Monday, February 27, 2012

Man-Made Traditions in the Church

Do you think that strict rules and rigid regulations help teenagers stay sexually pure? Or do they have the opposite result and instead encourage them to be sexually active?

In my life, I've come across quite a few people who think that oppressive rules somehow will turn children into great adults. However, in the situations I've witnessed, the children just turn out to be rebellious, bitter, and resentful young adults. I have friends who are growing up in environments where their parents- or their pastors or youth pastors- wield iron fists. Do you think that bringing children up with an iron fist will really make them great adults? No, it won't. If fact, it will actually hurt the child more than it will help.

I've heard some crazy stories from fellow teens about how strict some authority figures can be. A friend of mine once went to a church camp where the guys and girls could only swim in the pool at separate times. They weren't even allowed to see the other group in the pool and the adults went out of their way to make sure this didn't happen. They would walk the guys completely around the campus just so they wouldn't see the girls in the pool, and vice versa. And even though the girls never saw the guys swimming, the guys still had to wear shirts in the pool. I also once knew this guy who got in trouble just because he hugged a girl goodbye. Also, I know of one Christian organization that doesn't allow the guys and girls to touch each other. And these aren't teenagers: This is a college-age program. One certain private Christian university even had separate staircases and elevators for each gender. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether or not those insane rules will actually help or not.

So why do these iron-fist-wielding adults do what they do? Why do you think some parents, youth pastors, and pastors can be so strict? I think in a lot of cases, they really do have the child's best interests in mind. I think that they look at verses like 1 Corinthians 6:18, which says, "Flee from sexual immorality...", and they try the best they can to keep their kids away from sexual immorality- even if it means being rigid and oppressive. They honestly just want their kids to be pure, so they go out of their way to ensure that. But I think once you get to the point where young men and women aren't even allowed to touch each other, you've taken it way too far.

In Colossians 2:20-23, Paul wrote, "Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 'Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!'? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence." What Paul is saying here is that such strict regulations aren't beneficial. In context, he was referring to some of the laws that the Jewish religious leaders of the day had come up with. Remember how Jesus often got in trouble when He healed someone on the Sabbath, thus "breaking the Sabbath"? That's the type of law Paul is writing about.

Paul says here that since we are new creations, we don't have to abide by the old rules and regulations. We are free in Christ- not that we are free to sin, but we are free from having to follow a list of rules in order to know God. Jesus laid down the new law when He came and died on a cross. Paul says this in Colossians 2:13-15, "When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross."

I look at all of the man-made rules, laws, and traditions that church follows and it just disappoints me how far from Scripture some of them are. For example, a male teenager today is reprimanded because he hugged a girl, yet Jesus forgave an adulteress of her sins and saved her life from capital punishment. Can you see the difference here? Another good example is the belief that people have guardian angels. While it's true that there have been Biblical instances where angels protect humans, the idea that people have personal guardian angels is not supported in Scripture.

I encourage you not to get sucked into believing or following any of these man-made traditions or rules. As Christians, we should look to the Bible to see how to live. We shouldn't base our doctrinal beliefs on what man says or believes- unless it lines up with what the Bible says. Look to the Bible and to the Bible only. If you follow anything that isn't supported or encouraged by Scripture, it isn't of Christ.

Colossians 2:8 says, "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Purpose in Life

Have you ever wondered what your calling in life is? We know that the purpose of our lives is to bring glory and attention to God, to worship God. But what avenue does God want you to take to fulfill that purpose? God calls some people to be missionaries to foreign countries. He calls some people into the medical field. He calls others to be preachers and teachers of His word. He calls others still to be businessmen and entrepreneurs. He gives some a heart for children and for teenagers. He gives some a heart for worship and expressing that through music. He calls some to be homeschool moms and others to be working moms. He calls some to serve their country though politics, and others to serve in the military.

The possibilities are nearly endless. But I'm not just talking about careers here. I'm talking about a purpose. For example, let's say you teach math at an elementary school. Being a grade school math teacher? That's your career. But investing in the lives of young children and teaching them basic mathematical equations so they will be better equipped for high school, college, and the rest of their lives? That's your purpose. And that kind of purpose is what I'm talking about. A soldier's purpose would be to defend his or her country in times of war and to protect our freedom of our country, and also to promote and ensure peace in times of peace. A doctor's purpose would be to help heal sick people and to prevent disease and injury from happening, and also to educate people on the importance of health and how to stay healthy. A missionary's purpose would be to take the Gospel to places that haven't heard of Jesus and to spread God's word and God's love to those in need.

