Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Big Deal About Education

Education is a big deal to people.  It’s big enough for parents to shell-out thousands of dollars to a university, and big enough for students to rack up tens of thousands in debt in order to obtain a college degree.  If it is that big of a deal, then it only makes sense that the church would take an interest in students and parents.  I’m in that parent role of seeing my own kids come and go into college.  Taking an interest in students by talking to them about their classes, degree programs, plans for post-graduation, and helping them to make sense of their education is a huge opportunity for the church to guide young people in forming a healthy view of school and in developing a solid Christian worldview.  Just sending kids off and hoping for the best isn’t the best approach to either education or the Christian life.  The following are some realities of student thought, and some ways we as the church can help them as they go through their education.

               Students look at education as a big deal because they tend to view it as instrumental in getting a good job, and going to college as a place to have fun. So, it really matters to them to obtain the degree so that they can have a rewarding, secure, and comfortable life. It is not very often that I have heard students talk about the intrinsic value of education, but only in terms of the advantages an undergraduate degree will have for them. Yet, a college education affords the chance to be shaped into seeing a broad perspective of the world and become productive members of society and responsible citizens. In other words, education has the potential to have life-long worth even if a student never attains a high level job.

                More than just obtaining information, knowledge of a subject, and a certain skill set, a good, well-rounded education can instill necessary critical thinking abilities and an expansive understanding of the world that will serve a student for a lifetime. So, rather than school being only a series of hoops to jump through in order to obtain respect, security, and a comfortable lifestyle, it truly has value in and of itself.

               One of the great privileges of getting to know and talk with students is helping them to think through the value of their education from a Christian perspective, to see how their major studies and degree programs used for God can impact the world, and how they can take all their acquired knowledge and make sense of it through biblical categories. In doing this, we can help redeem a college education from only being a means to an end in a pragmatic society.

Here are some questions I typically ask students concerning education and work:
--How do you understand the working world?
--Do you see being a student as a calling? Why, or why not?
--Do you view a "secular" job as a calling? Why, or why not?
--How do you, or can you, connect your faith and your education?
--What do you think is the meaning and purpose of work?
--How does being a student reflect the nature and character of God?
--How is God transforming you through being in college?
--Can you think the thought that God wants to use your job as a means of sanctification?
--What ethical challenges do you face as a student?
--How does your education help you to be a better person?

               What I am laying out here is a view of church, let alone education, which, seems to me, is necessary.  In other words, is church just a place to go and attend worship services?  Or, is church made up of forgiven people who seek to help one another redeem their lives in the world in which they live?  If so, relationships are imperative.  If this is all such a big deal, let’s show it by investing relational capital, and not just money alone, into young people’s lives.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Fumbling Forward to Forgiveness


         Several years ago I read a newspaper article of a man in Grand Rapids who killed his wife in the bathroom.  He calmly walked in, took the toilet tank cover, conked her over the skull, and then called the police and told them everything that happened.  I can think of a few better ways to handle a problem than a toilet tank cover.  More people are walking time bombs than we know.  It is unfortunate that one of the few guarantees in life is that someone will hurt you, and that hurt will rip a hole in your heart and last a long time.

          When the hurt comes, we all have to decide how to handle the issue of forgiveness.  It is easy to talk about forgiveness when you’re not hurt – it is quite a different thing when you are.  One man, in the course of conversation, had this story for  Pastor Matt Woodley:

            “Nineteen years ago this guy stole my wife away from me.  They got married and moved to Florida while my life unraveled.  After I was arrested for assaulting a police officer, this guy smirked through the entire hearing.  When I was convicted he flipped me the finger.  I’ve hated him for nineteen years.  He’s coming up here next week.  I have a thirty-two caliber pistol strapped around my ankle, and when I see him I will kill him.  I’ve thought about it.  I’m sixty-three years old.  I’ll get a life sentence, but I’ll also get free medical, a warm bed, and three meals a day.  I’m ready to end my life this way.”
           Why even bother to forgive?  Our hurts can be such that we see no need for forgiveness.  Jesus does want forgiveness to be the last word.  He wants the last word to be forgiveness.  Peter, the disciple of Christ who was ever the wondering, if not wandering one, knew that if a person sinned and offended that they might do it again, and again.  At what point do we stop forgiving?

