Standing firm

I believe God is calling believers to stand firm against a rising anti-Christian tide in Canada and the Western world.

I am not advocating an angry campaign against other beliefs.  But I do believe that we Christians must be ready to defend our faith.

This may sound too dramatic.  But a quick glance at the world around us – our schools and universities, our governments, our media – will reveal a strong bias against Christianity and Christian values.

I am amazed at the swiftness of this change.  It is accelerating.

Some years ago, I read a poll that asked parents whom they would least like their children to marry.  Evangelical Christians topped the list.

That suggests to me that we Christians need to begin by looking at ourselves.  Why do people object to us?  Do they see us as judgemental?  Is it because we have made no effort to love them as Jesus did?  If so, we must ask ourselves why we have not ventured outside our cocoons to touch the lives of others.

But, I think there is more to it than that.

The good news of Jesus Christ is the “aroma of life” to some and “the stench of death” to others, as the apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 2:16.  The gospel divides people.

That’s because the news that Jesus Christ gave his life for us out of unimaginable love also calls us to repentance of our sinful past and a commitment to God for eternity.  Not everyone is ready to take that step.

Still, I think there is a vast swarm of people who don’t know what we Christians stand for.  They go along with the prevailing opinion of Christianity in our society – and that opinion isn’t pretty.

In my small way, I admit that I am often guilty of hiding my faith in the public arena rather than speaking out as Jesus did.

The apostle Peter famously said in 1Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect.”

That is the perfect approach to defending our faith.

The best way of changing people’s opinions of the Christian faith is to live like Jesus did – reaching out to others with acts of love and sharing the good news.  Barriers to Christ will fall if we live like that.

The Christian world is also blessed with people – lawyers, politicians, scientists – who are ready to challenge wrong views of God as the apostle Paul did in the early years of the Christian church.  We should support them and learn from them so we, too, can give convincing answers to questions people raise.

In any case, we Christians must no longer hide as I have done too often.  We must not be silent.

We must stand firm.

Unseen war

This weekend, Christians are celebrating a strange victory over an unseen enemy.

Onlookers at Jesus Christ’s crucifixion 2,000 years ago saw it as a final defeat for him and his followers.  In fact, it was a great victory over Satan and the forces of evil.

This reminds me that we believers must never rely on our human vision and wisdom.  God is master of our world, no matter what our eyes and our minds tell us.

I said “strange victory” because Jesus won by submitting to the will of God rather than calling legions of angels to rout his enemies – human and demonic.

By giving his life as a sacrifice for us weak and sinful human beings, he satisfied the legal requirements for permitting men, women and children to enter the family of God.

So, what seemed like a stunning triumph for Satan on Good Friday, turned into his ultimate defeat on Easter Sunday when Jesus rose alive from the grave.

A friend and I spent the morning of Good Friday this week talking about what it must have been like for witnesses viewing Jesus on the cross.

Think of the Jewish religious leaders jeering at Jesus, certain they had got rid of a threatening troublemaker.  Or, the Roman soldiers scoffing at the so-called “King of the Jews”.  Or, his heartbroken followers, some of them weeping.

I’ll pick one – Mary Magdalene – who was standing at the foot of Jesus’ cross.  She must have been crushed, with questions rushing through her mind about why Jesus was dying.  She loved this extraordinary man who had turned her life around.

What a change three days later!  She stood weeping outside his empty tomb, believing the body had been stolen.  But someone asked her why she was crying and she recognized Jesus – alive again!  What joy!

In Ephesians 6, the apostle Paul tells us that our struggle as believers “is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”.

God has equipped us for that struggle through his word and the gift of prayer.  Every believer can play a part in that war, knowing that the Lord has already won and that we are simply cleaning up the remnants before Jesus’ return.

While Canadian Christians may be discouraged, all we need to do is look at the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the world to see that God is marching forward.

God’s eyes

What does God see in my friend’s painful illness of more than eight years?

I ask that question because my friend is so discouraged that he is even losing hope in a divine miracle.  He has watched healing shows on television, contacted prayer centres and I have prayed with him every time I visit him.

