Seven Churches Series- Smyrna the Brave and Faithful Church

Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them- Hebrews 11:36-38

There was no place in the ancient world where it made sense from a practical perspective to be a Christian. Everywhere in the Roman world there was always a very real chance persecution would break out. Men, women and even children were put to death simply for professing Jesus as Lord.

That said. 

There were some places where it was easier to be a Christian than others. This is because most persecution against Christians tended to center around a practice known as Emperor or Caesar worship. 

The Roman Empire was massive. Its territory covered most of Europe, Greece, all of Asia Minor (Turkey), much of the near East, Israel, Spain, much of Africa and then some. The sheer vastness of the territory created a complex problem for Roman rulers. 

Unity. 

How exactly does one unify millions of people from literally hundreds of diverse cultures and all sorts of religious backgrounds? This was a critical question. Without something to unify all those diverse people groups mayhem, rebellion and anarchy would break out all over the Empire. Clearly, none of the emperors wanted any of those things on their watch.  

This is where Caesar worship comes in. 

All adults living in the Roman Empire were obligated by law to go to a temple in their city once a year. While there they were required to throw some incense onto an altar and declare to a Roman official that whatever Caesar happened to be in power at the moment was God. If the person declined for any reason they would be transported to the nearest arena posthaste where they would be crucified, torn limb from limb, fed to a wild animal or beheaded ASAP. 

This ritual was quite effective at unifying the territories. 

However.

It also created all kinds of problems for Christians who refused to worship anyone but Jesus (Exodus 20:3, Psalm 16:4, 1st Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 4:5). 

There were cities where Caesar worship was not always strictly enforced. Christians were safer in those places. Jews were one of a handful of groups lawfully excluded from Caesar worship. If the synagogue leaders in a city allowed the church to be recognized as a sect of Judaism the Christians in the area would be given a break as well. 

The Christians in Smyrna got no breaks. Zero. Zilch. Nada. 

 The bureaucrats in Smyrna gleefully engaged in Caesar worship and were more than happy to execute anyone who refused to give Caesar his “due”. Moreover, the Jews in Smyrna loathed Christians. Not only did they refuse to protect Christians. They were so meanspirited towards the Church they would routinely report Christians as a deviant (anti-government) cult. Jewish leaders would suck up to government officials by suggesting Christians be given the “test” of Emperor worship, thus ensuring their death. The Jews were so off-the-charts cruel to Christians in Smyrna Jesus referred to the whole lot of them as a “synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). 

Further complicating an already difficult and scary situation, a person’s ability to work anywhere in the Roman Empire was always tied to idol worship. Because the Christians in Smyrna refused to compromise on this issue they were the poorest people in arguably one of the richest cities anywhere in the Roman world. There are two words commonly used for poverty in the Greek language. One means worker. It describes someone who worked with their hands for a living. The other means utter destitution. Jesus used it to describe the poverty of the Church in Smyrna (Revelation 2:10). The Christians in Smyrna were—by any measurable human standard— a rather sad and pathetic group of people. 

But. 

Jesus loved them. A lot. I don’t know if Jesus has favorites, but if He does they were for sure a favorite.  Smyrna is one of two churches out of the seven Jesus does not criticize in any way.  The Christians in Smyrna held a special place in Jesus’ heart for one reason and one reason only: they were faithful. They refused to cave to the immense social pressure they were under. They could have chosen to avoid taking unpopular stands on certain social issues. They could have chosen to pay lip service to Caesar and then told their church friends they didn’t or that they didn’t really mean it (Matthew 10:32).  They could have worshiped in pagan temples to keep their jobs. They could have lightened up on teaching Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6). Those choices would have helped them gain favor with those in power. Those choices would have allowed them to make a decent living. Those choices would have kept them alive. 

Instead. 

The Christians in Smyrna loudly and proudly declared Jesus to be the only God and took the many lumps that came with that declaration.  Jesus did not promise them life would get easier, in fact, He did the exact opposite. He forecasted more suffering in their future (Revelation 2:10). However. He also promised He would be with them through the trouble. He also promised He would personally and lavishly reward them for their faithfulness (Revelation 2:10-11).

 Smyrna was not the polished church (that was Ephesus). Nor was it the wealthy church (that was Laodicea). It certainly wasn’t the popular church (that was Sardis) but it was a church Jesus loved passionately because it was the brave and faithful church that was unafraid to take a stand on the things that mattered most. 

Getting at the Spiritual Causes of Depression (Yes, There are Spiritual Causes)-

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Psalm 42:11a NIV

Depression is real and it really sucks.  

Seriously.

Anyone who has battled depression or knows someone who has battled depression knows this is one-hundred-percent true.

It is estimated two-hundred-sixty-three-million people worldwide suffer from depression. Many psalms record David’s struggle with what we would call clinical depression (Psalm 42, Psalm 113:1-6, Psalm 22:1-2, Psalm 6).  Until very recently scientists believed depression was caused entirely by a chemical imbalance in the brain brought on by a shortage of the neurotransmitter serotonin.  Recent studies have disproved that long-held theory and left doctors scrambling to figure out the cause depression.   

It is now thought depression is brought on by a host of factors. Including but not limited to a genetic predisposition, chronic stress, prior trauma, and a tendency to brood over past mistakes (perfectionism).