          What is true about us as people is that we feel a keen sense of “ought to.”  We feel we ought to pay the debt we owe to others, and that others must pay us the debt they owe.  This works on the emotional level, as much or more, than any other arena of life.  If we offend someone and make them angry, we feel we must make them feel better.  If someone angers us, we expect them to make it right and make us feel better.
           Dr. David Seamands believes, rightly I think, that the two major causes of most emotional problems among Christians are: 1) the failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and, 2) the failure to give that grace and forgiveness to other people.

            What we must understand and live out is that we have grace available to us in Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection.  We cannot earn forgiveness.  Grace is free.  And equally true, if we are willing to hear, is the fact that no one owes us anything.  Grace is free for others, as well.

            The failure to know and receive grace drives many Christians to the tragic treadmill of constant striving for perfection and achievement and recognition from others.  Many people refuse grace and instead try to get rid of their guilt through endless work.  This is what often fuels the work-a-holic, what motivates the addict, what may animate much of the service done in a church.  The problem among Christians is not that they don’t understand sin or even their own sinful attitudes and actions; the problem is what to do about it.  Too many believers are trying to work-off their debt.

            Here is a little test:  why do people (you?) go to church?  Be honest.  Is it to truly worship and celebrate the Lord who has erased such a great debt of sin; or, do we go to pay off a debt to God?  Does going to church assuage our guilt, and make us feel better through our attendance?  We can be so accustomed to operating according to guilt instead of grace that we don’t know what to do when there is no guilt – so we just go back to the guilt as our default setting, just like a dog returning to its vomit.  And the tragedy is only compounded by insisting that others operate out of guilt, too.  Another little test:  are we content to simply ask people to serve in the church, or do we believe that there must be arm-twisting with some guilt to motivate people to serve?  Guilt and arm-twisting are tools not from our Lord because they are inconsistent with the gospel of grace.  If we think we have to do this or people or our kids won’t do anything, then we have a spiritual problem.  Everyone in the church ought to serve, but to do it out of a sense of gratitude toward God, not guilt.  Yet, there are always those in every church and in every family who continue to work out their unhappiness on other people by insisting they get on the guilt wagon along with them.  We cannot forgive ourselves, so we live with the guilt and try to pay off our debt making ourselves and everyone else miserable in the process.

            The un-forgiven are the unforgiving.  At the heart of every broken relationship and emotional conflict we have is an insistence on debt-collecting.  We cannot get from others something they cannot give us; only God  in Christ can erase the great debt we have.  Yet, we go out and seek from others what only God can give us.  People are great at being people; but they make lousy gods.  Only God can meet the deepest needs of our hearts - our spouse, our kids, our friends, and our church cannot do it.  Only Jesus can.  The watershed issue is grace - whether we are able to receive it or not.  We cannot give something we do not have.

            Can you imagine a marriage vow going something like this:  “I have a lot of terrific inner needs and inner emptiness and debts to pay, and I’m going to give you a marvelous opportunity to fill my Grand Canyon and take care of me.”

            We have this nasty tendency to make idols of other people and often look at them as though they owe us a debt of happiness and joy and peace.  A marriage vow that is spoken in the heart like that will inevitably result in debt-collecting:  A few years down the road the spouse says, “This is not what you were like when I married you… You owe me!”  Our insecurity comes from the inability to receive grace.  It is all about grace, not guilt, not debt-collecting because the debt has already been paid and the guilt has been erased.  Hebrews 10:22 says:  Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled (with the blood of Christ) to cleanse us from a guilty conscience.

                  Christians have been forgiven.  There is no need to collect a debt that has already been paid.  The cross of Jesus Christ has taken care of the sin issue once for all, and not one person is an exception to the grace of God. 

Is there someone you resent?  Is there someone who has wronged you, and when you see them or think about them you have resentment in your heart?  Do you every say to yourself:  "I would not have this problem if it were not for so and so?"  Our happiness is not dependent on another person.  No one is responsible for your well-being and happiness except you.

Matt Woodley responded to the man who had lost his wife to another man by saying, “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter if you go to jail because you’re already in jail.  The guy who stole your wife and smirked at your hearing isn’t in jail.  You are.  You are a prisoner of your own hate, and you are slowly killing yourself.”  A week after that conversation the man called the Pastor and said, “You know, I get your point.  I put the gun away.  I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail – and I want to get rid of this bitterness.

