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.