So what do you think your purpose is? What do you have a heart for? What do you want to spend your life doing? What do you think God might be calling you do to?

To help figure that out, I encourage you to do a lot of self-evaluating. It will take time for you to understand and realize what God's purpose is for your life. It seems that most people figure it out in their teens or early twenties. But that isn't always the case. Some people realize their dream much earlier or much later than that.

The apostle Paul figured his purpose out somewhere around his twenties. In Acts 7:58, it says that Paul was a young man when he was at the stoning of Stephen, and we know that it probably wasn't but a few months after this that he gave his life to Christ and Jesus changed his name from Saul to Paul. It's pretty reasonable to assume he was out of his teenage years, given his power and influence, but wasn't in his thirties yet because he was a "young man." Paul became an evangelist. He traveled around the known world, visiting churches and cities and spreading the Gospel wherever he went. But what exactly was Paul's purpose? What did Paul feel like his God-given purpose was? Was it to preach the Gospel? To train up Christians in their faith? To make glorify God by making tents (which was his profession, Acts 18:2-3)? Actually, we don't have to guess or speculate. Paul tells us specifically what his purpose is. In Colossians 2:2-3, Paul writes, "My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." Paul explains in the previous verse that the "they" he is referring to the church of Colosse, the church of Laodicea, and everyone else in the world.

Anyway, that was Paul's purpose. Paul understood his purpose and devoted his life to fulfilling it. So I ask once again, what do you think your purpose is? It's incredibly important to know your purpose. In the King James Version, Proverbs 29:18 says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish..." Nobody wants to be that guy who's thirty-five years old and spends all of his time playing Modern Warefare 3 in his mom's basement. Get out there and find out what God wants you to do! God designed you as a completely unique and one-of-a-kind individual. Your DNA is different from everyone else's, and there is no one else in the history of the world quite like you. He created you for a purpose and only you can fulfill that purpose. No one else can do it for you or do it in the way you would. You are specially unique.

Psalm 139:14 says, "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made..." You're the only you that will ever exist and your purpose is specifically tailored to meet who you are. Don't waste your life by missing out on that purpose.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Choosing to Worship God

"Jesus declared, 'Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.'" ~John 4:21-24, (emphasis mine).

I have often said that the purpose of our lives is to glorify and bring attention to God. In short, that essentially means to live a life that pleases Him. It means to live a life that praises Him. It means to live a life that worships Him.

Now you may be thinking, Hold on, I thought worship was that style of music we play in church? Not exactly. See, in America we've taken something that's supposed to be a lifestyle and turned it into a form of music. We look at people like Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and David Crowder and we call them "worship leaders" just because they lead us in songs of worship. We look at the songs they write and call them "worship songs." But is that really what "worship" is? It's a style of music? No, it's not. And that should make sense, right? Because if the purpose of our lives is to worship Him, then the only way we'd be able to do that is to sing worship songs continuously until we die or until we lose our voices. And that definitely isn't what Jesus meant.

So then what is worship? According to the dictionary, worship means "to show profound religious devotion and respect to; to be devoted to; to have or express feelings or profound adoration; to honor." In other words, what you worship is what you live for. To worship something is to be committed to it above all else. To worship something means to honor it above all else. It means to be devoted to something more than anything else. When you worship something, you deem it more important than anything else in the world.

That's how you worship God. You honor Him above all else. You revere Him above all else. You respect God more than anyone else. You're committed to Him more than to anything else. You're devoted to Him more than to anything else. You love Him more than anything or anyone else.

Now the thing is that God isn't the only thing we can worship. We can worship other things in place of God. Instead of worshipping my Father, I can choose to worship myself. I can choose to worship money, power, romance, sex, my reputation, a religion, the approval of others, a sport, a career, a person, or any other thing in my life. That isn't what God wants; He wants us to worship Him. But He is so loving that He allows us to choose what we worship. God doesn't wind us up like little robots to show Him love and affection; that isn't true love! He gives us the freedom of choice because He wants our worship to be true and authentic. And so He gives us a choice. We can worship God or we can worship something else.

