But What About Evil People?

Right in the middle of the next to last chapter of John Stott’s book The Cross of Christ (a chapter entitled “Loving Our Enemies”), he has a discussion of a topic I really don’t care to write about.

Most Christians know that Jesus admonishes us to love our enemies: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”  “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” [Matthew 5:44, Luke 6: 27 and Romans 12: 14].  The idea is that we can overcome hateful people by showing them how to be good.  Repaying hatefulness with hatefulness only sends the message that their bad behavior is acceptable.  We justify it by mirroring it.

But what about evil people?  What is the Christian (living under the “cross of Jesus”) to do about the truly evil people of this world?  Are we supposed to love evil people and bless evil people?

Stott opens this discussion with the following questions: “Does the cross commit us to nonviolent acceptance of all violence? Does it invalidate the process of criminal justice and the so-called just war?  Does it prohibit the use of every kind of force, so that it would be incompatible for a Christian to be a soldier, police officer, magistrate or prison officer? [291].

These are very difficult questions and each question could be the subject of a chapter by itself.  I won’t address all of them in this post but I will attempt to comment on the Christian’s response to evil.  Of course God knows that evil exists and God knows that man is capable of evil.  With this in mind, God knows that we have to have some kind of response to the existence of evil in this world.

Stott draws heavily on Romans, Chapter 12 and 13 as he discusses evil.  The words of Paul give us counsel about how to handle this ever present problem. 

First of all, Christians are supposed to hate evil.  Paul writes “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”  Normally Christians think that love and hate are “mutually exclusive.”  Love will expel hate and hate will expel love but what about evil?  All the advice we receive from God’s word about love seems to ignore the “evil” word, which is the most extreme form of hate.  Paul indicates that we cannot compromise with evil.  It is not on the same plane with love.  While good is the enemy of hate, evil in this world spoils all forms of good.  God hates evil so we should hate it also.

Secondly, Stott points out that we should not attempt to repay evil.  “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…do not take revenge, my friends” writes Paul in Romans 12: 17 and 19.  Revenge and retaliation are not approved by God for if we indulge in those activities we are merely adding more evil to this world.   Responding to the evil of this world can even make a Christian evil.  Why would God desire that?  The worst evil was done to Jesus while He was on the cross and when He could have retaliated, He chose not to.  He chose the route of peace.

Thirdly, evil needs to be overcome. Paul does admit in Romans 12 that evil needs to be overcome.  The main question is how do we do this?  Will blessing evil people work?  Will praying for evil people work?  Will finding a way to serve evil people work?  The world says evil should always be repaid with evil or rather that evil should be repaid with extreme revenge or retribution.  There have been so many movies churned out of Hollywood with that theme.  For example, evil people harm a man’s daughter and what does he do?  He punishes the evil people using extreme violence.  The audience cheers his acts and he eliminates the bad people of the world (usually with minimal harm to himself).  Finally, at the end of the film, the “good guy” ends up face to face with the leader of the evil people and you know what happens: the horrible person meets his end, gets his “just desserts” so to speak.  We can imagine what God thinks about this.  Stott says that when evil is repaid with evil, evil wins: we are increasing the world’s total of evil.  He cites Martin Luther King who called this the “chain reaction of evil” as hate multiplies, violence increases and man descends into a “spiral of destruction.”  What did Jesus’s response to the evil done to Him on the cross accomplish?  It brought salvation to millions of people. 

Ok, repay evil with no response…

But do evil people get off without suffering any consequences for their actions?

The answer is no, but the punishment does not come from man, it comes from God.  This may make us crazy as we think of examples of evil people in the world who have power, wealth and worldly influence.  Do we have to wait until their “last judgement”?   Stott writes the evil people of this world “are storing up wrath against themselves, for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgement will be revealed.” 

What about society; is it totally Godless?  We have laws to deal with heinous acts.  Those laws require punishment by the state.  Paul’s words do not mean that people who do great harm to others should go unpunished; he is trying to say that it is harmful for Christians to have a direct hand in the punishment of evil people.  Ordinary people should not take the law into their own hands despite the desire for revenge. 

Where does all this leave us as we see evil abound  in this world?  My son lives in Memphis Tennessee and this past week a young kindergarten teacher was kidnapped while she was jogging.  Three days later, authorities found her body.  Yesterday a nineteen year old man went on a shooting rampage throughout the city, killing four and wounding three. 

Real people have suffered there.  Lives have been lost and families are now faced with horrible grief for their loved ones. 

How should they respond?

I recall June 18, 2015, a story of a heinous act that brought me to tears, brought me to my knees.  Emanuel AME church in Charleston South Carolina suffered a horrible loss.  An admitted racist entered the church on June 17, while a Bible study was in session.  He opened fire and took the lives of nine people.  I was rocked by the act, but what transpired forth-eight hours later inspired me to be a better man.  I heard the reporter tell of the family members who confronted the killer at his bond hearing. 

They forgave him.

They did not excuse his actions, but

They forgave him.

Ethel Lance was murdered that night in the church.  Her daughter Nadine Collier spoke directly to her killer:  “I forgive you … You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.”

It was later revealed by news outlets that the killer expected the killings at Emanuel to trigger a response.  He wanted the killings to start a race war.  Little did he know that family members would react the way they did.

Possibly family members knew that spewing hatred was not the way to respond, wishing harm on the killer would do no one any good.  Healing began at that bond hearing as the state took over the role of punisher.  God will do His part in the killer’s future, at his judgement day.

Jesus prayed for His executioners. That inspires people to be better people.  He forgave His executioners.  He left punishment to the wrath of God.

Additional information for this post comes from USA Today Website  “Five Years after Charleston Church Massacre:  How “Emanuel” Reveals the Power of Forgiveness” accessed on September 8, 2022.

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Easy to do? No, but essential…

It seems that peace in this world today is elusive.

Yet the call to Christians today is the same as it always was.  Matthew 5: 9 says we are called to be peacemakers.  First Peter 3: 11 tells us to “seek peace and pursue it.”