The way to do it is through forgiveness.  To forgive involves a long journey for us, just like every other aspect of following Jesus is.  Forgiveness means to not hold an offense over somebody’s head for the rest of their life.  Hopefully, by retelling the gospel of grace to one another week after week our hearts will soften.  We will want to begin the journey to forgiving others, stumbling forward with hearts both torn by hurts yet set free by grace.  May it be so of us all.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Addressing Addiction

          Addiction is as much a part of our culture and society as dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, or weeds in the garden.  For the person who wants to encourage and help someone caught in a destructive pattern of alcoholism, pornography, drugs, smoking, or any other addiction it is absolutely imperative to understand and use the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to address the situation.  This is not to say that approaching addiction from the medical end of things with a sensible regimen of appropriate meds is not necessary; in fact, it is.  However, people are not only fundamentally physical creatures; they are also spiritual beings and, therefore, addiction needs to be addressed from the spiritual angle with a vigorous biblical regimen.  It is important to understand that theology is not just something to passively believe but a powerful reality to be actively lived.  Here is one of the most incredible summaries of the gospel and shortest theological statements for our daily practical lives that you will find in Holy Scripture from Romans chapter 8, verses 1-4:

          Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.  For what the law was  powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.  And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

          The culprit of addiction is sin.  The answer to addiction is grace.  Radical, unconditional, unlimited grace.  In fact, grace is the answer to everything.  Law can't save a thing; it isn't designed to do so. Yet, the addict tries and tries to will himself to change but cannot.  He cannot because he is weak, and the law doesn't help since it is inadequate to counter addiction.  It only hinders genuine help.  Sin is all too ready to attach itself like a cancer to the weakness of the flesh (NIV - "sinful nature").  And it uses the law to do so by believing that addiction can be overcome through sheer willpower, effort, and turning over a new leaf.  So, the addict may get caught in a vicious cycle of sin, regret, expressions of never doing it again, and then returning to the addictive behavior.  The availability of sin plus the lack of accountability combines with a lethal dose of the flesh to equal addiction.

          Only God can save.  Its called grace.  God sent his Son to deal with the the problem of sin and addiction.  He shared our humanity, and the weakness of being a flesh and blood person.  Jesus experienced human frailty to the full; he knew, personally, what desire and enticement is - and he never sinned.  Moreover, Jesus became a sin offering for us.  So, he condemned addiction in the flesh.  The power of addiction has such a hold on us as people that there is no other path than destruction if we go the way of the law.  The law itself is not evil (it shows us how sinful we are), but is not able to bring deliverance.  New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn describes the work of God using the metaphor of disease:  "God is the divine surgeon who recognizes that the cancer of sin has so eaten into the flesh of humanity that there is no salvation for humanity other than by radical surgery, by the complete destruction of that cancerous tissue.  That radical surgery took place, as it were, on the cross.  The humanity which emerged from the operation is free from the cancer."

          Through Christ, and only through Christ, we are free.  It is our task, then, to enter into this grace and forgiveness through faith in the cross of Jesus.  That's it.  God has brought an intervention through Jesus Christ in order to rescue and rehabilitate.  God's rehab program is the Holy Spirit, which deals with the weakness of the law from within the life of the believer in Jesus.  In the Spirit, using the gospel of grace, we have the resources to put to death the sinful nature of addiction.

          If you are helping a person caught in some addiction, here are some practicalities to consider:

  • If the person does not know Jesus, or you are not sure, start with communicating the gospel of grace - that there is forgiveness through the cross for all the addictive behavior and thoughts and offenses.
  • Have the person commit the entire chapter of Romans 8 to memory.  Focus on discussing aspects of this material in several conversations.  Memorize it yourself, and meditate on it regularly.
  • Be an accountability partner and an encouraging person; do not condemn.
  • Help the person think through what things need to go and what behaviors need to change, so that the flesh has no opportunity to rear its ugly weak head.
  • Pray with and for the person consistently.  
          If you are a person caught in an addiction, seek the help of a trusted Pastor or church layperson immediately.  Christianity is not a private religion; it is designed to be lived and practiced in community.  The reason your private efforts have failed is that you have been created in the image of God and hardwired for relationships and community.  Find a church with a support group that addresses your addiction.

          Remember, Christianity is a paced journey of walking, a long obedience in the same direction, and not a magic pill to swallow.  Let us journey together along the road until we reach the heavenly city where there will be no more addiction.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.