I do not doubt all those factors contribute to depression. 

Genetics are real. Stress is real. Trauma is real.  Focusing deeply on an issue that cannot be controlled or solved will make anyone feel depressed. All that being said, I also know there is a strong spiritual component to depression. That does not mean a person is an especially bad sinner if they get depressed. Nor does it mean I think every case of depression has a purely spiritual cause. That being said, sometimes people behave or think in ways that create spiritual problems in their lives. Those spiritual problems create fertile soil for depression to take root. Some of the spiritual causes of depression are:

Moral Passivity-

Passivity is the sin of letting sin go unchecked. Anytime a Christian chooses to ignore a moral wrong or sidesteps dealing with sin in their life or the life of someone they love rather than dealing with the sin appropriately (Acts 3:19, Ephesians 4:15, Matthew 18:15-16), one of two things inevitably happens. The believer either becomes hardened to sin (and more likely to become entrenched in sin) or they become depressed. Willfully ignoring a wrong makes the passive observer of the sin complicit in the sin (Psalm 1:1, Psalm 32:5) and sin separates us from God (Micah 3:4, Isaiah 59:2). Human beings were made to be in relationship with God. When we live outside the design we were created for depression is the natural result. The key to digging out of depression caused by moral passivity is to reverse course and begin proactively repenting of our own sin and confronting any sin we have been willfully overlooking in those we love (Galatians 6:1, 1st Timothy 5:20, James 5:19-20, Luke 17:3).

Deferred Hope–  

Wanting something that never materializes is demoralizing (Proverbs 13:12). For Christians who obey the Bible it’s even more demoralizing. This is because serious Christians pray and commit their plans to the Lord and then they expect God to establish those plans, because that’s what the Bible says He will do (Proverbs 16:3). When we don’t get something pray for the disappointment can lead to spiritual doubt. Spiritual doubt is a fast track to depression and anxiety. Here’s the thing we have to remember: God is not liar. This means that if a hope we have has been deferred (delayed) there’s a reason for it. It might be we are hoping for something God knows is not best for us. It might mean God is still working on it. It might mean there’s some growth and maturity that needs to take place in us so we steward the blessing well when we do get it.  In order to deal with this type of depression we must pray, trust and do our part. We should pray God will work in us so that our desires will be in alignment with His will for our lives (Proverbs 3:6). Then we have to trust God to accomplish His will in His timing. We also need to do our part. Our part, is actively seeking to grow, learn, and break any bad habits we have in preparation for “the next thing” God has for us.

Loss of Connection with the Head (Jesus) or the Rest of the Body (the Church)-

Humans were designed to live life in relationship. It’s part of what it means to “be made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26). God is relational and we were made to be like Him. Anytime we lose healthy connection with other Christians or with Jesus (Colossians 2:18-19) depression is a likely outcome. Getting back into healthy relationship with God and/or other Christians will goes long way in healing the depression caused by a broken relationship with Jesus or His body.

An Absence of Self-reflection-

Humans are capable of a of an absurd level of self-deception (Jeremiah 17:9). It is possible to be knee-deep in sinful attitudes and not even be the teeniest bit aware of it. In fact, we are so prone to self-deception we can even convince ourselves our sinful attitudes are somehow good and healthy. Sigh. Anytime we feel plagued by depression that has no apparent cause we need to examine our lives and ask God to show us if there is anything we don’t want to see in ourselves.

And finally, because Christians are a new creation in Christ (2nd Corinthians 5:17) holding on to the stuff of our old life is a fast-track to a life of sadness, frustration and defeat. Letting go of the old stuff Jesus saved us from is the first step and most important step in living a life of emotional and spiritual flourishing.  

Is There a Difference Between Conviction and Condemnation?

 I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us– 2nd Corinthians 7:9 NIV

We live in a very judgy world.

Cancel culture is just one example. Canceling is an increasingly common practice that can be done in either a global or private kind of a way. 

 It works like this: 

Canceling happens globally when someone gets caught doing something or saying something a person or group of people do not like. The disapproving person or group goes after the “sinner” and punishes them for their language and/or behavior. The poor schmuck is then publicly disgraced and shamed. They lose their job, reputation and social status. They essentially become an outcast or a social pariah. 

A person is privately canceled when a friend or family member cuts them out of their life and gives them the silent treatment without explaining why they are giving them the silent treatment. 

Sigh. 

Supposedly, the whole point of cancelling someone is to get them to a place of conviction in their lives, where they acknowledge their misdeeds so they can grow.  Anyone who has actually been cancelled (either in a global or a personal way) will tell you being canceled feels more like hardcore condemnation without any mercy whatsoever. 

For the record.

I am not an advocate of cancelling. It is, in my opinion, perhaps the least healthy, least virtuous thing we do in this raging-dumpster-fire of a culture. However, the nature and stated purpose of cancelling raises an important question for believers:

Is there a difference between condemnation and conviction?

This is a question that needs answering.  

Both are biblical concepts (Romans 5:16, 1st Thessalonians 1:5, 2nd Corinthians 7:10-11). However, the Bible teaches there is a difference between the two. It matters because our view of these issues has a massive impact on how we see God, work out our salvation and treat other people when they sin against us (Philippians 2:12, Luke 7:47, Luke 6:37, 2nd Corinthians 2:9-11).   

