Fifty-four years ago Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave voice to his dream. It was a dream that had started 100 years before, when President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared that people of America could no longer own one another as slaves.
But King’s dream went further – to a point where people of black and white skin color could live in harmony. In his speech he dreamed of a time when the offspring of slave owners and the offspring of slaves could sit together at the table of brotherhood. He dreamed of black boys and girls joining hands with white boys and girls as brothers and sisters. And he dreamed that one day people would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
The theme of the dream was to quit looking at people as groups and start interacting with one another as individuals. Stop exaggerating the differences and start celebrating the similarities. Because, truthfully, the similarities far exceed and outweigh the differences.
Stop exaggerating the differences and start celebrating the similarities.
Why, then, do we still have incidents like those that happened in Charlottesville, Va., this past weekend?
When I was in college in the late 1970s-early 1980s, we were encouraged to look at everyone as individuals – King’s dream in action. And we did. There was a freedom in it – we no longer felt bound by a constraint of us vs. them, my group vs. your group. The only group that mattered was that we were all human and we were all American. I’m not saying it was utopia but we were much more conscious of our similarities than our differences.
Why Things Changed
But then sometime in the past 15-20 years, things seemed to change. Group identity became more important. Thinking outside the group (depending on the group) was tantamount to being a traitor. What happened?
Power and control happened. Extremists on both sides recognized that they could wield more power by screaming loudly about what they had lost, were losing or could lose. They began to emphasize the differences. And the mainstream media played into their hands, in large part because it allowed them to wield more power as well.
Before long, people were being nudged – in some cases shoved – into one group or another. The group “leaders” – not appointed by anyone nor speaking for the vast majority of those in their group – crowed that if you didn’t agree with every tenet of their group, you must be in the other group. And if you were in that group, then you must adhere to every tenet of that group. If you didn’t – and most people didn’t –and you protested, you were called a denier. And if you were a denier, you were a liar and a hater.
Over time, more and more people have either given in to it, or as more often happens, young people without fully developed thought processes buy into the group-think.
And the mainstream media, in its power play, would like us to think that racism is rampant and only they, and the people they appoint to lead them, can solve it.
Here’s the secret the extremists and the media don’t want you to realize: The majority of the country doesn’t feel this way. The majority of people, black or white, would love for this to just go away and be allowed to treat each other like individuals – to live out King’s dream.
Freedom comes only when we walk together as brothers and sisters, as Americans, as humans.
King addressed this earlier in the same speech: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
That is as true today as it was 54 years ago. Freedom comes only when we walk together as brothers and sisters, as Americans, as humans.
King also addressed what would have been good for both sides of clash in Charlottesville to heed. He wrote this about those in the fight for equality, but it is valuable to everyone. “In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence.”
America’s Christians must continue to be at the forefront of this effort, just as they were in the 1850s and just as they were in the 1950s.
Again, the only way we will continue to overcome these extremists is to continue to do what many black and white Americans have already done successfully – get to know each other as individuals and realize that our similarities are far greater than our differences.
Christians Must Lead the Way
America’s Christians must continue to be at the forefront of this effort, just as they were in the 1850s and just as they were in the 1950s. King was a devout Christian who preached powerful sermons. He received strength and power from his daily dependence on Christ through prayer. We should, at a minimum, do the same.
Our prayers today, though, are not to gain freedom or equality for one group or the other. Our prayers today as Christians are to be released from fear and from the constriction of group-think, and to experience the marvelous freedom of seeing each other as individuals.
Want to find out what Princess Kate is wearing or the latest outrageous thing Miley Cyrus has said or done? Chances are good you’ll find out on the evening news or as a top internet story. On the other hand, if you want to find out about Boko Haram slaughtering Christians and kidnapping adolescent and teenage girls to use as servants, sex slaves and suicide bombers, you’ll probably have to search a little harder.
In fact, you may not even know what I’m talking about when I say Boko Haram. They are a militant Islamic terrorist group in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. For the past several years they have been trying to overthrow the Nigerian government to turn the entire country into a militant state. They have killed thousands – it has been estimated they killed more than 4,000 in just 2014 alone, and they’ve murdered many more since.
They have openly declared war on Nigerian Christians and hundreds, if not thousands, of Christians are among those they’ve killed. But they have also targeted Muslims who do not go along with their violent outlook and anything else they consider marks of Western civilization (in a local language, Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”).