Now of course, should we choose to worship something or someone other than our Creator, there is a price. When we alienate ourselves from God, then we're choosing to be lost. We're choosing to belong to Satan. We're choosing to spend eternity separated from God, burning in hell. We're choosing to be spiritually blind, deaf, and dumb. We're choosing to be spiritually naked.

Psalm 115:4-8 says, "But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them." Those who make them will be life them, and so will all who trust in them. Wow. So when you choose to worship something or someone other than the God of Israel, you are choosing to be like the false idols described here. When you choose to trust in, to honor, to be committed to, to revere something or someone besides my God, you are choosing to be spiritually mute, blind, and deaf. You're choosing to not be able to smell, to feel, to walk, or to speak. The Bible says that those who don't follow Christ are spiritually dead. That sounds like an accurate description to describe someone who worships a false idol. When you worship something besides God, you're choosing to not be alive. You're choosing death over life.

So then, the opposite is also true. When you worship the one true God, you're choosing to be able to speak, see, hear, smell, feel, and walk. You're choosing to be alive and to be free. You're choosing to put your hope in Someone who has your best interests at heart. You're choosing to trust in the One who created the heavens and the earth, and to entrust your life in the hands of the One who died for you. You're choosing to follow the One who has plans for you, who will give you a hope and a future, and who has plans for you to prosper and not to come to harm.

God offers all this freely. We don't have to do anything to earn this gift, and it's available to anyone who asks. But of course, you can't receive this gift and continue to live life in the dark. You can't become spiritually alive and still live like you're dead. I mentioned earlier that the Bible says that before you follow Christ, you are spiritually dead. It also says that when you follow Christ, you are born again in the Spirit of God and are a new creation, a new person! In Romans 8, Paul covers extensively how when you're a child of God and born in the Spirit, you'll live according to the Spirit; you'll be living to please God. And when you are controlled by the sinful nature, when you aren't a Christian, then you won't be living to please God.

In Romans 12:1, Paul says, "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship." Did you catch that? Our spiritual act of worship is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God. That means our spiritual act of worship is to continuously deny ourselves to do His will, to please Him, to worship Him. Romans 8:13-14 says, "For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God."

The purpose of our lives is to bring glory and attention to God. The purpose of our lives is to worship God. What are you worshipping?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Commitment in Romance

Have you ever thought about what it'd be like to fall in love? Chances are, if you've gone through puberty, you've given a lot of thought to what it would be like to fall in love. I know that I have. I love to daydream about falling in love. I fantasize about picnics in the park, strolling in the moonlight, and going on fancy dates. I dream about going to dances, talking late into the night by the fire, and buying her nice gifts. I can't wait to share my heart, my body, and my life with my wife one day. And if you're old enough to understand what I'm saying, you probably have spent a fair amount of time daydreaming about your own love story. I don't think there's a teenager out there who's never thought about what it'd be like to be married. I think it's also fair to say we often dream about what kind of spouse we'd like to have.

But do we ever stop and think about what kind of spouse we want to be?

As a young man, what kind of leader do I want to be? How can I lead my wife and my children in a Christlike way? What kind of husband do I want to be? What kind of father will I turn out to be? In what way do I want to be the spiritual leader of my family? How do I lead my wife and children towards Christ? Do I want to have family Bible studies or devotionals? And what expectations will I have for my children to attend church? What about my priorities in life? Will I make my family more important than work or church? What will I prioritize as a husband and dad? Would I be the type of father who always chooses work over my son's baseball games? And how do I want to raise my kids? What kind of role model do I want to be for them? How can servant leadership apply to my role as a husband and a father?

