Independence Day is a big deal in America. Most countries have some sort of national day which celebrates their liberation from another power, or the restoration of self-determination. Canada has Canada Day, Germany has Der Tag der deutschen Einheit - Reunification, Mexico has Grito de Dolores - independence from Spain, Holland has Bevrijdingsdag celebrating the Liberation from the Nazis, and the list goes on.Most of us in western cultures consider being independent to be a good thing. Teenagers can't wait to turn 18 so that they can do what they want. Being independent and being "your own boss" are things most people long for. And I'm not saying that these things aren't good in their place and time.
But unfortunately this western mentality carries over into our relationship with God. We want God (at least, those of us who have truly discovered him do), but rarely at the price of our independence. We'll add God to our list of ideas, concepts, and beliefs that we hold dear, but only very gradually will we let him have the say over what we think, say and do.
In time, many of us have come to call him our Lord and Master. And yet, in practice, we maintain control. We want the steering wheel to be in our hands.
Am I being too severe? I know that there are many, if not most, who struggle with sin. Each of us has one thing or another that we know is wrong, yet we find we cannot move past it, can't get control of it. For some it is because they don't want to deal with it. They don't want to admit that it is wrong and live by the Spirit of God. Often however, the problem is far more difficult, because they are not yet free to live as God wants.
Regardless, I'd like to lay these issues aside for a moment and focus in on two issues:
Living Organisms are not like Technical Systems
Jesus taught us almost exclusively through parables. These parables were taken out of life, but not out of just any aspect of life. The vast majority have to do with nature, usually out of the world of agriculture, because the rural people of that time - and even the city people - were very connected to the land. I do not think, however, that their familiarity with nature was the sole reason Jesus used nature as a teaching tool. Rather, nature was created in such a way as to reflect spiritual truths.
The following are concepts that I am using with permission from a botanist friend of mine, Dr. Zoltan Szocs, who himself developed these ideas from conversations with Dr. Ferenc Sebestyen, a Hungarian theoretical biologist who did his doctoral thesis on this topic in the 60's at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Both the biological examples and the later living organ parable are theirs.
An amazing number of natural systems are harmony based, rather than central-control based. Let's look at a few biological systems.
Is tithing biblical? Is it appropriate for believers in Jesus Christ today to be asked or required to give at least 10% of their income to their church, or to consider 10% of their income as belonging to God?
For years I assumed that the teaching about tithes was completely kosher. I struggled in my early years after leaving home to live up to it. But I never really questioned it. I read good books about it from respected authors such as Derek Prince, and thought that he made a fairly airtight case for the tithe being not merely an First Covenant phenomenon, but clearly applicable to believers under the Second Covenant as well.
Over time I heard many good sermons about the necessity of tithing - and a few clearly manipulative ones - and almost every time examples were given which proved that if we dare to trust God by giving him the tithe, he would increase our supply. We began to pay the tithe regularly, even though we were living by faith, not having any set or secure income. Many times we had more month than money, but somehow we always survived without going into debt and at times even experienced surprising surplus and provision.
Friends of ours experienced the Lord's amazing supply as they dared to believe that if they would rigorously give him the first 10%, he would make the rest of the money enough for every need. A brother-in-law was even promoted and provided with work through the winter after finally choosing to to out on a limb and obey.
Most of us in evangelical and pentecostal churches have heard similar stories.
As the Lord began to teach me much more in depth what his plans and purposes are, and especially after I started getting answers to my questions about how much of the Torah, the Law of Moses, applies today, I started to have little doubts whispering in the back of my mind that something having to do with the tithe didn't add up.
The first thing that really stood out to me, is that most churches will proudly teach that we are no longer under the law in the New Covenant. Yet other than the ten commandments, there is one law and regulation of the Law of Moses that almost all of them teach: the tithe.
I do not intend to offend, but we do need to be brutally honest with ourselves on this point. Could it be that we have resurrected the tithe as practically the only item of the mosaic law to survive into church practice only because we so desperately need it? If not for the teaching of the tithe, many churches believe that they would not survive financially.
