down all the pros and cons and weigh them in the balance, as it were, before deciding what we should do—or they may be habitual and automatic due to consistent repetition in godly living. Whether we think about them or not, they are still choices.

So, if similar problems keep coming up and we just cannot seem to shake them, we should probably consider the choices that we have been making. Our choices have led to the repeated problems. Most likely, our problems have not come on us because God is angry with us, and Satan has probably not personally put a target on our backs to take pot-shots at us. We love to blame others for our problems, but the fact is that we make a lot of dumb decisions every day! Our choices lead either to the problems that ensnare us or to peace and happiness.

The Bible presents many illustrations of people making both good and bad choices. Abraham makes a good choice in leaving Ur, yet Lot makes a bad choice in settling in Sodom. Esau chooses foolishly in selling his birthright, while Jacob wisely chooses to tithe to God. Saul decides to try to pin David to the wall with a spear, yet David will not lift his hand against the Lord's anointed. The disciples make good choices by immediately following Jesus when He calls them, yet others reject the same calling. For instance, Mark 10:17, 19-22 contains the story of the Rich Young Ruler.
Now as [Jesus] was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" So Jesus said to him, ". . . You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,' ‘Do not murder,' ‘Do not steal,' ‘Do not bear false witness,' ‘Do not defraud,' ‘Honor your father and your mother.'" And he answered and said to Him, "Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth." Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me." But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Bad choice! Very poor choice! He had the same opportunity as the disciples, but in contrast, he blows his chance by making a wrong choice. He chooses his lifestyle of wealth, prestige, and influence over eternal life, which, from his own lips, was what he was seeking! Jesus gave him the precise answer to his question and personally invited him to discipleship. It was even plain that Jesus loved him! The door was wide open!

Yet, when he had to decide, he chose money and position over God. He chose his wealth and comfort over charity and service to others. He chose the status quo rather than rocking the boat. The contrast between the Rich Young Ruler and the disciples is stark.

This life-changing choice confronts a person only once in a lifetime, and the individual either answers God's calling or rejects it. Sometimes, though, after we make this right choice, we let down and begin to overlook the small, mundane, everyday choices: "Will I lie or not?" "Will I take advantage or not?" "Will I curse or not?" "Will I gossip or not?" "Will I indulge myself or not?" We are all frequently confronted by such temptations to sin. Many are little things and some are big things, but every time we face them, we must choose.

It is in these choices that overcoming happens. These everyday choices make overcoming either possible for us or impossible. Think about it. It is far easier to make many little right decisions until they become a habit and firm, convicted character than it is to face a mammoth decision all at once with little or no experience in making smaller, correct ones.

Say, for illustration's sake, that we are given the job of cutting down a Giant Sequoia out in Northern California—with a steak knife. Now, if we make stroke after stroke, stroke after stroke, we could indeed, over a long time, cut that massive tree down. But, if the boss told us to fell it in an hour—in the analogy, this is the big decision that must be made right now—we would be unprepared and unable. The job would be far beyond us with our little steak knife.

So Jesus advises us, "He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much" (Luke 16:10). This is how to overcome sin and grow in godly character: by making those little choices every day.

Friday, October 12, 2012

What Is Truth?

The goings-on in this world constantly remind me why a certain quotation from the late novelist Michael Crichton, author of The Andromeda StrainTimelineThe Great Train RobberyState of Fear, and many other bestselling books, resonates so much. In a speech delivered to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on September 15, 2003, he said in answer to the question of what he considered the most important challenge facing mankind:
The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda. Perceiving the truth has always been a challenge to mankind, but in the information age (or as I think of it, the disinformation age) it takes on a special urgency and importance.
Last night, millions of Americans viewed the intense debate between Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican. Both candidates thrust and parried with a steady onslaught of statistics—an armory of dollars and percentages—that each insisted were correct and verified by both governmental and independent audits and studies. Of course, the statistics that were waved about had been carefully chosen to support and spin each candidate's position on the several major policies that were "discussed."

But who is the viewer to believe? Among the topics that the moderator brought up, a few were contentious. For instance, Romney-Ryan will put forward a "framework," sparse on details, to reduce the deficit, lower taxes, and create twelve million jobs, welcoming bipartisan support. Obama-Biden will cut middle-class taxes but force wealthy Americans to "pay their fair share," ensuring that Obamacare, Social Security, and Medicare remain to help everyone. The Republican candidates will take foreign policy out of the hands of the UN and take a cautious approach to pulling out of Afghanistan and intervening in Syria. The Democrat candidates will honor their agreement with their allies regarding the Afghanistan exit plan and do what they can to support the rebels in Syria without sending in troops.