In Chapter 12 of John Stott’s book The Cross of Christ, his call for peace is preeminent.  If we are to live “under the cross” every aspect of our lives is to be shaped by the cross, including our conduct in relation to others and this includes that problematic group of people that we all seem to have: our enemies.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” [Matthew 5: 43-45].

That seems to be such a high bar, especially in this world today when love and peace do not seem to be uppermost on most people’s minds.  It may seem to be hyperbole, but the prevailing response to differing opinions today is often anger resulting in conflict, attack, and disparagement of others with different viewpoints.

Yet Stott says being a “peacemaker” is essential for living a “true” life devoted to “love and justice which characterized the wisdom of God in the cross” [288].  He points to three places where peace should be foremost: the church, the family and the Christian’s life.

Let’s summarize what Stott says about the church because of all places, one would think that love and peace should reign there, but sadly that is not always the case.  Detractors of the church can find multiple examples of Christians not exhibiting love and peace with their fellow Christians.   When a brother or sister have a sin problem that becomes public, self-righteous gossips appear within the church [quick to judge and spread their opinions].    When a contentious issue outside the church becomes a discussion within the church, people pick sides and go into attack mode against differing opinions.  The objective is to demolish differing views.  When a pastor makes a mistake and needs grace, support and restoration, the most common response seems to be a quick demand for resignation [no grace, no support and no effort at restoration].  The New Testament is clear about the need for love and peace regarding differences in the church.  “Jesus Himself made it abundantly plain that the object of discipline (within the church) was not to humiliate, let alone to alienate, the person concerned, but rather to reclaim him or her” [Stott, 290; see also Matthew 18: 15-17].  In my opinion, when contentious issues arise within a church, intelligent discussion should happen (everyone involved should gather factual information, after careful thought, everyone involved can express their views in a respectful manner, everyone should know that changing other people’s minds is not the goal but understanding other views is the goal even if those views differ from yours [and you don’t intend to alter your personal viewpoint).  It may be needless to say but nonbelievers bolster their reasons for nonbelief when they see Christians who are unable to exhibit love and peace in their “own house.”  Why would they want to become members of a hypocritical institution called “the church,” people who say one thing and then do another.

An additional area where love and peace should reign is the home.  Christian parents should want their attitude toward their children to be marked by the cross.  Stott writes “Love is the indispensable atmosphere within which children grow into emotional maturity.  Yet this is not the soft, unprincipled love that spoils the children, but the ‘holy love’ that seeks their highest welfare, whatever the cost [Stott, 289].  Christian familial love does not eliminate discipline because the loving parent knows that the goal of parenting should be the highest good in the child.  I know this phrase is too simple but Stott writes “Justice without mercy is too strict, and mercy without justice too lenient.”  Children know about justice and mercy because they know when they do wrong and they know they deserve punishment.  Parents have the job of setting boundaries and children know they need them, we all need them.  Again love and justice comes from God and parents should know how to love the family and how to mete out deserved punishment.

Lastly, the Christian’s struggle with love and peace is the bedrock from which the two aforementioned areas are built.  What am I to do if it is impossible to live at peace with someone who is unwilling to live at peace with me?  What did Christ do when confronted by hostile forces that meant Him harm.  Jesus was the “world’s preeminent peacemaker.”  Stott writes “when He [God] determined on reconciliation with us, His ‘enemies’ who had rebelled against Him, He ‘made peace’ through the blood of Christ’s cross” [289]. 

What must we do?  I agree one hundred percent that it begins with listening.  Stott calls this listening “sustained, painstaking listening to both sides.”  When I used to teach listening skills I often drew a distinction between listening with an open mind and listening with an empty gun chamber.   A poor listener is not processing another’s message with the aim of understanding as much as they are preparing to “fire back” a rebuttal in order to win what they see as a debate.  It takes effort to sympathize with others, much less empathize with others.  It takes effort to understand the language that has led to misunderstanding. 

If understanding occurs and responsibility for misunderstanding is accepted, it is hard to apologize to others, for today no one seems to want to accept blame.  If others have done wrong, it is equally uncomfortable to have to rebuke another, for that risks destroying relationships, anger and further recrimination.  Again we can turn to the Bible for guidance in these matters.  Jesus said “If your brother sins, rebuke him and if he repents forgive him.”

Stott comments “The incentive to peace-making is love, but it degenerates into appeasement whenever justice is ignored.  To forgive and to ask for forgiveness are both costly exercises.”  My belief is that the idea of peace and loving one another is a cornerstone of our faith.  Easy to do?  No, but essential for our ability to stay true to God .  “All authentic Christian peace-making exhibits the love and justice—and so the pain—of the cross” [289].

Our new pastor at my church inspires us all with the last words he says after he prays his benediction.  He raises his arms toward God and the cross that hangs from our ceiling and he utters these words:  “Go in peace.”

Easy to do?  No, but essential…

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Come In Jesus…

In the previous post entitled “The Decision to Open the Door” [August 19, 2022] I refer to John Stott’s use of the image of Christ at our door, knocking to get in.  One can look at the famous painting entitled “The Light of the World” and see that the door that Jesus is knocking on does not have a door knob.  It has to be opened from the inside.  “The Decision” is focused on just that, our decision to let Jesus in (a metaphor for letting Jesus into our lives).

Let’s take the metaphor further.  He is knocking, knocking, knocking and the big question is what must we do?  John Stott in his book Basic Christianity says we must listen to His voice.  Many choose to turn a deaf ear to Jesus or drown out the whisper of Jesus’ voice.  “Sometimes we hear the voice through the pricklings of the conscience, sometimes through the gropings of the mind.  Or it may be a moral defeat, or the seeming emptiness and meaninglessness of our existence, or an inexplicable spiritual hunger, or sickness, bereavement, pain or fear” [Stott, 125-26].  Whatever the vehicle, Jesus’s  message is clearly delivered; you need Me.  “I can get you through what you are going through.” 

