God’s Image and the Gospel

broken_mirrorEvery human life is made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). Every man, woman, child, and infant carries the potential to eternally reflect God’s glory. Our bodies, minds and spirits are created to shine His light.

For that reason, Christians have always believed that a person’s value is not determined by his or her size, intelligence, physical abilities, race, or gender. 

Each human being is stamped with a permanent price tag, one that simply reads, “Priceless. Made in God’s image.” That is why God defends the defenseless and calls His people to do the same. That is why, when infanticide was common and accepted throughout the Roman Empire, Christians were the ones who rescued and cared for those abandoned infants.

It is why Christians will never agree with the sentiments of men like Princeton University’s Peter Singer, when he says, “The fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.”

To accept Singer’s logic is to deny the image of God and commit a terrible form of blasphemy. Our value is not defined by our capacities, but by our Creator.

The image of God informs how Christians view all of life. The image of God demands that we care about the weak and defenseless (Psalm 10:17-18; 82:3-4). The image of God means that we cannot passively accept a world in which people discuss the crushing of human babies as an acceptable and routine practice. The image of God means that we cannot passively accept a world in which racial and tribal divisions lead us into a dehumanizing suspicion of those who are different from us (Acts 17:26-29).

That said, the image of God is only part of the story we are called to tell.

While the image of God demands that we defend the defenseless, the gospel calls us to love and pray for God’s enemies. Because only the gospel provides a path by which God’s enemies can become His friends. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means that no human being, however cruel, however far from God, is beyond the reach of His grace. So rather than isolating ourselves from those who currently reject Christ, we step right into their midst and share the good news that nobody is beyond the hope of salvation. We share that true life is not found in the pleasures and power of this world, but only in the love and redemption of the One who came to save us.

Because God made each person in His image, He longs to undo the sin that has defaced and broken that image for all of us. He longs to repair everybody to their proper working order. And He gave Jesus to make that possible.

If we are to be consistent in our ethics of life, then, we cannot forget that the oppressed and the oppressor are both stamped with the same price tag. All are made in the same image and all carry the potential to know and reflect God.

In Christ, every person matters. In Christ, every enemy is a potential friend. 

Every single person is made in His image yet broken and rebellious because of sin. And the saving power provided by the gospel is the only power in heaven or on earth capable of raising the dead, saving the hopeless, and transforming enemies into friends.

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The Only King We Need

king_crownReDiscovered Word

(1 Samuel 8, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles)

When will we stop waiting for the next king, the next leader, the next hero to save the world?

When will we learn that kings and rulers will never meet our expectations, or fulfill our deepest hopes? Earthly leaders can never do what only God can do.

Israel never learned that lesson. I wonder if we will.

Like you and me, Israel wanted a leader who would make their nation look good. They wanted a ruler to reflect their values: strength, power, and maybe a little morality thrown in for good measure.

“Give us a king,” they said. “We want to be strong and respected, like all the other nations.”

So God gave them what they asked. They rejected His leadership and made idols out of their kings. And Israel’s monarchy was a disaster, just as God warned them it would be.

Saul, their first king, was power-hungry and godless. His successor David worshipped God, but was violent and deceitful. David’s son Solomon was wise, but his unrestrained lust led the people into idolatry.

Rehoboam’s arrogance split the nation in half. And on and on the cycle went.

There were nineteen kings in northern Israel, and every one of them worshipped idols. There were twenty kings in the southern kingdom, and most of them worshipped idols as well. Even the “good” kings of Judah were often violent, usually arrogant, and sometimes idolatrous.

The root of Israel’s problem was that they did not trust God’s leadership. For nearly 400 years, the people followed their kings into all sorts of evil, until God judged the nation by sending them into exile.

When they returned to the land, after 70 long years, they still clung stubbornly to their hope that a human king would save them.

And all the while, God kept sending prophets to tell them the truth: Only one King could save them. But they never listened.

They kept looking to their leaders, expecting them to do what only God could do.

So God Himself came, clothed in human flesh, to save His people from their enemies and from their sin. Born in a manger, raised by a carpenter, with no palace of His own, He didn’t fit their model of a what a king should be. So they killed Him.

But this King was not like Saul or David or Solomon or any of the others. He would not stay in the grave. He rose again to lead His people to victory and life, to save them from sin and death and Satan, once and for all.