One viewer may see a clear choice between the two sides, while another may see only different shades of red. This brings up another point made by Crichton:
We must daily decide whether the threats we face are real, whether the solutions we are offered will do any good, whether the problems we're told exist are in fact real problems, or non-problems. Every one of us has a sense of the world, and we all know that this sense is in part given to us by what other people and society tell us; in part generated by our emotional state, which we project outward; and in part by our genuine perceptions of reality. In short, our struggle to determine what is true is the struggle to decide which of our perceptions are genuine, and which are false because they are handed down, or sold to us, or generated by our own hopes and fears.
Or, as a cynical, career-politician named Pontius Pilate once asked Jesus, "What is truth?" (John 18:38). Not only had he spent his adult life clambering upward in Roman politics, but as governor of Judea, he had also spent many years skirting the pitfalls inherent in Jewish politics. He knew how the world works. Each political party or religious sect had its own "truth," and who could know which was correct? Certainly, an outsider as he was could not separate the pure from the dross. He knew from experience that in a sophisticated world like the Roman Empire—or like our modern civilization—what is perceived to be true is often more important than what is actually true. Clever men can ride such perceptions to the heights of power.

Crichton's warning, then, while intended for us in these Daniel 12:4 times, spotlights an age-old challenge: How do we determine the truth? Our problem is more difficult than Pilate's was only in the fact that we are faced with a tsunami of information each day, as compared to his mere trickle of news. It has been posited that just one Sunday New York Times contains more information than the average medieval villager would receive in a lifetime, and we can be sure that a Roman official would gather somewhat more. As the prophet wrote, "Knowledge [information] shall increase."

Even so, human nature is the same now as it was then, so the level of dishonesty and trickery in those who supply the information is probably nearly the same. Just as Pilate had to discern the facts in the case the Jews brought against Jesus, we have to determine, in a myriad of instances, what is truth and what is marketing, propaganda, spin, disinformation, hyperbole, etc. We must ferret out motives, discover fallacies, and consider probabilities and potentialities. None of these things is easy to do, but some of us, perhaps even many of us, have become proficient in doing these things due to being constantly forced to make such evaluations.

By "us," I mean members of the church of God. There is a good reason—in fact, two good reasons—why we may be better at this than others are: 1) We have access to the truth in God's Word, and 2) we have the help of the Holy Spirit to discern truth. Jesus tells us in John 8:31-32: "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." This is an extremely significant statement. It links God's Word with the truth, discipleship with living the truth, and understanding the truth with liberty.

Divine revelation, which we have in Scripture, gives us the foundational truths that do not change, providing us with a starting point of discernment and oftentimes a great deal more. This allows us to cut through the static and grasp the heart of an issue, comment, or claim, making the determination of truth or error easier. Moreover, if we are living the truth, we have experience to know what works and what does not, giving us a further edge. Finally, a deep understanding of the truth allows us the freedom to choose what to believe and what to reject.

In terms of discerning truth, God gives us an awesome gift in the Holy Spirit, which John 14:17 calls "the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive." Later in that Passover message, Jesus instructs the disciples that the Spirit "will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13). Most specifically, He implies spiritual truth, "the deep things of God" that Paul writes about in I Corinthians 2:10-16. However, those spiritual truths do not exist in a vacuum. They reach out into every area of life, shining a light on what is real and exposing what is false. Paul concludes his teaching by saying, ". . . he who is spiritual judges all things" (verse 15), and in actuality, such a person with God's Spirit is in process of developing the very mind of Christ (verse 16).

The task of discerning the truth in these confusing times is before us. We can be thankful that God has given us the tools to meet the challenge and overcome it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Interesting Times

A purported ancient Chinese curse says, "May you live in interesting times," and so we do. Important events seem to occur about once a week these days, and over the past week, in my estimation, we have witnessed at least two of them. One happened right here in Charlotte, North Carolina, while the other happened a few days later a world away.

The first of these, which took place last Tuesday, September 5, 2012, at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, concerns the re-inclusion of references to Jerusalem as Israel's capital and to God in the official Democratic Party National Platform. Earlier in the week, the exclusion of these terms had been made public, and the reaction to them from Joe and Jane American was decidedly negative. Thus, the decision was made, evidently by high-ranked party leaders—President Obama himself certainly gave his approval—to return the pro-Israel, pro-God language to the platform. To do that, however, a two-thirds majority of the assembled delegates had to approve the reinstatement.

