The Risky Path of Spiritual Pragmatism-

Once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light– Ephesians 5:8 NLT

I’m currently in Turkey with The Center for Holy Land Studies (a group I highly recommend) touring New Testament sites with a heavy emphasis on the seven Churches of Revelation. The guides have done an outstanding job of piecing together secular history, geography and Biblical history in a way that has brought the experiences and practices of the early to church to life. One theme has come up over and over again: 

Syncretism. 

 Syncretism is not a Bible word. However, it was a relentless temptation in Bible times. Syncretism is the blending of different systems, practices and ideas. Most paganism practiced by God’s people in the Old Testament was actually some sort of syncretism—a mingling of the worship of Yahweh with the worship of other gods such as Baal and Moloch. 

Syncretism was an enormous temptation for the early church. Early Christians were steeped in a culture of paganism.  Many early believers were saved out of pagan religions. Additionally, Christians were under relentless social and governmental pressure to conform to the systems of paganism. Earning a living, being considered a good citizen and sometimes even just staying alive demanded paying homage to various pagan gods and goddesses. Rather than conforming fully to paganism many simply combined the two. They worshiped Jesus AND participated in the customs of paganism. 

However.

Jesus had nothing positive to say about their practicality. Like. Seriously. Nothing. It was a major theme of the letters to the seven churches, it was at the core of the criticism aimed at most of the churches. 

Most Christians do not see syncretism as a contemporary problem. But it is. It just looks a little different in our world. In the ancient world syncretism always involved idol worship. Christians would attend Christian meetings AND burn incense (worship) the emperor or honor a deity tied to their profession. This allowed early Christians to stay alive, feed their families and live at peace with their culture. 

Contemporary Christians do not bow down to idols or politicians to stay employed or alive. However, Christians are constantly tempted to syncretize secular morality, practices and ethics with Christian morality, practices and ethics. We do this to avoid being “canceled” or rejected by “polite” society and live at peace with our culture. Many contemporary believers will pay lip service to the idea of homosexuality being an acceptable lifestyle, mostly as a way of “loving” a practicing homosexual or to avoid the sin of “judgement”. Some have acquiesced publicly to the notion of multiple genders. Christians don’t conform because they really believe there are sixty-four genders or because they think God changed His mind about homosexuality sometime in the recent past. They do it because its practical and expedient. It keeps the woke censors at bay and makes life easier and from a human perspective easier is always awesome.  

Please understand. 

I believe with all my heart, soul, mind and spirit Christians ought to treat every human being on earth with the dignity and respect due a person made in the image of almighty God. It’s categorically not okay to be unkind. Furthermore, I believe God is the only being in all of creation with the ability to rightly judge the heart of another human. However, being kind and treating others with dignity does not mean we can verbally agree with every deviant behavior under the sun in the name of “loving our neighbor”. 

Jesus hates syncretism. Passionately. He has no patience for it at all. Jesus knows the human heart is bent towards evil and sin even post salvation. Syncretism is a problem because the sin of syncretism transforms us into the image of whatever culture we happen to be living in and when we become like the culture we become spiritually useless. Sin is not limited to participating in sinful behaviors it also includes accommodating sinful ideas and practices in the name of “loving one’s neighbor” or “fitting in”.

Syncretism is something we must actively work against. The spiritual practices of prayer, Bible study, church attendance and Christian community are critically important because those practices sharpen our spirits and make us more aware of right and wrong and more willing to stand against wrong. We cannot lean on our own understanding where culture is concerned. We need constant dependence on the Holy Spirit to enlighten our minds and show us where our thinking has become morally muddled and in what ways we are acquiescing to cultural patterns of behavior or thinking rather than biblical patterns. And finally, and most critically we have to stop marinating in the culture if we want to think and live counterculturally. We have to turn off our televisions and put down our phones. We have to shut off the noise so we can hear God’s voice. 

