Friday, December 31, 2010

Where Is Your Heart?

When speaking with a new client, career counselors, after getting all the pertinent information on job history and the like, will often ask their clients, "Now, what do you really want to do? Where is your heart?"—or as the self-help book asked, "What color is your parachute?"

They probably receive a lot of wild responses such as, "Well, I have always wanted to run away to the circus." Or, "I actually enjoy ironing!" Or, "All my life, all I have ever wanted to do is sing!" A good counselor, after hearing what the client would like to do, will put him through a battery of tests to see if his talents and aptitudes actually match his dreams.

Often, it is not the case. The tests may show that the man who wanted to run away to the circus would actually do well as an accountant, and the woman who loved ironing would make an excellent TV meteorologist. The singer should perhaps not quit his day job.

The question, though, is a good one: "Where is your heart?" We are considering, not the thumping muscle in the center of one's chest, but what has been called "the heart of hearts," our deep-down desires, goals, dreams, hopes, aspirations. What do you enjoy doing? What would make you spring out of bed every morning, other than a strong cup of coffee?

It can be put another way: What are we invested in? We should not think of this only in terms of money, but also in terms of time, resources, loyalties, hopes, etc. As a new year begins, perhaps this is a question worth pondering.

On the annual holy days, we frequently read the instructions in Deuteronomy 16:16-17 on giving an offering to God. Verse 17, however, applies to this question of "Where is your heart?": "Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you." On the surface, it may not seem to be relevant, but it indeed comes into play because what we are able to give depends on where we have placed our priorities. And we place our priorities where our hearts are.

Business people make sure that the resources of the company are expended on their core missions. They have to know what they really want to accomplish so that they can allocate the necessary resources to those chief operations or goals. A firm may direct a large portion of its resources to marketing, so it can get its name out before the demographic that will buy its products. For other enterprises, the priority might be research, as they want to put more money into making their products better and developing new products that will serve their clientele and increase profits. Yet others, perhaps those in service industries, may consider people to be the most important part of their business. These organizations emphasize customer relations and satisfaction. Where the priorities are decides where the resources go.

In the same way, a family may budget its resources for necessities: food, energy, rent or mortgage, clothing, automobile, education. Our priorities, however, are not always necessities, and this is where we may begin to go off the track. We can convince ourselves that certain things that are not really necessities are necessities. Food on the table, a roof over our heads, and clothing on our backs are necessities. High-definition televisions, DVDs, convection ovens, iPhones, PlayStations, and all the latest whiz-bang gadgets are not necessities, but we often convince ourselves that they are, having completely swallowed the drivel of advertisers.

This should lead us back to asking ourselves, "What are our priorities?" What is truly important to us? What do we really need versus what do we merely want? Where are our hearts?

Notice Jesus' instructions from Luke's version of part of the Sermon on the Mount:
But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you. Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:31-34)

Our Savior succinctly explains what our priorities are—where our hearts should be. Earlier, He had advised that we should not even worry about necessities. Nevertheless, what does He tell us to do here? He says, "Sell what you have, and give alms," so one element of our priorities is giving. This is not a command to give all our money away. What He says is modified by what His instruction concerning providing ourselves money bags: He does not want us to make ourselves destitute. In fact, He wants us to gather and increase treasure!

Jesus instructs us to spend our resources—whether it is time, energy, our concentration, or even our money—on the things that really matter, that will propel us toward the Kingdom of God, that will secure for us heavenly and eternal benefits. That is where our hearts should be: in the things that God also prizes.

Isaiah provides a clear and succinct description of what that treasure is: "The LORD is exalted, for He dwells on high; He has filled Zion with justice and righteousness. Wisdom and knowledge will be the stability of your times, and the strength of salvation; the fear of the LORD is His treasure" (Isaiah 33:5-6). God's treasure is the fear of the Lord, and that is where our hearts should be also.

Theologians sometimes quibble about the precise definition of "fear of the Lord," but a more general, more encompassing one may be better for our purposes. Simply put, the fear of the Lord is perceiving and accepting where we stand in relation to God and then acting appropriately. It is recognizing that God is vast and we are minuscule. He is magnificent, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing—among other things—and we are but worms. And once we have this fact firmly embedded in our minds, we live every second in the humility and fear of this awesome Being, for one with the proper fear of the Lord puts God, His will, and His goals first.

When we do this, the rest of life falls into place. This is not to say that all of our problems disappear. Certainly not. Nevertheless, we now have a template for making wise, godly decisions in ordering and conducting our other concerns, for "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10). When our hearts are first and foremost unflinchingly loyal to God, we have set our course to achieve the greatest goal a human can desire, to please God and dwell eternally with Him in His Kingdom. Is that where your heart is?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Geopolitics of Israel

Forerunner, "WorldWatch," November-December 2010

A nation's or region's geography constrains its policy choices, especially in its international relations. This is essentially the definition of geopolitics. Where a nation is located—landlocked or coastal, northern hemisphere or southern, Eastern or Western, high latitude or low, etc.—and what geographical features the land possesses—mountains, rivers, coasts, deserts, forests, etc.—dictate to a great extent how it can and will react to most events and crises that affect it. Other factors, such as mineral wealth, arable land, and natural harbors, also play their parts.

Geopolitics is not an exact science—nations do act "outside the box" on occasion—but it provides a framework for understanding why nations decide to do one thing over another. For instance, a large nation like Russia, which has almost no natural barriers to invasion, will endeavor to create a series of buffer states between itself and its most powerful enemies to forestall aggression against it. Thus, since its rise to great power status, Russia has sought to establish and protect its "near abroad," the quasi-independent republics that line its western and southern perimeter. This fact of geography helps to explain Russia's domination and intervention in nations like Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the like.

Despite its small size, the land of Israel, on which the Bible's actions center, is not exempt from geographical and therefore geopolitical realities. Its size, shape, topographical features, and climate all shape its rulers' courses of action, as well as its enemies' options in coming against it. A serious student of the Bible will keep these factors in mind, especially when reading through the historical narratives found from Genesis to II Chronicles and beyond.

Israel has been an independent actor in three general periods in history: 1) from the invasion under Joshua until Judah's defeat by Nebuchadnezzar; 2) from the return of the Jewish exiles under Zerubbabel until Titus razed Jerusalem in AD 70; and 3) in its current manifestation as a nation since 1948. In all three periods, Israel has found itself struggling to retain its independence due to external imperial ambitions and internal tensions. This consistent political situation is a result of its unchanging geography.

Generally, Israel has stretched from southern Lebanon and the hill country in the north (often including the Golan Heights) to the Negev in the south—in effect, "from Dan to Beersheba," a Hebrew phrase that implies "all Israel" (Judges 20:1; I Samuel 3:20; II Samuel 24:2). On occasion, Israelites also ruled areas east of the Jordan River, but they never encroached far into Arabia or even into Sinai, for that matter. Only under a strong leader like David or Solomon did the borders venture much beyond the "Dan to Beersheba" rule. This holds true even today.

