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The Problem with Happy-Face Christianity

Thursday, May 30, 2019

 

The other day, a friend of mine unburdened himself on Facebook about his struggles with depression.  He talked about his confusion and fear and self-hatred.  I came away from his post feeling deeply saddened and troubled, not only because of his plight, but because of my conviction that as a brotherhood, we have failed him and those like him.

I agree with Steve Wolfgang that the greatest failure of the Lord’s church in the past 50 years has been the failure to raise up men who will be spiritual leaders.  Right behind that one, though, is surely our failure to meet the needs of and give a voice to Christians who wrestle with depression, grief, and suffering.

Indeed, there exists in our teaching and especially in our singing the presumption that Christians ought to be happy people.  I think this is driven by salesmanship.  We want the lost to come to Christ, so we feel the need to make Christianity as attractive as possible by pretending that everything is A-OK with us.  “Look how wonderful my life is!!!  Don’t you want to have a life as wonderful as mine???”

This is problematic for several reasons.  First, it’s fundamentally dishonest.  You can be a faithful Christian and still, for reasons beyond your control, have a miserable life.  To argue otherwise is quite literally to adopt the position of Job’s friends. 

Nonetheless, Christians who are suffering intensely often are expected to paste a smile on and act like nothing’s wrong.  I’ve seen a sister who had lost her child six weeks beforehand get rebuked on Facebook for dwelling on her grief.  If we believe that Christians ought to be happy all the time, then Christians who are obviously unhappy introduce cognitive dissonance that we’re not prepared to handle.  Clearly, even though they have every reason to be unhappy, they must be doing something wrong!  Lack of faith, probably.

Second, it’s not faithful to the witness of Scripture.  One would never guess it from much of our teaching and preaching, but the Bible reflects more deeply on human suffering than any other book ever written.  Many of the great heroes of faith were men and women of intense suffering. 

Job was one such, obviously, but there are many more.  David wrote that he felt like God was drowning him.  Elijah pleaded with God to kill him.  Paul despaired even of life.  Even Christ Himself was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. 

We need to talk about these things because they are written for us to talk about.  The book of Job (the whole thing, not just the first two and final chapters) exists for a reason.  Half the psalms in Psalms exist for a reason.  1 Peter exists for a reason.  All those stories about the suffering of the godly exist for a reason.  I don’t think it’s so we can ignore them and talk about upbeat passages that we’re comfortable with (“Do not be anxious!”) instead. 

Finally, it’s not helpful.  Here, I want to focus particularly upon our singing.  In contrast to the Psalms, which offer the mourning consolation and sometimes simply self-expression (see Psalm 89, which contains nothing resembling a resolution), our hymn repertoire is overwhelmingly, relentlessly, bouncy and cheerful.  The help we offer to suffering brethren sounds like “Sing and Be Happy”, which admittedly is fun to sing but seems to have learned compassion from Dolores Umbridge. 

We can do better than this.  Indeed, we must.  We can be open about our own griefs and understanding toward Christians who can’t get over theirs.  We can be honest with the word and grapple with the hard questions about suffering that it presents.  We can weep with those who weep in our singing as fully as we rejoice with those who rejoice.

Will all this sadness and suffering deter seekers?  I think the opposite is true.  When we act like we don’t have any problems, we aren’t being genuine, and insincerity is always repellent.  If, on the other hand, we are willing to be vulnerable and honest, if we offer consolation and meaning to those who mourn, it’s more than likely that mourners will start showing up.

Sexual Morality

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

 

By my count, we are nearing the end of our series of half-hour studies we might hold with an unbeliever or a new convert.  After today, I have three sermon topics remaining, one relating to instruction in righteousness, and two that are miscellaneous studies.  Today, though, we are going to turn our attention to something that we must discuss with everyone who has recently obeyed the gospel—the subject of sexuality.

If there is any sin that our society loves, it is sexual sin.  Practices that were hidden in shame during my parents’ time are now accepted and even celebrated by a majority of Americans.  There are millions of people in our country who would be deeply offended if they heard me say what I’m about to say.  Nonetheless, our job isn’t to win popularity contests.  It’s to declare the whole counsel of God, and if somebody doesn’t like that counsel, that’s on them.  Without further ado, then, let’s explore the Bible’s teaching on sexual morality.

This study must begin with GOD’S PATTERN for intimate relationships.  Jesus sets out this pattern in Mark 10:6-9.  I’ve heard it said that when the Treasury Department trains Secret Service agents to detect counterfeit money, they don’t do that by showing them examples of counterfeits.  Instead, they have them study genuine money, and anything that doesn’t have those characteristics is counterfeit.

