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. 

What Do the Election Results tell us?

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming– 1st Peter 1:13 NIV

Okay, so a couple of things:

First, just in case you happened to be on another planet for the last five months or so and missed it, there was a mid-term election last week. 

It was kind of a big deal. 

Second, I’m fairly conservative in my political views. I am not conservative because I believe baby Jesus was born with a copy of the constitution in His teeny-tiny hand.  Nor, am I conservative because I believe a person must think a certain way politically in order to become a Christian. I am a conservative because I tend to believe Jesus would be on the side of individual responsibility and personal accountability. Mostly, because responsibility and accountability lead to healthy outcomes and happy people. I also think Jesus would be on the side of life (because He created it) and I’m pretty sure He would be all-in when it comes to limiting the gender spectrum to male and female because it is the design he chose for this world (Genesis 1:27, Genesis 2:23-25)  

For most conservatives the election was a full-on bummer. It was not what we wanted, or prayed for. I know it could have been way worse. That said, it was still, objectively speaking, extremely discouraging. Who would have thought soaring inflation, layoffs, war, cultural chaos and four-dollar a gallon gas would not be punished at the ballot box? But it was not. 

Here’s the thing:

 Christians are commanded to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). One aspect of that command is a call to transform whatever culture we happen to be living in into a better, healthier, more Christ-like version of itself. Because that’s the call, we probably ought to spend some time thinking about this election and what it says about the current state of affairs in this country. We also need to figure out God wants us do about that state of affairs.

So here goes:

It is becoming increasingly more clear that we are living in a post-Christian society. The values Christians have traditionally held dear are no longer a part of the greater cultural narrative.   One illustration of this reality is abortion. Fox News conducted a massive exit poll post-election. Their goal was to discover what issues motivated voters this election cycle. The number one answer was the economy. However, abortion was a very close second. It was pro-abortion supporters who swung the election.   

 This means a large portion of our society cares more about keeping abortion legal than they do about their own economic well-being and future prosperity (Leviticus 18:21, Jeremiah 32:35). Most lefty politicians voted in campaigned entirely on keeping abortion as available and unrestricted as possible. Love of abortion is not the only sign our civilization is in trouble. Violent crime against complete strangers is way up. Euthanasia is rapidly becoming a new normal and the possible benefits of infanticide are very much up for discussion. It will undoubtedly be offered as an option for new parents at local hospitals in the very near future.  

Yikes. 

 Our society is literally hurtling backwards in time towards pre-Christian, heathenish ethics. Most folks are motivated by their individual impulses rather than a desire to build a better future for their children and grandchildren. Our obsession with freedom could actually lead to our own extinction. Literally. A large portion of our population is doing everything possible to keep from reproducing and it could be our downfall.  Human beings are becoming more and more savage as our society has begun to value personal freedom over personal responsibility. Our infatuation with freedom will inevitably lead to less actual autonomy. Governments will step in to control people if they cannot or will not control themselves (Romans 13:4). 

Sigh. 

All that being said. The current chaos could turn out to be a good thing. The culture will likely get worseSometimes bad is better. Hard times cause people to think. Whereas prosperity tends to lead to greater acceptance of whatever the cultural norms are and God knows we don’t need any more acceptance of the current cultural norms.  

So, what is a Christian to do? 

First. 

As strangers living in a strange land (and that’s what Christians are) we must do our level best to live within God’s design for the human race (Genesis 1:27, Hebrews 11:13-16, 1st Peter 1:1-2). Christians should get married, have a bunch of kids, work out their problems and stay married. They should also buy houses, build healthy community and strive to be the kindest, most generous people in their cities and towns (Jeremiah 29:4-8). Living joyfully, well and within the boundaries of God’s design is the first step in “making disciples” in our messy, godless, death obsessed culture.

Then. 

We must be prepared to explain to our friends and neighbors the reasons why we do what we do (1st Peter 3:15). We need to pray like crazy for wisdom and power and boldness. Then we need to open our mouths and tell anyone who will listen about Jesus and the hope He brings to even the most messy and shattered lives. We need to give the world the hope we have received and trust our merciful and good God to bring about the change we need.

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 does God work in a Godless Time?

Our wrongdoings testify against us, Lord, act for the sake of Your name! Our apostasies have indeed been many. We have sinned against You– Jeremiah 14:7 NASB 

A couple of months ago I concluded that I had been spending way too much of my Bible reading time in a few New Testament books. 