And yet the people kept waiting and hoping for somebody else. Rather than submit to the Savior, they kept looking for a better option.

Will God’s people ever learn that there is no better option? Will His people ever see that there is only one Savior?

The pattern of Israel’s idolatry continues in the hearts of God’s people today. We look to governments and kings to save us. We want them to free us from our national sins and lead us into righteousness. But they won’t. They can’t. Because there is only one Savior.

Are you disappointed in your government? Are you disillusioned by your leaders? Well, that’s not a bad starting point on the pathway to trusting God. Because once we free ourselves from the old and tenacious lie that kings will save us, we become free to trust the only King who can.

He’s a good King. He’s a powerful King. And He will save us. Don’t lose heart, and don’t place your hope in the kingdoms of the world.  

Instead, worship the One True King. Proclaim His glory to those who need to hear.

And wait for His salvation, because He’s coming back soon.

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A Sickness Worse Than Ebola

afraid_eyeFor the past two weeks, my Facebook feed has been littered with updates about the Ebola virus. Some people are afraid it’s going to spread, while others are saying it won’t. Some are saying the government isn’t protecting us well enough, and a few are just cracking clever Ebola jokes.

All the angst about Ebola highlights a deeper sickness in our hearts, a sickness that can’t be cured with any antiviral drug. We are infected with a deep fear of death and paralyzed by our lack of trust in God.

“Do not worry,” Jesus said. “Who of you, by being worried, can add a single hour to his life?”

Jesus said those words for a good reason. He knew that all of us wrestle with fear. All of us lie awake at times and imagine monsters in our closet and outside our door. We see the shadow of death lurking at the threshold of our lives, and our fear turns to terror. Our terror turns us inward, to the point that all we care about is self-preservation.

Jesus warned us about fear, and his disciples repeated the warning over and over again (Philippians 4:6-7; 1 Peter 5:7; 1 John 4:18). Why? Because fear drives us to the kind of selfishness that prevents us from caring about other people. Fear focuses our attention on what we cannot control and we lose sight of what matters.

Worst of all, fear makes us forget the power of God. Fear drove Abraham to lie about his wife Sarah, even though he knew that God was stronger than Pharaoh. Fear drove Moses to argue with God, even when he saw God’s presence in the burning bush. Fear drove the Israelites to harden their hearts and worship idols, right after they saw Him part the Red Sea and drown the Egyptians.

When we allow fear to have free reign in our hearts and minds, the result is devastating to our walk with God.

I wrestle with anxiety sometimes, and on my worst days it dominates my heart and mind. All of the “what ifs” add up and threaten to drown out God’s voice. What’s terrible is that my worst fears center on things I cannot control. Fear makes me small-minded and mean. I find myself snapping at my kids and growing angry with my co-workers. Fear is a terrorist, and it’s always plotting a coup. If we allow it, fear will take over and eject God’s goodness from our hearts.

If Ebola terrifies you, I have bad news and good news. Here’s the bad news: if Jesus doesn’t come back in the next few years, we’re all going to die. Maybe we will die of Ebola. More likely it will be something else. Some other disease, or an accident, or just old age. What’s even worse news is that the United States government can’t stop it. Every American will die, just like every African and everybody everywhere. You and I are already dying because of Adam’s sin and our own.

But here’s the good news: The God who parted the Red Sea and knocked down the walls of Jericho is the same God who raised His Son from the dead. That means that death is not the last word. Even if we die from a terrible virus, death cannot win. Every person connected to Jesus through faith will rise again and reign with Him.

Christians ought to be the bravest men and women in the world. Instead of locking the doors, we’re called to open them up and share the good news. Death is overcome. No fear can destroy us forever.

Instead of praying to the government, we pray to the God who rules the universe. He alone can overcome disease and death and bring us life that never ends. Governments and doctors are helpful to a point, but they cannot ultimately stop death. Only God can do that.

What is the antidote to the fear that paralyzes our hearts? Steep yourself in the Word of God. Read and remember the stories of His power. Set up a memorial stone in your heart so that you will not forget, an ebenezer to remind you of all He’s done and all He’s yet to do. He will not abandon his people to death.

We are called to be brave. We are called to pray for those who are suffering and help them in their pain. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, knowing that He risked death and exposure to all of our troubles. He incarnated Himself and entered our mess, determined to save us. He calls us to model His incarnation, to love others and pray for them, and to refuse to be paralyzed with fear.