Secondly, we must open the door.  This is the actual act of faith that triggers our act of submission to our Lord and Savior.  This signifies that we indeed need Him.  Stott says the door does not swing open by chance.  It is not partially opened with Jesus peeping in.  It is closed and we have to decide to allow Him entry.  “ If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in” [from Revelation 3: 20].  Everyone must make his or her own decision to do this.  No one does this for you.  Pastors, parents, counselors, friends can point the way, but you have to decide to let Him in.

Stott writes that this is a unique act. “Your hand and only yours can draw back the bolts and turn the handle” [126].  When Christ comes inside [inside your life] He will bolt the door from the inside and will never abandon the house.  “Sin may drive Him into the cellar or the attic” but He won’t leave.   “He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” [Hebrews 13:5].

Here is a catch.  Opening the door does not make one an angel.  Christ can enter and cleanse you of your sins but it is the beginning of of a long-term transformation process.  You character will begin to be molded to His will.   It only takes a moment to open the door and receive forgiveness but it is the beginning of a lifetime of adjustment.

Stott likens the process to renovating a home.  There are so many shows on television today detailing the steps one makes to renovate.  The process can be wrapped up in a thirty minute segment or at the most, an hour.  That is not the way it works with Jesus.  His entry is only the beginning.   The full quotation from Revelation 3:20 is  “If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with Me”.   Many Christians love to call Jesus their friend; can you imagine The Christ coming into your home and sharing a meal?  Can you imagine conversing with Jesus, enjoying His companionship?   Revelation 3: 20 really says we have been strangers but now we are friends.  We have had a door between us but now we are sharing a meal.

Here is the part that most new Christians do not understand.  Jesus comes in as our Lord and Master.  Our house is now under His management.  I think of Him as cleaning up all the rooms in my house (even though it may be bad to picture Jesus as a cleaning person).  No area is hidden.  Stott says “As He steps across the threshold, we must hand Him our whole bunch of keys, granting Him free access into every room” [125]. 

What does He ask of us?  He asks us to repent of our sins.  Sin displeases God and it is because we cannot clean up ourselves, that He needs to come into our house.  We cannot forgive ourselves and we cannot make the needed improvements without His wisdom and power.   Many people feel they can change on their own [thank you very much God!] but in my experience, the extermination of bad habits needs a power most of us don’t have.

Stott says we must think of God as rearranging the furniture in our homes, with total power to do so.  We don’t need to resist His efforts but in my experience most of us do.  Stott writes “[there should be] no attempt to negotiate our own terms, but rather an unconditional surrender to the lordship of Christ” [125].  This language is so vague and it has to be; Stott cannot tell each of us what the Lord will demand and what problems we have that must be addressed.  He just says it this way “forsake evil and follow Christ.”

I love the way he closes this section of Chapter 10, because he calls on those who open their doors to trust Christ.   There is much work to be done and much more to the Christian life than letting Christ in and confessing our sin, but this is the necessary first step.  To be a Christian, we must take it:

“Lord Jesus Christ, I acknowledge that I have gone my own way.  I have sinned in thought, word and deed.  I am sorry for my sins.  I turn from them in repentance.  I believe that You died for me, bearing my sins in your own body.  I thank You for your great love.  Now I open the door.  Come in Lord Jesus.  Come in as my Savior and cleanse me.  Come in as my Lord and take control of me.  I will serve as You give me strength, all my life.”

The prayer of salvation.

Hear His voice.

Open the door.

Pray the prayer.

Get ready.  He will rearrange your furniture, clean your house and take control of all your keys.

Just what we need…

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The Decision to Open the Door

Open the door. 

Making decisions can be difficult, even deciding to open the door.  We always know we can keep it closed.

You are raised in a Christian home.   You never missed church.  Your parents drilled the Gospels into you as a child.  You attended Sunday school.  Now you are an adult and you assume you are a Christian.  Have you really opened the door?

You are born into a Christian culture.  There are churches everywhere.  You know that most people in your culture believe and so do you [kinda].  You are a “good”  person, crediting the influence of the church and the culture on your belief system but you don’t really do anything to show anyone that you believe in God.  You assume you are a Christian.  Have you really opened the door?

Then we have people like Saul, who was on the road to Damascus.  He was getting quite famous for being a Christian persecutor.  Suddenly a bolt of light hit him and he fell from his horse and he heard the voice of God:   “Why are you using violence against me?”  His life was never the same from that point on.  He became a soldier in God’s kingdom.  He opened the door.

And we have John Wesley who tried to “force” himself to be devout.   He knew he should be but the natural, heartfelt acceptance of God as his Savior was lacking.  In 1738, Wesley reluctantly attended a group meeting on the evening of May 24th on Aldersgate Street in London.  As he heard a reading from Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans, he felt his “heart strangely warmed.”  He writes in his journal, “I felt that God loved me.”  He opened the door.

There was a man who felt he knew it all, that he was totally in control of his life, just to wake up one morning and get a shocking message that plunged him into a “lost state.”  For the first time in his life, he cried out “I don’t know what to do God: I need help!”  He was “at the end of himself.”  Help came from God as the message came about what to do.  Help came from Christians who mentored the man and he gave his life to Christ.  He opened the door.*

Opening the door is hard; it is admitting need.  One needs what is on the other side of the door.   Many do not perceive their need; their attitude is “I need nothing.” 

What is on the other side of the door?  Holman Hunt created a painting in 1853 which is entitled “The Light of the World.”  Jesus is carrying a light and He is knocking on a long unopened door seeking entrance.  The painting is based on Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hears My voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me.”    John Stott uses this painting to illustrate the personal commitment that “real” Christians have to make to Jesus Christ.  They choose to open the door and let Him in.  “Every responsible adult is obliged to make up his own mind for or against Christ.  We cannot remain neutral.  Nor can we drift into Christianity.  Nor can anybody settle the matter for us.  We must decide for ourselves” [Stott, 121].

I would be remiss if I did not state right now that responses to Jesus’ knock do not have to always be dramatic, a bolt of light, a warmed heart or an anguished cry for help.   The decision to open the door to Jesus can come in many, many forms.