So. 

Condemnation can be defined as a decree or sentence of guilt.  It is always accompanied by a sense we have failed and are unworthy of forgiveness. 

Condemnation always leads to hopelessness.

Conviction, on the other hand, is something the New Testament calls “godly sorrow” (2nd Corinthians 7:10-11). Conviction is a little different. It’s more like a deep and heartfelt sense we have gone off the rails and missed the mark. It is always accompanied by a sense we need to correct our course in some way. 

Conviction can be every bit as painful as condemnation. However, conviction is good because without guilt it is impossible to experience repentance and the spiritual restoration repentance brings. 

Here’s the struggle:

Condemnation and conviction sound a lot alike and condemnation can look a lot like conviction and conviction can feel an awful lot like condemnation. This is especially true if we’ve been up to no good in some area of our lives. 

Because condemnation and conviction feel so similar, some Christians are inclined to write off any guilty feelings they experience as condemnation and therefore irrelevant (Romans 8:1). Ignoring feelings of guilt is a profoundly bad idea because the Bible teaches ignoring our conscience is a spiritually risky thing to do (1st Corinthians 8:7-12) because it can lead to a hardening of the heart (Ephesians 4:18). Therefore, it is always best to pay attention to feelings of guilt. Guilty feelings should drive us to seek the Holy Spirit so we can figure out if there’s something we need to deal with in our lives before sin takes root and produces chaos and pain. 

Condemnation is a tool the enemy uses to discourage us. Therefore, it is not uncommon to experience condemnation AFTER we have already confessed our sin to God and corrected course. Condemnation will sometimes come from an unexpected source like an off-handed comment from a friend. It can come from our own hypersensitive conscience. Condemnation never gives hope. Instead it leaves us with an overwhelming sense of despondency and hopelessness. Condemnation screams into our souls that God will never be happy with us again. Condemnation almost always leads to more sin rather than less.

The whole point of spiritual conviction or godly sorrow is to facilitate change. Therefore, it is often accompanied by a feeling that we are guilty and have offended God. However, conviction also always comes with an understanding of what we need to do to get things right. God never leaves us in the dark or wondering where stand with Him. Godly conviction never leaves us feeling hopeless, despondent or like we will never be good enough. The path to repentance and healing is sometimes difficult. Repentance always means making some sort of a change. It might mean breaking off a relationship, changing a behavior, apologizing, making restitution but the path to a pure conscience is always clear. Conviction (godly sorrow) always leads to repentance.  

It is critical Christians understand God only condemns those who refuse to embrace Jesus as their Lord and Savior (Romans 8:1, Jude 1:4). It is equally important to understand guilt is good as long as we know what to do with it (Acts 3:19). 

What it Really Means to “Conform to the World”-

Those who belong to Christ Jesus crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.If we live by the Spirit, lets follow the Spirit as well– Galatians 5:24-25 NASB

The New Testament includes several passages that are formational kinds of passages. The whole point of these passages is to form a believer into the image of Christ (Colossians 3, 1st Thessalonians 4:3-12, 2nd Peter 1:3-9, Ephesians 4:1-6:18). They are super practical, easy to understand passages that give clear instruction on how exactly one makes the Christian life work in the real world. If these passages are put into practice it is pretty close to impossible to fail at being a Christian. 

Seriously. It really is that simple. 

Romans chapter twelve is perhaps the most formational of all the formational texts of the Christian faith. In it, the apostle Paul clearly lays out what a Christian should “look like” in the day-to-day of life. The chapter is filled with so much simple and yet comprehensive instruction, I am whole-heartedly convinced that if a person were to commit their life to Jesus and then seek to live out only the instruction found in Romans twelve they would live an exemplary Christian life (Matthew 25:21). 

Paul begins by urging Christians to live a life of sacrifice and worship (Romans 12:1). Then he quickly warns that choosing to be “conformed to the pattern of this world” is the one thing that will prevent a Christian from living a life of worship and sacrifice that pleases and honors God (Romans 12:2). 

Recently, I decided to look up the word conform in my Greek dictionary. The thing about Greek words is that they tend to be much more multifaceted and complex than most English words. It is not at all unusual for it to take a hundred really big English words to explain clearly all the possible meanings of one little Greek word. Then it can take ANOTHER hundred English words to lay out all the different contexts a Greek word can be used in. For that reason, I fully expected to find a multi-paragraph description of what the word meant and all of the different ways it could be used. Instead, I found nine little words.  

Metheg: to curb or bit; a bit— or a bridle. 

The word (Metheg) translated into English “conformed” means to be led, restricted by or controlled by something or someone else. The purpose of a bit or a bridle is to restrict movement, control and lead an animal. Not being “conformed” to the world we live in is not simply about avoiding worldly behaviors. Not being “conformed to the world” means we must learn to recognize and then actively work to avoid the control worldly ideas, philosophies and people have on our thinking. Worldly people include those who don’t know Jesus and those who do know Jesus but are spiritually immature or who are living in disobedience to Jesus (Colossians 2:4, Colossians 2:8). Avoiding conformity is critical because anytime we allow unsaved people, immature people or the philosophies of this world to unduly influence our thinking about life, God or what will make us happy we will begin to behave in a way that is in conflict with God’s will. 