Perhaps most disturbing is that they are now using these young girls as suicide bombers.
Along the way, Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds of girls, some as young as 7, to serve as cooks, servants and “wives” for their soldiers. Perhaps most disturbing, though, is that they are now using these young girls as suicide bombers. They strap explosive-filled vests on them and send them into a targeted area – sometimes the girls know what they’re doing, other times not. So far at least 145 girls have been used in this way – probably a low estimate – and have taken the lives of hundreds more. Targets have included government centers, Christian centers, even a mosque. It also included a wedding, although a dog heroically stopped the girl before she could enter the ceremony and detonate the explosives.
Boko Haram recently sent out a request to Muslims who are in agreement with their way of thinking: Donate your young girls to use on suicide bombing missions. Yes, they want parents to willing sacrifice their daughters in this way.
Tragic, you may say, but why should we be concerned about some tiny little country half-a-world away?
Well, Nigeria isn’t exactly tiny. At 357,669 square miles, it is larger than Texas and nearly the size of the combination of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. Nigeria has a population of 193.5 million, ranked seventh in the world, which is more than half of the United States population (the population for the seven states mentioned above is a combined 47.3 million, so it has four times as many people as that area). Nigeria has a GDP (the nation’s contribution to world wealth) of $1.125 billion, which ranks it in the top 25 in the world.
Still not convinced of the need? Consider that we have been involved in helping straighten out Iraq and Afghanistan for more than 15 years, and are still sending troops there on a regular basis. Nigeria is far larger than either of those countries, more than twice the size of Iraq – in fact, it has nearly the land size of the two countries combined (it is 85 percent the size of those two).
When it comes to population, Afghanistan and Iraq combined have a third as many people as Nigeria. Their GDP combined is barely half of Nigeria’s. You might suspect oil has a lot to do with why we’re more interested in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Nigeria ranks 11th in oil reserves, right behind the United States (Afghanistan has no known oil reserves).
As Christians, we should be especially concerned. At least 40 percent of the country is identified as Christian, about equal to the number of Muslims.
We certainly can communicate with people in Nigeria – the country’s official language is English.
And as Christians, we should be especially concerned. At least 40 percent of the country is identified as Christian, about equal to the number of Muslims, compared to just 3 percent in Iraq and less than 1 percent in Afghanistan. This isn’t too surprising since the area of West Africa where Nigeria is located is experiencing some of the fastest growth in Christianity in the world.
So these are our brothers and sisters who are suffering torture and death simply because they have chosen to follow Christ as their Lord. They are already crying out to the Lord to avenge their blood. Rev. 6:9-10 says, “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the people slaughtered because of God’s word and the testimony they had. They cried out with a loud voice: ‘Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?’” God gives them white robes and urges them to be patient until the end of this world, but that doesn’t mean He isn’t calling us into action now.
What can we do as Christians to help our brothers and sisters in Nigeria?
Pray. First of all, pray. Not just praying for the persecution to stop, but for God to raise up laborers – based on the growth in the neighboring countries, many people in that area of Africa are interested in Christianity, despite the threat of persecution.
Donate. Then consider donating to those who are already helping the persecuted. A list of some of those groups appears at the end of the blog. I have not vetted them for their effectiveness in getting mission dollars to where they’re needed most, so check them out, as you should with any organization, before donating.
Write. On the political front, urge your senators and representatives to consider what actions can be taken to help the Nigerians. While I don’t believe the United States should be the world’s police officer, it does seem like our resources could be more wisely allocated in a country like Nigeria than in the Middle East.
Action. Be open to taking action. Whether through advocacy here in the United States or in ministering in Nigeria itself, be open to God’s call to action in your life.
Left untreated, even a small cut can lead to an infection that threatens the entire body.
In 1 Cor. 12:26, Paul tells us that if one member of the body suffers, then all members suffer. Sometimes that’s hard to remember, if the cut is small. But left untreated, even a small cut can lead to an infection that threatens the entire body. Right now, to Christians in the United States the persecution in Nigeria may seem like a small cut to the body, but how long before it becomes an infection that threatens us all? And I guarantee to the Christians in Nigeria and its neighboring countries, this is far more than a cut. It’s a major wound. They are suffering; we must help.