But “true faith will translate such mental belief into a decisive act of truth.  Intellectual conviction must lead to personal commitment” [121].  Whether dramatic or not, the knock of Jesus on our door requires our decision to follow Him, our commitment to further His kingdom.

It is a humbling moment for a person to admit that they need help.  They need a Savior.   Stott was told that he needed to appreciate what Christ did for him.  Jesus came to earth and died an ignoble death so that Stott [and all of us] could be saved. 

We live in a world that does not encourage humility.  Many have material prosperity and they have accumulated that at the expense of a real appreciation for the gifts that God has given all of us.  “Look at me in my fine home, my fancy car. I live a successful life on my own God, thank you very much.”   Stott writes that material prosperity has invaded the church and brought with it a “complacency”.   Stott is hard on these people, people who like to look the part but they really don’t do anything to show they really believe.  He calls them “Christians in name only”, their interests are “shallow” and “casual.”  Jesus said in the Gospels that this type of person is lukewarm, not hot or cold, they are “distasteful to Him.”  Stott writes this type of person is suffering from self-delusion:  they say “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.”  They don’t know they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” [123]. 

Let’s say we open the door to Jesus.  He comes into our “house” and we commit ourselves to Him.  Being the people we are, our natural question is what is He going to give me?  Here is the answer:  commitment to Christ gives us righteousness.   We grow to want to meet God’s standard of obeying His laws [every attribute, every attitude, every behavior, and every word].  We can’t meet this perfect standard but we want to try.  When we fail, God extends His grace to us as we seek forgiveness and continue on in our quest for obeying God’s laws.  Christians do not have the strength to do this on their own, but “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” [2 Corinthians 5: 21].

Commitment to Christ gives us a hunger for spiritual wealth.  We begin to see that money and possessions will not bring us what we need; we need happiness that derives from God-centered behavior, spiritual knowledge of God and His word and a freedom from sin. 

As I write about Jesus at the door, He is knocking on it.  He is not pushing it open.  He could put His shoulder into the door and force it open. He is not shouting at us to open the door.  The irony is that Jesus is the owner of the house.  Stott writes “He is the architect, He designed it.  He is the builder; He built it” [124].  We are only tenants in a house which does not belong to us.  He is knocking and waiting, waiting for us to open it.  It is a decision:  to open the door to Jesus or keep it closed.

What will you do?

*That man was me.

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Spheres of Service for Christians

John Stott closes Chapter 11 of his book The Cross of Christ with a section called “Spheres of Service.”  “The community of Christ is a community of the cross and will be marked by sacrifice, service and suffering, how will this work itself out in the three spheres of home, church and world?” [Stott, 281].

That is a very reasonable question given the nature of the Christian’s life.  If a person gives their life to Jesus Christ and receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit, that Spirit can* cause a change in their life, a change which will result in a need to act out their faith in this world.  Becoming a Christian is not just a public statement; it may also be a commitment to change the world for the betterment of God’s Kingdom here on earth.  Stott discusses three spheres of change:  the family, the church and the world.  In all three areas, a righteous Christian will bear fruit** [their faith will have a positive impact].

In the home of a Christian family, love should be the main theme, what Stott calls natural human love, further enriched by supernatural divine love, between husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters.  Stott points to Ephesians 5: 21 which has often been cited as “difficult” for wives because it recognizes husbands as the head of the family.  Stott does not agree that Ephesians is harder on wives than husbands; “the quality of self-giving love required of husbands is arguably even more demanding.  For they are to love their wives with the love which Christ has for His bride, the church.  This is Calvary love” [282].  It is self-sacrificial, constructive, resplendent, caring and protective.  Of course what he is saying is that being the head of the family is not an easy job.

In the church the sacrifice, service and suffering inspired by the cross begins with pastors.  Their leadership style should be inspired by Jesus Christ and He led his followers by His humility and service.  With Christ as the model, pastors see a Man who lives by His Father’s power.  Jesus was not harsh in the exercise of authority and did not focus on wielding his own power.  “If Christian pastors adhered more closely to the Christ who was crucified in weakness and were prepared to accept the humiliations that weakness brings, rather than insisting on exercising their own power, there would be much less discord and much more harmony in the church” [282].

Within the church community the key word is unselfishness.   Many in church can find themselves working hard to be the most ambitious Christians in church but that effort should be devoted to helping others [the call is to love one another rather than self].  The needs of others come first, others are valued more than self because that is the model of Christ who renounced His rights and humbled Himself in order to serve. 

Finally we turn to the world and here Stott says that Christians should have a mission mentality.   Churches can be preoccupied with their own affairs but there is a very needy world outside the church building.  Stott says that “mission arises from the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.”   In other words, the church should be characterized by suffering service, akin to the attitude expressed by Mother Teresa who said that “Love means to be willing to give until it hurts.”  

Today, Stott claims that too many don’t understand suffering service because that has been overshadowed by the unbiblical prosperity gospel [which focuses on devout Christianity equaling personal success].  The cross calls us to “mission”, meaning that we are called to individual and family sacrifice, helping others over our own economic security, solidarity and empathy for the poor, and renouncing the idea that our wealthy culture is better than any other culture.  Stott writes that each of these ideas lead to a death of sin in us and a life dedicated to others who need our help

Related to mission in the world is the desire to work for social justice in the world.  When we see basic human rights being denied, it is our job to work to correct that injustice.   Stott lists many examples [of which I will give a few]: political injustice [the subjugation of minorities], racial injustice [discrimination against people based on race or color], sexual injustice [the oppression of women].  The church can let this injustice stand but if we love people, we care about how they are being treated.  It is our obligation to change institutional structures that inhibit the development of people.  “Christians cannot regard with equanimity the injustices that spoil God’s world and demean His creatures” [285]. 

As I get ready to conclude this post and wrap my discussion Chapter 11, I have to ask what is our “sphere or service.”  I am reminded of the great commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”  Matthew 28:19-20a.  When one considers these words it sounds like Christians have a lot of work to do.

