As Far As the East Is From the West

Those of us who call ourselves disciples of Christ sometimes need more humility. We need to be reminded again and again that the position we have in the Kingdom of God is not something we have earned. Rather, we have been extended an undeserved mercy.

All too often, we forget that He brought us out of the pit, out of utter spiritual darkness. That truth should create within us an enduring gratitude.

In my own experience, I can say that I hit bottom spiritually at one point, and that God nevertheless never gave up on me and brought me back into His family. When I realized the reality of His forgiveness, I was almost stunned; I referred to Him as “The God of the Second Chance.”

No matter what we have done in our past, if we come to Him in genuine repentance and look to the Cross, He wipes away all the sin and shame. One of my favorite passages is found in I Corinthians 6 where the apostle Paul provides a list of sinfulness that excludes people from the Kingdom—yet he doesn’t end there.

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.

Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

I’m eternally grateful that the list is followed by that declaration of total spiritual renewal.

The dominion of hell wants us to wallow in our past sins, of course, bringing up the memories of the sins that now bring revulsion. The satanic hope is to paralyze us with remorse so that we are unproductive for the Lord. The enemy of our souls seeks to weigh us down with the enormity of our past sins.

We cannot allow that to happen. We need to have the words of Psalm 103 in our hearts and even say them out loud whenever necessary:

He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him.

As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.

If you are plagued by the memory of distant sins, come back to the truth of those words. The east and the west never meet; they go on in opposite directions forever. In the same way, your former sinful life is precisely the opposite of the new life you now have in Christ. We are to move forward for Him in confidence that He truly loves us and our sins are removed, never to be brought to mind again.

As the prophet Isaiah tells us, speaking for God,

I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

If God Himself has blotted out the memory of our sins from His own mind, so should we.

Speaking Truth to a Sinful Culture

I was born in the 1950s, became aware of the larger world and moral issues in the 1960s (subjected as we all were during that era to the so-called sexual revolution), solidified my Christian faith in the early-to-mid 1970s, slipped away from Christian reality for a while after that, only to return to faith in the late 1980s with supreme gratitude to God for His patience and willingness to forgive my stupidity.

I was blessed to be brought back from the brink of spiritual destruction. As a result, I speak earnestly and forcefully (with love, I trust) about the need to hold fast to His truth and not allow slippage to occur, both in the individuals I have the opportunity to influence (students, in particular) and in my ongoing concern for the Christian church’s witness to the world.

When the church—which is comprised of all those who have come to the foot of the Cross, repented of sin, and received the forgiveness and grace only offered there—stops being the voice of God on moral issues, the culture degrades in proportion to the church’s apostasy.

This hasn’t happened on all issues. Take abortion, for instance. Despite the efforts of those who want to see abortion accepted as normal, great strides have been made by Christians in our nation to stem that tide. Regardless of the government’s promotion of abortion via the Supreme Court, the attitude of Americans on that issue is shifting more and more toward rejection of that horrific act.

Not so with homosexuality, unfortunately. This has become the primary issue now with the government and the culture in general (entertainment media, especially) in an attempt to overthrow Biblical morality.

Those of us who grew up in the 1950s-1970s era look around us and almost can’t believe what we see. What was once considered abnormal and not even to be mentioned publicly has become a celebration of “diversity.” Those who oppose the gay agenda are singled out as “haters,” “bigots,” and “narrow-minded.”

Same-sex marriage, from a Biblical standpoint, is an absurdity. Probably more than 90% of Americans would have said the same thing a mere twenty years ago. Now, even Republicans—you know, the “conservatives”—are on the verge of accepting it as normal. A recent poll revealed that nearly 50% of Republican voters no longer have a problem with it.

While that certainly concerns me as a conservative, the more pressing problem is the change occurring with those who claim to be Christians. The shift within the supposed Christian community is disheartening.

One Christian professor at a Baptist seminary has come up with a sad, yet from my perspective, accurate description of what is happening. He sees evangelicals moving toward the same acceptance of same-sex marriage as the overall culture.

Here are the stages he outlines.

(1) Oppose gay-marriage: Every evangelical starts here, or at the very least they appear to start here.

(2) Oppose taking a stand on the question: Persons in this stage are becoming aware of how offensive the traditional view is to those outside the church. Their initial remedy is to avoid that conflict by not talking about the Bible’s teaching on this subject. In Brian McLaren‘s case, he urged evangelicals to observe a 5-year moratorium on talking about gay marriage. For Jen Hatmaker, she advocated going “into the basement,” where we don’t talk about these things but just love people. Choosing to avoid the question is never a final answer for anyone in this stage.