Deserts protect Israel from three directions, providing fairly deep buffer zones from enemies to the southwest, southeast, and east. The Sinai Desert holds off the Egyptians except when they are particularly strong, as in the days of Thutmose III and Ramses II, for example. The southeastern desert guards the approaches from Eilat/Aqaba at the northern end of the eastern arm of the Red Sea. Thus, it has not had to worry a great deal about an invasion from Arabia. Finally, the eastern desert, along with the Jordan River, makes attacking from that direction a risky proposition, especially if Israel holds both Judea and Samaria. Today, however, air forces considerably lessen the deserts' effectiveness as barriers to invasion.

Israel's greatest vulnerability lies in the north where few natural barriers exist, and history shows that this is the route most of its conquerors—excluding Egypt—have taken when invading the land. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans have all marched down the northern trade routes and through the northern valleys to lay waste to Samaria and Jerusalem. The only real check is the chokepoint between Mount Hermon and the Sea of Galilee, a hilly area about 25 miles wide, where either direct confrontation or guerrilla tactics can stymie an approaching army.

Once through this area, to reach the wealthy coastal cities or to turn south toward the heart of Israel, an invading force would have to fight its way through the rich valleys of the northern hills. A decisive victory for the invader here could open the rest of the land to exploitation. This fact explains why Megiddo—Armageddon in Revelation 16:12-16—has been the site of many bloody battles in which imperial powers and determined defenders have contested for possession of the land.

Imperial powers have coveted the land of Israel because it forms part of a land bridge connecting Africa, Asia, and Europe. As geopolitical analyst Dr. George Friedman notes, "Israel therefore occupies what might be called the convergence zone of the Eastern Hemisphere." If this area is successfully gained, it allows for both swift movement of troops and supplies along the eastern Mediterranean coast and secures maritime shipping lanes. As the crossroads of three continents, control of this narrow strip of land is fiercely contested.

Because it is an international magnet (attracting other ethnicities, religions, and commercial/cultural/political influences), and because its own internal geography creates different types of people (coastal, cosmopolitan merchants; northern farmers and warriors; and southern herdsmen and fighters), Israel's leaders must also deal with domestic tensions that threaten to tear the nation into a hundred pieces. When these divisions are minimal, Israel tends to be strong and able to hold off foreign incursions. However, when the nation is deeply divided, its chances of being overrun increase. Even today, Israel's prime ministers must often cobble together coalition governments to provide enough stability to hold its neighbors at bay.

As we read biblical history, these geopolitical factors frequently come into play in understanding why Israel's leaders acted as they did when faced with both internal and external crises. Keeping them in mind may also help us make sense of today's news accounts—and the events of the end time.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Wisdom for the Young (Part Five)

How does a young person seek God? Some people, having grown up in certain evangelical circles, have an overly sentimental opinion of how an individual should come to God. Many Protestant churches have fostered the idea that a person must come before the altar at the front of the church and "give his heart to the Lord." This kind of emotional, altar-call conversion, many believe, is the quintessence of how seeking God works. The sad thing is that, biblically, it is not the way it works.

Seeking God is a personal, private matter between God and the individual, but the result of the person's quest will be publicly manifested in the way he lives. That is, his conduct will change, and people will notice. He will, as John the Baptist preached, "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Matthew 3:8).

At the outset, we must realize that seeking God actually does not begin with us. God must initiate a relationship through His calling, as John 6:44 says. A person may sincerely think he is looking for God, but He will not be found by anyone unless He first extends an invitation to salvation and opens the mind to His truth. However, children of church members already have a relationship with God, as they have been sanctified—set apart or made holy—by their parent(s) relationship(s) with Him (see I Corinthians 7:14). They have a kind of "automatic calling," a unique opportunity to seek God in their youth.

Once a person clears this initial stage, what should happen? In Isaiah 51:1-2, 7, God says:

Listen to Me, you who follow after righteousness, you who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you; for I called him alone, and blessed him and increased him. . . . Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, you people in whose heart is My law. . . .
This passage provides a short outline of what seeking God is and how we should go about doing it. In the first verse, God speaks to "you who seek the LORD," which parallels the phrase immediately before it, "you who follow after righteousness." Parallel phrases like this often define one another. Thus, one who seeks God pursues righteousness. In other words, a person who wants a relationship with Him will do what He says. When an individual practices godly living, he is seeking the Lord.

God follows this with some advice: "Look to the rock from which you were hewn," which has a double meaning. In the Bible, the Rock is often a symbol of Jesus Christ (see I Corinthians 10:4), so a major way that we learn how to seek righteousness is by learning and following the example of Christ. The second meaning, emphasized here, comes out in His mention of Abraham and Sarah in verse 2. He counsels us to examine the lives of our righteous spiritual forebears to see how they followed God and lived out their faith.

Later, in Isaiah 51:7, He speaks to those who have put His law in their hearts. This occurs when a person studies God's Word and burns the truth that he finds there into his character by putting it to use in the circumstances of his life. This verse contains another parallelism in which He equates knowing righteousness (that is, understanding godly conduct) with having His law written in the heart. These things are possible only within a deepening relationship with God.

Isaiah 55 contains, as the New King James Version styles it, "An Invitation to Abundant Life":

Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance. Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you—the sure mercies of David. . . . Seek the LORD while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. (Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-7)
Once we begin following God, these are the next steps to take. Seeking the Lord requires more than just listening and learning. He says that we must call upon Him in prayer, so that we can get to know Him. We need to confess our sins to Him, so that we can seek forgiveness. We are also required to repent, that is, turn from our sins and turn toward His good and right way.

Notice that He says, "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts." God targets the sin in us on two levels: our "way"—our exterior conduct and behavior—and our "thoughts"—our interior attitudes and motivations. Both must be examined and purified. God says that, if we do this, He will have abundant mercy, and the relationship will leap forward.
Zephaniah 2:1-3 adds a sense of urgency to seeking a relationship with God:

Gather yourselves together, . . . O undesirable nation, before the decree is issued, or the day passes like chaff, . . . before the day of the LORD'S anger comes upon you! Seek the LORD, all you meek of the earth, who have upheld His justice. Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the LORD'S anger.
God advises, "Seek Me now! Don't delay! You don't know how much time you have left!" We believe that Christ's return is fast approaching, but we cannot say exactly when, and we certainly do not know when we will draw our last breath. Thus, God tells us not to procrastinate when it comes to having a relationship with Him. Seek Him now, before the dark days come.

"For thus says the LORD to the house of Israel: ‘Seek Me and live'" (Amos 5:4). God is not really speaking about physical life, but about the abundant life and eternal life. In verses 14-15, He commands: "Seek good and not evil, that you may live. So the LORD God of hosts will be with you, as you have spoken. Hate evil, love good; establish justice in the gate. It may be that the LORD God of hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph."