Stott would agree; work in the family, the church and the world.

*Of course, a Christian can ignore the urging of the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in the family, the church and the world.  That is why I wrote “can.”

**We often think of Apostle Paul’s list in Galatians 5: 22-23 but one can argue that “Godly work” done in the family, the church and the world is also “fruit.”

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The Quest for Power in the Church

“The worst and most blatantly self-centered prayer ever prayed” [John Stott, The Cross of Christ].  Those words by Stott describe the following sentence by the sons of Zebedee, [ the apostles James and John]: “Teacher,” they said, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

I am not sure I would call that a prayer, more likely a request.  Self-centered?  You bet.

What are these apostles asking?  The words are from the book of Mark and they are asking Jesus for power. 


They want to sit at Jesus’ right hand and His left in His glory.  They want positions of honor, thrones.  Jesus knows His mission; He has come to this earth to hang on the cross, to suffer weakness and shame.  They don’t know that or don’t believe that.  Jesus says to them “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”  He knows they don’t want His future but Jesus knows what they want.

They want power.

The church is an institution and individual churches are institutions within the larger institution.  Every church has a power structure that emanates from the pastor.  Sadly, churches have many people like James and John.  Stott calls these people “go-getters, status-seekers, people who are hungry for honor and prestige, people who measure life by achievement, who are aggressively ambitious for success.” 

The problem is nothing could be further from the life that Jesus Christ led, nothing could be further from the goals that Jesus Christ had.  “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Power seekers make choices that are of this world.  When they join a church, they want to run it.  They want to have the ear of the pastor.  They want to be the most important people in the church.  They want to set the tone.  They want to make sure they are at the “top of the heap”.  It is just their nature.  Stott says they have a choice between self-ambition and sacrifice and they have chosen self-ambition.  When Jesus calls for humility, that call falls on deaf ears; they don’t want that.  They only understand the opposite of that: pride.

The second choice these power seekers make is between personal power and service.  Stott writes it seems clear that James and John were not seeking “seats on the floor, or on cushions, stools or chairs, but on thrones” [280].  James and John focused on the glorious Son of God but ignored the other part of the equation—the suffering servant.  Jesus knew that He would only enter glory by suffering, but James and John did not understand this pathway to glory.  Perhaps they missed their former life where they were well-to-do members of a fishing family that had enough success to have servants.  Perhaps they fantasized about being Roman rulers or even tyrants like Herod.  The model they knew was based on people who “threw their weight around,” manipulative people, exploiters, and tyrants.  “The symbol of an authentic Christian leader is not the purple robe of the emperor but the coarse apron of the slave, not a throne of ivory and gold but a basin for the washing of feet” [Stott, 280].

The last choice a power-seeker makes is between comfort and suffering.  No one can doubt it; following Jesus was hard.  James and John had become vagrants.  That happened to all the apostles as they followed Jesus.  Maybe they wanted some creature comforts instead of moving from place to place with no real place to rest, no real place to call home.  Stott imagines they would rather have goblets of wine, sumptuous banquets and luxurious pre-banquet baths.  Who wouldn’t?  “The spirit of James and John lingers on, especially in all of us who have been cushioned by affluence [Stott, 281].  The life of an apostle was one with little security.  Comfort was not a priority; hardship was the theme of the day.  “To follow Jesus is always to accept at least a measure of uncertainty, danger and rejection for His sake” [281].

This brings us to the ways of the power-seeker.  How does a person exert influence in the church?   James and John made a direct request but most often the road to power does not  come through words. 

Money is a key factor for most power-seekers.  When a person can tithe and donate large chunks of their wealth, most pastors avoid antagonizing such a person.  Churches have to have funds to operate.  The catch is that people who make large donations expect access; they expect some decision-making ability in how a church operates.  They expect to wield power.

A second factor is community status.  High-ranking officials in a community naturally exert power in the church.  If a person has a high-profile in the community, they will have a high-profile in the church.  People who are not members of a church may look at who attends and they may be impressed that a mayor, a judge or chief executive officers attend.  The idea is that some of this prestige may rub off on them.  This makes a church a fashionable place to attend.   The high-profile person wields power.

A third factor (believe it or not) is service.  Service is what Jesus expects of His followers, but what about people who serve too much?  I have seen people who make it their job to serve at church so much that no one else is asked to do the work of the church.  What is this person’s goal?  They want to be seen by the pastor as “indispensable”.  When a problem occurs, an initiative needs to be tackled or a mission needs to be accomplished, this power-hungry service-oriented person is consulted because they have a track record of getting things done.  This type of person can insinuate themselves into top leadership in a church just like a wealthy person or a high-profile person. 

Look into their hearts.  What are their goals?  Are they truly doing the work of the church or are they enjoying the credit for doing the work?   It says in Matthew “Only God knows our hearts, and only He knows whether this person has sincerely put his faith in Christ as his Lord and Savior” [7: 1].   Many hard workers are true servants and they do not have ulterior motives.  Others have power as their motive and service is how they achieve their goal.

Stott says the selfish, power-hungry request of James and John is sandwiched between two explicit references to the cross.  That offers a contrast.  Compared to Christ’s sacrifice, their request is described as “shabby, tatty, threadbare” [281].  More importantly this single episode of two power-hungry apostles highlights the choices the church has to make on a regular basis. 

Does the church follow the “way of the crowd?”

Does the church follow the “way of the cross?”

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Having a Double Attitude…

The double attitude.

We are new; Christ has redeemed us…

We are fallen; we continue to sin…

In my previous post I stated that this double attitude would be the focus of my comments this week.  As John Stott heads toward the end of his book The Cross of Christ, his last chapters deal with how we should live under the cross.  Our identity is shaped by our relationship with Jesus; our purpose is shaped by His sacrifice.

He says we are called to self-affirmation and we are called to self-denial.

