Happiness or Holiness?

Posted: February 22, 2017 in Happiness

anything-that-makes-you-happy

Memes such as this basically tell us that we should do whatever makes us happy.  “If being rude, getting rich off of the backs of others, cheating on your wife and getting high on a regular basis make you happy, you should do it.  If others don’t like it, screw them!”

It is this attitude towards happiness that causes some Christians to push back by saying, “God doesn’t want you to be happy.  God wants you to be holy.”

But happiness and holiness are actually two sides of the same coin.

As I noted in the first post in this stream, God does want us to be happy.  It’s just that true happiness is not found in self-seeking, but in following the way of God. While the way of God may not induce intense pleasure, it provides is a deep contentment that lasts much longer than the intense pleasure.

One word scripture uses for this is life.  Jesus once told his disciples,

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10).

The particular word used for life in this passage can be summed up in the modern quip, “Get a life.”  Life, in this case, is not the opposite of death, but is that which makes us want to live.  It is that which gives us fulfillment.  It is that which makes us happy.  Many think this only comes after the resurrection, but Jesus said that we can experience it now (Jn. 5:24).

But it can only be found in God and God’s way.  And God’s way is foreign to the way of the world.  This is what is meant by the word holy.  Holy means different or set apart.  The Lord is not like the false gods, he is holy.  And for his people to experience the true happiness he intends for them, they are to be like him.

“Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:16).

So following God doesn’t just make you happy, it makes you holy.  Happiness and holiness are not in conflict.  They are, in fact, the same thing.

Does this mean that people cannot be happy apart from God?  Not at all.  Many people who are atheists or agnostics are quite happy, but it is not true that it is apart from God.  The Bible tells us that God is the one who fills people with joy (Acts 14:17).  The happiness everyone experiences is ultimately rooted in God.

But when life is lived apart from God this happiness never reaches its fullness.  It is only in holiness that we find the fullness we desire.  It is only in holiness we find ultimate happiness.

When Everyone is Happy, I am Happy

Posted: February 15, 2017 in Happiness

“If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”

I must begin with apologies to my wife, who hates this quote.  It makes momma out to be bossy or moody.  She is the kind of woman that makes everyone around her miserable, if she doesn’t get her way.

But there is a sense in which the statement is true.  As one person put it, “Happy wife; happy life.”  The husband’s life is going to be happier when his wife is happier.  The same is true the other way around.  Parents will find themselves happier if their children are happier.

If this is true within our own families, could it not also be true among all of humanity?

A significant difference between biblical happiness and the happiness of our culture is that biblical happiness is corporate in nature.  In other words, I’m not just interested in what I like and what is best for me, but what is best for everyone.  When everyone is happy, then I am happy.

The focus of the second part of the 10 commandments is the happiness of the community.  The community will live in peace and happiness if the people do not murder or steal from their neighbors, have affairs with their neighbors’ wives, not lie in court against their neighbors, and not covet their neighbors stuff (Deut.5:17-21).

As the apostle Paul reminds us, one of those commands comes with a specific promise.

“Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deut. 5:16; Eph. 6:2)

Thinking about the well-being of others, such as your parents, helps everyone to experience well-being.

Achan, on the other hand, is an example of a person who thought about self over community.  When Israel defeated Jericho the people were specifically told not to take anything, but Achan chose to violate this command and hid some of the plunder from the city in his tent.  Without consideration of how his actions might impact others, Achan took what he wanted.  The results were catastrophic (Josh. 7).

The long and short of this is that true happiness is only found when everyone experiences happiness.  We can see this in simple ways, such as when we help someone in need.  Not only are they made happy, but we find a sense of fulfillment and happiness by helping them.  Conversely, those who seek only their own happiness are often miserable because such self-seeking often alienates them from others.

Remember, the miserable Ebenezer Scrooge only became happy when he helped others to be happy.

 

happy

We preachers have a difficult time imagining that God could want us to be happy.  The problem is not so much with happiness, but the perception of happiness.  In our culture happiness usually represents a feeling limited to the moment and determined by the situation.  This toy makes me happy today, but it might not make me happy tomorrow.

It is for this reason that happiness is often disparaged.  Saying that God wants us to be happy smacks a little of the health and wealth gospel.  “Just name it and claim it!

But maybe we’ve misunderstood happiness.

According to the New Testament, God has made everything for our enjoyment (1 Tim. 6:17).  Yes, God wants us to enjoy things.

God gave Israel the land of Canaan so that she would prosper (Deut. 30).  Yes, God wanted them to prosper.