Groups Supporting Persecuted Christians
The Voice of Martyrs (persecution.com)
Open Doors (opendoorsusa.org)
Christian Aid Mission (christianaid.org)
Frontline Missions International (frontlinemissions.info)
Rescue Christians (rescuechristians.org)
I Commit to Pray (icommittopray.com)
In the famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an albatross (a large sea bird) leads a ship to safety. But soon after their rescue, the main character, the mariner, shoots the albatross, and the ship is again in peril.
To punish the mariner for his churlish action, the ship’s crew forces him to wear the dead albatross around his neck. As he watches the crew succumb to death, the albatross serves as a constant reminder that he is to blame. Today we use the term, “wearing an albatross around one’s neck” to signify a psychological burden, often brought on by one’s own foolish or careless action.
Unfortunately, many Christians today live as if they are that ancient mariner, wearing their guilt around their necks like a big dead bird. I became aware of that recently when, within a span of a few days, I had a friend tell me he still dealt with guilt about things he’d done more than two decades before; another friend confided that she still felt shame for actions committed years before; and another person talked about the anguish he felt daily about the sins he’d committed.
Understand, these are all devout Christians who have been walking with the Lord for decades, who have confessed these sins repeatedly, yet they still function as if they are bound and condemned for them.
I have a feeling these are not isolated cases. But by worrying about, thinking about and feeling guilt and shame about our past sins, we are seriously impairing our ability to live the abundant life Jesus promised.
I am set free and no longer under condemnation, so why should I feel guilt or shame?
It’s not that I don’t understand where my friends are coming from: I have plenty of sinful behavior in my past and I regret having caused God the pain of my actions. I still suffer from some of the consequences of those actions.
But I no longer feel guilt or shame for them. I choose instead to believe the truth of the words in Romans 8:1-2: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” This is one of the greatest statements in the Bible. I am set free and no longer under condemnation, so why should I feel guilt or shame? And it’s not just the Romans passage that gives me that confidence.
- Jesus came to set the captives free (Luke 4:18)
- God has removed our sins as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12)
- Jesus set us free to have freedom (Gal. 5:1)
- God sweeps away our sins and remembers them no more (Isa. 43:25)
- God has taken our blood red sins and washed them white as snow (Isa. 1:18)
- The Lord will never charge us with our sins (Rom. 4:8)
- Jesus offered himself as the sacrifice once for all sins (Heb. 7:27)
There are a number of other scriptures in the same vein – that once we are in Christ Jesus, once we are following him as our Lord – all of our sins have not only been forgiven, they have been removed completely from our account. We are free and we are washed clean.
But, you may argue, you don’t know what I’ve done in my past. No, I don’t, but it doesn’t matter. Really.
What matters as a Christian is not what you have done but what Christ has done for you. No evil of your past can compare with the abundant life of your present or the glory of your future.
If God no longer condemns you, why should you condemn yourself?
The difference is where you choose to turn your eyes and ears. Will you keep looking behind you at how you have failed, or will you focus on Christ and how he has overcome? Will you look at your weakness, or his power? Will you accept the lies of the enemy, or listen to the voice of the Great Shepherd calling you to the truth?
As a follower of Christ you no longer have to be captive to shame and guilt for your past actions. All you have to do is accept the truth that you are free and no longer under condemnation. If God no longer condemns you, why should you condemn yourself?
The ancient mariner could never get over the guilt of killing that albatross, forced to wander the earth to tell his tale of woe. But as a Christian, your guilt has been removed. Christ died for that guilt so that you, unlike the ancient mariner, can live a life of victory.
Gary Kauffman is Bible teacher, Christian life coach and freelance writer/photographer living in North Augusta, South Carolina.
“What is God’s will for my life?”
That is one of the most frequently asked questions by Christians, often in a voice tinged with anguish, confusion, longing or fear – sometimes all of them at once. It is a legitimate question because as sincere Christians we want to honor God in all that we do. Knowing His will is an important part of that.
The question is often asked by young people in college or soon after graduation, when they realize that the real world awaits. Is it God’s will that I take a job in the secular world or that I go into full-time Christian work? And if so, is it God’s will that I attend a seminary or go onto the mission field? Is it God’s will that I marry that cute girl I saw in church but whose name I don’t even know yet?
But older people ask it as well, sometimes with even more angst because there are families, bills and prestige to consider. Is it God’s will that I go back to school? Is that job offer three states away God’s will for my life? Is it God’s will that I buy a motorcycle instead of car because of the better gas mileage? (Yes, I’ve actually heard that one.)