I am convinced the enemy loves syncretism almost as much as Jesus hates it. Satan knows that when we make space for sin of any kind it clouds our thinking, weakens our ability to share our faith and makes spiritual growth pretty darn close to impossible. Therefore, anytime we begin to really think and live counterculturally we inevitably face hardship and trouble just like the early church did. But we are also given the peace we need to withstand the pressure and the power necessary to change hearts and minds. 

Just like the early church did.

How our Beliefs About the End-times can Actually Shake our Faith-

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths– Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV 

Theology is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as:

The study of the nature of God and religious belief.

I am an unapologetic fan of theology. I have spent the better part of my life studying God and attempting to understand Him better. I firmly believe most of the problems and struggles of this life would evaporate if people simply understood who God is and applied His principles and wisdom to all of life. 

That being said. 

There are times in life when tightly held theological beliefs can actually get in the way of seeing what God is up to in the world. Christians can become so rigidly fixated on a single theological perspective they actually miss what God says or does not say in His word. Such was the situation with many first-century Jews. Their rigid belief the Messiah would be a military leader after the pattern of King David caused them to disregard the suffering servant right in front of them (Isaiah 42:1-2, Isaiah 53:4-6, Acts 4:11, 1st Peter 2:4-7). 

I am convinced some twenty-first century Christians are falling into the same trap with the second coming of Jesus first-century Jews did with first coming of Jesus. Too many Christians on all ends of the eschatological (end time) spectrum have embraced such a rigid perspective of what the return of Jesus will look like that they are rapidly losing faith in the goodness of God because events are not shaking out exactly the way they thought they would. 

Most American Christians fall into one of two categories when it comes to eschatological beliefs. Premillennialism and amillennialism. Premillennialists believe Jesus will return visibly to the earth after a period of evil and unrest known as the tribulation. There are two popular variations on this view:

The premillennial pretribulation rapture of the church-  

This is the most popular American position on end time events. Those who hold to this view believe Christians (those who have repented of their sins and trusted Jesus as savior) will one day be taken from the earth all at once and go straight into the presence of God (1st Thessalonians 4;13-18). This event known as the rapture signals the beginning of a seven-year period of evil and chaos called the tribulation (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Revelation 2:10). The tribulation will be followed by a thousand-year (millennial) reign of Christ on the earth. 

Post or mid-tribulation rapture of the church- 

This is a variation on the first view. Those who believe this version of end time events agree with almost everything their pre-tribulation premillennialist counterparts believe except they believe the rapture will take place after or at some point during the great tribulation. The pre-tribulation rapture theory means that the return of Jesus will be an entirely separate event from the rapture while the post-tribulation theory assumes these two events will take place at more or less the same time.   

Post or mid-rapture Christians believe the church will suffer but grow before the return of Jesus. Pre-tribulation rapture Christians believe Christians who are saved prior to the rapture will be spared the intense suffering that will take place during the tribulation. This view holds fast to the idea there will be a huge spiritual revival that takes place during the tribulation and most of those who become Christians during the tribulation will be martyred for their faith   

 Amillennialism 

Amillennialists do not believe in a tribulation or a rapture per se.  Instead they believe that Christians are called to live in such a way that their actions bring about righteousness and justice on the earth. As people become more righteous and justice becomes more pervasive the reign of Christ will manifest itself over time. Amillennialists do not believe in a literal thousand-year reign of Christ rather, they believe the earthly reign of Christ will be strictly figurative. 

It’s just a fact that adherents to each end-time perspective feel equally strongly their interpretation of Scripture is correct and the interpretation best supported by Scripture.  However, in my experience all end-time views can lead to practical theological and/or spiritual problems of one kind or another. Premillennial, pre-tribulation Christians tend to become troubled at the idea there will come a time when the church will universally suffer extreme persecution. This is despite the fact Christians have suffered persecution since the beginning and there are a myriad of Bible verses promising Christians will experience suffering and persecution (John 16:23, Matthew 13:21, Matthew 24, Acts 14:21-22, 1st Peter 1:6, James 1:2, 1st Thessalonians 3:1-4). The post-tribulation rapture theory tends to lead to anxiety and an emphasis on making physical preparations for the tribulation (prepping) rather than on reaching the lost for Jesus or being spiritually ready for the return of Jesus. Amillennialism trusts sinful humans to do things only God’s spirit can do, such as bring about righteousness and justice.  