For the young women out there, you need to be asking yourself questions like, What kind of wife and mother do I want to be? How can I support my husband and help him grow closer to the Lord? Am I okay with the fact that my husband is the God-ordained leader of the family? Am I humble enough to let him make the final decisions? And also, where do I find my identity? How do I define my self-worth? In my beauty, my husband, my wealth, my accomplishments, my Savior? And what do I want my priorities to be in life? Who and what is most important to me? And what kind of relationships do I want with my husband and my children? What parenting style do I want to use? How do I want to raise my kids? What kind of role model do I want to be? What school environment do I want them raised in? Home school? Public school? Private school? And what kind of church do I want to raise them in? A big church? Small church? Comtemporary church? Traditional church? How can I apply servant leadership to my role as a wife and as a mother?

I know I'm not far off from being old enough to be in a relationship, so I've been giving some serious thought to what kind of husband and lover I want to be. I've decided that I want to be a servant leader in my romance. I want to lead my wife with patience, kindness, humility, respect, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty, and commitment. I want to be a Godly husband and a Godly father. I want to learn what it means to love my wife in the way Christ loves the church. I want to know what God expects of me as a husband and as a father. I want to know how I can love my wife romantically in the way God wants.

I think it all starts with commitment. I want to be committed to my future wife now. I want my actions and behaviors as a single teenager to show my future wife that since I was committed to her before marriage, she can trust that I am committed to her in marriage. How can I do that? By saving my virginity until marriage. By not giving a part of my heart away to other girls before I give it all away to her at the altar. By making God my top priority in life. By using my single years to glorify my God. By making the most of my life now so that I'll know how to make the most of my life when I'm married to her.

I want to be a committed, faithful, and loyal husband. I want my integrity and honor to be unquestionable. I know of Christian husbands who have earned the full trust of their wives. Their wives don't worry about them sleeping with another woman when they go on business trips. Their wives don't have to wonder if they sleep with coworkers or if they view pornography. I want to be one of those men. I want to have earned my wife's trust. I want my integrity to be such that my wife never has to wonder if I'm cheating on her. I don't want my wife to ever wonder if my love for her has wavered. I don't want her to have to second-guess my loyalties. I want my commitment to be unquestionable.

Proverbs 20:6 has become something of a theme song for me lately. It says, "Many a man claims to have unfailing love, but a faithful man who can find?" I want to be that faithful man. I want the level of my commitment and loyalty to my wife and my children to be so high that it's rare. I don't want to be another guy who professes his love for a woman, but then divorces her for a younger skirt after ten years of marriage. I want the words "I love you" to mean something to my wife. I want her to know that my feelings and my commitment is serious. I want her to know that she is worth a Godly and faithful husband.

I have made a few commitments for my future wife. I have committed to save my first kiss until the altar. I want my first kiss to come after the words, "You may now kiss the bride", because since I know it's wrong to kiss a woman who isn't my wife when I'm married, then I believe I shouldn't kiss a woman who isn't my wife when I'm not married. I want my first kiss to mean something. I'm also saving my virginity until marriage. I want my wife to know she is so special that I was willing to wait all those years before I had sex. I want her to know I saved myself for her because I wanted to honor her and to do something very special for her. And I also want to show that I was patient enough to wait, and that I decided to obey God's commands on sexual purity. And I've also decided that I don't want to tell my girl that I love her until the altar. I really, really want those three words to mean something. By saving those words, I want her to know how much I cherish, value, and respect her. I want her to know that I'm that faithful man who is hard to find.

By saving my kisses, my body, and the words "I love you" until I'm married, I want to show my God, my wife, and everyone else that my commitment means something. I want my wife to know and to trust that when I tell her I love her, I mean it. I want her to know that when I kiss her, she is very special and valuable to me. And when we have sex, I want her to know that she is worth waiting for.

That's the kind of leader I want to be in my marriage. What kind of leader do you want to be?

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Love of Our God

Does it ever strike you how God's Word sometimes just jumps off the page? I'm not sure if you've ever experienced this, but sometimes, when I read the Bible, it's like these millenia-old words were written just for my hears to hear. I can read passages from 1 Samuel and Proverbs and John and Romans and James and no matter how much time has passed between then and now, I still feel like they were written for me.