So Israel lives in safety,
untroubled is Jacob’s abode
in a land of grain and wine,
where the heavens drop down dew.
Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you,
a people saved by the Lord,
the shield of your help,
and the sword of your triumph!
Your enemies shall come fawning to you,
and you shall tread on their backs (Deut. 33:28-29, NRSV).

This enjoyment and prosperity comes from God and finds its center in God.   So the psalmist wrote,

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper (Ps. 1:1-3, NRSV).

There is a way that leads to happiness and it starts with God.  The best way for Israel to be happy was to live under God’s guidance.  So the first part of the 10 commandments focuses on the nation centering herself on God (Ex. 20:3-7).  No other gods.  No graven images.  No misuse of God’s name.

Israel would be on the road to happiness if she stayed centered in God.

But as we know, Israel struggled with this to her own detriment.  And so do we.  We are often unhappy and find ourselves in a mess because, rather than planting ourselves next to the stream of God and his word, we make something else the center of our lives.

Ironically, the thing that is often the center is happiness itself.  So we shoot for happiness, but because it is a moving target, we never quite hit it.

But what if we learned to think differently about happiness?

What Should I Do About Politics?

Posted: February 3, 2017 in Uncategorized

About every other post on Facebook these days is a rant for or against President Trump.  In my news feed these are almost all from people claiming to be followers of Christ.  Yet they are often diametrically opposed to one another.

Those on the Christian left find President Trump to be narrow minded and insensitive to the plight of refugees.  They often advocate making some overt political statement to demonstrate that the president does not represent a Christian perspective.  Besides the multiplicity of social media protests, they suggest taking to the streets in protest.  Many participated in the women’s march.

Those on the Christian right support President Trump claiming that he stands for the rule of law and the life on the unborn.  They too advocate overt political statements.  They too fill social media with attached articles and memes.  They too advocate open protest such as the march against abortion.

Although they seem to be on two different sides, I suggest that they are actually two sides of the same coin.  The coin of which I speak is the coin of political involvement.  Those on the Christian left and right both advocate involvement in the process.  They both advocate the use of political power to accomplish what they see as best for the country and most Christian in flavor.

The Christian left takes this position citing social justice.  They look to the prophets and to Jesus as the model.  Both stood up to the political powers when the poor were being marginalized.  Elijah stood up to Ahab.  Micah stood up to the rich.  Jesus stood up to Herod and the religious leaders who lined their pockets.

The Christian right tends to be interested in morality.  What they usually mean by this is opposing things such as abortion and gay marriage.  They too will cite the prophets and Jesus, and throw in some apostle Paul for good measure.  They believe that, by the providence of God, we have been given a country by which we can have a say in the government.  Therefore Christians have a right and an obligation to be political about Christian morality.

What the two sides have in common is that they are both interested in power.  Once you have the power, you can appoint the right Supreme Court judge.  Once you have the power, you can issue executive orders to help refugees.  But by now we know the corrupting force of power.  Notice that Jesus sought to avoid power at every turn.  Instead he offered himself in sacrifice and service.  The apostles encouraged his followers to do the same.

Both sides point to political involvement in a world where church and state were one and the same.  When a prophet confronted the king he was not just confronting the head of the state over political matters, but over ethical matters as well.  The two were always co-mingled.  This was also the case when Jesus confronted Herod.

But Jesus took no such approach to Roman leaders, nor did the apostle Paul.  If any empire was ever immoral and lacking justice it was the Roman Empire.  But when Paul had his opportunity to speak to a political leader he did not take the time to talk to him about the immorality of slavery or how homosexuality was the great evil of the empire.  No, he “talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come,” (Acts 24:25).  His comments were more directed to the leader himself than to political policy.

When speaking to disciples, Paul encouraged them to pray for leaders and to live peaceful and quiet lives (1 Tim. 2:1-2).  No encouragement to take to the streets in protest.

It may be that there is a time for Christians to protest, but it is not the model we find being used by early Christians to transform the world.  They sought to bring about transformation through sacrificial living.  Despite their deaths, the church grew.

We can spend our energy hunting down stories to post on Facebook and spend money flying to Washington to march in protests, or we can spend that same time and money in our own communities serving the poor and marginalized.  We can mentor those addicted and in cyclical poverty.  We can involve ourselves in messy lives.

But such involvement gets us messy and drains us.  Posting things on Facebook is so much easier.

Recently I have heard several people cite the following dictum in regard to the current presidential election: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  This citation is variously attributed to Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill.  It was once cited by President Kennedy.

In regard to the current election I am told that if I do not vote for Donald Trump that I will be helping the cause of evil, because if good people do nothing, evil will win.