On the medical front, he has been examined by medical specialists in almost every discipline along with trying various cures outside the traditional medical stream.  Some have given him different diagnoses but the solutions haven’t worked.

So what is God up to?

I can see that is the question behind my friend’s frustrations.

It’s a question that many of us have asked at various times in our lives.  I have never gone through anything like my friend’s illness but I have been disappointed at times that God hasn’t answered my prayers the way I thought he should.

I admit that my vision is limited.  I am shaped by my experiences and what I have learned in a long life.

But I am struck by God’s response to Job who had lost his entire family, his health and his wealth through satan’s attacks.

Initially, Job reacted admirably by saying he trusted God even if God killed him.  But finally he complained to the Lord after well-meaning friends suggested he was really at fault for his own problems.

God’s response to Job’s complaints seem harsh. He fires a serious of tough questions at the suffering man beginning with: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

The point the Lord Almighty was making is that we do not know the big picture – only God does.

John Eldredge touched on the problem of unanswered prayer in his book Moving Mountains: Praying with Passion, Confidence and Authority.  It’s a book that our prayer group has been studying for several weeks.

Just after talking about God moving powerfully through healing prayer, Eldredge writes about friends who have not been healed.

One afternoon, Eldredge’s wife sat by the bed of one of their friends, lying in hospital with an unexplained disease which racked his body with fevers, chills and pains for months.  As she sat there, he gasped out the words, “I love you, Jesus. I worship you. I love you, Jesus. I worship you.”

“It was one of the holiest things she ever witnessed,” says Eldredge.

Eldredge asks the question: “What is the goal of this life?”

Paul’s says in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that “the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image”.

We are being moulded into the image of Christ in this world in preparation for the world to come with God.

Eldredge says: “The goal of human existence is union with God, an absolute union of heart, soul, mind and strength, the union Jesus knew with his Father.”

I don’t understand why some – like my friend – suffer horribly and others don’t.

But I believe God loves my friend – deeply.  And there will be a day when he rejoices with Jesus – pain-free.

And he will finally understand as he sees his life through God’s eyes.

The offence of the cross

A couple of years ago, an elderly friend told me he was horrified by the cruelty of God the Father sending God the Son to the cross to die for us.

Startled, I said I saw the crucifixion of Jesus very differently.

In my view, Christ gave his life so that those who trust him will live with him forever. Without his death for our sins, we have no hope.  Christ’s sacrifice in our place is the only way we can be with a good, perfect and loving God in eternity.

My friend was not convinced.  He hopes he will be judged good enough to enter heaven on his own merits.

I continue to pray that Jesus will reveal himself to him.

This exchange highlights for me the truth in the apostle Paul’s words where he says that sharing the message of Christ is the aroma of life to some and the stench of death to others (2 Corinthians 2:16).

In 1 Corinthians 2:2, Paul says he resolved to speak only about Christ and Christ crucified when he was among the Corinthians.  The cross was at the centre of Paul’s preaching.

I have been thinking recently that I need to understand more about the significance of the cross.  More than that: I need to approach the cross with the wonder and awe of the first followers of Jesus after the resurrection.

Every believer understands why Jesus died for us.  But sometimes we let the idea of the cross fade into the background in our thinking – not appreciating how wrenching and world-shaking Christ’s death on the cross was.

Think for a minute about Jesus’ young disciple John standing beneath Christ, looking up at his friend and mentor writhing and dying in great pain on that wooden cross.  Beside him stands Mary, Jesus’ mother, watching as her beloved son is about to expire.

What are the thoughts going through their minds?

Despite what Jesus has told them, they still do not understand what is happening.  They must be wondering why this good man who healed many and preached loving God and man should be nailed to a Roman cross like a thief or murderer.

If he was the Jewish messiah, why was he being killed?

For Mary, the pain must be unbearable – her first-born son dying so cruelly and hatefully.

Today, the crucifixion seems just as bewildering to people who hear about it for the first time.  They can’t comprehend why Jesus’ death and resurrection are so important.

I think that’s partly because they don’t understand that the real struggle is unseen – the battle between God and satan (Ephesians 16).  Jesus’ death and resurrection sealed God’s victory and opened the way for billions of believers to enter the kingdom of God.