Our world is getting weirder and scarier everyday it is critical we focus on what we do know.   We know Jesus IS coming back and it appears He will return after a period of moral decline, persecution and apostasy (2nd Timothy 3:1-5, Matthew 24, 2nd Peter 3:3). It is critical we be spiritually and morally prepared for and enthusiastically await the return of Jesus even in the face of ongoing evil and unrest (1stCorinthians 1:7, Hebrews 9:27-28). It is every bit as critical we not allow our own rigid ideas of what the end should look like to shake our faith in the goodness of God. 

Finding Authentic Freedom

For the Lord God is a sun and shield; The Lord gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly~ Psalm 84:11

 Reader be warned:

 Our family drove to the Oregon coast this past weekend to connect with my four siblings for the first time since our Mother died eight-years-ago. The reunion was a blessing in every sense. However, it was also chaotic (in a good, loud, big-family kind of way) and a marathon of frenzied activity from start to finish.

 I left the beach emotionally gratified and seriously sleep deprived.

 The emotional hullabaloo and lack of sleep combined with too much time to think on the drive home left me feeling a bit navel-gaze-y. Evidently, one possible side effect of too much reflection is an overly emotional blog post. That little disclaimer out of the way, I do believe that I may have hit on some spiritual truth in the midst of at least some of my musings.

 For that reason I pray you’ll give it a read.

 As we passed through a really ugly part of Eastern Oregon it occurred to me that Christians seldom talk about the fall of mankind anymore. We should because our world and everything in it was dramatically distorted in the blink of an eye and not just spiritually. The fall altered how we relate to God, one another and even the natural world. Relationships that were once carefree and easy to navigate suddenly became complex and even adversarial.

 One of the results of living in a fallen world is that even the best stuff in life often has a distinctly sad edge to it.

 Reunions are happy but the separations that instigated the reunions never are. Parenthood is one of the most joyful events a person experience in this life; it is also one of the most difficult and befuddling. Roses have thorns; every profit has a loss built into it. Human innovation typically has at least one unintended and profoundly unpleasant consequence- and cake makes us fat.  

 This reality plays out in the spiritual realm as well.

 Spiritual growth and the blessings that go with it can only be achieved through an oftentimes-painful surrendering of our very selves. Forgiving others brings freedom but at the cost of forfeiting the basic right most of us feel we should have: the right to seek revenge on the jerks that hurt us. The fall even affected our feelings about right and wrong and our perception of reality. Wrong typically feels right and is usually the path of least resistance. Right is always the harder road to traverse.

 Even the grace of God has a sad side to it. Grace, that thing we rejoice in, venerate and write songs about is only necessary because of sin, sin ruined literally everything and sin breaks the heart of God.

 Gloomy, I know.

Grace is necessary because human beings blew it and were powerless to stop blowing it for even a single minute. God is relentlessly generous, so when it became appallingly obvious that there was no way any of us could be good on our own God stepped in. He sent His son to die for us and gave us the grace we needed.

 This realization was almost too much to bear. I was done in.

 Mostly because I have come to believe that our generation has a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of grace and our lack of understanding is keeping us from becoming the people God has ordained us to be. We tend to view grace as nothing more than a massive bucket of forgiveness we can dip into anytime we have a sin that needs forgiving. We treat forgiveness like a magic concoction we apply to sin to make it acceptable, rather than an essential concession to our sinfulness.

 Thankfully, grace is much more than just a big bucket of forgiveness.

 Grace is power that frees us from the oppression of sin. The grace of God does more than simply forgive our transgressions. The grace of God gives us the power to overcome the sin nature that plagues us all (Titus 2:10-12). When we make the choice to live a holy life (Colossians 3:5-14, 1st Thessalonians 4:3-8, 2nd Peter 1:3-11) God dispenses the grace we need when we need it. That grace empowers us embrace the behaviors we need to embrace and let go of the behaviors we need to let go of so that we can be like Jesus.