There are all sorts of different ways we can be led by or controlled by the world.

We are led by the world when we don’t take the time to understand our faith and develop a Christian worldview (Matthew 22:37, 1st Corinthians 2:16). Without a solid framework of biblical truth helping us to sort through worldly ideas and opinions we are sure to become emmeshed with the worldly kinds of values and ideas readers are warned about throughout the New Testament (Colossians 2:8, 1st Corinthians 3:1-22, Acts 17:24-31).   

Taking our moral cues from our godless society, the news or the things we find on social media rather than the word of God will certainly put us on the fast track to being “conformed to the pattern of this world”. We are led by the world when we become enslaved to our own fear of being unpopular or disliked in social situations. In a world where cancelling people has become commonplace, it’s easy to allow our fear of social isolation to cause us to take the path of least resistance and just agree to whatever moral or spiritual nonsense is being thrust on us by the “cool people”. We can also be restricted, controlled or led by our fear of being on the “outs” with whoever happens to have the loudest voice in any given room. It’s easy to forget that the loudest voice is not always the godliest or wisest voice. 

Being led by the world is the easiest thing ever. In our fallen state it is our natural go-to because we are literally born with the “bit” of the world already in place. Therefore, it takes a great deal of spiritual awareness for a Christian to avoid conformity to the world’s system. Choosing to conform to Christ rather than the world is worth all the effort and pain it takes because it allows us to keep our Christian distinctiveness and our saltiness (Matthew 5:13).  Staying “salty” is the key to maintaining spiritual influence and success in this life. 

Stay salty my friend. 🙂

Surviving an Unfair, Unjust or just Plain Horrible Situation-

 Nothing in all creation is hidden from Gods sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account– Hebrews 4:13 NIV 

Fairness, justice, equity are more than just woke talking points. 

They are a really big deal.

They are a big deal in a global sense. Every human being, no matter who they are or where they live wants the world to be fair and just. Civilized people want evil to be punished and good rewarded. No decent person wants anyone to be denied a fair shot at life. All people want the same rules to apply to everyone regardless of gender, race or social status (Proverbs 21:15). It’s simply how humans are wired (Genesis 1:27). 

Fairness, justice and equity are also a big deal from a personal perspective. We all want to know when someone harms us or treats us unfairly some authority somewhere will see to it the wrong is righted and the wrongdoer is punished. We all want to be treated equally and fairly. We want to be judged by the content of our character rather than by our age, the color of our skin, our gender, marital status or job title.

For Christians the longing for fairness, justice and equity goes beyond the global or even the personal. These issues are deeply spiritual. We serve a God who describes Himself as both the architect and the ultimate champion of equity, justice and fairness (Psalm 11:7, Psalm 50:6, Psalm 103:6, Psalm 67:4). As God’s people we want to know God sees us in a personal way. We want to know He is aware of the wrongs committed against us. We want God to care enough about us personally to punish those who sin against us (Deuteronomy 32:43).  

Christians rarely discuss it, but most go through a season where they struggle to see and experience the goodness of God in a personal way. Due to painful circumstances these folks can’t help but wonder if God really does see them and if He really does care about what they are experiencing. 

Doubt isn’t always simply due to lack of faith. 

Sometimes doubt is due to what feels like a tardy response on God’s part (2nd Peter 3:8). Times of doubt tend to occur when we really NEED to know God is attentive to our situation and cares about the details of our pain, loss or the oppression we are dealing with. I call these times “seasons of silence”. A season of silence is a time when God feels far away. Because God feels far away our pain or loss feels utterly unbearable.  In order to survive a season of silence a Christian has to have a theology of pain. We have to understand what the Bible says about God so we are not left to rely on our feelings without the guidance of His word (Proverbs 3:5-6, Psalm 119:105).  

Anytime God feels distant and uninterested in our problems it’s critical we remember first and foremost, we are not the only people to feel the way we feel. Some of God’s best and brightest, including David, Elijah, Daniel, Moses, Mary Magdalene and even Jesus went through an experience or season where they felt God had abandoned them, hadn’t heard their prayers or was simply inattentive at the point of their deepest need (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46, Daniel 10:1-18, Exodus 5:1-19, John 20:11).  We are fortunate to see those stories in the rear-view so we know God has never actually abandoned anyone in their greatest need.  

We also need to remember we live in a world broken by sin (Romans 5:12, Romans 3:23, Ephesians 2:1). On a practical level this means evil, unjust and unfair things happen all the time.  People lie, take advantage of others, oppress people and cover-up their own sin at the expense of others (2nd Timothy 3:1-4). Sometimes it appears God has chosen to overlook the sin of those who willfully do wrong. 

Justice delayed does not mean justice will be denied indefinitely with God. He promises there will come a day when every wrong will be righted and every sin punished (Hebrews 12:23, Exodus 32:34, Leviticus 26:27-29, Isaiah 13:11, 1st Thessalonians 4:6). God is so not okay with sin, evil and disobedience He punished the Israelites for their idolatry and sexual sin by sending them into servitude and exile for seventy years in the country of Babylon (Isaiah 5:12-16, Jeremiah 29). God is also not okay with injustice and the mistreatment of His people, He later punished Babylon for the sins committed against Israel while they were in exile (Jeremiah 25:12). Babylon was a very short-lived super-power entirely because God cannot bear to see injustice go unpunished. It is wisdom to remember there is nothing in all of creation that goes unnoticed or undealt with by God (Hebrews 4:13). 