The church is the remnant that God has called out of this world to follow Him and live, so that He can continue to be gracious to us all the way to the Kingdom of God. And He wants, not just young people, but everyone in the church to seek Him and live. The youth, however, have a golden opportunity to say with the psalmist, "O God, You have taught me from my youth; and to this day I declare Your wondrous works" (Psalm 71:17).

Friday, November 12, 2010

Wisdom for the Young (Part Four)

Proverbs 15:21 makes an interesting comment on the subject of foolishness: "Folly is joy to him who is destitute of discernment, but a man of understanding walks uprightly." Solomon suggests that we tend to fool ourselves when our main goal is to have fun. We think having fun by doing foolish things brings us joy, but the wise know that folly cannot bring joy. It is oxymoronic, a contradiction of terms. We only think that because we have trained our minds to equate "having fun" and "feeling pleasure," which we confuse with joy. Pleasure and joy are not absolutely synonymous because true joy—the kind of joy that is a fruit of God's Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and that God wants us to have to abundance (Romans 15:13)—is a product of goodness.

This idea is expressed in the proverb's second half: "a man of understanding walks uprightly." Those who truly understand what life is all about live a godly life, and they receive the joy that the undiscerning madly seek through foolish pleasure. Recall that Proverbs 29:18 cautions that, without vision or revelation, people "cast off restraint." This proverb is saying a similar thing. Without discernment of what is good and right, we tend to pursue folly and reap the bitterness it eventually produces.

When young, we often lack the wisdom to be able to distinguish mere foolish fun from real joy. Sometimes such wisdom has to come with age and experience—the hard knocks that result from bad decisions. However, if a person can grasp the difference while young, it will save a whole lot of misunderstanding and misery.

If a young person takes the time to consider the consequences (Deuteronomy 32:29), and if he is honest, it will began to dawn on him or her that the "wild life" hurts. Doing foolish, careless, or rebellious things causes trouble. For one, when caught and the hammer comes down in the form of restriction or even imprisonment, it impinges on freedom. At other times, depending on the type of foolishness, a youth may have to pay a heavy financial penalty in fines or compensation. Young women sometimes have to "pay" with a trashed reputation or an unwanted pregnancy—and both sexes pay with sexual diseases. College-bound kids sometimes have to forfeit scholarships and even admission when their transgressions come to light, often ruining career possibilities forever. These painful lessons should teach that sin does not pay. Doing the wrong things will bring down some form of penalty.

Conversely, people who have not lived foolishly have little to no baggage and few regrets. They can talk openly about their past without deceit or embarrassment. They do not have to carry their indiscretions around with them like a black mountain chained across their shoulders. The godly pleasures that they learned to appreciate are not tainted by guilt. Among their peers, they demonstrate sterling examples of virtuous conduct, and in time, they also provide them to their children. Spiritually, when God calls them into His Family, they have far less to overcome, and to them, God's way of life is familiar and a joy to practice.

Unfortunately, too many young people tend to think of God and His way as something for old folks. In fact, they think of God as old—He has existed forever—and that He does not really identify with the young. When they read the Bible, which is itself two thousand years old, they sense that the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles are old and not very hip.

The parents of these youth frequently came into the church in middle age, which is ancient to a youngster. And, it is true, a quick glance seems to show that the church has a disproportionate number of senior citizens to young people. To top it off, most of the ministry in the scattered churches of God these days is ageing too. The church, then, as a whole, tends to appear old all over. It is no wonder that some young people think that God's way is for when a person's hair turns gray, and no sooner!

With this perspective, it is easy to imagine that young people fail to see the relevance of God's way for them today. How does it affect them in high school or college? What does it have to do with iPods, texting, dating, their first job, video games, Algebra II, a dismal economy, pop music, or the twelve-year-old rattletrap in the driveway?

However, this is a mistaken view. God's way—righteousness—is for young people too!

For starters, a young person might be surprised to learn just how many people that appear in the Bible did some of their greatest deeds for God when they were mere youths. One could even make a good case that God prefers to call people when they are young. Youth has many advantages that God can employ to His glory. Energy, strength, zeal, idealism, resilience, courage, and a boldness to go where angels fear to tread—these are things that God can use!

Perhaps the only advantage that an older person has over a youth is experience, since the aged have been over the rocky road of life and know where the potholes are. One might think that, unlike the young, older people have wisdom too. They should, but a youth can have it too. Anyone who follows God's Word has wisdom, regardless of age! A youth can read the Bible with ten-year-old eyes, and if he does what it says, he is wise. Wisdom can direct the actions of anyone who performs what God wants him to do.

So, with whom did God work in the Bible? Consider this list: Joseph was seventeen or so when God began working with him, and he refused Potiphar's wife just a few years later. He was only thirty when the Pharaoh made him Prime Minister of Egypt! Samson was a young man when he became a judge in Israel, and God used him mightily to throw off the Philistine yoke.

We should not forget Samuel! He was just a little kid when Hannah dedicated him to God, and soon thereafter God prophesied through him. Not long thereafter, when no one else in Israel would stand up to the giant Goliath, a faithful seventeen-year-old named David volunteered and said, "I'll do it because he is blaspheming the Lord."

Many others did wonderful things for God as young people: Ruth, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel (and his three friends), and Esther. As far as we know, all of Christ's disciples were fairly young men when they were called, as was Paul. Mark and Timothy were youths too. Many scholars believe Mary was in her mid-teens when the angel appeared to her and told her that she would bear the Son of God. And let us not forget that John the Baptist and our Savior Jesus Christ completed their ministries while still in their prime. God likes to work with young people!

Even today, God wants to work with the young, just as He worked with these heroes of faith. They answered His call without thought of what their peers thought of them. Do you have the courage to do that?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Wisdom for the Young (Part Three)

Ecclesiastes 2 records what Solomon experienced when he was a young man in the prime of his wealth and power. Because God inspired this narrative to be included in His Word, we can conclude that Solomon went through this for us so that we do not have to repeat it in our own lives—there is no need for us to keep reinventing the wheel. Solomon already lived the wild side, considered it deeply over the years, and reported on it. If we will just listen to what he says, we can avoid all kinds of heartache.

The king of Israel writes in Ecclesiastes 2:1, "I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure'; but surely, this also was vanity." He gives us his conclusion immediately, so that, if this is all we read, we know the lesson of his attempt to satisfy himself through enjoyment. He describes it as "vanity," as being like grasping for the wind (see Ecclesiastes 1:17). It was futile, useless, unprofitable. In the end, it left him with nothing. He was empty, with nothing to show for his time or expended energy.