There is a sickness worse than Ebola, and it’s called terror. There’s also a cure, and its name is resurrection.

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We Stand and Stare at Our Hands

“For the joy of the Lord makes us sleep!”

OK, those aren’t actually the words to the song. It seems that way, though, when we sing about raising our hands or bowing down to God while we stand motionless, staring into space. Why are we so hesitant to worship God with our bodies? Many of us fear coming across as Charismatic or crazy in church, but we have no such inhibitions later in the day when the Cowboys game comes on (or earlier in the weekend when we’re watching the Aggies).

I’m a naturally reserved person, at least when it comes to physical expressions of emotion. And I, like many of my readers, grew up in a church environment that generally frowned on hand-raising (for fear that it might be distracting to others).

As I read the Scripture, though, I’m struck by the fact that worship is a “whole-person” exercise. We worship with our minds, bodies, and spirits, because God owns every part of us. David danced before the Lord, even though his wife thought he was crazy (2 Samuel 6:14-23). She may have been right, David may have been crazy, but it apparently was a lunatic God was looking for. (Yes, I just paraphrased Billy Joel in a post about worship). God valued David’s worship, even when others found it offensive.

Read the Psalms and you’ll find that worship involves lifting hands (Psalm 63:4), clapping hands (Psalm 47:1), dancing (Psalm 150:4), bowing down (Psalm 95:6) and shouting (Psalm 81:1). For us dispensationalists, it’s not just the Old Testament that encourages whole-self worship. Paul tells Timothy that men everywhere should pray while “lifting holy hands” (1 Timothy 2:8). Paul says he “bows his knee” before God (Eph 3:14). I don’t think that’s metaphorical.

I know we need to be sensitive to others in the corporate worship context. If your church is very reserved, you won’t change anything for the better by dramatically running to the front and rolling on the floor. Part of worshiping together is being concerned with how the people around you are feeling. Some of you probably need to dial it down a few notches and use your mind as well as your body.

On the other hand, many of us refrain from worshiping God with our bodies. We say we’re simply contemplative people who like to just think about the songs. We don’t worship God with our bodies because we’re too intellectual, as if smart people are incapable of love. For those of you who are married, ask yourself how that line of thinking would go over with your spouse. “I’m not really the hugging or kissing type. I’d rather just think about how great you are.” You might legitimately be less physically affectionate than somebody else, but love always involves the body as well as the mind and the spirit. That’s true in romance, and it’s true in worship. 

Part of worshiping corporately is finding that sweet spot where we can worship God with our whole selves, while taking into consideration the needs of others.

So here’s a challenge for those of you who are more reserved: Next time you sing a song about raising your hands or bowing down to God, do what you’re singing about. You don’t have to go crazy. You can raise your hands just a little at first and keep them by your hips. If you feel adventurous, bring them to chest level. I dare you.

One day we will worship God with our bodies, minds and spirits. We’ll bow down to Him (Phil 2:10-11). We’ll wave palm branches and shout praises in a loud voice (Rev 7:9-10). Might as well start worshiping Him now with everything we have, body, mind, and spirit.


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Heaven is (at Least) as Important as Noah

After the firestorm surrounding the Noah film, I’ve been surprised to see no online discussion about the upcoming film version of Heaven is for Real. Is it possible that people care more about the Noah story than they do about heaven? It seems to me that our eternal destiny is more important than whether or not rock people helped Noah build the ark.

I haven’t seen Heaven is for Real, but I have read the book. I’m guessing that, like Noah, the upcoming film will have its strengths and weaknesses. I’m going to suggest one of each, just as I did for NoahKeep in mind that my thoughts are based on the book, so it’s possible the movie could move in a different direction altogether.

One strength of the book is its clear testimony to the biblical idea that death is not the end of life for those who trust in Christ (e.g. Phil 1:22-23; Luke 16:19-31). That’s why the story has generated hope for so many people. The book also affirms the deep love that Jesus has for children, something we adults often forget or minimize (Matthew 19:13-15).

One weakness is that the book minimized (or omitted) the reality of future, bodily resurrection. In other words, our ultimate hope as Christians is not a disembodied existence, floating around like angels with wings. Instead, we look forward to a new body on a new earth (1 Corinthians 15:35-49). The intermediate state, where our souls are separated from our bodies after death, is called “nakedness” by the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 5:3). Everybody knows that it’s not OK to be naked all the time! Instead, we seek to be clothed with an eternal, resurrected body. That won’t happen fully until Jesus returns and we rise from the grave. Heaven is for Real focuses exclusively on the intermediate state and places all of our hope there, rather than pointing us ahead to the final resurrection.