"How do you become a Christian?"
This is no secret to most evangelicals. Practically any of them can tell you, that, since God doesn't have any grandchildren, each person has to get to know Him for himself and come to his own decision about God.
How one goes about it usually happens in this way:
The "Sinner's Prayer" has many forms and its content varies. Usually it looks somewhat similar to the following prayer: "Father in heaven, I confess that I am a sinner and need a savior. I believe that Jesus Christ was crucified for me and rose from the dead to take away my sin, so that I might live forever with him. I take him today as my savior and Lord. Thank you, that I am now your Child. Amen."
Generally no one ever questions whether the person praying such a prayer - whether formulated on their own or led in the prayer by an evangelist - has truly become a Christian. It is assumed that God has heard the prayer, and he now has a ticket to live forever with God. Nor is it questioned, whether the prayer itself truly is part of the biblical way of salvation.
Is a person really saved and automatically a citizen of heaven merely through believing and then praying this prayer? My experience suggests otherwise.
Over the years I have taken part in many evangelistic events. What I have often observed, is that the majority of people who come forward in response to the invitation to salvation have very little idea of what they are doing. They knew little of the death and resurrection of Jesus and what it means. They were rarely prepared to lay down their lives in obedience to his Lordship. There was no sign of repentance. The most that could be said, was that these people had been touched by the message of the preacher and were sending God a signal that they would like to know him better.
I've had a thought tickling the back of my mind for at least 10 years, but I've never really taken the time to search it out. Till today, that is.
The Question has been, do the words "eternal life" truly mean endless life?
At the first glance, it sounds like a no-brainer. Look at the words, dummy! It says "eternal" right there! Yes, well - okay, but still, something doesn't seem quite right.
Did you know that Jesus defined the words, "eternal life" for us in John 17:3? And that the idea of endless life is in no way part of his definition? Let's look at it (starting with verse 1):
"Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may also glorify you, as you have given him authority over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent..."
So, according to Jesus, eternal life means knowing the true God and knowing Jesus.
What does that have to do with living forever in heaven? Well, nothing, at least not directly.
There is a certain phrase which crops up again and again in the Scriptures. I suspect that it is one that makes most of us a little uncomfortable. I'm speaking of those 'exciting' words, "wait on the Lord."
Psalm 27:14 is a good example: "Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!"
Or the famous verse, "But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint." Isaiah 40:31
Most of us in this instant, fast-everything age have lost the art of waiting. If it doesn't happen now, we get the feeling it's not going to happen at all. And that makes us uncomfortable. We start to feel as if we are no longer in control. If God doesn't answer our prayers immediately, or within a fairly short time, we start to suspect that something must be wrong, that He is mad at us, or not hearing us, or that the answer was no. Patience has become a dirty word.
Well, I'm sorry to have to be the one to break the bad news to you, but if you want to be one who goes deep with God - or even if you just want to be an average Joe or average Jane who is learning to know Jesus personally and walk with God - you are going to have to recover this lost art of waiting on the Lord.
Now I have sometimes wondered what this phrase really means. Am I supposed to just wait God out? Let enough time go by and it will happen? Some versions translate it "Hope in the Lord." So does it mean that I just sit here and hope that something happens? Both phrases in English seem fairly passive. An admonition to be passive doesn't sound much like the God I'm getting to know.
I have always loved well watered places. I have struggled to appreciate deserts. As a child I lived in both environments: the steaming jungles of the tropics and the dry, fire-prone desert landscape of southern California; but I always preferred the lush greens of places with regular rainfall.
I remarked on it once to the Lord, wondering why God had made deserts. I thought maybe it was actually an oversight, or a result of the Fall, perhaps a negative consequence of the sinful condition of man borne out physically in the natural environment. His reaction at that time was swift and decisive: He spoke very quickly, telling me that he had made and designed the deserts of the world and that they are both beautiful and good! My reaction then was, well, to each his own. I still prefer the forested mountains of Alaska and the Alps!