He continues in Ecclesiastes 2:2, "I said of laughter—‘Madness!' and of mirth, ‘What does it accomplish?'" The "high life" that so many young people think is so cool and worthwhile Solomon calls "madness"! Pursuing pleasure for pleasure's sake is insanity, mental illness! After he came to his senses, he looked around him and realized he had accomplished nothing. It was a total waste of precious time!

Thus, he decided to do an experiment, using his life as a laboratory, to see if various pursuits would bring him lasting satisfaction and well-being. In verses 3-10, he lists all the activities he pursued with his wealth and power, and they cover the gamut of human experience:

I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives. I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself water pools from which to water the growing trees of the grove. I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds.

So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart rejoiced in all my labor; and this was my reward from all my labor. (Ecclesiastes 2:3-10)
He lived life to the hilt! He drank gallons of wine and partied until the cows came home. He did many foolish things. He spent money profligately on whatever came to mind. He planned, engineered, built, gardened, raised livestock, bought and sold, and acquired rare and novel items. Enjoying good music as his father did, he found the best singers and musicians and brought them to Jerusalem to perform for him. We know he collected wives and concubines by the hundreds! He lived life to the full, and there was no one to restrain him in his pursuit of any desire of his heart.

In verse 11, however, he takes a hard, cold look at where all his unrestrained living and frenzied labor had led him: "Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

Even having all of the best of everything and being considered "great" by everyone near and far, when he looked at these accomplishments objectively, he found it all to be futile and useless. In the end, what had he gained? What advantages did he have in the things that really matter? It is as if he stood on a high place in Jerusalem and gazed on all the buildings he had built, all the gardens he had made, and all the unusual and excellent things he had collected, and concluded, shaking his head, "Whoop-dee-do! These things mean absolutely nothing."

Notice that Solomon reports that his wisdom remained with him while he was conducting his experiment in materialistic living. God must have worked this out so that he could convey his conclusions to us. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand how he could have done all of these things and retained his wisdom. God had given Solomon his understanding (I Kings 3:5-14), and He left it with him all of his life, no matter what Solomon did.

Grimly, Solomon repeats his conclusion in verse 17, "Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind." Everything he did produced only sorrow. Life is pointless, he says, for all that he did achieved nothing. He was back to square one. Nothing had changed!

Why? The answer is simple: Everything he had accomplished was useless because he had done it without God. It is God who makes a difference in life; He puts real meaning into pleasure, work, accomplishment, growth, and beauty. If He is absent, these things become essentially worthless and will perish in due time. In Ecclesiastes 2:24-26, he comes to this conclusion and gives some advice:

Nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God. For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, [without Him, margin]? For God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in His sight; but to the sinner He gives the work of gathering and collecting, that he may give to him who is good before God. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.

A person who lives uprightly, who tries to do what is right and good, will have wisdom and knowledge and will experience true joy in life—well-being that is enjoyable and lasting—not just ephemeral pleasures that must be renewed with something more edgy to feel the same thrill. The sinner, however, will merely labor in futility, and instead of enjoying the fruits of his labors, see the righteous benefit from them.

Therefore, the only satisfying way of life is one lived under the guiding hand of God. Any other way of life is useless and unproductive. Those who truly understand what life is all about will live a godly life. If we can grasp this truth while we are young, it will save us a whole lot of wasted time and grief.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Wisdom for the Young (Part Two)

Part of the problem that confronts young people today is that they—and frankly, all of society—have a devilish misconception of what is fun. It is no joke: What most people consider to be fun stems from a Satan-inspired viewpoint. Etymologically, fun derives from an older English word that means "to hoax, to play a trick on, to deceive." This original word once meant "to fool," and it was also used in the noun form, "a fool." When people play tricks on others, they think the reactions they get are funny. Thus, the modern concept of fun began with deception and humiliation resulting in amusement.

Fun did not come to mean "amusement," "gaiety," or "enjoyment" until the eighteenth century, suggesting that the prevalence of "having fun" is a fairly recent phenomena. In those tougher times—when child mortality was high, life spans were low, and life was hard and dangerous in general—people were more serious as a rule because life was so severe. In more modern times, having overcome many of these problems, society has elevated the concept of "fun" to its current levels. Now people want to have fun all the time and think they deserve it.

Each individual has a different idea of what is fun. Some people consider playing chess or backgammon to be fun. Others feel that playing video games is fun. Many think that actually playing a sport is fun. We all know someone who must believe talking is great fun. To others, their idea of fun is reading a book, watching television or movies, or enjoying a visit with family and friends. People have all kinds of different notions about fun.

Many of today's youth believe that fun must have an edge; it needs to be, not only be amusing, but also be risky, dangerous, even potentially lethal. It is astonishing to realize what some young people consider to be fun—activities that more mature people would consider to be wild, riotous, hazardous, and downright foolish. Their version of fun often begins with alcohol and illicit sex and gets worse—far worse—from there. It descends into dangerous "pranks," illegal activities, and perversions of all kinds. (See "The Century of the Child," in the November 1999 issue of Forerunner, particularly the inset article, "America's Lost Children," for an example.)

Too many of today's young people end up as addicts, either to alcohol or to drugs. Far too many young women resort to abortion, and they sometimes undergo multiple abortions (around one million abortions are performed each year in the United States). A frighteningly high percentage of them wind up with a sexually transmitted disease or three (in America, more than 19 million new cases of sexual disease are reported each year, and half of these occur to young people). About five percent of them begin their adult years with criminal records. Yet, while they were doing all of these things, they thought that they were having fun.

For many teens in the world, this is the current idea of fun. It is not a good and wholesome activity that is amusing or enjoyable, but behavior that is exciting and risky, often containing an edge of rebellion. Certainly, this is not everyone's idea of fun, but as Solomon says about mankind's insatiable desires for more, "The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing" (Ecclesiastes 1:8). When one kind of fun loses its edge, a more extreme form takes its place.

Solomon also writes, "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of correction will drive it far from him" (Proverbs 22:15). A child's tendency is toward foolish behavior because he does not have the wisdom or the experience to know what is good and right for him to do. Thus, God instructs parents to correct their children, to drive this foolish behavior out of them, and to teach them wisdom, the right and proper way to live. If they are left to themselves, undisciplined, they will likely intensify their foolishness until it becomes extreme and dangerous.

Proverbs 29:15 provides another warning: "The rod and rebuke give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother." Of course, it shames his father too, but it usually affects a child's mother more grievously. Mothers tend to feel the disgrace of their children's dishonorable behavior acutely, whereas a father is more apt to react in anger. Foolish behavior that leads to trouble and shame is frequently what results when unruly young people conceptualize and enact what they in their immaturity think is fun.