I’ve wrestled with the question myself and I’m sure you have too. Doing God’s will is important. So what if I told you a sure-fire way to determine God’s no-doubt-about-it will for your life? Interested?
OK, here’s how you do it – read the Bible.
Oh, did that disappoint you? After all, the Bible says nothing about going back to school, or job offers in other states, or marrying cute girls, and is especially silent on the motorcycle vs. car debate.
God has made it abundantly clear what His will is for our lives – He’s stated it and in most cases restated it more than once.
But it is chock-full of passages about God’s will for your life. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
It is God’s will that you:
- Love God with all your heart, soul and strength. It says so in Deut. 6:5 and Jesus emphasized it in Matt. 22:37, Mark: 12:30 and Luke 10:27.
- Love your neighbor as yourself. Lev. 19:18, Matt. 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27
- Love one another as believers. John 15:12, 1 John 4:11-12
- Make disciples. Matt. 28:19, 1 Cor. 11:1, Heb. 13:7
- Be generous. Mal. 3:8-10, Luke 6:38, 1 Tim. 6:17-19
- Live in victory. John 10:10, John 16:33, 1 Cor. 15:57
- Keep His commands. John 14:15, 1 John 2:3
- Be thankful. 1 Thess. 5:18, Eph. 5:20
There are a number of other things that are God’s will as well, such as prayer, submitting to one another and being filled with the Spirit. If you are a married man, it is God’s will that you love your wife unconditionally as Christ loved the church; if you are a married woman, it is God’s will that you submit to your husband as the church submits to Christ.
Maybe we should start by asking, “Am I doing God’s will that He has already revealed to me in His Word?”
The point is, God has made it abundantly clear what His will is for our lives – He’s stated it and in most cases restated it more than once. So before we ask, “What is God’s will for my life?” when facing new situations, maybe we should start by asking, “Am I doing God’s will that He has already revealed to me in His Word?”
If we’re not already loving and being generous and living in victory, etc., then maybe we should concentrate more on those things before wondering about that out-of-state job or the cute nameless potential marriage partner. It’s not that God doesn’t care about those things, or that He doesn’t have a will for those areas of our lives. He does. But it seems rather self-serving to seek His will in the unknown if we’re not already living in His known will.
Plus, there’s a good chance that once we start following His will as outlined in His Word, the path of His will in those other situations, even regarding motorcycles and cars, will become much clearer.
One of my all-time favorite movies is The Princess Bride (Men: This is not a chick-flick movie. It has sword fights, great feats of strength and overcoming overwhelming odds to rescue a damsel in distress – plus it’s funny). One of the main characters in the movie is Inigo Montoya, a man obsessed with revenge.
When Inigo was a boy, his father was killed by a six-fingered man and he has spent most of his life training so that he can one day exact his revenge. He even has his introduction to the six-fingered man down pat:
“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
And (spoiler alert) he does just that. Once he has exacted his revenge, though, he is left with a conundrum because his entire identity had been tied up in one thing.
“Is very strange,” he marvels in his Spanish accent. “I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”
Our identity, even as Christians, is almost always based on the work we do for a living. Yet we are many more things.
Many Americans are in the same situation about their identity, although they may not realize it. When you ask someone, “Who are you?” (or sing it, like The Who, “Who are you? Who, who?”) the person is likely to reply with something like this:
“I’m an office manager.”
“I’m a school teacher.”
“I’m a rock star (if you happen to ask a member of The Who).”
Our identity, even as Christians, is almost always based on the work we do for a living. Yet we are many more things. For example, I could answer the question, “I’m a husband,” or “I’m a father,” or “I’m a baseball fan.”
Still, my identity is not tied to my occupation or my marital status or my devotion to the New York Yankees. My identity is that I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I am a child of God.
Paul wrote a lot about this identity. He said we are now citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), we are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), our old self was crucified and we now live by faith in the Son of God (Gal. 2:20), we were chosen for adoption into God’s family (Eph. 1:5), we are children of God (Ga. 3:26) and we are no longer slaves to sin (Rom. 6:6). John adds that our new identity as God’s children is a result of God’s great love (1 John 3:1).
When you think about it, shouldn’t our identity be the same as our top priority in life?