When it comes to the desert times and wilderness experiences of our spiritual lives I think that most people would agree with me. I don't know too many people who sigh and moan through the times of their lives when all is apparently going well and God seems near, when answers to prayer are coming thick and furious and all of your efforts to serve others are seemingly having great success. You know, those times when everyone wants to know your name and are asking you to pray for them, come and speak to them about all the great miracles God is doing through you. Those times when God's kingdom is growing by leaps and bounds and there is excitement in the air. Few people try to just endure such times, holding on and gritting their teeth until it is over ... no, they revel in such times!
It had been days, even a week or more since I had heard the Lord speak to me anything discernible. I mean, I had actually been going through a deepening process in learning to die to my life and live to him. I had been praying and seeking him fairly often, but not feeling like any clear word was coming back at me.
But as I sat watching the end of a romantic movie about an impulsive couple from different cultures who marry suddenly and then have to learn to love by letting go of their own lives in order to become what and who they would be together - the Lord suddenly cleared his throat. What I mean is, I was watching the last scene in which the couple was getting remarried after a rocky start. The ceremony was held on a promontory jutting out into the Grand Canyon, surrounded by cliffs dropping off on three sides. And suddenly I was overcome with a sense of KNOWING that the Lord was about to speak to me.
I sat there and waited ... and waited. I paused the picture, yet He let me just look at the picture of the wedding for a few moments before finally speaking, as if to emphasis the importance of what He wanted to say and to see if I valued what He wanted to say enought to wait for it. And this is what He finally said:
"I am marrying my bride in the desert. Not in a lush green valley. No, in the midst of the worst calamities, in the midst of desert dryness and with cliffs and dangers on every side, I am marrying you. Death surrounds you, dangers wait for a misstep, and there in the wilderness I will marry my bride. You think your little church is insignificant. You think there is nothing happening in the desert.
"Lord, do you have anything for me right now?" I asked as I leaned back into the sofa, making myself comfortable for a few minutes focused on the Lord. "Anything you want to share with me, I'm all ears."
Before I even had a chance to nestle into a comfortable position came a gently spoken answer, "Can a duck walk?"
My first response was a startled "What was that?" My second was a temptation to blame it all on pizza (of which I hadn't had any, unfortunately).The third was a gentle knowing that here was a riddle worth working out, that Jesus wanted to tell me something, but I wasn't going to get to the answer without digging in and waiting on the Him for the answer. I am slowly learning that when I turn to the Lord to communicate with him, to hear from him, any thoughts which come are worth checking out, regardless of how bizarre and seemingly meaningless or pointless they seem to be.
As I suspected when I started, this one was not easy. For the life of me I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Any answer to this bizarre question, "Can a duck walk?" sounded either foolish, meaningless, trite or superficially religious. And it sounded too much like the age-old question, "Does a duck have lips?" for me to want to take it seriously.
I wrestled back and forth with the question until I started to despair that there even was an answer and that I'd missed recognizing the Lord's voice after all. Finally I just whispered in my heart, "Holy Spirit, if this is from you, you'll have to explain it to me. I have no idea."
Slowly an understanding began to grow in me.
A friend of mine recently told me about a conservation group in Zimbabwe that is taking captive lions and rehabilitating them back into the wild. This is a difficult, four phase process, but they are having success with it. The rehabilitation process has many snags involved because of the effects of captivity on an African lion. When lions are bred and raised out of their natural habitat, some very abnormal patterns begin to develop. In short, they become domesticated. Yet lions were born to be wild.
In captivity, the lions basically forget that they are lions. The forget how to hunt. They forget how to live in the wild. And they forget how to live in a pride. Lions are by and large social creatures and do not do well as loners.
You and I were born (again) to be spiritual lions. That's who we are, but we have forgotten our true nature because of our captivity in the religious system. We have become something less than our true calling and destiny because of this conditioning. We have become domesticated. We have forgotten how to hunt ...