Here’s what I’m recommending for those who want to see Heaven is for Real: Spend as much time comparing it to the Bible as you did with Noah. Don’t assume that because the book issued from a Christian publisher that every concept in the movie is biblically accurate.

I’m not suggesting that we cynically doubt the Burpos’ claims. I’ve no reason to believe they are lying or making up their story. On the other hand, this movie (like Noah) is a great opportunity to revisit what the Bible says about heaven and hell and death and resurrection. Go to the movie with an open but critical mind. (By critical, I don’t mean “negative,” but thoughtful).

Ask questions like these: 

-Does this movie accurately reflect the Bible’s testimony about heaven? Why or why not?

-How do we reconcile this story with passages like Luke 16:19-31, in which Jesus says that Scripture itself ought to be sufficient testimony for us to believe in heaven?

-How can we appropriately discuss this movie and its story with our non-Christian friends and neighbors? Should we whole-heartedly endorse its picture of heaven, or should we be cautious?

As with any media, take this story back to the Bible and consider its claims in light of God’s Word.

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What’s Really Worth Discussing About Noah

Director Darren Aronofsky’s cinematic vision of Noah has been praised and criticized from nearly every possible direction. I wavered over whether to write about this movie, because so much has already been said.

I finally saw the movie, and I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the reviews I’ve read are exercises in missing the point. Noah has its strengths and weaknesses, but the most important ones aren’t the ones that people have focused on. 

So bear with me here: Forget about rock people, environmentalism, or whether every detail of the story matches Genesis 6-9. All of those issues would be worth discussing if the movie didn’t raise some bigger questions that need addressing. To be honest, it troubles me immensely that so many Christians have centered upon the details of the movie without paying attention to what it’s actually trying to say. With regard to the film’s message, then, I’m going to highlight one major way Noah gets it right and one way the movie gets it wrong.

Before diving into its theology, though, I need to say this: Noah asks precisely the right questions about humanity and God, although its answers are quite often incorrect. For that reason alone, the movie is worth considering. I’m not of the mindset that we should stick our heads in the sand and refuse to engage with Aronofsky’s portrayal of Noah. Some will watch the movie and find it artistically beautiful, others will find it to be a mess. Frankly, there is enough of both sides to go around. Theologically, we can say the same. However, this film provides a rare opportunity to Christians to engage with one particular cultural understanding of God and provide a response.

OK, so what does the movie get right? Noah correctly highlights mankind’s utter wickedness, and leaves viewers with the strong impression that people can’t be saved without God’s intervention. I’ve read one or two reviews that criticize the film for being “anti-human.” There’s some accuracy to that charge, but I don’t think the film is anti-human in ways that the Scripture is not. Read Genesis 6-9 again, and you’ll read about people whose every thought was only evil continually. In others words, people have the capacity for terrible evil. Aronofsky’s Noah gets that right, and in the process justifies God’s judgment. Noah even questions whether he and his family deserve to survive, because he knows that the wickedness of mankind resides in his heart as well. The movie is so heavy-handed with that idea, in fact, that it stumbles artistically. There’s an extended and very uncomfortable sub-plot revolving around Noah’s desire to kill his baby granddaughters. He feels it’s necessary, because he doesn’t believe humanity deserves a second chance. That sub-plot dragged on so long that I was silently pleading for it to end. But Aronofsky and company are working to make a broader point, that perhaps people really do deserve extinction. And in fact, they’re correct. Noah wasn’t saved because he was a perfect person, and that’s a point that many Christian reviewers have missed. Instead, he was saved because he found favor with God. He was only “righteous” in comparison to others of his generation, meaning that at least some of his thoughts weren’t totally terrible. That’s not a ringing endorsement of mankind, and the movie highlights the theme well.