Let me ask which “call” would you rather hear?   Jesus spent a lot of his time on earth preaching about people.   People are valuable in God’s view.  How much more valuable are people than birds or beasts?   Humans are the “crown of God’s creative energy” for God made them in His own image. 

Jesus had a positive attitude toward people.  He never seemed to hate anybody or dishonor anyone.  In fact He went out of His way to accept the people that the world rejected.  In a patriarchal society, He spoke courteously to women in public.  Little children were invited to come to Him.  He delivered hope to the Samaritans and Gentiles.  Of course, He allowed lepers to come to Him for healing and He defended wayward women from stoning.  Stott writes in all His “diversified ministry His compassionate respect for human beings shone forth” [274]. 

One must also remember Jesus’s mission and death.  He did what he did for human beings.   Jesus came to serve us, not to be served by us.  “He was the Good Shepherd who came into the desert, braving the hardship and risking the peril, in order to save only one lost sheep.  Indeed, He laid down His life for the sheep.   Stott quotes theologian William Temple who writes “My worth is what I am worth to God; and that is a great deal, for Christ died for me” [from his book Citizen and Churchman].

Ok this raises a serious question.

How can we value ourselves and deny ourselves at the same time?

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” [Mark 8: 31].

We are called to be dead to sin and alive to a life in Christ.  Self-denial is not so much the denial of luxuries [chocolates, cakes, cigarettes and cocktails] as much as it is the renouncing of our right to go our own way.   Self-denial means to turn away from self-centeredness.   In a recent study I have done on changing behavior, many Christians don’t seem to be able to assess their own behaviors accurately.  Dr. Larry Crabb writes that we love the broad road of life rather than the narrow road.  If life gets too uncomfortable, if the sacrifice is too great, if Jesus calls us to do too much, we back away.  “Jesus lived an abundant life—a life abundant in trials and sorrows, a life abundant in difficulties and pain, a life abundant in rejection and loneliness” [Crabb, Inside Out. 14].  In short, the goodness that Jesus requires must not get in the way of the good life of comfort that Christians want. 

Crabb’s book in uncomfortable because he points out that Christians are horrible in their efforts at self-denial.  We practice “Vending-machine Christianity:  Insert a dollar of ethical living and out comes a thousand dollars of personal well-being in an improved world” [Crabb, 12].  We are good at one type of denial; we are good at denying how poor we are in practicing a holy life.

According to Stott, Jesus calls us three times to die to self.  First is His call to die a legal death.  We die to sin when we join with Christ in His death on the cross.  His resurrection leads to our freedom from sin which justified sinners enjoy.  Secondly we die a moral death.  Our old nature and our evil desires die.  We are supposed to want a righteous life when we can practice continuing fellowship with God.  Thirdly, we have a physical death.  We lose our strength as we live our lives.  Even though we grow weaker in our physical bodies, Jesus’ strength is made perfect in our weakness.  

Stott writes “how have you reacted thus far, especially to the emphasis on dying to self, or rather, putting it to death by crucifying it or mortifying it?  I expect (and hope) that you have felt uneasy about it” [273]. 

My feelings about the Christian self (one that can be affirmed and denied at the same time) are complicated.  We like to make the world simple with our black or white perceptions.   The world is hardly ever black or white, right or wrong or good or bad.   People are rarely completely evil or completely good.   All people are complex, mixes of evil, glory and shame.  We cannot deny our fallen self any more than we can accept the affirming idea that Jesus came to this earth to save us.  Most of us would love to be affirmed and stop at that, but life is not always a “bowl of cherries” [excuse the awful cliché].

“Standing before the cross, we see simultaneously our worth and our unworthiness, since we perceive both the greatness of His love in dying, and the greatness of our sin in causing Him to die” [Stott, 278].

In truth, Christians should have “the double attitude”.  We are new because Jesus Christ has redeemed us, but we never need to forget we are fallen; for like it or not…

we continue to sin.

In our next post, we will continue “Self-Understanding and Self-Giving” as we discuss “Living Under The Cross.”  We will consider self-sacrificial love and spheres of service.

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Living at the Extremes…

Chapter Eleven of The Cross of Christ is entitled “Self-Understanding and Self-Giving.” In Chapter 10 John Stott called the community of the cross a community of celebration, a place of “boldness, love and joy.”*   Besides providing a place of celebration, what he is saying in Chapter 11 is that living under the cross can help Christians assume an identity.  He poses the questions “Who are we, then?  How should we think of ourselves?  What attitude should we adopt toward ourselves?  These are questions to which the satisfactory answer cannot be given without a reference to the cross” [267].

Years ago, I came to know something about myself.  I have a tendency to think too much at the extremes.  When I believe something is good, I don’t just think of it as “good.”  It is great!  When I believe it is bad, I don’t just think of it as “bad.”  It is awful!   I can also flip my feelings quickly, from thinking that a great thing is great to the idea that the same thing is awful, extremely awful.  One comment from my wife can trigger that.  The effect is very dramatic which she does not appreciate [I do try to monitor this aspect of my personality since she dislikes it so much].  Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I fail.

My wife calls me an “obsessive compulsive” even though I don’t really think I have many of the typical accompanying OCD symptoms

How does this fit into Stott’s  ideas of self-understanding and the cross?

He writes about the low self-image that many people have today.  When one considers the way some people react to the world, it is no wonder they have crippling inferiority feelings.  Children are deprived; people suffer through a lifetime of being unwanted or unloved.  Racial prejudice is a real aspect of life today as well as sexual prejudice.  The list of negative aspects of life today is long, from being trashed on social media to being discounted and disrespected in the workplace.  Does God intend us to live lives where we feel (as Stott says) “like worthless nonentities?”

Of course not.

Then let’s “flip the script.”  There is a lot of “be yourself, express yourself, fulfill yourself” preaching out there. He calls this the “human potential movement.”  Many Christians take these ideas from the command to love our neighbors as ourselves but they love themselves first and sometimes forget tolove those neighbors.   This is the idea that all people can be great!  When I was much younger, there was a popular book entitled I’m Ok-You’re Ok by Thomas Harris.  To take this to extremes, all humans are intrinsically good so everything we do is “ok.”  Does God intend us to live lives where we put ourselves first and glorify our own actions?