This is obviously quite a bit better than even our noblest professions or relationship statuses. This new identity comes with some pretty good perks – a new abundant life on earth, co-heirs with Christ in his glorious inheritance and eternal life.
When you think about it, shouldn’t our identity be the same as our top priority in life? And when we answer the identity question with our job function, what does that say about our priorities? If we truly make following Christ our No. 1 priority, then our identity will first and foremost be that of being a Christ follower. (This works even if the question is, “What do you do?” You can answer, “I follow Christ.”)
I’ve even thought of a catchy way to phrase it a la Inigo Montoya: “Hello. My name is Child of God. You have been saved by grace. Prepare to live.”
After his resurrection and just before his ascension into heaven, Jesus came up with an interesting option for Christians. He said that if a select few people felt like it, if it wasn’t too much bother, they could tell people about him. This is called the Great Suggestion.
Um, really, no, it’s called the Great Commission and Jesus was hardly suggesting it as an option. He was commanding it, to all of his followers then and now. Yet today, many Christians treat his final words as a nice suggestion that somebody should be doing, as long as it isn’t them.
The Great Commission is found in Matt. 28:18-20, although frequently it’s listed as verses 19-20, and often only verse 19 is quoted. But it is actually verse 18 that is the key to understanding the rest of the Commission. Here’s what Jesus said:
“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’”
The very first thing Jesus states is that all authority has been given to him in heaven and earth. Not some authority, not just authority in heaven, but all authority in heaven and on earth – in other words, it’s all the authority there is, anywhere in the universe. No one has more authority than Jesus – not a police officer, not the president, not even your mom (sorry, Mom).
Jesus is saying that the reason he states his all-encompassing authority is to give us a command – not a suggestion, not an option, but a command.
What does it mean when someone has authority over you? It means they have the right to tell you what they want to have done. Someone in authority, ideally, will be someone who understands the big picture, understands what needs to be done, how to do it, and can give you the order to do so. We have learned to obey authority – if the blue lights start flashing because you chose to ignore the speed limit sign, you’d better pull over. If your boss tells you to get a project done by a certain date, you’d better get it done by then.
Why? Because we have submitted ourselves to these people as having authority over us – and because there will be consequences if we don’t obey that authority. Run from the cops and eventually you’ll be tasered and thrown into prison. Ignore the boss’s instructions and you’re soon standing in the unemployment line.
Yet how do we – how do most Christians – respond to Christ’s authority? Do we say, well, Jesus said it and he has all authority so I’d better snap to it? Or do we say, cool suggestion, Jesus; somebody better get busy on that, and then look around the room to find someone who should be doing it?
Jesus isn’t just telling us that he has all authority in heaven and earth to brag about it. It’s not, “Hey, I got all authority from the Father. What’d you get?” He is telling us this for a reason, and the reason follows in verse 19, which begins with Therefore.
Now, anytime you see the word “therefore” in the Bible you have to ask yourself, what is it there for? Because what follows the therefore is based on what was said in the previous sentence or paragraph. In this case, Jesus is saying that the reason he states his all-encompassing authority is to give us a command – not a suggestion, not an option, but a command.
And that command is to go and make disciples. There are two verbs that are connected here, “go” and “make.” Go means, of course, that you aren’t stationary. You aren’t sitting back waiting for these disciples to magically appear around you. It is an aggressive action on our part. But is that how we generally think of this process? I think most of us sit back, waiting for people to show up at our church and decide to become involved in the church activities. The closest we come to “go” is to occasionally invite someone to check out our church sometime.
So Christ, based on his absolute authority, is telling us it is absolutely necessary that we go make committed learners of every people group.
The second verb is make, and this is a modifier, describing the next word, disciples. Again, make is an aggressive action. Nothing is magically going to appear. It will take time and effort on our part. And notice what we are supposed to make – not more church members, not more people to sit in worship service, not even more people to lead Bible studies or sing on the worship team. The command is to make disciples.
For many years, this verse has been loosely and lightly interpreted as doing evangelism – simply telling people about the good news of Jesus and hoping they would attain salvation. But that is not what Jesus is commanding here. The Greek word for disciples is mathetes, meaning a student or committed learner. The two English words, make disciples, are actually summed up in one Greek word, matheteuo, which is in the imperative form in Greek – imperative meaning it is absolutely necessary, or a command. It also points to the words “make disciples” as the central focus of the sentence. The people to be made into disciples are every ethnos, or people group.