 God often defers justice simply because He is merciful and good (Genesis 15:16, Exodus 34:6, Nahum 1:3, 2ndPeter 3:9). God graciously gives sinners time to get their heart right and repent before judgement comes. Our responsibility during a season of silence is to remember the goodness of God, to be merciful just like God is merciful and to pray for those who have sinned against us as we wait on God to do what he promises to do (Matthew 5:44).   

A Strategy for Surviving this Season of Unprecedented Lunacy-

 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against thauthorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms– Ephesians 6:12 NIV

Unprecedented. 

It’s a big word that gets bandied about quite a lot these days. 

Sadly, it also fits the times we live in. 

Over the course of the last two years or so the world has collectively faced all sorts of unprecedented events including wars, rumors of wars, weird diseases, inflation, social upheaval, tyrannical shutdowns, food shortages and political chaos.

Meanwhile in America.   

Our own unique brand of unprecedented lunacy has included (but is not limited to) militant transgender activists. Increasing tension between races. A president in rapid decline. Increased political division. Appallingly graphic sex-education.  Disintegrating families. A weaponized IRS. Vicious Crime.  A weaponized DOJ. Aggressive abortion enthusiasts and conservative parents labeled “domestic terrorists” for showing concern about the state of public education. 

We have also experienced some unprecedented events no one could have called in a million years like a plot organized by the FBI to kidnap governor Gretchen Witmer and blame the conservative political opposition for it, as well as an actual raid on a former president’s home that has left the world with more questions than answers concerning the “why” of the raid. The social fabric that holds our culture together and our system of government is disintegrating before our very eyes. 

Okay so, what is a Christian to do? 

Well. 

I can tell you what Christians cannot do. We cannot stick our heads in the sand and tell ourselves what goes on in the world is irrelevant. We cannot pretend the church is a safe space the lunacy will never touch. We can’t sit back and convince ourselves politics will never affect how Christians do church or raise our kids. 

Satan clearly has the advantage right now. Anti-God, anti-anything wholesome, anti-Christian sentiment is growing at an off-the-charts pace right now (2nd Timothy 3:1-3). Government, entertainment, public education and the news media are all strongholds of the enemy.  It’s time to wake up and be realistic about the situation at hand. 

Here’s what we can do:

We can accept the reality we are in an unprecedented spiritual war.  The disturbing things we see every day (war, violence, social turmoil, hate, anti-God sentiment) give us a glimpse into an even bigger, nastier war taking place in the spiritual realm (Ephesians 6:12). We must protect ourselves and our children from becoming casualties of this war (1st Peter 5:18). 

Here’s the thing. 

Satan cares less about getting the whole world to openly worship him than he does about corrupting people in subtle ways that do not appear on the surface to be obviously evil. His strategy is to distract people, including Christian people, from God. He wants to muddle our thinking with junk philosophies so biblical truth feels wrongheaded, potentially harmful, and hopelessly outdated (Isaiah 5:20).  He uses garbage entertainment (secular books, movies, television, games), the news media and the public-schools to take minds captive to worldly philosophies that inevitably lead to godless thinking and evil behavior. (Colossians 2:8).

 It’s a seriously brilliant strategy. 

Once a person’s thinking is aligned with the world their hearts are inescapably far from God. In order to be even marginally successful in this epic battle we must be willing to cut educational systems and entertainment out of our lives and our kids’ lives that does not promote discernment and aid in wise thinking. 

Period. 

No one will be safe in this battle if they are not making prayer a priority, hiding God’s word in their heart and living the way God calls Christians to live (Romans 12, Titus 3:14, 1st Peter 1:14, 1st Peter 2:16, 1st John 1:6, Colossians 3:1-21, Ephesians 4:17-28). 

Living the way God calls us to live means actively choosing to do good things with the time we have been given. Christians are literally saved from their sin for the sole purpose of doing good works and helping people (Ephesians 2:10). Doing good works is important because they are a form of spiritual warfare, they remind us who we belong to and they give us credibility with unsaved people (Titus 3:8). Credibility leads to opportunities to share the gospel (Matthew 5:16) That being said, all the good works in the world are a pointless waste of time if we don’t let go of behaviors, attitudes and pursuits that do not lead to more holiness and righteousness in our lives. In other words, we have to stop sinning. 

 We are the light of the world and the salt of the earth, therefore it’s imperative Christians everywhere become a present and active force for good in their local communities (Matthew 5:13-16). We must do the work necessary to learn to think biblically about political and social issues and then work to get decent people elected to all levels of political office, from school boards to the presidency. In a fallen world there is no such thing as a truly righteous politician, but it is our job to find the best people we can and support them with our time, money and votes.  

Finally. 

We cannot give in to despair. No matter how bad it gets. We cannot give up or give in. We cannot stop believing and praying and worshiping and fighting for the good in this world. Faith is the key to survival in these unprecedented times.

How Early Christians Thrived under Unjust Authority-

 Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone– Titus 3:1-2 NIV

It is all-too easy to find good examples of truly bad leadership in families, governments, schools and even some churches. 