The matter was brought up in Tuesday's session. The convention chairman, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, brought the change to the floor for a voice vote. The video of this is clear: He did not get the required two-thirds majority. In fact, Villaraigosa had to ask the delegates three different times, and each time it sounds as if the "nay" votes became louder. After the second request, the L.A. mayor was clearly perplexed, and a Democrat party official had to advise him, "You got to let them do what they are going to do," which he took to mean that he was to ignore the crowd and its reaction. He asked for their votes a third time, and then read the scripted response from the teleprompter: "In the opinion of the chair, two-thirds have voted in the affirmative. The motion is adopted, and the platform has been amended as shown on the screen."

While the official platform now retains the mentions of Jerusalem and God, it cannot be denied that the original document purposely left them out, and further, that the sentiment of the convention delegates was at least evenly divided on the matter. Those who shouted, "No!" louder and louder each time were clearly agitated that the approval had been rammed through over their objections. How ironic that the party that proudly bears "democracy" in its name did not abide by democratic principles on this issue but applied the heavy hand of authoritarianism to do its leaders' will. If the parliamentary process had been followed at the convention, God and Jerusalem would not have been part of the party platform.

What is more, some commentators have made a point of drawing a line between the three nay votes on this issue and the apostle Peter's three denials of Christ before His crucifixion, which is found in all four gospel accounts (see Matthew 26:31-35, 69-74; Mark 14:27-31, 66-71; Luke 22:31-34, 56-61; John 13:36:38; 18:17, 25-27). Like Peter, the Democrat Party has a longtime association with Christianity and Christian values and claims to be doing the Lord's work in caring for the poor and powerless in society. However, when its delegates are asked to choose to support mere language about God and Jerusalem—when they must take a stand one way or the other—they, in effect, deny Him.

Since those at the convention were delegates of Democrats all over the nation, the loud denial makes one wonder how closely they represent party members at home. Does at least half of the largest political party in the nation want nothing to do with God? Have America's citizens drifted so far from its religious roots that association with God and Jerusalem are considered a political liability? These are serious questions because of what Paul calls a "faithful saying" in II Timothy 2:11-13, part of which reads, "If we deny Him, He will also deny us" (verse 12). That has truly frightening implications.

The second "interesting event" occurred in Benghazi, Libya, on the eleventh anniversary of the al Qaida attacks on September 11, 2001. Protesters stormed the U.S. Consulate there, and in a night-long, well-planned and well-coordinated attack by professional militants—a violent, anti-Gadhafi group connected with al Qaida—the American Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed along with three other embassy staff members. When the killers attacked the U.S. compound, they were heavily armed with anti-aircraft automatic cannon and rocket-propelled grenades.

The news media reported that the attack was in response to a YouTube trailer for a low-budget, anti-Muhammad film, Innocence of Muslims, made by a Christian Egyptian-American filmmaker in the U.S. Many Muslims across the Middle East consider the film blasphemous for its negative depiction of Islam's founder. According to Reuters, the film trailer portrays Muhammad "as a fool, a philanderer and a religious fake," while others add that the movie characterizes him as a pederast, a murderer, and a homosexual. However, as more information surfaces, it appears that the attackers used the protest over the film to carry out a terrorist strike against the United States, if nothing else, to commemorate the 9/11 attack.

It has also been reported that vital intelligence files have gone missing after the attack, including sensitive documents identifying Libyans working with the American government and private information regarding oil contracts. Also missing was information locating the supposedly secret safe house where much of the consular staff had retreated and which itself came under attack later that night.

Worse, the Independent reports:
According to senior diplomatic sources, the US State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert and ‘lockdown,' under which movement is severely restricted.
This is being called "a serious and continuing security breach." The Obama administration denies that the information was actionable.

To this point, the U.S. response has been tepid, issuing an apology to Muslims for the insult against Muhammad, condemning the attack, and sending a Marine response team to Libya. Two Navy destroyers armed with Tomahawk missiles have been dispatched to patrol the Libyan coast, and drones have begun flying over the country to search for the perpetrators.

These two events, occurring within days of each other, seem to be signs of the time. It makes one wonder if the two are linked—a quick response from God to show what happens when a people thinks to remove Him from their lives. Will this nation recognize God's warning (see Amos 4:6-13)?

Friday, September 7, 2012

The False Morality of Compassion


Flipping channels on Wednesday night during a commercial break in the Giants-Cowboys football game, I landed on the local PBS station that was airing the speeches from the Democratic National Convention here in Charlotte. Former President Bill Clinton had just begun to give his long nomination speech:
We Democrats think the country works better with a strong middle class, real opportunities for poor people to work their way into it and a relentless focus on the future, with business and government working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. We think "we're all in this together" is a better philosophy than "you're on your own." 
Who's right? . . . 
It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, because discrimination, poverty, and ignorance restrict growth, while investments in education, infrastructure, and scientific and technological research increase it, creating more good jobs and new wealth for all of us.
On the surface, this sounds good, and the delegates on the floor of the convention hall loved it. His words skewered the Republicans and at the same time reconfirmed their own political beliefs. In effect, the former President was saying that members of his party hold the moral high ground because their policies help the poor and disadvantaged and lift everyone up equally. As the more compassionate of the two parties, he implied, the Democrats have the answers to humanity's problems that will last the test of time.