In the same way, the best way for us to understand Bible teaching on sexuality is to look at the genuine article of God’s plan.  It’s very simple.  God makes us male and female, joins us in marriage, and in that marital relationship, we become one flesh.  That’s it.  Full stop.  Any sexual activity that does not involve one man and one woman, and anything that does not take place in marriage, is not according to God’s will.

This includes even so-called same-sex marriage.  There are many today, some of whom are even quite prominent, who will claim that their homosexual relationship is sanctified because they have been “married”.  I bear these people no ill will, but they are plainly wrong.  It’s easy for us to tell what God’s intent for marriage is by looking at His design.  He has designed us as males and females, and that design reveals His intent for male and female to go together. 

By contrast, when we consider two males or two females, it is clear that God has not designed them to go together.  Any union between them is contrary to His will, and regardless of whether they claim to be married or not, it will not receive His blessing.

This is important because the Scriptures also teach us that God will bring JUDGMENT ON THE IMMORAL.  Here, let’s read together from Hebrews 13:4.  There are two parts to this verse.  The first part reaffirms the goodness and holiness of sex in marriage.  From the beginning, God has intended husband and wife to become one flesh, and their coming together pleases Him.  It’s a blessing that we should receive and enjoy with gratitude as we receive and enjoy all of God’s other blessings.

However, the same is not true for fornication and adultery.  My father-in-law insists that people often don’t know what these are, so let me explain.  Fornication is sexual activity outside of marriage; adultery is when a married person becomes sexually involved with someone other than their spouse.  There is a stern warning attached to both of these practices, and it is that God will judge the fornicator and the adulterer.

Let me be clear.  Unmarried people, if you want to be with somebody, you need to marry them.  If you are not married to them, and you become intimate with them anyway, you are sinning, you are dishonoring your Creator, and you are placing your soul in peril of eternal damnation.  Married people, if you want to be with somebody, be with your spouse.  If you get with anybody else, you too are sinning, dishonoring your Creator, and placing your soul in peril of eternal damnation.  Sexual sin is like antifreeze.  It might taste good, but if you drink it, it will kill you.

Similarly, all Christians need to be aware of the dangers of LUST.  Jesus warns us about these in Matthew 5:27-28.  Here too, to make sure that nobody is left in the dark, let’s define our terms.  Lust is unlawful sexual desire.  It is when you allow your mind to dwell sexually on somebody you don’t have a right to be with.  This could be somebody you know in real life, or it could be somebody you’ve only seen online.

It is no secret to any of us, I think, that pornography, which exists to excite lust, is one of the scourges of modern American society.  Tens of millions of people in our country use porn on a regular basis.  In fact, as I wrote recently on the church blog, rates of premarital sex in America are actually going down, in part because of the prevalence of pornography.

Once again, let’s make no mistake about this.  Lust is sin.  Porn use is sin.  It will kill our souls just as dead as fornication and adultery will.

In some ways, lust is even more dangerous than fornication and adultery because it’s much easier to keep secret.  If we have a porn habit, the worst thing that can happen to us is not that we get found out.  It is that we don’t get found out.  I shudder to think of all of the apparently faithful Christians who will lose their souls on the day of judgment because they loved pornography more than they loved Jesus.

Don’t let that be you.  If you’re struggling with porn, get help.  Tell your spouse.  Tell one of the elders.  For that matter, if a brother feels comfortable coming to me, I’d be happy to help him.  It’s much better to forfeit your pride than to forfeit your soul.

Finally, let’s consider the subject of DIVORCE.  We see the Lord’s teaching on this in Matthew 19:7-9.  Here, He’s warning us about another one of the counterfeits of God’s plan for marriage.  It’s when somebody divorces their spouse and marries another.  Regardless of what the physical marriage license might say, that’s no marriage in God’s eyes.  Every time those two people come together, they are committing adultery.

There’s one exception to this rule, and one exception only.  If and only if your spouse cheats on you do you have the right to divorce them and remarry.  Only physical adultery can dissolve the marriage bond. 

This is certainly one of the hard sayings of Jesus.  I’ve studied with married people who didn’t have the right to be together on multiple occasions.  It’s hard to tell such people the truth, but here as elsewhere, only the truth can save souls.  It’s even harder for them to put away an unlawful spouse, but I’ve seen courageous Christians do exactly that.  They can rest assured that however they suffer here, they will be more than repaid eternally.