Of course not.

Stott writes that Jesus did not say the first commandment is to love the Lord your God, the second is to love your neighbor and the third is to love yourself.  “He spoke only of the first great commandment and of the second which was like it.  The addition of ‘as yourself’ supplies a rough and ready, practical guide to neighbor-love, because ‘no one ever hated his own body’” [See Ephesians 5: 29].  Loving one’s neighbor is tantamount to giving of oneself in the service of others [often referred to as agape love].  Sacrifice in order to serve oneself seems to be nonsense. 

Should life to be lived at the extremes?  One has either to experience self-loathing or self-love?  Sadly, my (and others) extreme thinking leads to that.  I am a merciless sinner so I wallow in my guilt and see no way forward.  I am a merciless sinner and I deny my guilt; nothing I do is really bad.  In fact, it is not bad at all.  “I’m ok!”  If I sin, I deny the guilt.  If I sin, God’s grace has me covered.  This can lead to what Stott calls an “evil suggestion.”  When sin increases, grace increases all the more so I can go on sinning so grace may increase still further.

What gets us out of these extreme positions? 

Christ’s death.

When Jesus went to the cross, He died for our sin.  Romans 6: 10 says “the death He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life He lives, He lives to God.”  We die to sin also (of course not the way that Christ actually died).  We die to sin daily through repentance, through asking for forgiveness.    We have to if we dedicate our lives to Christ but because we keep on sinning due to our human nature. 

How do we reconcile this “nature?”  Stott writes “This does not mean that we are to pretend we have died to sin and risen to God, when we know very well that we have not.  On the contrary, we know that by union with Christ, we have shared in the death and resurrection and so have ourselves died to sin and risen to God; we must constantly remember this fact and live a life consistent with it” [270; italics mine]

Wallowing in guilt associated with our sinning is not a good way to live.  However, our world is full of people who have a low self-image and that image can be built on the idea that they are not living a good life based on Christian principles.  Our world is also full of people who are so narcissistic that they think they do no wrong [and if they do, they figure they can get away with it].  I don’t think they can really deny their acts if those acts are obviously against God’s commandments. 

Why live at the extremes?  We have a Lord who has given His Son that we can be born again, living a life that is holy.  We know we will never achieve perfection but we try anyway.  We know that we will never conquer the need to sin but we try anyway.  Our faith calls us to try.

In the next posts, we will discuss what Stott calls a “double attitude;” we are new, though redeemed, and still fallen.  We move forward with life through self-denial and self-affirmation.  Are these the key ideas for our Christian identity?  We will see.

Stott describes them as “both illumined by the cross.”

*See June 23 post in St. John Studies  “Where you Will Find Boldness, Love and Joy.”

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Man’s Response

The “Call”…

To be called is to decide to have a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.  God “calls” us to do this.  Circumstances of our lives may exacerbate the call and those circumstances may be the product of our own choices, but when we are called, our value system begins to change.  We don’t want to engage in our old way of living, we don’t want to make the same old choices; we want to try to follow the ways of Jesus.  We desire fellowship with Him most of all and we come to realize that God values us for who we are, not for what we can produce and achieve in this world.

Part Four of Basic Christianity is entitled “Man’s Response.”  John Stott has introduced Christ the person in Part One, “Man’s Need” in Part Two and “Christ’s Work” in Part Three.  He is making his closing argument for the believer in Part Four; Stott wants his readers to know the basics of The Faith and how to respond when they feel “The Call.”

First of all, when an individual feels that Christ is asking for a commitment, they should realize that He is asking for a public commitment.  Stott writes “It is not enough to deny ourselves in secret” [116].  Christ knew that His church would always be a minority movement in the world if dedication to Him was a secret; He wanted His followers not to be ashamed of their association with Him.   The Apostle Paul declared that an open confession of a life dedicated to Christ is a condition of salvation.  He wrote in order to be saved “we have not only to believe in our hearts but to confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord, for man believes with his heart and is so justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.”  Confession results in action.  Family and friends should know of this commitment.  Joining a church is a requirement so one can associate with other Christians.  At work or in school, the Christian should not be afraid to speak of his new belief if questioned.   All this is to help us be better Christians, to show the fruit of a Christ-centered life to others and even to witness so others can come to Christ. 

But why answer the call?  On June 30th, I wrote “Take Up Your Cross” an explanation of the cost of being a Christian.  If a person is called to do so much, what is the payoff?  Are there incentives to being a Christian?

Certainly, I had a friend tell me that he would like to be a Christian but he told me he would have to quit gambling and he loved it too much.  Another friend told me he loved another woman so much that he could not be a Christian.  The woman he loved was not his wife so he loved his adulterous affair too much to be a Christian.  I even had a friend who said he loved alcohol too much to be a Christian.  He told me “if I become a Christian I won’t have any more fun.”

Stott writes that “many people have a deep-seated fear that if they commit themselves to Jesus Christ, they will be losers” [117].  Of course there may be losses when one makes a public profession of belief.  I lost some friends who did not understand why I did not want to do the same things I used to do.  Some family members thought I was crazy for going to church so much and talking about Jesus so much.  Here is the big question though:  what did I gain?  I began to lose some of the guilt I had when I was sinning because I began to stop doing the things that caused me to feel so wretched. I gained freedom from sin.   I began to look around and see that people around me needed me.  I started giving of myself because the whole world no longer revolved around me.  As I began to slowly accept my Christian identity, service to others became natural.  Stott says it this way: “to live for God and for man is wisdom and life indeed.  We do not begin to find ourselves until we have become willing to lose ourselves in the service of Christ and of our fellows” [117].  I gained a new purpose and a new mission and identity.