Perhaps that is overstating what he meant, but he and the Democrats certainly believe that they are more compassionate than and thus morally superior to cold-hearted Republicans. As some of the campaign ads imply, Mitt Romney and his supporters want nothing more than to do away with all welfare, push Grandma and her wheelchair over a cliff, pollute America's air and water, force everyone to own a gun, and unleash unfettered greed on the nation. While these are, of course, exaggerations, they illustrate the vast gulf that many Democrats see between themselves and their rivals across the party divide.

Seeing this "compassion deficit" in the image of the Republican Party, George W. Bush and his Republican cohorts in the 2000 Presidential election coined the term "compassionate conservatism" to spotlight the fact that people on the right care too. Unfortunately, this led President Bush to compromise on several social issues, particularly education and prescription drug legislation, to prove that he and his party had soft hearts. Democrats vilified them anyway, and many conservatives threw up their hands in dismay at the undermining of their principles. Vestiges of "compassionate conservatism" still linger in the thinking of the leadership of the Republican Party, which has contributed to the rise of the Tea Party.

It is apparent that this crude dichotomy remains in people's perceptions of the two parties. Because of their advocacy of minority rights, welfare, universal healthcare, amnesty, labor unions, choice, and the like, Democrats are considered to be more compassionate than Republicans are. However, as Christians, we need to realize that compassion is not an inviolable virtue—and in fact, it is difficult to think of any virtue that cannot be abused by impure motives. Just as love can be feigned to get a spouse's money or loyalty can be faked to attain a promotion, so can compassion be put on to gain sympathy, votes, and power.

Unless a person has a heart of stone, he will feel compassion for those who are suffering, and that emotional reaction often fuels a helpful response in the form of aid, much like the Good Samaritan had compassion on the man who was wounded by thieves on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:30-37). He saw the man in his plight, sympathized with him, and selflessly cared for him at his own expense. Jesus shows that we should "go and do likewise" (verse 37), as such compassion is the mark of a true Christian. We see compassion similarly encouraged in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where the righteous sheep help those in need, expecting no reward (Matthew 25:31-46).

It is instructive to see Jesus showing compassion in the few times it is mentioned in the gospels. The first appears in Mark 1:41, where He, "moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched [a leper], and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.'" Another time, recorded in Luke 7:13, He feels compassion for a widow who had just lost her only son, and He raises him from the dead. In Matthew 20:34, He has compassion on two blind men and heals them. Both Matthew and Mark record that Jesus had compassion on the multitude that had followed Him "because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd" (Matthew 9:36; see Mark 6:34). He also has compassion on multitudes because they had nothing left to eat (Matthew 15:32Mark 8:2) and because many of them needed healing (Matthew 14:14).

In each of these cases, Jesus shows compassion for people whose circumstances had reached a point of dire need, and they had no ability to help themselves. He then performs a miracle that alleviates the problem. Notice, however, that, like the Good Samaritan, He asks for nothing for Himself, except perhaps that they keep the miracle to themselves. He has little or nothing to gain by helping them—and in fact, His miracles could draw the unwanted attention of the authorities—but He helps them anyway out of outgoing concern. His compassion has no ulterior motive except to draw them closer to God.

Jesus was not a politician; He never demanded a quid pro quo. True compassion, as He practiced it, is an outpouring of agape love, a selfless concern for the ultimate well-being of another expressed in sacrificial action in the other's behalf. His compassion for humanity went so far that He gave His life for us "while we were still sinners," unworthy of aid as His enemies (Romans 5:8, 10). His compassion for our weakness and suffering will ultimately lead to our eternal life in His Kingdom, for when He expresses His love for us, it never ends (I Corinthians 13:8).

Examining Christ's true empathy beside the contrived compassion of America's political parties exposes the latter as mercenary, trite, and false. Neither party has any moral high ground to stand on because both use it to curry favor and attract votes, not to solve endemic problems. As the psalmist writes, "Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. . . . Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help" (Psalm 146:3, 5).

Monday, September 3, 2012

RBV: Psalm 146:3


"Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help."
Psalm 146:3


The psalmist's advice in this verse is an oft-repeated notion throughout Scripture. Psalm 118:8-9 reads, "It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes." Jeremiah 17:5 puts it even more bluntly, "Thus says the LORD: 'Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the LORD.'" 