(3) Affirm gay marriage: At some point during the “we’re not talking about this anymore” stage, those who used to oppose gay marriage find grounds to affirm it. Some do it by questioning the Bible’s truthfulness. Others do through revisionist interpretations of the Biblical text. In either case, proponents end up affirming what the Bible forbids.

(4) Vilify traditional marriage proponents: Persons in this stage not only affirm gay marriage. They also view traditional marriage supporters as supporting invidious discrimination against gay people. They will adopt the rhetoric of Christianity’s fiercest critics to describe believers who hold to the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality.

The professor then goes on to state that while it may take some time for people to go from stage 2 to stage 3, once they hit stage 3, they quite often go rapidly into stage 4.

I teach at an evangelical university. During the Obama presidency, we, along with other evangelical universities, experienced pressure to change our public stand on this issue or else our students would be cut off from getting education loans and our accreditation might be withdrawn over time.

Some may think that just because we presently have a Republican Congress and a president who curries favor with evangelicals that we are “safe.” Believing that all is back to “normal” would be the height of wishful thinking.

It is crucial for those who truly know what it means to be brought out of the pit of sinful destruction and receive the mercy and grace of God to stand firm at this time on Biblical teaching about sin.

Many will twist my words, saying they are hateful. They are just the opposite. I want everyone caught in a sinful life to be set free. I needed that in my life at one point and God graciously gave me a new life. I seek the same for others.

All sin—homosexuality included—leads to chains that bind us. When we are in those chains, we get used to them and our consciences become seared. The Christian’s responsibility is, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, to break through that seared conscience with the twin weapons of Truth and Love so that those caught in the trap will see their need and respond to God’s mercy through Christ.

To be faithful to God’s truth and to speak to our society about that truth is the most loving thing we can do.

Anger, Bitterness, & an Election

Of all the consequences of this presidential election, the one that dismays me most is the rupture between those who have been friends and allies in a cause. It has happened in the political/cultural conservative camp in general and among conservative Christians also. The latter is the more grievous.

Some are now questioning whether the breach that has been created can ever be healed. I believe it can be, but I don’t know if it will.

angerI have been distressed from the start of the campaign, in the primaries, as I’ve witnessed so much anger being expressed through support for Donald Trump. It’s as if he became a magnet for many who have been so frustrated with the developments in the Obama years.

I understand that frustration. More has changed negatively in the last eight years than in previous decades combined. But it’s always a sign of danger when anger drives actions. It’s very dangerous when anger becomes the primary determinant in voting. When emotions control the mind, we usually go astray.

The Scripture deals directly with that problem. In James 1:20 we’re admonished,

But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.

When we give vent to our anger, we may think we are doing God’s will, but James’s caution should remind us that He has a better way.

Anger that is allowed to fester goes one step further into a bitterness that spreads its malignancy to others, as the writer of the book of Hebrews, chapter 12, warns us:

Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.

The first piece of instruction in that passage is that we are to do whatever we can to maintain peaceful relations with all. Shouldn’t that be especially true of brothers and sisters in Christ?

Second, there is a stiff warning about sanctification in the Christian life: without it, we may be cut off from the Lord. That, by itself, should stun us into being careful in our words, actions, and reactions.

bitternessThen the writer focuses on what he calls a “root” of bitterness. If bitterness does take root in our minds, it has the natural tendency to see all things through that bitterness. Not only will it affect our very souls but it will infect the lives of others.

The Biblical message is clear on this issue. Probably the best overall teaching on this is found in Ephesians chapter 4, in which the apostle Paul says,

Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.

screwtape-lettersPaul recognizes that anger is natural and not necessarily wrong; after all, God gets angry. However, one can be angry without the anger leading us into sin. There is a line that can be crossed, but must not be. When we cross it, we are giving Satan a playground of his own; it allows him the opportunity to destroy lives. For a quick refresher on that, I recommend C. S. Lewis’s masterful work, The Screwtape Letters, which exposes exactly how the hellish realm seeks to lead Christians on the wrong path.

Here’s the end of Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 4:

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.

Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

There are times we are to speak forcefully about something, but it must always be in love. We can share our hearts about the issues we face in this nation, but we must never allow even the most earnest sharing to descend into name-calling and/or false accusations against another.

We are to speak the truth, and it can be with energy and urgency, but it cannot be spoken in anger, and we simply cannot let bitterness take over.

Perhaps we all need to check our spirits today. What are we communicating and how are we communicating it?

Review: The Light Between Oceans

Not one car chase. Not one shootout. Only a glorious film that deals with conscience, the consequences of violating one’s conscience when swayed by love for another, a willingness to suffer on behalf of the one you love even when misunderstood by that loved one, and the spiritual release that comes from confession and forgiveness. Put that all together and combine it with stunning visual beauty and superb acting, and you have one of the most compelling movies I’ve seen in some time.