Ministers use Proverbs 29:18 in many situations, but it relates directly to the behavior of youth: "Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; but happy is he who keeps the law." The first half of this verse could be paraphrased as, "When people do not have a godly vision to work toward, they run wild." This applies to everybody, of course, but it applies in spades to young people because they have not developed the internal restraints that the more mature have. Unrestraint surfaces more quickly in a child, especially if he does not have a set of rules to follow and a goal to work toward. His behavior is likely to be chaotic. It is the parents' job to place restraints on a youth's unruly nature and to guide him in the narrow way (Matthew 7:13-14), so that he grows into a happy, functioning adult in society—and, beyond that, into a well-loved and wise member of God's Family, the ultimate goal.

Notice, however, the last half of this verse: "Happy is he who keeps the law." Solomon shows us the most beneficial way to bring to pass true human happiness—true fun, real joy: by getting our children to understand and keep the law. The word happy really means "blessed." As a result of keeping the law, we will be blessed. If children keep their parents' law as well as God's law, they will truly be happy.

However, most young people think that keeping the law—doing what is right—is "uncool," "square," "boring," and "nerdy." This is another of those devilish misconceptions. In this age, virtuous young people are paragons, heroes! God certainly does not consider those who do well to be weird or strange. To the contrary, they are "the apple of His eye" because they please Him.

Unfortunately, a young person in this world is constantly beset by negative peer pressure, and one who worries about what his thrill-seeking peers think of him probably will not do what God says. He is too worried about "being cool" and fitting into his clique. Peer-pressure has always been difficult for the young people in God's church to face. Five days a week, many of them are in public school where they have "friends" that they want to impress—and his cool friends are the ones that urge him to go to the game on Friday night. His most popular friends push him to go to the party at a friend's house where the parents have gone away for the weekend. It always seems to be members of the in-crowd who drink and smoke.

Yet, God says, "You will be happy if you keep the law." Parents need to impress on their children that this world's notion of fun is misguided at the very least. Young people need to be taught from an early age that the first thing they should want is to please God, and that they can do this if they also please their parents (Exodus 20:12). In this way, they can learn a more godly idea of fun.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wisdom for the Young (Part One)

For the past sixty years, America has been dominated by one particular generation of its citizens, the many millions born just after World War II, also known as the "Baby Boomers." Unfortunately, among the Boomers' most dominant attitudes has been a kind of narcissism, an over-indulged self-love. Their narcissism, however, comes with a twist in that it seems to be focused specifically on their collective youth. For example, they have convinced most of the nation that the decades of the 1950s and ‘60s—when they were young and made their early mark on society—were America's Golden Age. In trying to recapture that Golden Age, they have created and sustained what sociologists call a "youth culture," which is a society that caters to, panders to, overprotects, and essentially worships its young people.

The main objection to the youth culture is that it teaches wrong principles to children. It gives them bad ideas, chiefly to have a "me first" attitude, passing narcissism on to the next generation. It also preaches that youth is a time of carefree fun because others are supporting them—because parents, the school, and the community are doing the heavy lifting. Young people are encouraged to "live it up" while they are young because adulthood is serious, full of trouble and work, and boring. So they hear, "Sow your wild oats while you're young," and "Extend your youth as long as possible, for you'll never pass this way again."

Despite being considered conventional wisdom in our culture, this is a huge serving of baloney! From a biblical perspective, it is utter nonsense, though it contains just enough truth to make people believe it and swallow the lie. However, youth should not be a time of wild abandon. It is not a stage of life to be prolonged because adulthood is so dreary. It is not an inconsequential period of irresponsibility. It is in reality a very critical time that sets the stage for the rest of life!

Wise Solomon was interested in the questions of life. He had a great thirst for understanding the reasons behind people's actions—what made them tick, as it were—and from his conclusions he would fashion pearls of wisdom that are still valuable today. Notice Ecclesiastes 11:9-10; 12:1, which is aimed at young people:
Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes; but know that for these things God will bring you into judgment. Therefore remove sorrow from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh, for childhood and youth are vanity. Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come. . . .
Halfway through verse 9, we could have argued that Solomon was an early advocate for the youth culture, promoting the idea that young people should be happy-go-lucky and do whatever their hearts desire. But Solomon was much wiser than the modern supporters of the youth culture. In the last half of the verse and the next, he adds the proper countering wisdom. Yes, Solomon does say, "Have fun. Enjoy your youth. Pursue your desires,"but he adds three major qualifications to what may seem at first blush to encourage self-gratification. These qualifications take the form of warnings and provide the proper perspective.

The first warning is be aware that God is watching, and He will surely bring us into account for our sins. This greatly modifies his admonition to pursue joy and cheer. There is good amusement and sinful excess. The good times Solomon tells the young to seek must be proper fun, enjoyment that is wholesome and productive. He wants them to be happy and find worthwhile pleasures but not the kind that will return upon them with some sort of penalty later.

The second caution, which appears at the end of verse 10, is to remember that childhood and youth are vanity. The years up to adulthood pass like a snap of the fingers. Yet, this is not all that Solomon means. It can mean that, not only do the years fly by, but that they are also, in most people's cases, useless, futile, unsatisfying, or unproductive. In other words, our early years are not the most important of our lives. It is an interesting way of looking at our young years. If all we do is have fun, then our lives will indeed be futile, unproductive, unsatisfying, useless. However, if we use our youth in the right way, then those years become meaningful and productive. Something good will transfer from our immaturity to enhance our adult years.

Notice that Solomon prefaces his conclusion that youth is vanity by saying, "Remove sorrow from your heart." To us that means, "Let's party!" but that is not what he means. More exactly, he instructs us to get rid of those things that will cause us sorrow, the urges and desires that will trip us up and produce grief later. In other words, he advises us to use our younger years to learn how to avoid and rise above heartache-producing lusts. That is a tall order!

He parallels this with "Put away evil from your flesh." This defines what he means by "remov[ing] sorrow from your heart." Solomon, however, first approaches the problem on the level of the heart, one's mind and emotions—character—where the removal of wrong desires must begin. Once we set our minds to do what is right, evils of the flesh are more easily controlled.

Solomon's third admonition appears in Ecclesiastes 12:1: Seek God early, and life will be so much better. He counsels young people to use their youthful energy, ambition, and mental acuity in His service, in doing what is right, before the human machine starts to wear down and lose its idealism, vigor, and zeal. Because of life's experiences, people become tired and jaded as the years progress. If we seek God when young, it is often easier to embrace Him with our whole being. And when those darker days come, we will have the strength to bear them.

He urges young people to seek God before experiencing the world—and accumulating the baggage and penalties of sin and flawed character. It is far easier not to get into a bad habit in the first place than to have to overcome one. So, he says, "Don't even go there!" Many adults in God's church would give anything not to have lived so long in the world because, despite their later conversion, they still suffer the consequences of sins they committed in it. Never going out into the world at all can save many tears.

For some people, having seen the world, they are so disgusted by it that their revulsion to it acts to keep them from it, but it does not work that way for most people. Once people "enjoy" the lusts of the flesh and the eye and the pride of life (I John 2:16), they are more easily drawn back into them. Solomon asserts that by seeking God when young, a person will avoid many troubles and live a more fulfilling life.