One excellent example of this phenomena is Isaiah 59. If you have never read it, it wouldn't surprise me. I didn't come across it until sometime last year. This is one of those chapters that it never fails to speak to me. Every time I read it, the same emotion always comes up inside me. I love this chapter because it is a timeless example of the wickedness of man and the beauty of our God. I have actually tried many times to blog about Isaiah 59, but my posts have never done justice to the eloquence of the chapter. It isn't an easy chapter to read, or to write about, because it is such a humbling passage. It rips of the mask of the evil human heart and exposes our sins for what they are. It shines light in the darkness and shows the truth in the shadows. It parades about the guilt of man and shows us what we truly deserve: Hell. With a capital H. But it also shows the great love of God. It shows the bright and abounding beauty of Jesus Christ. It shows how merciful and graceful and righteous He is. It reveals how despicable of a people we are, and how forgiving and loving of a Father He is.

But you cannot appreciate this Word until you read it for yourself. And so, without further adieu, here is Isaiah 59:

"But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things. No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments and speak lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil... Their deeds are evil deeds, and acts of violence are in their hands. Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are evil thoughts; ruin and destruction mark their ways. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks in them will know peace.

So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead. We all growl like bears; we moan mournfully like doves. We look for justice, but find none; for deliverance, but it is far away. For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities: rebellion and treachery against the Lord, turning our backs on our God, fomenting oppression and revolt, uttering lies our hearts have conceived.

So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets,
honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.

The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies and retribution to his foes; he will repay the islands their due. From the west, men will fear the name of the Lord, and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory. For he will come like a pent-up flood that the breath of the Lord drives along. 'The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,' declares the Lord.'

'As for me, this is my covenant with them,' says the Lord. 'My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever,” says the Lord.'"

Why? Why does such a perfect and holy God choose to be patient with us? Why does He bless us? Why does He give us His Spirit when He should give us Hell? Why, when we don't deserve it, does He love us so?

How? How can He be so good? How can His love be so great that we are found holy, blameless, and perfect in His eyes? How is it that He blesses us and calls us His children when we deserve His endless wrath? How can anyone love such a wretched people as us? How is it that we will spend eternity dancing with the King when we deserve Hell?

What? What causes the change in verse 20? What compels God to shift from the wrathful and vengeful God in verses 18 and 19 to a loving and redeeming God in verses 20 through 22? What did we ever do to deserve the Redeemer that He sent? What logic does God follow that He should unconditionally love a people as desperately wicked as us? What could He have thought when He died on that cross for you, for me, for us?

"Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!" I do not deserve this. I do not deserve this King, this Redeemer that God has sent me. I am a wicked, wretched man, and I live among a wicked and wretched people. I am completely unworthy! I am unworthy of the love and redemption He offers me! Why did God die for me? How is that even possible? What love He must have! What passionate and unconditional love He must have to die for a man as lowly and awful as me!

I am utterly ruined by Isaiah 59. The love my Father has for me is simply too great for me to comprehend. My mind is too small and feeble to grasp the severity and finality of His redeeming love. I do not deserve Him. I do not deserve His love or His redemption. And even more, I certainly am unworthy of His relationship. For to be on a first name basis with the Creator of the galaxies? The Breather of stars? The Former of worlds? It is too great for me. I am too lowly and unworthy to bear it. He is the Potter, and I am the clay. I don't deserve all that He has blessed me with. I don't deserve the relationship He and I have. I don't deserve all of the gifts He has blessed me with. I don't deserve His material blessings, nor his spiritual ones. I don't deserve the amount of care and love and guidance He gives me every minute of every hour of every day. I don't deserve to even know His Name.

And yet that's what He offers us. He offers us forgiveness. Redemption. Love. Mercy. Grace. He offers us a hope and a future. He offers to rescue us from hell, yes, but more so He offers a personal, intimate, one-of-a-kind relationship! He offers to be our Everything. He offers to be our All in all. Our King of kings. Our Lord of lords. Our Father of fathers. Our Friend of friends. Our Lover of lovers. Our Redeemer of redeemers.

Above all else, He offered Himself on a cross. For our sins. He took the blow that was meant for me. He stepped in to save me from the Hell that I deserved. He offers us an eternity in His home with Him. He offers us true life, a life where there will be no more tears. No more pain. No more sin. No more imperfection.