It was time to broaden my horizons. 

So, I dusted off the books of 1st and 2nd Kings. The first few chapters of 1st Kings is mostly just palace intrigue. It covers the death of King David and the opportunistic scheming that occurred around his passing. The book reaches a high point early on with the installation of David’s son Solomon as his replacement. Solomon started strong with a heart for God. God blessed his efforts and Israel thrived economically and militarily under his leadership.  

It all kind of goes down-hill from there.

Despite his wisdom and worldly success, Solomon was a dismal failure when it came to all the things that really matter in life. The Kingdom split following his death and both Israel and Judah wandered far from God.  Most of the rest of 1st Kings is just a glum recounting of one bad, evil, idolatrous king after another bad, evil, idolatrous king. The book gets slightly more interesting with the introduction of the prophet Elijah in 1st Kings 17 but then 2nd Kings devolves into a serious of weird and disturbing stories that cover topics as diverse as floating ax heads and cannibalism. The weird stories are interspersed here and there with more recountings of more crappy kings. In chapter seventeen Israel falls and is taken captive by Syria. King Hezekiah begins ruling Judah in chapter eighteen. Hezekiah and Josiah were the last of Judah’s even halfway decent kings. However, their leadership was not enough to keep the country from falling ever deeper into idolatry and ruin. King Nebuchadnezzar makes his first appearance in chapter twenty-four and that ushers in the Babylonian captivity and the end of Jewish sovereignty. 

Sigh. 

I was surprised by how depressed I was when I was finished reading the books. It wasn’t the first time I read either book. However, it was the first time either book hit me in such a soul-crushing kind of a way.  

I did have a couple of realizations concerning the books.

First.

The book of 1st Kings is just a sad recounting of Israel’s long slide into apostasy, unbelief and sin. 2nd Kings tells the story of how God worked in the lives of those who lived faithfully for God when everyone else had turned their backs on Him.  The books hit me hard because I am also living in a season of apostasy. We don’t call it that, that of course, we call it “living in a post-Christian culture”, which sounds way nicer than “apostasy” but it’s the same thing. Whatever you call it, it sucks. It sucks living in a declining culture. It sucks watching the whole stupid world devolve into moral and intellectual chaos. It sucks seeing people degrade themselves with stupid ideas and even stupider behavior. It sucks watching people do everything possible to deny the reality of God. Most of all, it sucks feeling overwhelmed by the darkness and ugliness of a post-Christian world. 

That being said. 

We are not without hope.

We aren’t Israel and God hasn’t left the building (metaphorically speaking of course). He’s still on His throne and He is still working in the hearts of His people, which means He is still working in our culture. Revival could be just around the corner. In the meantime, following are four lessons I gleaned about living in a post-Christian culture from 1st and 2nd Kings.  

Community is critical in a season of apostasy– 

In 1st and 2nd Kings God works most powerfully through little communities of prophets who banded together to support and encourage one another. Community, connection, partnership and close friendship is an ongoing theme throughout the book. The takeaway for contemporary believers is clear. The key to remaining spiritually strong and emotionally healthy while the world is literally going to hell around us is making Christian community a priority in our lives. 

When the going gets tough God shows off– 

All the depressing historical truths aside, one of the high points of both books is seeing God work among the believing remnant in 1st and 2nd Kings. From Mt. Caramel in 1st Kings 17 to the ax head incident in 2nd Kings. God showed His power and provided for His people in fresh new ways. We should have hearts of faith that expect Him to do the same in our time. 

 God works in surprising places in dark times- 

One key theme of both 1st and 2nd Kings is provision for gentiles in general and gentile women in particular (1st Kings 17:9-20, 2nd Kings 4:1-37). Both books make it clear that when previously believing people turn their backs on God, He shows Himself in mighty and life-giving ways to people groups we wouldn’t necessarily expect Him to work through. I believe with all my heart we should expect a movement of God in unexpected places in the coming years. 

And finally: 

Relentless leaders bring hope and healing to a graceless age – 

Two bright spots in 2nd Kings are the stories of Hezekiah and Josiah. Both men were hardworking, tenacious, God-fearing leaders who had the insight to recognize the serious nature of times they lived in and the grit to do something about the problems at the root of Israel’s trouble. They understood it was idolatry and the sinful practices that accompany idolatry destroying the people they loved (2nd Kings 18:1-6, 2nd Kings 23:1-24). Their love for people, steadfast leadership and determination to serve God wholeheartedly resulted in revival that brought social change and kept judgment at bay. 