This is a nice quote and certainly has some truth in it, but we should not confuse it with something from scripture.  In fact, scripture teaches us that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.

First, consider Israel’s rescue from Egypt.  When they were in the wilderness and being pursued by the Egyptians, there were options before them.  They could have surrendered and returned to Egypt.  They could have tried to fight the Egyptian army (and likely would have been slaughtered).  But here is what Moses said.  “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.” (Ex. 14:13).

What were they told to do?  Nothing!

Or consider the time that Assyria surrounded the city of Jerusalem.  The Assyrians had already conquered Israel and now taken everything in Judah except Jerusalem.  The Assyrian leader stood before the city and said,

“Tell Hezekiah: ‘This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: On what are you basing this confidence of yours? You say you have the counsel and the might for war—but you speak only empty words. On whom are you depending, that you rebel against me? Look, I know you are depending on Egypt,  that splintered reed of a staff, which pierces the hand of anyone who leans on it! Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who depend on him.”

When the commander was asked to speak in Aramaic rather than Hebrew he said, “Was it only to your master and you that my master sent me to say these things, and not to the people sitting on the wall—who, like you, will have to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine?” (2 Kings 18:19-26).

What were Hezekiah’s options?  He could surrender.  He could hope that Egypt would come and help.  He could try and fight.  But he consulted Isaiah who told him to not fear, but to wait on God to handle the matter (2 Kings 19:5-7).  So, despite the great fears and pressure from his own people within the walls, Hezekiah did nothing.  Here is the result.

“That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies!” (2 Kings 19:35).

Sometimes good people do nothing and it is the right decision.

In regard to the current political situation, I am told that I must support a man who openly claims to be a Christian but repeatedly calls people losers, stupid, and dummy, and makes fun of women on their menstrual cycle and people with disabilities. He also makes fun of the way people look (just ask Carly Fiorina and Rosie O’Donnell).  He argues for banning all people from a particular religious group from entering the country because a minority of those people are terrorists.  He tells us that people from Mexico are rapists.

There are other reasons to dislike Mr. Trump, but I have tried to stick with those that relate to the Christian faith since he openly claims to be a Christian.

Since evangelical Christians have greatly supported Donald Trump, we should ask what message we are sending to the growing number of non-Christians in our country?  I think the message is something like this: “We will put up with any behavior from a Christian as long as he can defeat Hillary Clinton.”

In other words, we will gladly get in bed with sin in hopes of defeating sin.

James Dobson backs Trump claiming that he is a baby Christian.  Since the apostle Paul said that it is not wise to have a baby Christian as a leader in the church (1 Tim. 2:6), I’m not sure why Dr. Dobson would want him as a leader of our country.

Because of those things (as well as some other things that have nothing to do with the Christian faith), I will not vote for Donald Trump.  Because of that some are citing the above quote to me about letting evil win.  But as I have pointed out, sometimes the best thing to do for good to win is to do nothing.  To do something (in this case, vote for Donald Trump) seems to me like getting in bed with the devil to beat the devil.

I am not trying to get you to refrain from voting for Trump.  I am only raising one simple question: How far are you willing to compromise your faith in order to beat the opposition? (BTW, this question applies equally to Clinton supporters)

If you pray hard enough you will win your husband back.  That is the take away from the movie “War Room,” produced by Affirm Films.  IMDb says this about the film.

WAR ROOM  follows Tony and Elizabeth Jordan, a couple who seemingly have it all-great jobs, a beautiful daughter, their dream home. But appearances can be deceiving. In reality, their marriage has become a war zone and their daughter is collateral damage. With guidance from Miss Clara, an older, wiser woman, Elizabeth discovers she can start fighting for her family instead of against them. As the power of prayer and Elizabeth’s newly energized faith transform her life, will Tony join the fight and become the man he knows he needs to be? Together, their real enemy doesn’t have a prayer.

A different company, Provident Films, produced a movie with a similar theme – “Facing the Giants.”  This film is about a coach facing adversity and termination which causes him to turn to God.  According to IMDb

He dares to challenge his players to believe God for the impossible on and off the field. When faced with unbelievable odds, the Eagles must step up to their greatest test of strength and courage. What transpires is a dynamic story of the fight between faith and fear.

In the end the team wins the game on a 51-yard field goal from a kicker who had never kicked more than a 39-yarder before.  The message here; trust God and you will win.

This is a triumphalist message at its best.  That message says that if you believe hard enough, God will help you overcome the odds. So if your husband doesn’t come back, you either didn’t pray hard enough or you didn’t have enough faith.  The same goes for the football team that fails to win.