Solomon will tell us more about seeking God when young in Part Two.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Evil Is Real (Part Six)

From I Peter 2:19-24, we could make a convincing theological argument that Christian suffering is our fight against evil because we receive the slings and arrows of others and experience the most inner turmoil in the midst of our fight against evil. We have a fleshly body and a carnal nature that inhibit us from doing the good we want to do. Thus, we suffer mentally, emotionally, spiritually. We suffer because a great struggle—a war—against evil is taking place inside.

Having ventured into the subject of suffering, the apostle Peter continues on it in I Peter 3:8-9: "Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing." He repeats, from I Peter 2:21, that we have been called to this. God has called us, not just to suffer, but also to return goodness for evil. We have been called to react the same way to suffering that Jesus Christ did—and as we see in the gospels, He responded by doing good.

So all those who suffer, thinking that they are suffering for righteousness sake, if they are not reacting properly, they are not doing what they were called to do. The suffering and the godly reaction must go together! Otherwise, we are merely suffering to no good end. Peter continues in I Peter 3:10-12, quoting from Psalm 34:12-16:

For "He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers; but the face of the LORD is against those who do evil."
Notice the situation that Peter applies this idea. In verse 8, he writes, "All of you be of one mind," and then, "Love as brothers." He brings the fight to our community, the church! It is within the church, like it or not, that we may have the most trouble with the evil inside. Why?

In the world, Christians shine like beacons because the contrast between themselves and the uncalled is so stark. We keep God's commandments, the holy days, the food laws. We try to do good. However, when we are among each other, and the contrast is less discernable, how do we react? Do we react as Christians or as carnal? We often seem to be able to get along well with the world because we know where everybody stands, but among church members, we frequently have problems. Sometimes problems crop up because we lower our guard, and at other times, it is because we expect so much of our fellow Christians.

We do not want the evil in us to come out and defile our relationships within the church. Yet, if we see problems arising, then we know that evil is present. We have just allowed ho poneros, the wicked one, among us. It becomes imperative, then, to stamp it out as soon as possible. Thus, Peter advises: "Turn from evil. Do good. Seek peace and pursue it. If you do not, God will turn His face against us"—and we certainly do not want that. In I Peter 4:1-3, he continues:

Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles—when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries.
What weapon does he say we possess to fight this evil? We have the mind of Christ. Paul fought against disunity at Corinth and came to the same conclusion (see I Corinthians 2:16). We have access to the same Mind that prepared for and resisted the temptations of Satan the Devil for forty days. It is ours to access, if we only will. As Peter says plainly in I Peter 4:1, if we truly arm ourselves with such a mind, we will cease sinning. We will be applying it to our situations and resisting the motivations of the evil within us. We will not let that evil emerge. If we have and use the mind of Christ, we are taking the fight to the enemy. We are not just allowing evil to pull us around by the nose but taking the offensive to confront it and overcome it.

We must ask ourselves, then, if we have truly committed ourselves to the task of recognizing and fighting the evil within us. Peter says that we "should no longer live the rest of [our] time in the flesh." To put it another way, are we committed to stamping out our carnal natures? More positively, have we committed ourselves to live the life of Christ, to do the will of God? Or are we still reserving the right to "enjoy" evil on occasion? Each person has to answer for himself.

If we are not already, it is time to begin evaluating ourselves, trying to plumb the depths of our wicked hearts. We must begin seeing the evil and eradicating it, committing ourselves not to repeat the evils we have done. In Hebrews 12:1, Paul says that we need to "lay aside every weight" that besets us, that holds us back. Throw it off! It is crunch time!

In this vein, Peter provides us two major pieces of counsel. First, in I Peter 4:7, he writes, "But the end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers." With this, he attempts to rouse us with hard, cold reality. We do not have time to indulge our desires and lusts! The return of Christ—the terminus of our period of judgment—is upon us! Besides, we could take a walk and be hit by a bus. Is our current spiritual state what we want to hand in for our final grade? It can be that close! Why do we dilly-dally about this? It is time to get serious!

The second piece of advice is found in I Peter 4:19: "Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator." In verses 17-18, the apostle had warned that we will be "scarcely" saved—by the skin of our teeth, as it were. It will happen, not because of any righteousness we possess, but because of the grace of God. Remember that He sees our "desperately wicked" hearts; He knows how depraved we are even still. We must understand this—and be thankful—but it should also motivate us to make the utmost effort to please Him. Our righteousness will never be good enough for salvation, but because the gracious, righteous Judge is watching and evaluating what we do, we are bound to strive to cooperate with Him in being transformed into His image. Thus, Peter says that we must dedicate our lives to doing good. We know that God is faithful and will save us despite ourselves, but we still must show Him that we are serious about living His way of life.

As Christians, we are engaged in a two-pronged maneuver: destroy the evil within ourselves and replace it with acts of goodness. This assault begins with the realization that evil remains in us, but through God's intervention in our lives, there is also in us a germ of good that is ready to grow. With His continued help, we can nurture it to eternal life.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Evil Is Real (Part Five)

Luke 4 contains Satan's temptation of Christ, and it is instructive to see what Jesus did in the face of evil:
Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan [where He had just been baptized] and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry. And the devil said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread." (Luke 4:1-3)
Just prior to this, Jesus had been highly complimented by the Father: "You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased" (Luke 3:22). Jesus, then, must have been feeling confident, for the voice booming such praise out of heaven was a massive pat on the back. Then, Luke 4:1 relates that He was filled with the Holy Spirit; the power, the strength, of God was pumping through Him. It was at just this point—before He commenced His ministry—that Satan pounced.

We should not think that Satan tempted our Savior with merely three or four temptations, as recorded in this chapter, as well as in Matthew 4. The text says that He was "tempted for forty days"—meaning that He was under constant attack for the full forty days, every day! This was an intense, prolonged test and more personal and powerful than we have ever experienced. The terrible evil that He faced in the wilderness would likely have crushed us.

The passage implies that Satan left the worst temptation to the very end, when Jesus was seemingly at His weakest point. He had not eaten food or drunk water for forty days. But was He passive all that time? Did our Savior just sit or lie on the sand for those nearly six weeks, allowing the Devil's temptations to batter Him like one sandstorm after the next? Luke does not present Him like that. Jesus did not fast because He had nothing to eat in a barren land. Remember, He is the One who inspired the instructions about fasting in Isaiah 58, so He clearly knew the spiritual strength that fasting provides. At the end of the forty days, He may have been weak as a kitten physically, but spiritually, He was the powerful Son of God.

Perhaps the temptations were not just storm after storm, but were like an ever-strengthening tempest that culminated in a hurricane. What did Jesus do? Each successive onslaught was harder to resist. How did He face it? Jesus bent all His will and strength on overcoming each temptation as it broke on Him. He pulled out every spiritual weapon to defeat each one.