What does Noah get wrong, then? The filmmakers bypassed the mercy and love of God, in favor of a unilaterally vindictive Creator. Again, please forget about whether anti-environmentalism is a sin, or whether the rock people are dumb, or whether Tubal-Cain should sneak onto the boat or not. This issue is the one that matters. In the final analysis, all of the mercy and love in the movie emanate from Noah rather than from God. The only reason Noah refrains from killing his granddaughters is because he simply can’t do it. Noah loves them too deeply, and it’s at least implied that Noah loves them more than God. The filmmakers leave us with the impression that God wanted Noah to kill them — or at least that God was alright with it — but that Noah was overcome by kindness, despite God’s cruelty. I disagree with those who say Aronofsky’s Noah is not righteous enough. To the contrary, he’s more righteous than God Himself, which poses a major problem.

God never speaks to Noah throughout the story, leaving him to piece God’s will together through short dreams and drug-induced hallucinations. God shows up in nature (which is of course a biblical theme), but he never speaks. God also casts demons out of heaven for being too kind to humanity. They were condemned for trying to help people. Ultimately, the movie implies that kindness doesn’t come from God Himself, but from those humans who free themselves from God’s vindictiveness and wrath. The only character who refers to God’s image in mankind is the vicious Tubal-Cain, who uses God’s image as a justification for violence and destruction. Partly because nobody corrects his viewpoint or explains what it really means to be made in God’s image, we’re left with the impression that God is one dimensional, all about judgment, without any real mercy.

This impression of God’s character doesn’t match what we see in Scripture, even in the story of Noah. It’s easy to forget, of course, that the story of Noah and the Ark isn’t the happy flannel-board version we learned in Sunday school. This movie highlights that well. The biblical story of Noah is truly dark and brutal. However, it’s also easy to forget that the God who destroyed the world also provided a way of redemption, not only for the animals, but for people. God loves mankind, not because we are good (or because Noah was good), but because He is gracious and because He made us. He loves us despite our evil, and He always provides a way of redemption. Noah, while raising some great questions about God and man, is a tragically incomplete portrayal of His character. 

All that said, I think the film provides a helpful opportunity for Christians to fill in the gaps. We don’t need to be afraid of the movie, but instead to take this chance to explain that God is more merciful and more loving than any of us can imagine. It was God who provided the Ark as a way of redemption. It was God who started over and gave mankind a second chance. Noah was an imperfect, although “graced,” tool of God’s mercy. All mercy, all love, and all kindness spring from God Himself. All human love is a dim reflection. 

I was talking about the movie with some friends on Facebook last weekend, and mentioned that the film isn’t a total loss, whatever its content, if it inspires people to pick up a Bible to read it and discuss it. Too few Christians are actually familiar with the story (e.g., I read one review that criticized it for portraying a drunken Noah, a scene which actually occurs in Genesis 9). Too few of us have taken to heart what the destruction of the world and the salvation of the Ark communicates about God’s wrath and mercy. What a great chance for us to review those basics and share them with others.

But please, please, don’t get involved in secondary issues about political environmentalism or whether the rock people are poorly created. Major on the majors — is God just, merciful, gracious, and true? Yes! And the story of Noah is a great window into His character. 

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On Parenting Goals and Bubble Wrap

Last weekend I went to an electronics store with my kids. While we were browsing, some employees handed my two younger children (who are 6 and 4) a small piece of bubble wrap. You know the stuff, because when you were a kid you probably loved popping those little bubbles and hearing the sound.

As we continued through the store, they took turns popping bubbles. When I got in line to pay for my purchases, the kids stood behind me and put the bubble wrap down on the floor. They began to step on it in order to pop the bubbles more effectively.

At that point I noticed an older man standing about 15 feet away. He was giving us the “head shake of shame,” a clear sign of disapproval. His lips were pursed, his eyes were narrowed, and his head was slowly shaking back and forth.

I had two initial reactions. The first was to silence my kids and snatch the bubble wrap away. The man’s disapproval was embarrassing, and I hate being embarrassed. My second reaction, though, was to chastise the man for his hatred of children and fun. I had one or two really good verbal responses that I wanted to unleash in his direction.

By the grace of God, I didn’t follow either of those impulses. I paused for a moment to ask myself a few questions:

Were the kids doing anything immoral or dangerous? No. Nothing had been stolen or vandalized. Nothing was broken, and nothing was in danger of being broken. In fact, because they were focused on the bubble wrap, they weren’t tempted to grab items from the shelves or run through the store like maniacs. I suspect that’s why the staff gave it to them in the first place.