It was just such thinking that led some of Paul’s opponents to accuse him of being weak.  “Bad things keep happening to him,” you can hear them say.  “If he were truly sent from God he would come with power like Moses.”  Many of those who learned the Gospel from him began to believe it.

In response Paul moved into the punch, rather than away from it.  In 2 Corinthians he said that he agreed with his opponents – he is weak.  He claimed no competence for himself (3:4-5).  In fact, he was nothing more than a clay jar (4:7-18).  Indeed, he was less than triumphant!  He was beaten, pelted with stones, shipwrecked, and was in danger from his own countrymen and Gentiles.  In addition, he  had many sleepless nights.  He went hungry, and spent time being naked and cold (11:25-27).

Meanwhile the triumphalists boasted about themselves and seemed to refer to themselves as “Super apostles” (12:11). In response, Paul said that he only boasted in the Lord (10:17).  To the charge of being weak, he confessed guilt, claiming that his weakness brings out God’s strength.  “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (12:10)

The triumphalist storyline in the movies listed above (as well as others) is counter to the Gospel.  There is nowhere in the New Testament a claim that those who follow Jesus are somehow going to win in this world.  To the contrary, the apostle Paul told the Christians in Thessalonica to expect to suffer (1 Thess. 3:2-4).

Is it possible that if you pray hard that your husband will return?  It is certainly possible, and we should pray diligently about such things.  But we should be under no illusion that if we have enough faith or pray hard enough that everything is going to work out fine.  You might recall that Paul asked God three times to take away his thorn in the flesh and God said “No” (2 Cor. 12:8-9).

While such movies encourage many, there are others who feel quite discouraged by them.  Once again they are being told that the reason that there are failures in their lives is because they lack faith.  If they just had more faith, they would win.  If they just had more faith, they would be triumphant.

Such messages pack pews and theaters, but they do not reflect the Gospel.

In a recent Huffington Post article Hillary Ferguson reflected on “The Ugly in Christianity.” Specifically, she talked about her experiences in Churches of Christ. She was raised in a Church of Christ and has attended a Church of Christ in many places, so her experience is not limited.

In describing the ugly she points to the racism and bigotry she has witnessed within Churches of Christ. As an example she tells of a woman in church who exclaimed, “Praise the Lord! Ted Kennedy is dead!” and went on to say “If I could, I’d go dance on his grave.” And it wasn’t just her. People around her laughed, apparently in agreement.

As a lifetime member in Churches of Christ and a Minister for more than 25 years, it is easy for me to be defensive about this. She is criticizing my tribe and therefore I feel a little like she is criticizing me. And there are some reasons to defend ourselves. I cannot discount her experience, but I will say that it is just that – her experience. Many of us have had some very positive experiences in Churches of Christ.

Having said that, I have also witnessed some of the things she is saying. And she is right! There is no place for this within the church. There is no place for a lot of things that we professing Christians do and say and think. But despite the fact that we claim to follow the Lord and have received redemption, we still all falter in many ways. I’m willing to bet that Hillary Ferguson would admit the same about herself.

This does not mean that our failings are acceptable – they are not! But I can think of at least two reasons why they are often overlooked. In the first place, too many Christians (not just in Churches of Christ) assume that the terms “Christian” and “American” are one in the same. Then they assume that “American” is synonymous with a particular political affiliation. This allows the political affiliation or the nationalism to trump the teachings of Jesus. The result is that Jesus would teach us that it is wrong to say “I would dance on Ted Kennedy’s grave,” but our nationalism and political affiliation allows for this.

I think a second contributor to our willingness to give people a pass for their sin is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to as “Cheap Grace.” Churches of Christ have a history of being legalistic. However, at some point many of us were taught about grace and felt a breath of fresh air that we might have an ultimate place with God without getting everything right. However, once we begin leaning on the grace of God it becomes quite easy to presume upon the grace of God. “Whatever I do or say might not be the best, but I’m saved by grace, so I get a pass.”

As a Minister I am continually trying to challenge these ideas and calling people to Christlikeness. But as Jesus told us, the wheat and the tares are going to be mixed until the Lord returns. And they are mixed in every denomination of Christianity. So I know of no way of escaping this. The church is flawed.

The church would be great if it weren’t for the people. The problem is, I am one of those people. And so is Hillary Ferguson (unless she has quit Christianity altogether). Her critique is valid and we need to hear it. But since Jesus died for the church (Eph. 5:25), warts and all, I think it better to live within this body of believers and work (by the power of the Spirit) to ferret out the sin in my own life and that of my brothers and sisters.

Thank you Hillary for helping us see the ugly. Now, let’s get to work on it!