Was Jesus forced to go to the cross?

No, as he said in John 3:16, he did it for love – love of us.

Is the Bible true?

A friend told a story this week to our church men’s group which underlines once again the truth of the Bible.

William Ramsay, a brilliant British biblical scholar, set out to prove that Luke’s account of events in the Book of Acts was wrong.  He believed it to be full of errors and written in the second century A.D., 100 years afterward.

After years of research in Turkey and Greece, he concluded it was not only accurate, but one of the best cases of historical writing he had seen.  In the process, he said he became a believer in Christ – he had been a skeptic before.

Others, too, have approached the Bible as athiests or skeptics.  For example, Frank Morison, whose real name was Albert Henry Ross, wrote a book called Who Moved The Stone in 1930 as he investigated the reliability of the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.  Starting as a skeptic about the facts, he wound up convinced they were accurate.

As well, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the accuracy of historical facts about people and places in the Bible from ancient tablets and writings in the Middle East.

People have called into question some facts in the Bible, but they are minor and can be explained on the grounds that the original texts were accurate.  As others have said, the Old and New Testaments have stronger support as accurate texts than other ancient documents.

Why is the Bible so often under attack?

I believe it is because God demands a “Yes” or “No” answer to the question: “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour?”

Skeptics such as Frank Morison were prepared to accept Jesus as an unusually good man. But they could not accept supernatural events such as Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

God is a miracle-working god.  His thoughts are greater than any of our thoughts.  He knows our thoughts even before we think them.  He is everywhere at once.

If you refuse to accept that God is who he says he is, then you must try to destroy the Bible which speaks of God.

It is a battle that will face believers until the end of time.

Yet the Spirit works through the scriptures to change hearts every day around the world.

God’s word is more powerful than those who attack it.

A light in the darkness

It is easy to feel powerless in the evil world around us.

But one man, one woman, one child can make a difference.

Who would have guessed that a carpenter’s son would turn the world upside down?  But Jesus did.

We can dismiss Jesus because he was God as well as man.  But Jesus lives within every believer today.

Jesus said he was the light of the world.  He used the picture of the light to show its power over darkness.  Things that we cannot see suddenly become visible when a shaft of light penetrates the darkness.

Evil hates light.  It either runs away from it or tries to suppress it.

So Christians who are true to their faith can expect resistance, even oppression.

Our Wednesday morning men’s group has been studying the Book of Acts for several months.  What a story of the power of light, the power of God’s Spirit!

It is a story, too, of commitment to Jesus by his followers.  Commitment in the face of death, ridicule, imprisonment.

They poured out the love of God to others even as they were being persecuted.  They shared the story of Jesus in the midst of turmoil and trouble.

And what an impact they had!  Many thousands were attracted to the light and became children of God.

That story is repeated through the ages – and even today, especially in Africa, Asia and South America where hundreds of millions have given their lives to God in the last 50 years.

Even in North America and Europe, there are pockets of light, blazing in their local areas.  But it has been a long time in the West since there has been a sweeping, nationwide revival.

I believe discouragement and a sketchy knowledge and appreciation of Jesus are among the reasons Christians have largely withdrawn to the four walls of their churches in the West.

It is good to see the lights that are ablaze around us – the loving service that some Christians provide and the individual efforts to share the good news.  As well, there are some prayer movements dedicated to prayer for revival in Western countries.

But shouldn’t we all be crying out to God to move in power in our society as he did 2000 years ago?  Shouldn’t we all become enraptured again with Jesus so we look forward to talking about him with those we know and love?

It’s something that is on my mind now as I examine myself and my very limited spiritual vision.  As Bible-translator J.B. Philips said, my God is too small.  I expect too little  and pray too small.

I remember reading that five people prayed for revival on the Scottish Isle of Lewis for years before revival broke out on the island just after the Second World War.

A few lights can make a difference.

Imagine what many could do.

Falling in love

Sam Storms says the “key to holiness is falling in love . . . with Jesus”.

Storms, author and pastor, suggests that the powerful magnet of sin can only be overcome by loving the Lord more.

His book Pleasures Evermore runs counter to much Christian literature today.  He does not propose a five-step program to control feelings and wrestle ourselves into purity.