Were they acting inconsiderately toward anybody else? No. Besides us, there were four people in the immediate vicinity: the angry man, the cashier, and one young couple who was standing behind us in line. My kids were not bumping into the couple behind them, nor were they getting in their way. I’m fairly sensitive to noise, but the bubble wrap wasn’t loud enough to raise my alarm. Neither the cashier nor the young couple seemed the least bit distressed. We weren’t at a funeral, a wedding, a church service, or in any sort of scenario where a little bit of noise was unacceptable. It was an enormous store, and there were very few people around.

Would confronting the angry man have been helpful in any way? No. He’s entitled to his displeasure, and I doubt I could have changed his perspective.

What did I do? I finished paying, and then I had the kids pick up their bubble wrap and follow me to the car.

Here’s why I’m sharing this story: It was one of those moments that helped solidify for me what I’m actually trying to accomplish as a parent. I’m not raising my kids just to keep them from embarrassing me. I’m not even raising them primarily to be socially adept, although I hope they will be.

I’m raising my kids to love God and to love others. In many instances, politeness is a helpful tool to accomplish those goals. I want them to say, “Please,” and “Thank you,” because those words demonstrate a heart of gratitude. I want them to learn that there is a time to be quiet and listen and a time to play and be loud. Listening to others demonstrates that you care about them like Jesus does. I want them to know that if they are hurting people, causing them distress, bumping into them without apologizing, or failing to consider how other people feel, then they’re wrong. Many social rules are helpful because they provide a structure within which we can live out the love and humility of Christ.

However, in this instance, I felt that ending their fun would have been detrimental rather than helpful. In order to love God, it’s important to understand that He loved us first. One of the ways He’s shown love to us is by giving us pleasure — good food, laughter, friendship, and even bubble wrap! I’ve been reading the book of Deuteronomy this week, and I’m struck by how many times God reiterates His love for His people, and connects that love to His good gifts — sweet honey, vineyards, fertile land, children, joyful relationships, and much more. He loves to give His children good things, and He rejoices at our simple pleasures.

My kids were simply being kids. They weren’t causing pain or heartache for anybody. They weren’t disobeying God or disobeying me. They were experiencing the joy of an unexpected gift. By learning to appreciate gifts like that, gifts with no strings attached, I pray they’ll eventually learn to appreciate and love the gift of Jesus. I pray they’ll come to love and serve the Giver Himself. Fun doesn’t make God angry, unless it’s immoral fun. He created love and laughter and pleasure, and it’s right for children to express those things.

Of course we train our children to care about other people. We train them that some actions are off-limits in public (and some are off-limits everywhere). We teach them those things so they can get along in the world, but more importantly so they can reflect the character of God.

But I don’t want my kids to view God as an old man giving them the “head shake of shame.” I think He delights in His children, and laughs when we laugh. If communicating His love to my children means occasionally earning the ire of strangers, I’m alright with that.

So, to the angry man at Best Buy: You’re welcome to grab a piece of bubble wrap and join us next time! We can pop it together and give thanks to the God who delights in laughing with His children.

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What the Mark Driscoll Story Reveals About Every Leader

Two weeks ago World broke the story that Mars Hill Church paid a large amount of money to get Mark Driscoll’s book Real Marriage onto the New York Times best-seller list.

Mars Hill released a statement acknowledging the basic facts of the story, although they dispute the amount of money that World claims was spent on the best-seller campaign. Calling the campaign “unwise” but not “uncommon or illegal,” they insisted that it won’t happen again.

The story has raised a great deal of ire in the Christian blogosphere. Driscoll has always been a controversial figure, so in response to this latest news, some are gleefully shouting, “I told you so!” Others lament that the Christian evangelical leadership culture has sunk to a new low. Surely pastors and churches ought to be held to a higher standard than whether something is illegal or not. Beyond “unwise,” most people recognize the under-the-table marketing campaign as manipulative and unethical.

While I resonate with those concerns, I can’t shake the feeling that Mars Hill’s indiscretion shines a light into the dark corners of my own heart, and probably the heart of every leader. 

Everybody wants to make an impact. We sometimes confuse that desire with another, our desire to be liked and popular. There’s a prevalent lie abroad in our world, a lie that says the crowd’s applause is a signal that we’re making a difference. Of course that’s rarely the case. All too often agents of spiritual change are met with stony silence, seeming indifference, or even hostility. If you don’t believe me, just read the gospels and consider the life of Christ.