Bad leadership is nothing new. A sinful, broken world breeds autocratic, egocentric, prideful leaders in every sphere of life. God’s people have seldom been exempted from the curse of awful leadership.

The Hebrews were brutally enslaved by the Egyptians for centuries before God miraculously liberated them from bondage. David, prior to his ascension to the throne endured decades of harassment and abuse and more than one murder attempt at the hands of Saul. Early Christians were routinely persecuted, abused, denied work and even killed simply for refusing to violate God’s commands. Throughout church history sincere followers of Jesus have been victimized and oppressed sometimes even by so-called “Christian leaders” who loved power more than they feared God. Over and over again, throughout history in the face almost unspeakable suffering Christian people have grown stronger, wiser and more faithful to God. 

How they did that matters a lot.

 Especially now. Leadership is not, as a general rule getting any better. Events of the last few years have exposed a creepy authoritarian element in many political leaders from countries once thought to be unswervingly democratic and safe from tyranny like Australia, Austria, New Zealand and Canada. Some public schools and health departments have become despotic in their approach in their approach to leadership. Even the church has had more than its fair share of greedy, narcissistic and exploitive leaders.

Sigh. 

Christians throughout history were able to live with and pray for corrupt, evil and despotic leaders. They did this in spite of any suffering they endured because they understood deep in the core of who they were that every human being on earth is ultimately answerable to God.  Leadership is a stewardship. Human beings might think they are electing, appointing or hiring a leader—or an arrogant leader might imagine they have achieved their position due to their own cleverness, power or maneuvering but in reality, God—not human wisdom or control is what places people in positions of authority. This means that ultimately all human leaders whether they lead the church, the state or the family will someday be answerable to God for how they handle (or mishandle) the power and authority they have been given (Luke 12:47-48). 

Early Christians understood that no one actually gets away with anything. Not really. Contemporary believers do everything they can to avoid thinking about or talking about the J-word. Judgment. Most Christians are super uncomfortable with anyone getting punished, even if they deserve punishment. The writings of early Christians reveal they did not have any such issues (2nd Thessalonians 1:6, Romans 12:19, Jude 1:5-7, 2nd Peter 2:4-21). They understood God is not just a God of love. He is also a God of judgment. Early Christians actually took solace in knowing that evil, prideful leaders who refused to do what was right would someday be punished for their sins. Early Christians had the faith to believe God would settle the score, if not in this life, then in the one to come (Revelation 21:11-15). This knowledge empowered them to endure the suffering that goes along with living under the thumb of unjust and evil leaders.

They also knew enough about history and the Bible to know that sometimes God does not wait until death to begin adjudicating things. Occasionally evil people get a preview of their eternal suffering.  King Saul, the man who hunted David like an animal for years died by suicide and in disgrace. Queen Jezebel, arguably the most evil female leader in human history died from being thrown out a window. No one cared enough about her to retrieve her body. She was eventually eaten by wild dogs.   King Herod (Matthew 2:1-22) the man who murdered a village full of baby boys in an attempt to eradicate any competition for his power died of a horrible death from “intense itching”, “severe intestinal discomfort”, “breathlessness” and: wait for it… “gangrene of the genitalia”—His man part literally rotted off. A sure sign of divine retribution if there ever was one. Early Christians saw Nero, the royal nut-job who set Rome on fire and blamed Christians for it killed himself to avoid being murdered by his staff.   

Anytime a person refuses to repent they spend eternity in hell. Therefore, no one ought to revel in anyone else’s punishment. That being said, the beliefs of early Christians serve as a reminder for us in tough times that God is not unaware of anything. Nothing is hidden from His sight (Hebrews 4:13).  

This affected the early church in profound ways. 

 They were able to pray for and feel compassion for their tormenters.  They were also thoughtful and cautious in the way they handled any authority they were given. They did not lord it over anyone.  It did not matter if the authority they held was in the church, the family or the state. They understood that true Christians wear any authority they are given with a measure of humility and with a fear of the Lord. They knew no one is exempt from God’s judgment. 

We would do well to learn from them. 

How do we Stay Hopeful in a Clearly Unjust and Unfair World?

  There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground- Amos 5:7 NIV

  I have been spending my elliptical time listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The podcast chronicles more than just Mars Hill Church in Seattle. It tells the story of numerous leaders within the mega-church movement. The first-hand accounts of the people damaged by the pride, questionable doctrine and a longing for celebrity endemic within the movement left me grieving for the body of Christ. The unjust and sometimes even evil actions of a few have forever sullied the name of Jesus and caused many to leave the church.  

This morning when I turned on the news the first story I saw was about a mother whose soldier son was killed in the military withdrawal from Afghanistan. The woman is angry about the death of her son.  Very angry. She is frustrated with how the governing authorities have handled every sordid detail of the withdrawal. So, she did what many of us do in 2021 when we are angry and frustrated. She got on social media and vented her anger. Her evaluation of the situation was censored by the social media platform and shoved down the memory hole. This is wrong on a million different levels. A grief-stricken Mother should be permitted to vent her anger. The people in charge should own their mistakes and the memory hole should be forever left on the pages of George Orwell’s 1984.  