Summaries, Job 25-26, Psalms 44-46

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

 

Job 25 is the shortest chapter in the book.  In it, Bildad the Shuhite emphasizes the wisdom and power of God.  Given those things, he argues that it’s impossible for man to be righteous in the sight of One who is so perfect.  This argument is certainly correct, but it misses the point.  If everybody is unrighteous before God, why is Job being singled out for punishment?

Job 26 begins Job’s longest speech in the book.  Once again, he resorts to sarcasm.  Bildad believes that he has been helpful and wise, but his wisdom is nothing before God’s wisdom.  God can see into even the abode of the dead.  He supports the earth, orders the heaven, controls the seas, and defeats His enemies.  However, even these things, as impressive as they are, cannot begin to reveal the extent of His power.

In many ways, Psalm 44 is similar to the book of Job.  It opens by remembering God’s help for the Israelites in conquering the land of Canaan.  Even today, God’s people look to Him and trust in Him. 

However, there’s a problem.  Rather than blessing His people, God has humiliated them.  They have been defeated in battle, sold into slavery, and made a laughingstock for the people around them.  The psalmist asserts that this is not due to their sin.  They have been faithful to God, and God knows that they have been faithful, but He has allowed them to be slaughtered anyway.  The psalm concludes with a plea to God to rise up and rescue them from their plight.

Psalm 45 was written on the occasion of the marriage of one of the kings.  It opens by praising the king.  He is blessed by God and mighty and victorious in battle.  Because he is righteous, God will continue to bless him and uphold his throne forever.  Note that vss. 6-7 appear to be addressed to God about the ways that God will bless Him.  This is a Messianic prophecy quoted in Hebrews 1:8-9 and a hint that one day God would be King.

The rest of the psalm is addressed to the king’s bride.  It encourages her to leave behind her father’s house and devote herself entirely to her husband.  It praises the beauty of her attire.  If she is willing to submit to her husband, she will be blessed with many sons and remembered.

Psalm 46 celebrates the protection of God.  Even in the middle of an earthquake, His people still can be unafraid.  God will continue to safeguard His holy city even when all others are opposed to it.  His people see the evidence of His care in His previous actions.  He has devastated the earth and destroyed armies.  Everyone must acknowledge that He is God, and He will be a refuge for Israel.

Choosing a Church

Thursday, May 23, 2019

 

It is certainly true that when I consider the Lord Jesus, there are many things about Him that intimidate me.  I read about His holiness, His meekness, and His love, and it’s sobering to realize that I’m supposed to imitate His greatness in all those things. 

However, there are some things about Him that reassure me, and one of them is that He can be very sarcastic.  Consider, for instance, the question of Luke 6:46.  That’s got some bite to it, doesn’t it?  His point is plain.  If we call Him “Lord” but don’t do what He says, we are no disciples of His at all.

This is important in our individual lives, and it’s important in our corporate lives as members of a congregation.  Is our congregation doing what Jesus says, or isn’t it?  Even a new Christian has to know how to distinguish churches that are from churches that aren’t, so for our ninth half-hour study session, let’s explore the topic of choosing a church.

Before I go on, let me note that the scope of this sermon is going to be limited, as the scope of every sermon in this series has been limited.  This is not an explanation of every nuance of the work of the church.  Instead, it’s a guide to make sure that somebody who knows none of that will be headed in generally the right direction.

The first thing that we ought to do in evaluating a congregation is to ASK ABOUT BAPTISM.  We see the centrality of baptism in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20.  Any church that truly is submitting to the Lordship of Jesus is going to do these two things.  They are going to baptize, and they are going to teach those they baptize to observe all the commandments of Jesus.

Several weeks ago, we learned what the one baptism we are authorized to administer is.  It is the immersion in water of a believer for forgiveness of sins.  If a church administers that baptism, they are acting as authorized by Jesus.  If they do not, they are not.

Furthermore, if a church does not administer the baptism of the Bible, its members do not enjoy the benefits of Bible baptism.  They are not disciples.  They are not Christians.  They are not forgiven of their sins.  They likely believe that they are, but they are deluded and mistaken.  Assembling with a group of people like that has no more spiritual benefit than assembling with the Elks Lodge on Sunday morning.

The only way to find out the truth here is to ask.  Go up to the preacher or the pastor or the whoever and ask three questions:  “How do you baptize?”, “Whom do you baptize?”, and “Why do you baptize?” 