Luke does not say that He pulled out His scroll of Deuteronomy and began instructing Satan on the finer points of God's way of life. Jesus already had them deeply embedded in His mind. He was prepared—by long years of study and deep meditation on what He learned—to face Satan's attacks. We also know that, not only was He fasting when out in the wilderness, but as His everyday practice, He prayed regularly, almost constantly.

Here are four tools that we also must use to rid evil from our lives: 1) Bible study, 2) meditation, 3) fasting, and 4) prayer. When Satan hit Him with temptation, Jesus did not need to do some emergency Bible study. Not only was He the Word of God in the flesh, but He also knew Scripture by heart. When Satan sent a temptation, Jesus quoted an opposing scripture verbatim. The right words—words that He had inspired as God of the Old Testament—came immediately to mind, and He hurled them at Satan like a razor-sharp weapon (Ephesians 6:17).

Christ never treated evil as if it did not exist. In addition, He knew the weakness of His own flesh. He is the only person who has ever totally resisted the pulls of the flesh, though He suffered them just as we do (Hebrews 2:14, 18; 4:15). However, He was strong in the Spirit of God and able to resist them. We see in this vignette from His life that, even so, it was no easy task for Him. We know that it is certainly not easy for us, but if we want to be like Him, we have to approach it just as He did.

The apostle Peter, who witnessed the life of Christ firsthand, had a certain approach to life in which events like this made a great impression on him. Thus his epistles, both I and II Peter, are full of advice on how to be diligent to overcome and grow. In the three middle chapters of I Peter, he tells us how we are to resist evil, how we are to do good, how we are not to be as the rest of the world is. Perhaps these things were tough for him to do too, which is why they made such an impression on him and thus is why he passed these instructions along. It is a good thing that he did! God inspired it to be included in His Word because we need the admonition.

Notice I Peter 2:19-24, where Peter is speaking about submitting to masters:

For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: "Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth," who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.
What does he say that we are called to? Suffering! One could say we are called to be hit over the head for doing good. In reality, God's way is so antithetical to the way of Satan and of this world, that it is only natural that doers of good will suffer rather than be rewarded for their good works. Of this, Jesus Christ was the most extreme example—and not just on the last day of His life! He suffered every day He drew breath. Satan never stopped tempting Him for long, and His flesh never stopped trying to pull Him towards evil.

Peter says that Jesus overcame these things by committing Himself to the One who really knows what is in our characters, what our hearts are really like. In that commitment was great faith that the Father, knowing Him intimately, would guard Him and help Him to the very end—that considering Him as the apple of His eye, God would be with Him even through the grave.

Note, too, Christ's reaction to the evil that was done to Him: He did nothing like it in return. He did not return evil for evil; out of Him came no defiling sin. What did He do? He did self-sacrificial acts of goodness toward His revilers and persecutors—and not only for them, but as Peter goes on to say, He also did it for us, His brethren. Throughout His life, He consciously performed self-sacrificial acts of goodness for others. As Peter says in Acts 10:38, Jesus "went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil."

There is our pattern to follow! He did not allow evil to get Him down or to change His course—He just kept on doing good. That is how He fought it: He faced it down with the Word of God, committed Himself to His Father's will, and repaid evil with good. His method will work for us too.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Evil Is Real (Part Four)

In Part Three, we considered Jesus' discourse in Mark 7 about defilement originating within us. Of the evils He wants us to overcome, external ones actually appear far down the list, for we, being the weak of the world, have little control over them. However, if we change what is inside, which we can control, our own external actions have a far better chance of being righteous. Vanquish the sins at their point of origin, and our deeds will be clean before God.

Far from perfect and peaceful, then, our Christian lives are a running battle to overthrow the accumulated remnants of evil from our pre-conversion lives, as well as what sins we retain and commit from that time forward. As Paul phrases it in his discussion of baptism in Romans 6, "the old man" with all of his sins is "crucified with Christ," doing away with the body of sin that had accumulated over a lifetime of rebellion against God. Coming up from the water, we are raised to an entirely new life—we are a "new man," who is now challenged to increase in righteousness day by day (Romans 6:11-14), even "to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13).

Despite experiencing God's forgiveness and being set on the right path, the evil nature that has grown within us for many years is not removed. It is not even fundamentally changed. It is still there, influencing our every decision, conscious or unconscious. This means that the fight between human nature and God's nature rages on (see Galatians 5:16-17). Many newly baptized church members are distressed about how soon they sin after baptism, and the reason is because God does not take away our evil nature. We must still engage it and overcome it.

What happens at baptism and the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit is that we are forgiven of all the evil we practiced before accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior, and God gives us a measure of His Spirit to help us to transform into Christ's image. However, the poor habits, the bad attitudes, the wrong ideas, and all the ingrained behaviors that have built up over the years remain. The evils that we harbored and nurtured all the while we lived without the true knowledge of God linger on, and it becomes our Christian duty to put them down every day.

Many of us know Jeremiah 17:9 by heart, since it is a basic reality of the human condition. Nevertheless, do we really believe what God says here? God is speaking in this passage, giving an evaluation of mankind. In verses 5-6, He relates that curses come upon those who trust in men, and in verses 7-8, He reveals that blessings accrue to those who trust in Him. Verse 9, though, is not focused on the blessed or the cursed but on everyone, humanity as a whole. It reads, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?"

God means this! Do we believe it? From a human perspective, what He says cuts to the quick anyone with a hint of pride. No one thinks of himself as thoroughly evil; in fact, most of us believe we are pretty good. We grew up among other Christians. We think we did a fair job of keeping the commandments. We try to get along with almost everyone. Yet, God's words bring us up short. Are we fooling ourselves? Are we really making a sincere effort to live God's way? Are the things that we do merely a show? Do we act as we do to make people like us? Are we in reality only conforming to peer-pressure? Do we do what we do for the right reasons? What condition are our hearts really in? God answers, "You can't know it. It is most desperately wicked and deceptive."

Further, whom does it deceive the most? Us! Upon acknowledging this revelation from God about ourselves, we have to ask, "Have my motives ever been good for doing anything?" Perhaps, since human nature is one of good and evil. However, God's answer in verse 10 is that only He really knows our real character—and thank God for that! We would despair to see ourselves as we really are, although part of the Christian life is endeavoring to realize just how corrupt our hearts actually are.

Recall the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee is a perfect example of "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." He fools himself into thinking that, between himself and the publican, he is the good, upright one. He stands before the Temple, lifting his eyes toward heaven, taking a pious position as close as he can to the altar, thanking God that he was so much better than the wretched publican. Yet, Jesus informs us that the publican, not the Pharisee, "went down to his house justified rather than the other" (verse 14). The Pharisee may have been righteous in his own eyes, but not in God's.