He offers us all this and there is but one cost, and that cost is this: We have to live our lives to bring Him glory, to bring Him honor and praise, and to bring attention to Him in all that we do. We have to follow the example He left for us while He was here on earth. Yes, the cost is high. Yes, He demands all that we have, even our very lives and livelihood. But look at what He offers in place of what we have now. Someone once said, "He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot loose." So yes, the cost is high. But look at what He offers us instead. Look what what we'd be gaining.

How could we ever think of saying no?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Don't Try To Change The World

In the past few weeks, we've done a lot of talking about what it means to love others as Christ loves us. We've talked about everything from servant leadership to unconditional love. We've seen that love is a verb, not a feeling, and that we can love people just by being patient, kind, humble, respectful, selfless, forgiving, honest, and committed to them. That sounds pretty easy, doesn't it? And it sounds really nice- in theory. But how exactly does this translate into reality? In what ways can we physically carry out unconditional love?

In James 1, James writes about what true religion is. He says, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." To me, James is saying that we should care for and provide for those who cannot do it themselves, and he's also saying we should also remain pure in our faith and not corrupted by the world. For now, I'd like to look at the first part of what James says: "...look after orphans and widows in their distress..." Do you think that we as the American church do a good job of taking care of the orphans and widows? How about the mentally disabled, the physically disabled, the homeless, the unemployed, the elderly, and everyone else who cannot fully provide for themselves? Do we do a good job of taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves? I would like to think so. I would like to say yes. But I'm not so sure that I can.

I go to church in Madison, Tennessee. A few decades ago, Madison used to be the hot spot of north Nashville. Just five-eight minutes north of downtown Nashville (excluding traffic), Madison was once the place to be. Back in the day, all of the famous country singers lived around Madison and Goodlettsville, the town just west of Madison. There used to be many great aspects of Madison, including clean streets, a friendly atmosphere, and the original Shoney's. But times have changed and so has Madison. Madison is now the run-down part of north Nashville. The singers and stars now live south of Nashville in Brentwood and Murfreesboro, and Madison is now populated by minority groups. The streets are rough and dirty, and so is the average person you'll see while driving through Madison. Crime rates are high and it isn't the safest or cleanest town anymore.

I go to the First Baptist Church. We average around 100 or so on a Sunday morning. Just ten or twenty years ago, it was normal for over 600 to be present. In a three mile radius of the church, there are 16,000 youths under the age of 18. But our youth group, over the past year, has averaged less than 15 on a Wednesday. But it isn't the numbers that matter: it's the community around the church. Our problem is that we are trying to minister to second and third generations of unchurched people. That means that neither the parents nor grandparents of the teenagers we're trying to minster to went to church, so naturally it's really hard to connect with these youths or give them a real reason to come to church.

Let me tell you: when people are coming to your church and are getting saved and the atmosphere is great and the momentum is swinging your way, there's nothing better than church. But when nobody wants to come, when guests don't come back, when you rarely see new faces on Sunday morning, and when you feel like nobody cares anymore, that's hard. That's disappointing. That can suck the life out of any church.

When you're discouraged in your faith, it's hard to see the point anymore. I think a lot of times, we look at our society, our country, our world, and we get so discouraged. We see all kinds of evil and Godlessness and we get discouraged. We can work so hard and pray so hard and put in so many volunteer hours, but when the world looks worse tomorrow than it does today, we feel like we are working for nothing.

When I read John 6, the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, I wonder of His disciple Philip ever felt the same way. John 6:5-7 says, "When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, 'Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?' He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, 'Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!'" I think when Jesus asked Philip how to feed the 5,000 men, Philip looked over the vast sea of people and thought, "There's no way we can feed all these people! Why bother trying?" Can you relate to Philip? I sure can. I look at the amount of teenagers who haven't even heard of God or of Jesus, I see the homeless people who sleep on my church's steps, I see the homeless and hungry people who eat a free lunch at my church on Mondays, I see the amount of work it will take to transform the community of Madison, and I get discouraged. I get so discouraged that I question the point in going to church. I wonder if it's even worth trying.

Let's go back to the story of Jesus, Philip, and the 5,000. Right after Philip declared the job impossible, another disciple suggested an idea. John 6:8-9 says, "Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 'Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?'" This is a completely different approach than Philip had. Andrew had a few supplies but knew he wouldn't be able to feed all 5,000 men. Note that Andrew, like Philip, admits discouragement. He wonders how such a small amount of food could feed all 5,000 men. But regardless of his discouragement, I love his attitude. He said, "I know I can't feed all 5,000, but I can at least feed two or three. And I won't let the fact that I can't feed them all from keeping me from feeding some of them."