Be very careful of weasel-word answers to the last question.  Some will tell you things like, “We baptize because Jesus commanded us to.”  Usually, people who say such things do not believe in baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and the only way to smoke them out is to ask them directly, “Do you believe that baptism is necessary for forgiveness of sins?” 

If you get any other answer than a “Yes,” you know that the people in that church are not actually disciples, and you shouldn’t worship there.  There’s no need to consider anything else in this lesson.  Those people have flunked the most important Scriptural test.

Second, we ought to EVALUATE THEIR WORSHIP.  Once again, the words of Jesus set the standard.  He tells us what the worship of His people is like in John 4:23-24.  True worshipers must worship God in spirit and truth. 

Notice that Jesus does not say that they will worship God in spirit and sincerity.  Our society likes to confuse sincerity and truth, but they can be two different things.  Sincerity is subjective.  We all sincerely believe things, but we can be sincerely mistaken about them. 

Truth, on the other hand, is objective.  Something is either true or it isn’t.  Even if nobody believes the truth, the truth is still true. 

When it comes to the will of God, we know where to find truth.  Jesus says in John 17 that the word is truth.  Only worship that is authorized by the word is true worship.

Consider, for instance, a congregation that is welcoming and friendly, but they’ve got a rock band or a piano up on stage.  According to ordinary English usage, bands play.  Pianos are played.  The movie titles are And the Band Played On and The Piano Player, not And the Band Sang On and The Piano Singer

Bands play musical instruments.  A piano is a musical instrument that is played.  In both cases, the playing of a musical instrument is being offered as worship to God, and anybody who disputes that has got an agenda.

Let’s test that against the Scriptures.  If the true worship that Jesus contemplates involves musical instruments, we will be able to use the Scriptures to prove that Christians are supposed to worship using musical instruments.   No such evidence exists, so the congregation with that band or piano isn’t worshiping in truth. 

At this point, our next decision isn’t optional.  Jesus doesn’t say that those who worship God can worship in spirit and in truth if they want to.  He says that they must worship in spirit and truth.  If we want to be true worshipers, we can’t be a part of a church that doesn’t worship in truth.

Finally, if we are evaluating a church, we must LISTEN TO THEIR TEACHING.  Once again, this is a sermon point about the word of Christ and the truth of Christ.  Look at what He says about the importance of teaching in John 8:30-31.  Abiding in the word is what makes us true disciples.  When we abide in the word, we come to know the truth, and the truth will set us free.

The very mission of the church is to be the pillar and support of the truth.  If a church does not teach the truth above all else, it has failed in its mission.

There are several ways this can happen.  First, obviously, is if a church teaches false doctrine.  If we visit a congregation, and we hear things that we know aren’t in line with the Scriptures, obviously that’s not a church to which we should join ourselves.

The second lesson here is subtler.  In order to completely fulfill its mission, the preaching and teaching of a church must be more concerned with the truth than with anything else. 

Sadly, in too many congregations, even ones that get the first two points here right, the teaching of the church does not emphasize the truth.  The preacher’s goal is no longer enlightenment.  It has become entertainment.

I don’t have anything against jokes, but if a sermon becomes a comedy routine, that’s a problem.  I don’t have anything against emotional stories, but if a preacher does nothing but move from one tear-jerker to the next, that’s a problem.  I don’t have anything against wisdom from other sources than the Bible, but if a sermon is built around pop psychology instead of the word of truth, that’s a problem.

Brethren, we don’t need a church that will entertain us.  We need a church that will feed us, and only the word can do that.

Listen to Your Mother

Thursday, May 16, 2019

 

Today is a day on which we pay special attention to and honor mothers.  That’s certainly an appropriate thing to do.  Every one of us owes much to the woman who brought us up and cared for us, and mothers do appreciate it when we treat them well on Mother’s Day.

However, when you get right down to it, what every mother here wants from her children is not a nice corsage and Sunday dinner at Outback.  They don’t really want things from us.  They want things for us.  The best gift that any of us can give our mothers is a happy, successful, productive life.

In fact, that’s why mothers tell us the things they do.  It’s not that they enjoy nagging us or making our lives miserable.  It’s that they’ve been around longer than we have, they’ve seen how various kinds of choices play out, and they want us to make good choices and not bad ones.

Mothers have felt this way for as long as there have been mothers, so it’s not surprising that some of this timeless maternal wisdom has entered the Bible.  This morning, then, let’s turn to the book of Proverbs to see what sorts of things we will do if we listen to our mothers.