So. 

All that to say, one of the key takeaways from 1st and 2nd Kings is that God is always at work even in a post-Christian world that feels like it’s going to hell all around us.  Usually in ways we least expect. 

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.

Why Everyone Must Develop a Theology of Suffering-

We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them- 1st Thessalonians 3:2-3 NIV

 This past week some friends took me to see the movie Free Burma Rangers. The movie was a stark reminder of three fundamental truths:

  1.  Life is hard.
  2. God is good even when life is hard.
  3. When life is hard it doesn’t feel like God is good.

 Most Christians readily agree with truths one and three. However, many Christians (including myself), struggle to fully embrace truth two. Backing up this belief is an increase in the number of Christians who have turned their backs on God when life got hard or when other Christians disappointed them.

 Truth-be-told, some who walk away from Christianity are spiritual snowflakes. These are the folks who truly believe a rude comment on social media is a form of persecution.  Deep down they tend to believe they are too special to suffer. When life gets just a little bit tougher than they are comfortable with they melt under the heat of adversity, get miffed at God and leave the church. Spiritual snowflakes tend to carry their snow-flakiness into other areas of their lives including relationships. They’re quick to take offense and get their feelings hurt. They readily abandon relationships that challenge them in any way.

 Then,

 There are individuals who turned their backs on God after experiencing legitimately horrific situations. They lost a child or had a loved-one murdered or lived through horrible abuse or a genocidal massacre. The folks in this category all came up against a situation they couldn’t find a reasonable answer for and they simply determined they could not live the Christian life without that answer. So, they turned away from God either in anger or unbelief.

 The two groups are vastly different in nearly every way and one group is far more worthy of  compassion than the other. However, both groups share a common problem that has become endemic in Christianity.  

 They lack a theology suffering.  

 Theology is not just for bookworm-y, bowtie-wearing types. Theology is practical and necessary to survive life with our faith intact. Theology explains life and how God uses the stuff of life to accomplish His purposes in our lives.  Every believer in Jesus must have a solid theological grid to view life through; if they don’t they will never be able to effectively explain to themselves and others why they are experiencing the things they are experiencing.  

  One reason Christians lack theology in this area is because life is easier now than it has ever been before in human history.

 Think about it.

 Thanks to the miracles of central heat and air nobody in the Western world is ever too hot or too cold. Unless, of course, they are freely participating in an activity that demands they be too hot or too cold. Two-hundred-years ago, most people spent the majority of their lives in a state of perpetual discomfort. Today, it is uncommon for people in the Western world to experience hunger unless they are attempting to lose weight. A hundred years ago famine was still a reality for much of the world. Illnesses that once wiped-out large portions of the human population have been controlled or eradicated with drugs, surgery or public health programs. A hundred years ago it was simply accepted fact that few people would see all their children live to adulthood. People in civilized countries do not go to jail for being poor anymore. One-hundred-years ago there was no such thing as bankruptcy. Developed countries had poor houses, which were basically just jails for poor people.

 All this progress is undeniably awesome. However, improved living conditions have raised our expectations for happiness to a level that cannot always be met. Truth-be-told most of us (including me) feel entitled to be comfortable, healthy, happy and entertained all of the time. We tend to get a bit cranky with God when life is anything less than perfectly pleasant.

 A couple of things:

 First, we live in a fallen world that is not fully redeemed (Romans 8:19-22). This simply means that no matter how good humans get at making the world a comfortable place to live we will never be completely free of adversity and tragedy this side of heaven (John 16:33). Secondly, Christians probably experience more difficulty and hardship than non-Christians. This is because God is relentlessly working to conform us into the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29, 2nd Corinthians 3:18).  This is no easy task and apparently it requires some hardship to get the job done (James 1:2, 1st Peter 1:6-7, Revelation 2:9-10).  Furthermore, life is full of tests (Luke 4:1, 2nd Corinthians 13:5, 1st Thessalonians 2:4, Hebrews 11:17, James 1:12). God does not test us so He can find out where we are at. He already knows everything there is to know about us. However, God sometimes allows us to be tested so we can figure out where we are at so we can make changes that lead to growth.