This is the essential understanding of this verse: Human beings, compared to God, are fundamentally untrustworthy. While people must be trusted from time to time in everyday life, in the most important matters, however, we cannot afford to lean on the broken crutch of human aid. Ultimately, we are bound to be disappointed because peopleeven the most well-intentionedwill fail us.

There are several reasons for this. First, people are weak; even the most powerful of men are limited in what they can do. Unlike God, they do not have sovereign control over people, nations, nature, or time. Their limitations make them inconsistent, unable to help when it is needed most.

Second, men are mortal. Several of the other scriptures that warn us not to put our trust other human beings mention that people are here today and gone tomorrow. For instance, Psalm 62:9 tells us, "Surely men of low degree are a vapor, men of high degree are a lie; if they are weighed on the scales,
they are altogether lighter than vapor." And of course, the verse after our subject verse reads, "His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish" (Psalm 146:4). Because men live and die so quickly, they  lack both the wisdom and the perspective to be trusted on the "big questions" of life. Only God has the eternal knowledge and experience to give us right help and answers we need.

Finally, human beings are unreliable. They blow hot and cold, as it were. They have self-interests that sometimes align with our own and at other times do not. Princesleadersespecially, do not have our best interests in mind, as they have, not only personal desires, but also political goals to pursue. God, however, though the greatest Leader in the universe, always does what is best for us. Moreover, He is always faithful to what He has promised (I Corinthians 1:9), so if we go to Him and ask Him for help that He has pledged to us, He will give it.

This verse gives us good advice. We would do well to heed it.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

RBV: Ezekiel 35:6

". . . therefore, as I live," says the Lord GOD, "I will prepare you for blood, and blood shall pursue you; since you have not hated blood, therefore blood shall pursue you."
—Ezekiel 35:6

We see from the beginning of the chapter that God addresses this prophecy to "Mount Seir" (Ezekiel 35:1-2), which is an alternative name for Edom, descendants of Esau and cousins of the Israelites. About a thousand years before this prophecy, the family of Esau had migrated from Canaan southeastward into the rugged wilderness area beyond the Dead Sea (Genesis 32:3). Here, the people of Seir lived, and within a short time, the two families had merged into the nation of Edom. There is an indication that "Mount Seir" may specifically refer to Edom's central leadership (see verse 15).

From the beginning, the Edomites harbored a brooding hatred for their uncle Jacob's descendants, whom we know as the children of Israel. Clearly, the original bone of contention was Jacob's stealing of the patriarchal blessing from Esau (Genesis 27), as well as his procuring of the birthright for a song when Esau was desperate for food (Genesis 25:29-34). The two branches of the family have been in near-continual conflict ever since. The first people to harry the Israelites as they came out of Egypt were the Amalekites, one of the clans of Esau's line (Exodus 17:8-16), and at the end of that battle, Moses prophesies, "[T]he LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation" (Exodus 17:16).

As Israel approached the Promised Land nearly forty years later, Moses asked permission of the Edomites to pass through their land, but they refused (Numbers 20:14-21). As the generations passed, the two fought sporadically, and Edom invariably sided with Israel's enemies in other actions. The Edomites earned the reputation of taking advantage of Israel or Judah when they were down, raiding and plundering in the wake of military defeats. Through Amos, God castigates the Edomites, "I will not turn away its punishment, because he pursued his brother [Israel] with the sword, and cast off all pity; his anger tore perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever" (Amos 1:11).

This is the background of Ezekiel 35. When the Babylonian army under Nebuchadnezzar attacked and conquered Judah, destroying Jerusalem and the Temple and deporting thousands of Jews to Babylon, the Edomites allied themselves with the Chaldeans. God mentions this in verse 5: ". . . you . . . have shed the blood of the children of Israel by the power of the sword at the time of their calamity, when their iniquity came to an end. . . ." Their perfidious activity at this time is detailed in the book of Obadiah.

Thus, because the Edomites were so eager to shed blood"since you have not hated blood," as God understates it—they would have to experience their blood being shed. God would set them up—"I will prepare you for blood"—to be conquered and laid waste in punishment for their atrocities against His people. He promises, "I will make you perpetually desolate, and your cities shall be uninhabited; then you shall know that I am the  LORD" (verse 9). Soon thereafter, their "ally" Nebuchadnezzar took over their lands as he had done to Judah (see Jeremiah 27:3, 6), and it was not long before the Nabateans pushed them out of their ancestral homeland and into southern Judea, where they remained a subject people.