The first thing that we will do is to BE WISE.  Why?  Because it makes Mom happy.  Consider here Proverbs 10:1.  All of us need to recognize that we have a tremendous effect on our mother’s happiness.  All we have to do to make her miserable is to be foolish, because she knows very well how our foolishness is going to turn out.  She would much rather see us being wise instead.

It’s probably true that all of us will make better decisions if we make those decisions with our mother’s happiness in mind.  When we make decisions in this way, we will pay less attention to the immediate effects of our decision and more attention to what the effects of that decision will be down the road.  We’ll pay more attention to the consequences of our actions.

Let me tell you about some of the wise decisions that my mother wanted me to make.  First of all, she wanted me to assemble with the saints every time the doors were open.  My mother wasn’t anybody’s fool.  She’d seen enough to know that over time, Christians who faithfully attended services got stronger and stronger, but Christians who came once a week, if that, got weaker and weaker and perhaps even ended up falling away.  Is there any commandment that says we have to be here three times a week?  No, but it is wise!

My mother also wanted me to be careful with my money.  When I was a young man, my financial carelessness drove her to distraction!  Here too, it’s a consequence thing.  She knew that if I would be patient and diligent and save, bit by bit, I could build a better, more secure future for myself.  I’d even have money left over to give to the Lord’s work and help people in need.  However, if I was a spendthrift, I wouldn’t have that security in future, nor would I have the financial freedom to be generous.  Generally, wisdom makes a big difference in our lives—whether we practice it or not!

In addition to generic wisdom, there are also specific ways in which the mothers of Proverbs advise their children to be wise.  First, they want them to BEWARE SEXUAL IMMORALITY.  Here, let’s read from Proverbs 23:25-28.  Specifically, we see that Mom here is concerned about two kinds of women:  the prostitute and the adulteress.  In our society, sadly, sexual temptation is as much a problem for women as for men, but these two kinds of temptations remain.

Let’s start with the prostitute.  Obviously, none of our mothers want us to have anything to do with people like that!  However, I think we can expand the principle here to cover anyone who wants to make money off of lust.

Think about it.  Why does A Game of Thrones have all those naked people in it?  Why does so much comedy rely on innuendo and filthy humor?  Why is there so much porn on the Internet?  It’s all there because somebody is trying to get us to lust so they can make money off us.  Those people want us to believe that they care about us having a good time, but in reality, they are as heartless and calculating as the most jaded hooker on the street.  The less we have to do with them and their works, the happier we will be, the happier our mothers will be, and the happier God will be.

Let’s also watch out for the adulteress, who stands for anyone who entices us into sin for the sake of their pleasure.  Notice that I say “their pleasure”, not ours.  By definition, anybody who tries to get us to sin with them cares more about themselves than they do about us.  If they truly loved us, the very last thing they would do would be to endanger our souls!  Here too, the dire consequences are many.  When Mom tells us to stay away, she knows what she’s talking about.

Finally, the mothers of Proverbs want us to AVOID ALCOHOL.  Consider the words of King Lemuel’s mother in Proverbs 31:1-5.  Admittedly, this is advice dispensed by the mother of a king to a king.  It’s true that none of us are royal, but all of us want to reign with Christ.  It seems to me that we’d still better listen.

That’s all the more true because this advice is not popular.  Just as there are brethren who insist that you don’t have to come to Wednesday night services because there’s no passage that says you do, so too there are brethren who insist that they can drink alcohol because there’s no passage that says you can’t.  In fact, it’s common to find Christians who insist on both of these things simultaneously.

However, I think both arguments miss the point.  If we refuse to consider what wisdom has to say about both church attendance and drinking, we are quite literally being foolish.  In both cases, we need to pay attention to the consequences before we decide what we’re going to do.

Lemuel’s mother spells out the consequences in no uncertain terms.  She warns her son that drinking will lead him to forget God’s decrees and to pervert justice.  In other words, alcohol keeps us from remembering what God wants us to do, and it leads us not to do it.

Today, science has confirmed that Lemuel’s mother was right on.  Even for those who are not drunk, the consumption of alcohol decreases mental function.  It also lowers our inhibitions.  Both of those things make it more likely that we will sin, and on that list, Sin Number One is drunkenness.

In short, brethren, we need to exercise wise judgment when it comes to drinking, and it’s impossible to make the argument that drinking in our society is wise.  Let’s do as Lemuel’s mother advises.  For that matter, let’s do what our own mothers would want us to.  Let’s have nothing to do with drinking.

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