It would be easy to consider the Mars Hill story as an anomaly, just a story of one arrogant pastor or a wayward church. It would be similarly easy to chalk it up to our American celebrity culture, a culture that has clearly infected the local church in a bad way.

But I think the roots of the problem go much deeper. The problem is rooted in the sinful human heart, a heart that desires to please people instead of God.

I don’t think we worship celebrities because we’re American. We worship celebrities because we’re idolaters. We cannot see God, so we fashion idols in our own image. Then we dream that one day we can ascend to their pedestal and receive the adoration of other people, people who belong to God and are made to worship Him alone.

It’s all too easy to confuse the dim glory of man with the perfect glory of God. When we get the two muddled, we find ourselves seeking to be the Source of glory rather than a small reflection of it, and that’s when the real trouble begins.

Much like money, I don’t think fame is inherently evil. It’s just very dangerous. It’s the love of fame and applause that leads us to all manner of evil. When we convince ourselves that any means are justified, as long as our message gets out there, we’re on the slippery slope to idol worship. It’s too easy to undermine the gospel by using questionable methods to make it known.

What scares and dismays me is not simply that Mars Hill used questionable methods to promote Driscoll’s book, but also that I see glimpses of that sort of darkness in my own heart. The only hope for me is the lavish grace of God, who reminds me that I’m significant because He loves me and gave His Son for me.

That’s the only hope for any of us who lead others, whether on a large or small scale. We need to constantly bathe in His light or we run the risk of trying to falsely manufacture our own.

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Everything You Have is a Blessing

There’s an article making the rounds that urges Christians to stop referring to material provision as the “blessing” of God. 

I understand the heart behind the article. If we begin to believe that our wealth makes us superior to others, or that God gave it to us because of our faithfulness or righteousness or fervent prayer, then we’re probably wrong. It’s certainly true that God is not a genie in the sky. It’s also true that the Beatitudes of Jesus turned the popular Jewish concept of “blessing” on its head.

However, it’s biblically incorrect to say that material provision isn’t a blessing from the Lord. Focusing solely on the Beatitudes for one’s definition of blessing ignores dozens of passages in the Bible that explicitly say that material provision is a result of God’s blessing. For example, Proverbs 10:22 says, “It is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich.” God “blessed” Isaac (Gen 26:12) and Job (42:12) with riches and wealth.

All kinds of things are listed in the Bible as “blessings”: wealth, children, righteousness, life, and even the character that comes from suffering. To be blessed simply means you are favored by God. It just means that God has given you something good. The Pharisees weren’t wrong to view material provision as God’s blessing. Where they went wrong was assuming that they deserved God’s blessings.

The truth is that everything you have is a blessing from God, because God has given you everything you have. Your life is a blessing. Knowing Jesus is a blessing. And yes, your house and your business and your car are most definitely blessings. They might be less important than spiritual blessings, but they are granted to you by God.

Here’s what the author of that article gets right: God doesn’t owe us anything.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Everything we have comes from His hand. Let’s not refuse to acknowledge the Giver of everything we have. Our lives aren’t random, as if we just “happened” to be born where we were born, into the family in which we were born. with the opportunities we have been given. Of course we didn’t earn any of it. But the Scripture is very clear that God arranged all of it (Acts 17:26). He didn’t arrange it because we deserved it. He just arranged it because He has some plan for it.

It’s perfectly consistent with the Bible to say that I am blessed and that being blessed obligates me to bless others. In other words, being blessed means that I am held to a higher responsibility, to share all that I have, because God has given it to me. God blessed Abraham with many children, lots of wealth, and a great deal of land precisely so that he could be a blessing (Gen 12:1-3).

I do think this is more than semantics, and here’s why: If I don’t recognize the Source of my blessings, then I won’t use them properly. If I really think that I just “happened” to be here, in this place and time, with everything He’s given, then I’m more likely (not less likely) to be selfish and self-absorbed.

True generosity and humility and gratitude only emerge when we understand that everything we have is a blessing, a gift, from a gracious God who owes me nothing. 

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Reflecting on the Legacy of Rich Mullins

I first encountered the music of Rich Mullins as a kid, when my younger brother got a tape of his album Pictures in the Sky. Although I wasn’t initially drawn toward Mullins’ musical style, I — like many — took notice when “Awesome God” became a smash hit.