We all know the rest of the story. Jesus takes the five loaves of bread and the two fish and multiplies them into enough food for all to eat. And they had leftovers. In fact, they had more left over than they had to begin with. They started with five loaves of bread and two fish, and after all had eaten till they were full, they had twelve baskets of bread left over.

I want to leave you with Galatians 6:9. The apostle Paul writes, "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." I encourage you to not look at the whole problem. Don't try to help all of the homeless people in America. Don't try to adopt all the orphans. Don't try to financially support all of the elderly. Don't try to change the world. You can't do it. The world is hopelessly lost to evil and wickedness. It will never be a better place until Christ comes back to destroy it. So don't try to change it. Instead, try to change someone's life. Instead, do what you can with what you have. We each have what we need to change someone's life. There are people out there that we can help. God has equipped you with the proper gifts, talents, skills, and ideas to impact somebody out there. Some of us can financially bless someone who is in desperate need. Some of us can mentor someone and share our wisdom and knowledge.

Some of us have a ministry or goal we want to see accomplished, but we're waiting for someone else to do it for us. Get out and do it yourself! What will you do with your life? We all have five loaves of bread and two fish. The question is, How will you use yours?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Unconditional Love in Marriage

Have you ever wondered what the Bible has to say about divorce? It seems like almost everyone has been divorced at some point or another in their life. If your life is anything like mine, you probably have family members, neighbors, co-workers, and friends who have had a divorce before. I recently heard a statistic that claimed that the divorce rate is now around 50%. I have seen so many families ripped apart by divorce and that makes me so sad. In my mind, divorce is flat out wrong. God has blessed me in that I live in a house where there is no fear of divorce. My parents love each other and there has never been any fear of them getting divorced. Many of my Christian friends live in similar households. They live without fearing whether or not their parents will get a divorce. But unfortunately, this isn't the environment that everyone lives in. The simple truth is that divorce is becoming expected of marriages in America. People are beginning to almost anticipate married couples to get divorced after a few years. It has become the cultural norm. And so with divorce becoming more and more common in America, we ought to take a look at what God the author of romance, has to stay about ending a marriage.

But before we look at what the Bible says about marriage and divorce, we must come to a common understanding that God is the Creator of romance and of marriage. As we'll look at in just a second, it was His idea for a man and a woman to become one, and so we ought to abide by His rules and His advice. No one knows more about the subject than God, so we should trust what He has to say (whether we like it or not). He created it, so what He says goes. That said, let's look at what He has to say.

There are two questions we need to answer: 1) Is it ever okay with God to get a divorce?, and 2) If yes, then under what circumstances will God allow a divorce? There is only one place to find God's law on marriage and that is in the Bible. The very first mentioning of marriage in the history of the world can be found in Genesis 2:18-25. I'll share part of that passage here:

"The Lord God said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him'... So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, 'This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.' For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh."

What should we take away from this Scripture? One thing I take away is that marriage is a good thing. God created it for our benefit and our pleasure. I also believe it brings God great joy when two of His children marry. He certainly seemed happy to make the woman for Adam, and that only reinforces the fact that marriage is a good thing. Another thing we can learn from this story is that if God brings a man and a woman together to become "one flesh", who are we to rip that one flesh apart? Why should we think it's okay to separate something that God has formed?

The next passage I want to look at is in Matthew 19:

"Some Pharisees came to (Jesus) to test Him. They asked, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?' 'Haven’t you read,' He replied, 'that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.' 'Why then,' they asked, 'did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?' Jesus replied, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.'"