Light Between Oceans

While I like a lot of movies—after all, my undergraduate degree was in radio, tv, and film production—only rarely do I leave a theater thinking as deeply as I did after viewing The Light Between Oceans.

Bare bones plot:

An emotionally scarred Australian man returns from WWI seeking solitude, so he takes a lonely job as the only person on a small island tending a very important lighthouse situated between the Pacific and Indian oceans.

A young woman who has lost both of her brothers in the war helps him come to grips with his war experience, they marry, and now the two of them are the only inhabitants of that island.

The marriage is healing for both of them but she suffers from two miscarriages, thereby creating emotional trauma for both. Then a small boat washes ashore. In it is a dead man and a newborn baby girl needing love and care. Do they try to find out if there is a mother somewhere or do they take the child and raise her themselves?

The decision they make leads to the litany I described above: matters of conscience, sacrifice, and forgiveness.

I won’t go any further in laying out the plot. If you have been looking for a film that demonstrates the love of God and love for another, a film that forces people to grapple with heartbreaking decisions and whether to forgive, let me suggest that this is the film for you.

Christian faith is an important element in the story. Ultimate decisions are based on that faith. Needless to say, I heartily recommend The Light Between Oceans.

Charleston’s Testimony to the Power of the Gospel

What has occurred in the aftermath of the unconscionable murders in Charleston is a testament to the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The attitude of forgiveness in the hearts of family members who lost loved ones is a remarkable witness to how God’s love can erase bitterness.

That’s on a personal level, of course. Justice still needs to be meted out to the murderer. One can forgive while simultaneously seeking a just punishment for what he has done. God is a God of both mercy and justice—both need to be seen in this situation.

The other tremendous positive message coming out of Charleston is how the community has bonded together to show that racial harmony is achievable. This is no Ferguson or Baltimore. Again, this is another glowing testimony to how God can bridge any divide.

Charleston Cross

As for the victims of this horrendous act, if they were committed Christians, as their attendance at a midweek Bible study would indicate, they have received exactly what Jesus has promised to all of His followers: eternal life.

Blessed

May none succeed in exploiting this tragedy for political purposes. Instead, let’s rejoice that, even in the midst of such a tragedy, God can be honored.

Obamacare: A Call for Action

Obamacare LogoIt’s time to take stock of where we stand with Obamacare. It’s also time for both Democrats and Republicans to consider the steps they need to take in this present crisis. And crisis is not too strong a term to use for this disaster. Millions are losing their healthcare plans and have nowhere good to go to replace them. That’s just the individual plans. Next year, this law will begin to affect employer plans, which will multiply the anguish nearly twentyfold.

What do we know for sure right now? First, as almost everyone on any place on the political spectrum admits, the promise that we could keep our healthcare plans if we liked them was either a gross misunderstanding of what was going to transpire or an outright lie. I opt for the latter. When we have President Obama in a video telling congressional leaders three years ago that 8 or 9 million individual plans will probably have to be scrapped, what else can the promise be but a blatant lie?

Second, Democrats are in panic mode. It’s as if they once were blind but now they see. But if they were blind, it was a willful blindness. Remember the classic statement from Nancy Pelosi—Speaker of the House at the time—informing us that we have to pass this law in order to find out what’s in it? In what universe does a congressman vote for a law first, then figure out what’s in it? Only in Nancy Pelosi’s alternate universe. And all those promises were no more than fantasy.

DC World

Democrats, my first admonition is to you: you put yourselves in this fix by your willingness to line up unquestioningly behind your leader, giving him your trust without taking responsibility for your own vote. You are fully to blame for what you are now experiencing. The only reason, it seems, that you now are frantically running here and there to find a fix is your fear of losing your seat of power. Well, frankly, you deserve to lose. No one who has done what you did should ever be entrusted again with the authority to pass laws for the rest of us.

What should you now do? Come to the realization that this entire thing called Obamacare needs to be scrapped. Your fearless leader came out yesterday and made a pronouncement from on high that he would deign to allow people to keep their plans for one more year. If you go along with this, you are making it pretty clear that your only priority is to put this off long enough to win reelection. If that’s all that matters to you, I pray you will lose, and lose big time.

Your obligation now is to make this right. Sign on to Republican efforts to overturn this destructive law. Laws, by the way, can be overturned, in case you didn’t know it. Don’t listen to Pelosi and Harry Reid say “settled” law is sacred. Slavery was once settled law. It’s time for you to set the captives free again.

Now, for you Republicans. First, congratulations that you have a solid record in opposition to Obamacare. Not one of you voted for it to become law when it sneaked through three years ago. But here is your real test. Will you now avoid the temptation to “fix” something that cannot be fixed? Will you put an ineffective bandaid on this cancer or will you root it out completely? Only the second option will work.