These are not the only examples of injustice and evil in our world. They are just two of at least a million possible examples out there. Injustice and evil have become ubiquitous. Truth is routinely twisted and lies have become so routine that in some situations it is really hard to know what’s actually true. We live in a time where good is called evil and evil is called good (Isaiah 5:20). 

Our brave new world can leave even mature Christians feeling angry and bitter about bad leadership and lack of justice. Christ-followers are instructed to avoid the sin of bitterness at all costs (Hebrews 12:15, Ephesians 4:31), because it inevitably leads to attitudes and actions that have the power to defile every person in our circle of influence.  

There is no easy way to avoid feeling bitter towards unjust leaders.  However, there are four things we can do that will help us avoid bitterness if we do them routinely: 

Remember nothing escapes God’s observation- 

Because God is merciful He does not punish every sin or sinner in real time (2nd Peter 3:9). This can sometimes make it look and feel like God is unaware of injustice or that He doesn’t care about evil. If we believe that lie we will either become bitter towards God and the world or we will join in with the sinners and sin our heads off. Doing either of those things will cause us to quickly lose our ability to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16, Matthew 3:10). If enough Christians lose their ability to be salt and light the brokenness and evil in this world will win. The key to staying both holy and hopeful in these times is to remember that the Bible does promise that there will come a day when God will deal decisively with sin and those who have caused other people to sin (Mark 9:42, Romans 2:9-10, Revelation 20:11-15). 

Be the person this world needs right now- 

Seriously. Just do it. Be the person who stands up for the subjugated, who fights obvious injustice and loves without limits. Love and righteousness are transformative in culture and in relationships. Acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God is the key to a living a life God blesses (Psalm 11:7, Proverbs 21:15, Micah 6:8)

Don’t give into the temptation to be vengeful- 

Vengeance can take many forms that don’t include acts of physical violence. It can take the form of rude verbal or written retaliation (my biggest personal issue, sigh.). Vengeance can also include things like refusing to pray for or do good things for people we view as our enemies (Matthew 5: 38-41, Matthew 5:44).  Jesus directly commands us to pray for and do good to those who do us wrong. Refusing to obey Jesus always leads to hardness of heart that leads to both more sin and more personal misery. 

Pray-

Okay, I get it, encouraging people to pray while the world goes to hell in a hand cart sounds trite and feels like a copout. Prayer is anything but a copout. Prayer transforms circumstances. I do not know or understand all the particulars on how all of that works but it does work. Prayer also transforms our hearts. Prayer, if it’s done consistently and in faith gives the person praying an awareness of God’s presence.  Awareness of God’s presence always leads to a love for others and a sense of hope for the future. 

Life is tough right now. Goodness, righteousness and justice are in short supply. The good news about dark times is it makes it much easier for our light to shine but we have to let it.

How to get Your Spiritual Growth Going-

Test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ- 1st Thessalonians 5:21-23 ESV

I am a bit of a cynic.

 I am always a bit slow to embrace any new idea, theory or belief without some hard evidence that the idea, theory or belief could actually be true or a good idea.  

Despite my inherently cynical nature I am fully convinced the whole stupid world is under the judgment of God right now. Judgment is on the docket for every people group on earth. No one is special right now. Too many people in too many places have either participated in or voluntarily tolerated every kind of evil for far too long Romans 1:18-30). The Almighty God of the Universe has finally had enough. He is lifting His hand of protection and letting humanity have a taste of what we have been begging for: life without God. Therefore, every man, woman and child on earth is in for some rough waters until there is a movement of repentance. The evidence is just too overwhelming not to believe it. Bad leaders, weird weather, random acts of violence, hostility, disease, fear and crime are all telltale signs of divine judgment (Deuteronomy 28:16-64). 

HOWEVER.

This season might just turn out to be the most productive of our lives from a spiritual growth perspective. Rough waters often cause people to seek God and let go of the sin that so easily entangles (Hebrews 12:1). Trials can empower us to break free of the behaviors and attitudes that trap us in the mindsets that keep us mired in worldly thinking.  When we seek God and ask Him to help us break free of worldly thinking and sinful strongholds we inevitably do the things that please and honor God (Revelation 2:5). When Christians obey God, He is faithful to move in powerful ways and good always comes out of it. (1st Peter 1:6-9). 

Here’s how to make spiritual growth happen:

Stop being a baby-

Churches today are crawling with spiritual and moral toddlers. People who never grew past the sippy-cup and fit-throwing stage of spiritual development (Hebrews 5:12-14).  In order to flourish spiritually we must be intentional about letting go of the childish and/or sinful things holding us back from becoming truly Christlike.  This means learning to do hard things, like examining our attitudes on a regular basis. It means accepting difficulty and learning from it rather than getting angry and bitter about it (1st Corinthians 13:11, 2nd Timothy 4:5).  It means caring about people enough to tell them the truth about where their choices will lead them even if it means they don’t like us when the conversation is over. It means forgiving those who wrong us and praying for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). 