Another incentive is the power of God that a Christian can bring to this world.  It is a crazy world we live in, a chaotic place that makes little sense most of the time.  The values of this world are not the values of God and His Son Jesus, and Christians exist to remind people that other options are available.  Jesus described His followers as “salt of the earth” and “light of this world” and we can be that to nonbelievers.  To live lives of peace and love in the midst of bedlam sends a strong message.  People see that and people wonder how it can be done; this gives us an opportunity to share our secret with others.  Where does the power to overcome this world come from?  It comes from God, not us.  To Him goes the glory.

This leads to the greatest incentive of all. We should live life for Christ’s sake.  Jesus said “whoever lives his life for My sake…will save it.”  Stott puts this in words that we can all understand:  “When we are asked to do something particularly hard, whether or not we are willing to do it depends very much on who asks us, and to whom we are indebted, we are glad to agree.  This is why Christ’s appeal to us is so eloquent and so persuasive.  He asks us to deny ourselves and follow Him for His own sake” [119].

Earlier I referred to a June 30th post entitled “Take Up Your Cross.”  It was all about our sacrifices for the faith.  The crosses He asks us to take up are very little in comparison to His.  He loved us so much that He suffered shame and pain that was unbearable. How can we deny or reject a call on our lives if it comes from God?.

Let’s end on Stott’s effort to get all of us to say yes to “the call.”

“If you want a life of self-discovery, deeply satisfying to the nature God has given you; if you want a life of adventure in which you have the privilege of serving Him and your fellow man; if you want a life in which to express something of the overwhelming gratitude you are beginning to feel for Him who died for you then I urge you to yield your life, without reserve and without delay, to your Lord and Savior.”*

Say “ yes “ to the call.

*Basic Christianity, p. 119.

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Those Meddling Preachers…

As I look back on last week’s post entitled “Take Up Your Cross” [June 30, 2022] I realize that John Stott’s comments on a Christian’s commitment to Jesus are generally vague.  I wrote that he thinks Christians should not follow the “ways of the world.”  Generally that means that we should not sin [much easier said than done].  Secondly, we should “deny ourselves” which means that instead of trying to manipulate life for our personal gain we should be loving and generous to our fellow man.  Thirdly, we are to “take up our cross.”  Jesus does not want a half-hearted commitment; He wants us to be as fully committed to living a Christian lifestyle as we can.  He certainly was committed.

Vague words at best.

I find it interesting in his book Basic Christianity that he follows his general comments with very specific recommendations.  I had a friend who once said when pastors go from generalities to specifics that they were going from preaching to meddling.

Well to be honest, “basic” Christians probably need specifics, new directions for living, increased knowledge of new commitments, better goals for a better life.

First of all when you are saved, Stott says that God has a call on your life.  There is a new purpose.  I like the straightforward words “our business is to discover it and do it.”  Is there a possibility that the work we are doing at the time we are saved is not the work that God intends us to do?  That could certainly be the case.  Again Stott “meddles” when he says “we must open our lives to the possibility of a change.”  When Christ enters our lives, we live for Him.  We may not be sure if He wants us involved in church work or some other type of ministry but in many forms of work [Stott uses the examples of medicine, research, the law, education, social service, government, industry and business and trade] we can put God first in serving our fellow man.   If God is our Master, our work will begin to reflect Him more and the values of man less. 

Secondly, if a Christian is married, God should be first in the marriage.  That means that both married individuals should be dedicated to a life in Christ.  Basic Christianity was first published in 1958 and life has certainly changed a lot since then.  Stott refers to marriage as a “divine institution,” one that people should not enter into in a frivolous manner.  He goes further by saying that a Christian should not marry a non-believer; “do not be mismated with an unbeliever” [114].    His language is strong: “For a Christian to marry someone with whom he or she cannot be spiritually one is not only to disobey God but to miss the fullness of the union He intended” [114].  As I report his thoughts on this, I try not to judge.  I just ask the reader to consider the wisdom of Stott’s advice.

Thirdly, the act of sex in a marriage should be what God intended for marriage.  God intended sex in marriage to be “something good and right, the expression of love, a fulfilment of the divine purpose and of the human personality.”  Too often sexuality is portrayed as a selfish act, an irresponsible act between two people.  Nothing could be further from the truth in a Christian marriage. 

Let’s really meddle.  When a person is saved, their private affairs become dedicated to God.  What this means is our money and our time belong to God.  Jesus often spoke about money, about how riches can be dangerous.  At times, it seems like He is calling His disciples to give away all of their earthly belongings.  Is that relevant today?  Stott writes, “No doubt He still calls some of His followers to do this today” but for most of us, it is a command to not worship material wealth over God.  It is the old idea that man cannot worship God and “mammon” at the same time.  It may sound peculiar but Christians should consider who really owns their money and all their material possessions.  In a Christian worldview, we hold our possessions as “stewards”, which is very different from the selfish attitude that many have about wealth.  What I own today is given to me by God.  He owns it all anyway.  What I do with what I have is the key.  When there is so much poverty in this world, we are not called to horde our money and possessions; we are called to share.

Our time is a matter of priorities.  We should work hard but not at the expense of worshipping God.  We should work hard but not at the expense of our God-given families.  Time should be set aside for church, for daily prayer and Bible reading.  Time should be set aside for service to the church and community.

Ok, some will read this and think this man is expressing 1958 values but this a 2022 world.  This “bringing every department of our public and private lives under His control” is too extreme.  I encourage the reader to stop and think about the areas of life where sin is common.  Life without a Godly purpose can be a life that is extremely self-centered.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, love your neighbor as yourself” is a huge leap for most selfish people today.  Marriage today is far from the “divine institution” that Stott describes.  Should it be “divine”?  Sexuality is much more open today than it was but does that make it more special or less special?  People devote their lives to accumulating money and possessions and don’t put God first.  What is the effect of that?  I think you can imagine the answer. 

I summarize this post with the pastor’s meddling words.  “All this [life purpose, marriage, sexuality in marriage, money and time] is involved [in the Christian life] if we are to forsake sin and self, and follow Christ” [Stott, 115]. *

*What is inserted in italics are my words.

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