Another important point you Republicans need to make is that no president, regardless of political party, has the authority to simply declare a change in a law. Only totalitarian dictators can do that. We live in a constitutional republic where the rule of law must prevail. Make a strong case before the public that Obama has stepped so far out of bounds with his latest pronouncement that he has taken on the air of a dictator. Convince the citizens that this must be stopped at all costs. The very future of our form of government is at stake.

Prayer for NationFinally, for those of you who claim the name of Christ, now is the time to pray. That’s not just some pious platitude. I’m beginning to hope that the reason we are seeing this Obamacare monster blow up/disintegrate before our eyes may be the result of the fervent prayers of many. Those pleas to the God of heaven must continue, coupled with humility and a sense of our own culpability for ever permitting this nation to fall to this low ebb spiritually and morally. For some, the following Scripture may have become a cliché, but it’s worth repeating:

If my people, who are called by My name, humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

Lord, as a people, we lack humility. Wicked ways permeate our society. Yet Your promises of forgiveness and healing remain. Please forgive us and start the healing we so urgently need.

The God of the Second Chance: A Personal Testimony

I was a young man on fire for the Lord. At age 22, just after graduation from college, I became part of the ministry of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). As an on-air radio announcer, I played contemporary Christian music and offered whatever spiritual insights a 22-year-old could possibly offer.

Then my church started a Christian school and looked around for someone with a degree of some kind to become its headmaster. My radio, television, and film degree seemed to qualify at that point. I was also eager to take on the task.

A longer story made much shorter: I was too young, too inexperienced, and too immature to handle that responsibility. For various reasons, I wandered away from the Lord and eventually left that position.

Too many testimonies spend far too much time highlighting the sins of one’s former life. I don’t wish to do that. Suffice to say I was angry with God, filled with ingratitude for what He had given me in life, and looking for some reason to abandon Him entirely. In short, I was in open rebellion.

At the height of this rebellion, I decided to go back to college to earn a doctorate in history, which had been my minor in my undergraduate years. This decision was made without seeking God’s leading; I really didn’t care what He thought, if He was even there at all. What I hoped was that these degrees, and all the learning I would imbibe along the way, would provide a meaning for my life that now was missing.

I applied myself to higher education with all my being, completing my master’s degree in one year, then moving on to the doctorate. Two years later, I had finished everything necessary for the degree except the doctoral dissertation. After three strenuous years of reading, researching, writing, and test-taking, I was almost exhausted.

What was even worse was I had come no closer to genuine meaning for my life than when I had started. When you come to the end of yourself, that’s where you will find the Lord patiently waiting for you.

EcclesiastesI began to read the Bible again and slowly came to the realization that I had been a fool. One particular passage stood out to me one day, found in Ecclesiastes 12:11-14:

The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

It would have been difficult to find a more appropriate passage to speak to my condition. I had wearied myself with devotion to books. What I needed was to once again fear God and keep His commandments.

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to finish my doctoral degree. After all, I hadn’t asked God about it in the first place. Yet He opened up time for me to do so, with an assurance that somehow He could use this degree for His kingdom. When an opportunity came to teach as an adjunct faculty at Regent University, I gladly accepted it.

Regent was a three-hour drive from my home, so I would travel there once a week to teach a couple of master’s-level courses. I still struggled, though, with whether I was completely forgiven by God for all those wasted years and the damage I had done with my bad attitudes and other sins during that time.

One day, in January 1989, as I was making that trek to Regent, I was listening to music as I drove. The song was an old hymn of the church, It Is Well with My Soul. When I listened to the second verse, it came alive:

My sin, oh the joy of that glorious thought, my sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh, my soul.

As soon as those words filled my mind, something else filled my mind: a voice spoke, declaring, “That’s for you.”

As I recall it now, I can’t say for sure if it was an audible voice, but it was so real, and the Source was so obvious, that I was swept away by the love of God. He was telling me I had a fresh start. I could put aside my past sins and move onward for Him. I was so overwhelmed; the tears flowed; driving on I-95 became rather dangerous. But the presence of God and His love filled my being.

The reality of that voice has stayed with me to this day, and God has fulfilled those words in my life. I’ve been able to put the past behind and move forward. Shortly after that divine intervention, a door opened for my first fulltime teaching position as a professor. I’ve now been in this ministry for 25 years.

In those early days after “the voice,” I began referring to the Lord as “the God of the Second Chance.” I still believe that, and I remain eternally grateful for the second chance He has given me. Never would I dream now of throwing away the blessing and the honor of serving Him.

Ecclesiastes 12