 Finally,

 We must change how we view the Christian life. Someday we will dwell in heaven, and there will be no more tears, sickness, longing, pain or evil (Revelation 21:1-7). Life will be perfect and we will be perfect. We aren’t there yet. At this point in the story we are soldiers in a war (Philippians 2:25, 2nd Timothy 2:3-4, Philemon 1:1-2) We are fighting for the hearts and minds of our fellow human beings (Ephesians 6:10-20). Sadly, wars are messy and painful, they demand soldiers not snowflakes.

 

Six Rules (Yes Rules) That Keep Christians From Going Totally Sideways In Life-

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel~ Philippians 1:27 NIV  

I am not really much of a rule-follower, in fact I despise them with every fiber of my being.  

That said, there was brief period early-on in my Christian journey when I had a short but ill-fated love affair with legalism. Needless to say, it was not my finest hour. Over time through Bible study, the guidance of a gentle mentor, and some spiritual growth I concluded that laws are intended for law-breakers (1stTimothy 1:9). It is now my firmly held conviction that if Christians would simply seek godly wisdom, follow biblical principles and do what God tells us to do, there would be little need for extra-biblical rules. 

That being said.

Recently, I was thinking about how one person can be incredibly successful from a spiritual perspective while another person in a similar set of circumstances can go completely sideways in every respect (1stTimothy 1:18-19). As I was thinking through the how and why of all that. I came-up with was a list of attitudes and behaviors that spiritually successful people tend to have (Galatians 5:22-23, Colossians 1:9-11). Then I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to come up with a way to express my thoughts without using the “rules” word, mostly because I know rules are  a hot-button issue in some Christian circles.  Ultimately, I decided it was the only word that really made any sense. Sigh. 

Here they are:

Be teachable-

Being teachable is basically just being open to the notion that we might be wrong about something (doctrine, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors). Being teachable means owning it when we are not doing life well or we need help or guidance from other people. Being teachable is the polar opposite of being prideful. Teachable people ask God on a regular basis to reveal their blind spots and the areas of their lives that need work.  Then they ask for help and seek wisdom. Help and wisdom can come in the form of a wise friend, a Christian counselor, Christian books, a pastor or a spiritual mentor. What matters is that we are willing to humble ourselves and ask for it when we need it. 

Be obedient-

There has been some serious misunderstanding regarding obedience and legalism in recent years. For the better part of the 20thcentury the cultural pendulum in church world swung towards extreme legalism.  Beginning in the 1980’s the pendulum began to swing in the extreme opposite direction which eventually landed us where we are at now (extreme worldliness).  The simplest definition of legalism is the practice of adding manmade rules to straightforward biblical commands. For example: Christians are commanded to avoid sexual immorality (sex before marriage, adultery, homosexuality, pornography, prostitution etc.) Christians are NOT told to abstain from dating or told to only practice courtship or to avoid kissing or dancing. It is legalistic (adding to God’s commands) to prohibit dating, dancing or kissing. However, it is clearly NOT legalistic to tell someone to stop hooking-up with strangers or to stop looking at porn (1st Thessalonians 4:3-8, 1st Timothy 1:10, 1st Corinthians 6:8-10, 1st Corinthians 6:15).

Engage the world around you- 

We only get one shot at this life (Hebrews 9:27). Our time here is so short that the Bible refers to human life as a flower that springs up for a season (1st Peter 1:24, Job 14:1-2). Every season of life tends to be shorter than we think it will be. We all have a limited amount of time to be married, parent our children, love our neighbors, pastor our churches, lead the people around us and impact our corner of the world for Jesus.  It would benefit us all to put down our phones, shut off the T.V. and be a lot more intentional about engaging the world and the people in it. Not only would we have a bigger impact on our world we would probably also enjoy our time here more.  

Recognize and run from unhealthy people and situations-

Sadly, in this fallen world there are individuals and situations that can be detrimental to our spiritual and emotional health. Those folks repeatedly take us to a place where we doubt God, lose faith in our ability to do the things God has called us to do and sometimes they even cause us to sin (Matthew 18:6, Luke 17:1). I am not a big supporter of simply cutting people out of our lives without a really good reason. That said, there are situations where a little or in some cases a lot of distance is just wise.

Become a friend of God-

Believe God is who He says He is and that He can do what He says He can do. Get to know Him on a personal level rather than simply acquiring information about Him and God will consider you His friend and even confide in you (Psalm 25:14, James 2:23).   

 Develop people- 

Jesus spent the vast majority of His time helping people to become better and healthier versions of themselves. He wants us to do the same. Make a point of helping friends, strangers, co-workers and subordinates to become the best version of themselves they can become. In the process you will become an improved version of you. 