The publican—a lying, cheating tax collector—was humble enough to realize that his heart was, indeed, desperately wicked. He probably did not know the depths of the evil that he could do, but he knew that he was a sinner and not worthy of approaching God. He understood that, next to God, he was dirt and less than dirt. He merely beseeches God to show him mercy. The one who earned Jesus' respect is the person who recognized the evil within himself!

In Jeremiah 17:9, God pulls no punches. The human heart—the seat of man's intellect, his emotions, his attitudes, his inclinations—is dishonest and evil. Most of us take evil far too lightly, especially the evil that is within us. We do not like to think of ourselves as evil. We always like to think that we are the guys in the white hats, the good guys. Everybody else has the problem. We tend to be quite quick to point the finger at others, all the while maintaining our own, lily-white innocence.

Such is the attitude that leads to sins like self-righteousness, pride, and sloth in overcoming and growing. This kind of self-justification can eventually manifest itself in poneros, active rebellion against God. If we reach the point where we think that we have nothing more to change or repent of, our growth will slow and soon stop altogether. Before long, our trajectory will be headed away from God because such an attitude is the exact opposite of what He is looking for in His children.

Our example of the Christian life is, of course, none other than Jesus Christ. We are Christians, His followers. To be a Christian is to live the life of Christ. Did He take evil lightly? A quick scan of the Gospel accounts will show that He encountered evil on a regular basis. He did not shrink from it, nor did He minimize it. He called it what it was and set His divine power against it, for that is the reason He came as a human being to this earth: to pay the price to conquer sin and Satan once and for all.

We have been called to follow His example of concentrating our power against the forces of evil, but our target is inward, staving off temptation, battling persistent sin, and clearing the field to produce good fruit in our lives. We will see more on this in Part Five.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Evil Is Real (Part Three)

Part Two began to explore the subject of carnality. When we are first born, our nature is essentially neutral, not having been affected one way or the other by outside influences. At birth, then, we are a tabula rasa, a blank slate. However, because we are clothed in flesh, with all of its needs and desires, we have a tendency toward evil, toward self-satisfaction and sheer selfishness. We humans generally do not want our flesh to be denied what we feel are necessary things—and what we believe is "necessary" varies with the individual.

By the time that we begin to think rationally and logically, we already have at least one foot on the evil side because human nature has begun to pull us in that direction. For all intents and purposes, a young child is helpless, so his parents or other caregivers find themselves constantly meeting his needs from food to hygiene to entertainment as soon as he cries. As children, then, we learn to fulfill the desires of our flesh. Thus, the apostle Paul teaches in
Romans 7:14 that carnal human beings tend to sell out to evil.

Matthew 7:11, part of the Sermon on the Mount, we receive a smack between the eyes, so to speak, from our Savior. Speaking to His disciples, Jesus says, "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!" We might feel slightly better about being called "evil" by our Lord if He had used the general Greek word for "bad," kakos, here, but sadly, He did not. Of course, He uses poneros, suggesting active, rebellious evil, as in the kind Satan does. Jesus does not pull His punches but matter-of-factly informs us that we are fundamentally wicked and depraved. The evil He spies in us is morally corrupt and in opposition to God.

Christ uses our evil nature as an example to contrast the goodness of God, who always gives good things. We are shown to be on one end of the moral spectrum as being evil—comparable to Satan, who is the quintessence of evil. At the far other end is God, who is transcendently and eternally good. Jesus concludes that between these two extremes there is little, if any, commonality—except that every once in a while, despite being evil, we condescend to do something good for our children.

Jesus' statement dovetails with what happened in the Garden of Eden. God instructed Adam and Eve not to take of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (
Genesis 2:16-17), which represented the full range of moral choice. We know that our first parents indeed took and ate of that forbidden tree, and ever since, with the exception of Jesus Christ, each individual among mankind has repeated the same process. In doing so, we have given ourselves permission to experience life through trial and error and then decide what is good and evil. Rather than teach us wisdom, as the serpent promised (Genesis 3:5-6), this course of action has fixed us on the debit side of the ledger—under the curse of sin—because our nature tends toward doing evil. As Paul declares in Romans 3:10, 23, "'There is none righteous, no, not one;' . . . for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

This is not very encouraging, is it? Yet, these are the plain words of Scripture. Despite repenting and learning the truth, we Christians are a mixed bag, having a nature with a tendency towards evil and rebellion against God, but also divinely called (
John 6:44), given the Holy Spirit, and presented with the challenge to move from the evil side to the good side. In addition, though God has forgiven our past sins, we still carry with us a great deal of baggage from sinful things that we have done along the way. To complete His challenge to transform from evil to good, we are charged by God to overcome these difficult obstacles.

How aware are we of the evil within? Do we acknowledge, as Paul does, that evil is still present within us? Years ago, the cartoon character Pogo said in a comic strip, "We have found the enemy, and the enemy is us." How true that is spiritually. It is primarily the evil in us that we must recognize, face, and overcome if we are to grow in the image of Jesus Christ.

Without doubt, there is evil in the world. The world is composed of sinful people just like us—worse, they are unconverted, never having been offered the opportunity to be redeemed from the enslavement of sin. In this way, the evils that exist in the world, being so raw and blatant, are obvious and avoidable. It is quite easy to hear the news of a murder and see it as evil, and most of us are not the murdering type, so we find it easy to avoid this form of wickedness. In the end, the evils of the world are far down the list of our concerns because we lack the wisdom and power to change them. Ultimately—and realistically—we cannot do anything about them, except perhaps to be an example of goodness in a sin-blighted world. Our best play is to keep these evils from touching or tempting us and to overcome those that remain in us.

In the same vein, we cannot change Satan and the evils he inspires. Our Savior has already defeated him, and his doom is sealed. True, he still has power to influence us to disobey God, so we are called as soldiers to "resist him, steadfast in the faith" (
I Peter 5:9). But we fight Satan, not by frontal assault, but by indomitably defending our ground (Ephesians 6:10-13), and we accomplish this by avoiding temptation, doing good as we are able, and overcoming the evils within. It comes back to recognizing and fighting internal sin.

What is our spiritual duty? Notice what Jesus says in
Mark 7:14-16:
When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, "Hear Me, everyone, and understand. There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!"
What is Jesus trying to tell us? "Work on yourself!" He advises. The evils that we have to recognize, face down, and obliterate are inside. They are the defiling sins that spring from our "deceitful . . . and desperately wicked" heart (Jeremiah 17:9). If we really want to clean up society and deny Satan victory over us, our job is to root out the evils within.

Jesus explains what His teaching means in a private discussion with His disciples:

What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man. (Mark 7:20-23)
That the sins that defile us are generated from inside is a point He wants us to acknowledge, for He mentions this fact three times in seven verses. The evils that we have been called to fight and subdue are what we conceive, nurture, and express from within—the evils that we see when we look in the mirror. Do we have ears to hear our Savior?