It’s a view that appeals to me.  More and more, I am returning to contemplating Jesus – who he is and what he has done, particularly on the cross.

I say “returning” because I am often diverted to other things – particularly, concrete ministries or actions that I hope will please God and others.  There is nothing wrong with these things – just my motivation.

It is interesting that when Peter and Jesus had a conversation after the Lord’s resurrection, Jesus did not spend time going over Peter’s denial of him just before he was crucified.  Instead, he asked his disciple: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:15-19)

The Great Commandment says that we are to love the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind. (Matthew 22:37)

So, the question I ask myself is: Do I truly love Jesus?

Fundamentally, I do.  I cannot imagine living without Jesus in my life.

But I have to admit that Jesus does not occupy my thoughts and my passions the way he did when I first put my faith in him.

My faith is more mature than it was more than 57 years ago when I became a believer.  I know much more about God than I did then.  I read the Bible and pray regularly.

Some might say that this is normal for Christians.  But is it right?

It strikes me that the early Christians had a much different faith than mine.  They couldn’t stop talking about Jesus and the crucifixion.  They were enamoured of Christ.

Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:2 that he resolved “to know nothing while I was with you but Jesus Christ and him crucified”.  This fascination with Jesus and the crucifixion was what drove Paul’s ministry.

Storms says that we will only overcome temptation if we are more enamoured with Jesus than we are with the illicit things that promise instant pleasure.

He recommends such activities as fasting; reading and meditating upon scripture passages that speak about God; contemplating God’s works in nature; and feasting on the Lord through worship.

These mean I must consciously invest my time and thought in the Lord.  The payoff is hunger for more of God and joy in his presence.

As I look at the early Christians, I see people who almost spontaneously spread the good news of Jesus because they were so excited about him.

That is the road I want to walk.

Invisible – but present

Many Christians – myself included – would love to see Jesus right now among us.

One reason is that, consciously or unconsciously, we believe Jesus’ physical presence would resolve all our faith questions.  It would strengthen our faith.

Or would it?

Jesus lived on earth in human form for 33 years.  But few people believed he was the Messiah while he was here.

The fact is that God looks for something in me that is beyond concrete evidence.  He is looking for faith.

I think there is a lot of Jesus’ disciple Thomas in me.

As you recall, Thomas refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead until he had put his hands on the mark of the nails on his body and his hand into the hole where the Roman spear had pierced it (John 20:25).

When Jesus appeared to Thomas, he told him to look at his nail-pierced hands and touch the hole in his side.  And the disciple declared: “My Lord and my God.”

Then, Jesus made his great statement: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I believe in Jesus.  I believe he died to save me from the just penalty of my sins.  I believe he rose from the dead.  I believe I will be with him forever.

My faith in him and what he has done is unshakeable.

But I am also filled with a lot of Thomas in everyday life.

Part of the reason is that like many Western Christians, I am infected by our modern scientific and technological mindset.  That philosophy argues that if you can’t see it and touch it, it must not be real.

But I know from God’s word that that view is wrong.

The apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that there is an unseen reality much more powerful than what we see on earth.  There is a spiritual war going on that we don’t see.

As a child of God, I can do nothing on my own in this cosmic struggle.  I must rely totally on God.  I must rely on the Holy Spirit within me to show me what to do in this unseen struggle.

Jesus promised me and all his followers that he would be with us always.  He is not visible to my human eyes – but he is present.

I believe that with all my heart.

And I am thankful that Jesus forgave Thomas for his doubts.

Thomas later took the gospel to India.

Like Thomas, Jesus is asking me to step out in faith – and my faith will grow.

Perfection

“You must be perfect,” Jesus said, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Wow!  For me, that statement by Jesus in Matthew 5:48 is an impossibility.

Yet, unconsciously, I try to achieve that goal – and constantly fail.  And I find my efforts discouraging.

So, why did Jesus make that statement in his great “Sermon on the Mount”?

I think he was telling the religious teachers of the time – and believers today – that self-effort will never get us anywhere.  Only God can be perfect and only He can help us.