Seven Practical Things Christians Can Do to Push Back the Darkness-

Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed- John 3:20 NIV

I have not been cursed with a ton of vices. 

Drugs, alcohol, and gambling are not enormous temptations for me. Nor am I into video games, binge eating, hoarding, porn or nicotine. I do sometimes use shopping as a stress release. However, I hate credit card debt slightly more than I love shopping so the odds I will morph into a full-blown shopping addict are fairly slim.   

Politics is my vice. 

Much to the chagrin of my far less politically minded husband, I follow political parties the way a gaming addict follows NFL teams and a gambling addict follows the ponies. The Presidential elections are my super bowl and I begin gearing up for them a good two years prior to the actual election. 

 As a history geek I am fascinated by the reality that democracy is a relatively new development in human government, having only existed as we know it for a few hundred years.  In my nerdier moments (there are many) I like to ponder the evolution of politics and government. As a Christian I am intrigued by the fact that in our system the election of a single person often has an enormous impact on the political, economic and moral landscape of our nation, sometimes for decades. 

Unfortunately, I can fall into the trap of thinking that if the right person or group of people get elected the outcome will magically alter the moral landscape of our country permanently.  Recently, I came heard a quote that threw a truth grenade on the folly of my thinking: 

We are not seeing terrible things in our culture because we vote the wrong way. We are seeing terrible things in our culture because men love darkness more than light-Voddie Baucham

It is a sad fact that people love darkness more than they love light (John 3:19). At the heart of every “hot-button” issue we are dealing with as a culture is a powerful battle between right and wrong, light and darkness, good and evil. If hearts are changed political and moral views will change too. Changing hearts is way above any of our pay grades. Changing hearts is God’s job. However, the Bible is clear that individuals do have influence over others and there are things that can be done to push back the darkness.

Beginning with:

Prayer-

No one should talk about prayer or extol the virtues of prayer unless they are taking time out of their day to actually pray (1st Thessalonians 5:17, Matthew 26:41).  Christians should pray because prayer has the power to change things. More importantly prayer changes our attitudes towards people and it makes our hearts soft towards God.  

Get some theology- 

The whole notion of holding tightly to beliefs concerning God, the Bible and life has been scoffed at inside and outside the church in recent years. Some well-known pastors have publicly criticized Christians who place a high value on Bible study.  The Apostle Paul’s proclamation that “knowledge puffs up” has been taken out of context so many times that most people do not realize that the apostle was referring to knowledge concerning a specific issue (idols).  Christians have been told repeatedly that all they need to do to effectively live out their Christian faith is love God and people.  Believing that “love” is all Christians need to communicate Christ effectively is a tragically immature understanding of both Christianity and love (1st Peter 3:15). Our post-Christian world does not define the word love by a biblical standard. Therefore it is impossible to know how to love God or love people without theology as our guide. We should get in the habit of asking ourselves what the Bible says about every issue and then study the Bible to know the answers (2nd Peter 1:3-9, Proverbs 18:15). 

Live right-

Holy or righteous living is one of the most misunderstood issues our time. There are actual church-going people who believe it is legalistic to expect Christians to live by the standards laid out for us in the New Testament. It’s not. Holy living is what gives Christians credibility and the right to speak out concerning the issues of our day (1stCorinthians 1:2, Ephesians 5:3, 1st Thessalonians 4:7, Hebrews 12;14).  

Serve

If we want to push back the darkness it is critical we serve in our local church. Christians should volunteer to do whatever needs to be done at their church and work to make their local church as strong and healthy as possible. It is equally important Christians find creative ways to serve those outside the church. This is done best when we become intentional about getting to know the people in our neighborhoods and workplaces.  

Vote wisely-

I know I already made it clear that I don’t think politics are the answer to our problems. That said, if Christians vote for leaders who openly embrace darkness we should not be surprised when our world suddenly becomes a darker place. 

Don’t be a jerk-

Seriously. There are enough self-righteous blowhards wandering free. The world does not need even one more. Love God. Live the way you are supposed to live, speak the truth boldly but lovingly and don’t worry about what the rest of the world does with the truth. God will deal with the sinners in this world when the time is right (Romans 2:5-6, Hebrews 9:27, Revelations 14:7). 

Don’t waver- 

Learn the Bible. Set shamelessly biblical standards for yourself. Live by those standards and beliefs and do not allow the culture persuade you to do anything else.