However, it wasn’t until the release of The World As Best As I Remember It, Volume 2 that I became a real fan. “Sometimes by Step” was a beautifully written song about faith in the midst of struggle and doubt. I connected with that song and that album deeply. The release of A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band was the clincher for me: from that point on, Rich Mullins was far and away my favorite musician. I attended his concerts, bought everything he released, and even purchased his music videos.

When I had a chance to coordinate and promote a Christian concert during my sophomore year at A&M, I knew immediately that we had to bring Rich to our campus. That’s how, in April 1996, this star-struck kid found himself riding in Mullins’ Jeep, on our way to eat together at The Black-Eyed Pea. We ate with a group of roughly 15 students. During the few hours we spent together, I found that his personality off-stage was essentially what I had seen on-stage. First, he was friendly. He went around the table and asked every one of us about our studies, our home towns, and our favorite music. Second, he had an offbeat but charming sense of humor. To be honest, he told some mildly off-color jokes. He seemed to enjoy lightly teasing and shocking our religious sensibilities. Third, he was as talented from up close as he was from far away. I stood in the wings of the stage that night and watched in awe as he played the piano, guitar, and hammered dulcimer with near virtuoso skill. At times, his fellow musician Mitch McVicker stood off-stage, and he was clearly just as surprised and in awe as I was. The depth of his songs, the power of his preaching, and the skill of his playing were simply unmatched in Christian music.

I’m still unaware of any Christian musician who writes or plays like Rich did. I’m also unaware of any Christian musician who better captured in song the “reckless raging fury that they call the love of God.” When I listen to his music, I feel like I’m getting a small glimpse behind the veil of God’s love and power. It’s as if Rich knew something about God that I don’t, and was kind enough to let me in on it for the duration of a 3-5 minute song.

I provide all of this background as context for my evaluation of the new movie Ragamuffin, based on Rich’s life. (In case you don’t know, Rich Mullins died in a car wreck in 1997, at the age of 41). The film is currently being screened at churches and small venues across the country.

It’s clear the filmmakers had a single underlying goal, to demonstrate how radically the unconditional love of God transformed Rich Mullins. They were also determined to show that God can use broken vessels. Rich’s father is portrayed as a difficult man, a farmer who worked hard but struggled to express tenderness and love to his children. Because of this deficiency and other early rejections in his life, Rich struggled throughout his life with loneliness, anger, and even alcoholism. Despite those struggles — and in part because of them — he wrote unbelievably powerful songs that changed lives like mine.

Here’s what the film does well: Rich is portrayed as an ordinary guy who was effective primarily because of God’s hand on his life. None of his sins or struggles diminished the very real presence of God’s Spirit in his music and life. I found myself in tears at one point during the film, when Rich comes to terms with the deficiencies of his earthly father and accepts the unconditional love of his heavenly Father.

Here’s what I think the film did wrong: Rich is often portrayed as a man without grace, kindness or humor. (So is his father, but that’s beyond the scope of this post). If I lacked my previous familiarity with his life and music, I would have walked away with a negative impression of the man. It has taken me a few days to process what I felt and thought during the film, especially since it centered on one of my heroes. However, I think the filmmakers, in an attempt to avoid “sainting” Rich, have erred too far in the other direction. There were a few moments of kindness and light in the film, but they were too few and far between.

There are clearly good reasons why even Rich’s close friends and family consistently talked about him with a sort of reverence, why they followed him across the country and back to play with him and listen to him. He inspired loyalty and trust, and I would have been interested to learn more about exactly why he inspired those feelings in people. There was a depth to his life and writing that the film could have emphasized better.

All that to say, if you are a fan of Rich and his music, this is worth viewing, if only because it provides a different perspective. If you are unfamiliar with him, I’d recommend getting to know him a bit first. Listen to both of his compilation albums (Songs and Songs 2, the titles of which give you a bit of perspective on his sense of humor). Find a copy of Here in America, and watch the concert and interview DVDs. You’ll see a bit of a different man than the one portrayed in the film. Then, if you want to learn a bit more about his struggles and how God prevailed through them, find a screening near you and watch the movie.

Artists and poets like Rich are often quite complex and difficult to understand. The challenge we face is learning to appreciate them for who they are, without canonizing or demonizing them. Watching this movie and thinking about it has been a good exercise for me in learning those skills.

And whatever you do, go buy his albums and listen to them if you want to encounter the love and power of an awesome God.

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