The people Jesus was addressing were trying to live up to a religious legal system that was launched centuries earlier under the great Israelite leader and prophet Moses.  It had been modified with other laws in the intervening years.

As with me, people tried to invent ways of excusing their failures to live up to the legal requirements of their faith.

But Jesus told the people that their efforts to get around the Jewish law were fruitless.  Indeed, nothing short of perfection was acceptable to God.

Jesus was preparing the way for his sacrifice for the sins of his listeners – and for all people, me included.  He was the perfect man who paid the price for my sins and failures.

But, despite Christ’s sacrifice, I am still not perfect.  I still do many of the wrong things I used to do.

So, what changed when I put my faith in Jesus and what he did for me on the cross?

Well, I am learning that I am weak and virtually helpless.  That’s a positive step.

And I am learning the lesson that the apostle Paul taught throughout his letters to young Christians – I have to die to myself and let Christ live through me.

That’s a really hard lesson to learn.

Everything in me rises up in opposition to this truth.  I want my opinions, my comforts, my wants to come first in my life.

It’s a challenging goal, but it is achievable.  The apostle and countless believers over the centuries have shown the tremendous power of living a life given over to Christ.

Paul put this principle clearly and simply in these words in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

When I put my faith in Jesus, I died to my previous life and rose with him to a new life empowered by the Holy Spirit.  This is a matter of faith, recognizing that Christ’s power to live a life for God is now within me.

Yet, as long as I live on earth, I will never be free of temptation – the attempts by Satan and my natural longings to draw me away from God.

So, I am called to see myself in a new light – a beloved child of God completely dependent on him and his great power.

The Bible talks about fixing our eyes on Jesus as we run the race of life.

That is what God is asking of me – turning my eyes away from myself and towards him.

Does God heal?

Does God heal supernaturally? 

I believe he does.  In my view, there is incontrovertible evidence from scripture and our own day, showing that God can – and often does – act miraculously.

But what about the times when people cry out to God for healing and nothing happens?

That’s the case with Joni Eareckson Tada who sought divine healing after becoming a quadriplegic decades ago following a diving accident at the age of 16.

Tada is convinced that God heals today as he did when Jesus lived on earth 2000 years ago.  But she also believes that God does not always heal everyone in this life.

In her book A Place of Healing, Tada describes her own understanding of divine healing after unsuccessfully seeking God’s healing over many years.

She notes that she has attended healing crusades where leaders of healing ministries have insisted that if people have enough faith, they will certainly be healed.

Clearly, faith is a major factor in people being healed.  In a number of instances, Jesus said that faith was the reason the people he touched were healed.

But, is that faith in healing or faith in God, the healer?  Tada believes it is the latter.  So do I.

Tada takes this a step further.  Do we have faith that God has our best interests at heart? Do we believe that God has a plan to bring glory to his kingdom and that it involves us?

For her, the real question is not whether he heals.  She is certain he does.  But the issue is “whether or not God wills to heal all those who come to him in faith”.

“Is it a sure thing, a slam-dunk that miraculous healing is always his first and best option?”

Her response – her view – is that “God reserves the right to heal or not . . . as he sees fit”.

She has reached this conclusion after years of reflection and counselling people who are desperately ill and have been told that they are not being healed because of sin or lack of faith.

She points out that the apostle Peter told Christians that they are to follow the example of Christ who suffered for them (1 Peter 2:21).

“Christ and the manner in which he approached suffering is to be our focus, especially when the weight of the cross seems overwhelming.”

She refers to scripture passages where people were not healed – the apostle Paul’s friend Timothy, among others.

But a key for her is Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and he shall give you the desires of your heart.”

The desires of her heart have changed as she has learned to delight herself in the Lord.  His wishes are increasingly becoming her wishes.

“As many have said so eloquently, sometimes he delivers us from the storm, and at other times, he delivers us through the storm.”

In her case, she no longer thinks of physical healing in the way she did years ago.  Instead, she looks forward to be with God, free of pain and “racing with the angels”.

While Tada did not say this, God has used her greatly as a testimony of faith, endurance, hope and love to the world.

She has brought hope to people like her around the world.  Her foundation has provided wheel chairs to multitudes.

And her story has inspired millions.