Transformation is one of the most misunderstood subjects in all of scripture. In our day it is misunderstood by many believers and the that one possible the reason why there is so little spiritual maturity found among us today. Just our view of transformation alone will determine how we live our "Christian" lives. The problem is that most Christians today have a twisted view of transformation. We all agree that God wants to transform us into His image, the problem arises in the question of how. How does God change us? Or does He even change us?
The most common view of transformation today is that God is in the home improvement business. We are the house and He is the Contractor. Our house is a real mess. It's what you would call a "fixer-upper." Beginning the day that we are saved, God begins His remodeling project to fix us up!
We are coworkers with Him in this project. So this means that we need to help Him in order for this house to be fixed up. He points out problems, and then expects us to do something about it. For example, you've got a leaky pipe in that bathroom, so here's some pipe putty and a wrench; go and fix it!
God is the one who changes us; however, He needs our cooperation for things to actually improve. He is like a Master Carpenter who is walking through our house, inspecting every nook and cranny, and telling us how to fix it. We constantly tell ourselves that this is not self improvement but rather "God improvement," but is that really what is going on here?
I've run on empty for long periods of time in my life. Some might say, it's because I haven't been to a church service for a long while or heard enough good Bible teaching. And it's true, we haven't been in a traditional church service for quite some time, and to be honest it has done us more help than harm to have a different means of meeting this need! We are of course still IN church, because together with the body of believers that we meet with, we are living church, even though we are no longer attending one where we would hear regular preaching.
But truth be told, I've struggled with chronic emptiness throughout my church going days. I've heard preachers all my life who say, "You need to be in the church doors every time they are open. Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening prayer meeting. Be there and be fed or you will get spiritually weak." And for the most part, I was there. Faithfully. Religiously even. I heard many more teachings than I was ever capable of digesting, so to speak. Certainly I heard more than I was ever able to put into practice, which means that most of them by necessity just stagnated in me.
I tanked up on teaching through those sermons, through bible school, through books, through the internet. I've heard the good and the bad, and I've learned to discern what is truly great and God-breathed and what is merely human tradition and from the flesh. But very little of even the best teaching touched that core of emptiness.
There's a funny thing about spiritual emptiness. Most of the time we are so used to it that we don't even know that we are empty. Sometimes it gets so acute that we can't ignore it. That's when we typically run to a teaching station to tank up. We sit and absorb the teaching. We consider it, get excited about the new insight, add it to our collection, try to live it out, ignore the parts that disturb us, criticize the preacher for his mistakes, adjust our prayer life, and thank God for speaking to us. And yet, most of the time, according to the gauges on our inner tank, nothing changed. Oh, we feel different, and things go on better for a time, but mostly because we were distracted away from our true inner condition.
Is that a stupid question or what? There are some things which just can't be gotten to the bottom of.
Other things are not questioned, simply because we never thought that our way of looking at things might not be right. For a while I've been wondering if we as Christians might have been setting the chicken before the egg - or is it the other way around? It might be better to say we have been putting the horse before the cart!
What I mean is, is - what has priority? That which God wants and is looking for, or that which I think that I need? In my relationship with God, should I expect that He will always be looking to meet my needs as fast as He can, that they have priority for Him as well as for me? I suspect that anyone who believes in the biblical revelation of God through Jesus Christ will immediately recognize that the will of God must be above all other considerations.
Whose Needs should be in the Forefront?
Yet in spite of this truth what we see almost everywhere in Christian churches is that leadership as well as church members have made a small course change from the God-given one. We have put human needs in the forefront.
Sermons seem to be becoming more and more self-help lectures in which we are encouraged - on the basis of the scriptures, of course - to be positive thinkers, to practice thankfulness, and to apply good life skills that we have learned from psychology for a healthy inner life. These good life philosophies can be gleaned from the pages of the Bible, so therefore they must be originally God's ideas and solutions, right? That's why they work - whether we learn them from psychology or through the Bible. Or so goes the argument anyway.