This definitely agrees with what I just said about how it's not okay for man to separate something God has formed. Jesus said that when a couple marries, they become one flesh. One person. They are to be one in body, mind, and spirit. Now of course He isn't say they literally become one body. They don't morph into a two-headed person or anything like that. That's not what He's saying at all. Have you ever seen a husband and wife finish each others' sentences? Have you ever seen them communicate without talking? I know some couples who can almost communicate just by looking each other in the eye. On the other hand, I've seen marriages who aren't physically romantic with each other. We couldn't have children if we didn't have marriage. God has given us the gift of marriage so we can have babies, so we have someone to go through life with, so we can have someone who can comfort and love us, and simply for our great pleasure. He has also given us marriage as an example of Christ's love for us. For as a husband loves his wife, so Jesus loves the Church, the body of believers. Jesus loves His bride (the church, the Christians) in the same way a man loves a woman.

But Jesus said something else that's very relevant to our discussion. He said, "...anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." Right here, we have the answer to both of our questions. Yes, there is one valid reason for divorce, and that reason is if your spouse sexually cheats on you. In other words, if my wife sleeps with another man, I have the right to end the marriage. It's my decision to make. I can either leave her or stay with her. If that ever does happen to me (which I pray it never ever does), then I would see how repentful she was before I made my decision. If she truly was sorry and convinced me that she would never do it again, I probably would stay with her. It would be really hard knowing she has intercourse with another man while married to me, but that'd be my decision and my burden to carry. On the other hand, if she wasn't as sorrowful or repentful as I want her to be, I probably would leave her. I simply have no desire to be with someone who would be unfaithful. Of course, there's more to it than that, because I would also have to take any children we have into consideration. But bottom line is if I chose to leave my unfaithful wife, it would be allowed by God.

The flip side of this is if my wife had been faithful and I left her, then I would be breaking God's law. If for whatever reason I chose to leave my faithful wife, that'd be sinful. If I get divorced because "I fell out of love," "I just need to be free again," "I love somebody else now," or "You're just not good enough anymore," those aren't valid reasons for a divorce. The only time divorce is permitted by God is if your spouse has cheated on you. For no other reason will a divorce follow God's law on marriage. God goes as far as to say that you commit adultery if you divorce your spouse and remarry. (I do want to clarify that this accusation is for the person who initiates the divorce. For example, if your spouse leaves you against your will, then you are clear of these charges. If you mutually end the marriage, you're both to blame. And if you leave against your spouse's will, the accusations will fall solely on your head.)

If you get a divorce for a reason other than marital unfaithfulness, you are a liar and a deceiver. Allow me to explain. I believe that when you say "for better or for worse," you better be meaning it. The wedding vows are just what they are: vows. They're promises. When you say that you will love that person for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, then you're telling that person you will remain faithful and committed through thick and thin. No matter what happens, I will always love you. I will always be with you. I will always be faithful to you. I will never leave you. That's what it means to really love someone. Remember the definition of agape love, the type of love talked about most in the New Testament by Jesus and the authors of the New Testament books? Agape love means unconditional love. When you say your wedding vows, you are confessing unconditional love. By saying you will love that person for better or worse, for richer or poorer, you are saying that no matter what, I will always love you. That's unconditional love. No matter what the conditions are, I will always love you. If you don't mean that, don't say it. If your love is conditional, please don't disgrace the wedding vows by acting as if it were anything else. If you aren't committed to sticking with that person through thick or thin, don't marry him or her. Save your time and don't tie the knot.

When you're married, you will go through a lot of crap. That's the truth. You may experience infertility, the death of a child, moving across the country, new jobs, loss of jobs, loss of house or transportation, death of parents, prodigal children, the challenge of raising kids, the challenge of staying faithful to each other, the death of your siblings, and an endless host of other problems. I have seen marriages end from everything from falling "out of love" to the death of a child. When a child (say, a toddler) dies unexpectedly, sometimes it can be hard for the parents to remain together because they remind each other so much of that lost child. The pain is too fresh, the memories too painful. (I'm not saying I think it's okay to leave under these circumstances; I'm just saying it won't always be easy to remain faithful and committed.) Now you may not go through the loss of a child, but you will go through some terrible pain. You will have really hard and tough times. If you leave your spouse when times get tough, then you're turning your back on the vows you made to your spouse at your wedding.

I want to leave you with an encouragement to be a servant leader in your romance. If you want to have a successful and enduring marriage, you'd do well to be patient, kind, humble, respectful and respectable, selfless, forgiving, honest, and committed. Be committed to love your spouse through the good and the bad times. Love your spouse no matter what the conditions are.