Know what having “good fruit” actually means- 

We all know the fruit of a person’s life matters because Jesus said it matters (Matthew 7:16). However, having a life that consists of good fruit is about more than looking good or even doing good deeds. “Good fruit” like church attendance, taking on leadership roles in church or even leading people to Jesus is really only good if those things are accompanied by by true holiness, virtue and love for one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43, Galatians 5:22-23, Ephesians 5:3). This means doing the right things with the wrong heart will not result in reward. In order to get this vital issue right we must be vigilant about examining our motives.  We must ask ourselves: am I doing what I’m doing so others will think well of me? Do I do things for people to help them or gain influence? Do I love everyone or just people who love me back? If we get the answers to any of these questions wrong we need to ask God to change our hearts until He does. 

Deal with your spiritual junk

In order to deal with our junk we have to WANT to see the sin our life. Most people, even most Christians don’t really want to see the sin their lives. It’s just too painful and hard see our own grossness head-on. It We have to ask God to show us. He will do this in a whole bunch of different ways that probably won’t involve verbal communication with the Almighty.  He will show us through conflicts we have in our marriages and jobs. He will show us through the attitudes we see in our own kids and the entertainment we gravitate towards. 

Don’t get confused about what repentance really is-

Repentance is a twofold deal. It’s dealing with sinful behaviors in a decisive way (Matthew 5:30).  That means stopping it (whatever “it” is) as quickly as possible. However, simply stopping bad behavior is not enough. In order to truly repent we have to deal with the heart attitude that caused us to sin in the first place. That means we have to dig deep and figure out the why of what we do. Without that knowledge will never move on to a higher level of functioning. 

If we know God and are called according to His purpose then life is good even when its tough. It’s good because God is always at work using the hard stuff to mold us into someone He can use. 

But we have to let Him.

Four Truths Key to Going the Distance Spiritually Even in Hard Times-

Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God– John 3:21 NIV

Okay, so. 

No one just decides to let their perfectly good life spiral into a dark and ugly disaster. This is even more true of Christians. No true follower of Jesus has ever made the willful decision to just let their life dissolve into a chaotic tragedy.

Seriously.

It just doesn’t happen. The hope we receive at salvation simply doesn’t allow for that kind of willful foolishness (Romans 5:5).

However.

There are plenty of Christians whose lives do spiral out of control. Sometimes there is no returning from the dark places they go. Unfortunately, it’s a trend that seems to be growing. More and more people are beginning their spiritual lives well and ending them by rejecting Jesus altogether or telling the world they are “reimagining” or “deconstructing” their faith (Galatians 5:7). When we choose the things of this world over the full life Jesus offers we end up turning away from God. Turning from God never ends well (Hebrews 6:4-6, Matthew 24:10-11). 

The key to evading that fate is found in asking God to empower us to seek, understand and walk in truth (John 8:32, 2nd Corinthians 3:12 Galatians 5:5). Living out the kind of truth that keeps us from becoming the worst version of ourselves is about more than simply learning some Bible verses that tell us how we should live.   In order for truth to become a protective force in our lives we have to seek it purposely in specific areas of our lives (Ephesian 6:14, Ephesians 6:17). We seek truth by asking God to show us truth in the following four areas: 

The truth about who we are-  

It is critical we know who we are in Christ and what that means for us spiritually (Ephesians 3:16-20, Colossians 1:13, Galatians 4:6).  Knowing we are loved by God gives us incentive to grow and protects us from discouragement.  We have to know that even when we fail God is for us. He never stops rooting for us to become the best possible version of ourselves. However, it is also critical we understand no one becomes the best version of themselves without some effort. We must make a practice of asking God to show us truth about the parts of ourselves that still need redemption.  We will never see the areas of our life that are tripping us up without God’s help. We are simply too easily misled by our own desires.  

The truth about the motives of our heart- 

The human heart is the most insanely devious thing in all of creation (Jeremiah 17:9). We are able to trick ourselves into believing our motives are pure and we are good when we are anything but good and pure. It’s possible to do this without even realizing we are doing it. We can easily fool ourselves into thinking we are simply being friendly to a member of the opposite sex when in reality we are testing the waters to see if that person might be open to an inappropriate relationship. We tell ourselves it’s the churches fault we aren’t growing when in reality we aren’t making any attempt to feed ourselves outside of the weekly church service. We fool ourselves into thinking we’ve forgiven someone when in reality we are holding onto a grudge the size of Texas. Only God can show us what’s really going on in our hearts but that only happens when we ask Him to do it. 

The truth about who God is –

People—even redeemed people tend to make God into something much smaller and less powerful than He really is. We are simply more comfortable with a God who is like us. So, usually without realizing it we cast God into the image of a human who isn’t all that different from us. In the process we talk ourselves out of taking God seriously. When we stop taking God seriously we stop obeying Him in any area of our lives that feels hard. The way to end this cycle is to ask God daily to remind us who He is and how worthy He is of our full attention and obedience. 

The truth about other people-

It is all-too easy for us to view other people as our enemies, rather than as people who are made in the image of God and deeply valued by Him. When we devalue people, we tend to overestimate the harm they do us and underestimate their ability to be transformed. When we do this we inevitably end up doing the one thing God doesn’t do: give up on people. Asking God to help us see people the way He sees them keeps us from giving up on people when they disappoint us. As people inevitably do. 

No Christian chooses consciously to fail in the things that matter most. The key to success in the Christian life is knowing the truth of God and then walking in it. But in a world fraught with lies and deception truth is something we have to want badly enough to go after it with our whole hearts (Jeremiah 29:13)