So Christ, based on his absolute authority, is telling us it is absolutely necessary that we go make committed learners of every people group. That hardly sounds like some passive action, or a suggestion.
But Jesus isn’t done yet. He goes on to describe what this disciple making will include. First, we will baptize these new believers in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Then we will teach them. What we’ll teach them is to obey or observe everything he commanded, through his words while on earth and through his revelations to Paul and other writers of the New Testament. In Greek, the word commanded carries the connotation that we are aware of the purpose of the commands – in other words, we don’t just obey blindly, but we do so because we know the purposes behind them. Again, there is an all-inclusive word here – we are to obey everything he commanded; not just the things we like or we approve of, but everything he told us to do.
The magnitude of conveying everything Jesus commanded, including the purposes behind them, indicates more than a one-time contact with someone. It requires more than a casual relationship with someone. It is an ongoing teaching process, one that Jesus took three years to accomplish with his disciples. But many of the early disciples took longer – Silas and Barnabas spent years pouring into Paul, who then spent years pouring into Luke and Timothy and Titus and others.
But just making disciples wasn’t the end goal. The end goal is to make disciples who make more disciples. After all, Jesus told us to obey everything he commanded, and one of those commands is to make disciples. So our disciples will have to obey that command as well.
His final words were to make disciples – to continue teaching what he’d taught to others, who would in turn teach others, who would teach others, throughout history.
Note also that making disciples is not listed among the gifts of the spirit. The gifts of the spirit are those special abilities that the Holy Spirit has endowed on some, but not all Christians. They are to be used together to build the body of the church. Among the gifts that some, but not all, Christians have are prophecy, teaching, hospitality, even evangelism. But discipleship isn’t listed because it is expected of all believers. It’s not something special endowed to just a few, but a command entrusted to all believers.
When Jesus came to the end of his time on earth, when it came time for him to say one last thing, to give one last command, to in essence to sum up everything he’d been saying all along, he chose to say this. It wasn’t to build big churches, to sing beautiful songs, to develop outstanding church programs, it wasn’t even to simply evangelize. No, his final words were to make disciples – to continue teaching what he’d taught to others, who would in turn teach others, who would teach others, throughout history.
The question now is, will we accept Jesus’ authority? Do we believe that Jesus has the right to tell us what to do? If so, are we willing to take action? Are we willing to enter into the long, involved process of making disciples rather than sitting in church letting words wash over us?
Perhaps the better question is, What authority do we have that exceeds Jesus’ authority to not do what he has commanded?
Years ago in college, I was privileged to see a show by a Christian illusionist. His act amazed and delighted me.
Among his magnificent tricks was placing his full-grown assistant into a box and shrinking it down to 1-foot-square cube, making objects disappear and reappear and levitating. Before each act, though, he would say something like, “Nothing you see here is magic. It is all just an illusion.”
Throughout the performance he kept reassuring us that he was an ordinary man who had no magical powers and everything he did was simply a trick of the eyes. I wanted to scream, “Noooo! I’m not that easily fooled!” I preferred to think the illusionist had some special powers rather than that he was fooling me by doing what any ordinary human being could do with the right training and preparation.
“Elijah was a human being, even as we are.”
There’s a verse in the Bible that reminds me of that magic show. It’s James 5:17, which begins with “Elijah was a human being, even as we are.”
Remember the testimony about Elijah in the Old Testament? He prayed that it wouldn’t rain and it didn’t rain for more than three years (1 Kings 17:1), he was fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:2), he lived with a widow and her son and caused her meager food supply to never run out (1 Kings 17:13-15) and then raised her son back to life after he died (1 Kings 17:18-24).
But Elijah was barely getting started at this point. He defied the king and his wicked queen (1 Kings 18:17-18), called down fire from heaven in an awesome display of God’s power compared to false idols (1 Kings 18:21-40), brought the rain back (1 Kings 18:41-44) and outran a chariot pulled by horses (1 Kings 18:46).
Want more? He was fed by an angel (1 Kings 19:5-7), felt God’s presence and heard His voice in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19:11-13), prophesied the death of the evil Queen Jezebel (1 Kings 21:20-24), called down more fire from heaven (2 Kings 1:10-15), parted the waters of the Jordan River (2 Kings 2:8) and was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11). And then Elijah appeared with Moses alongside Jesus (Matt. 17:3).
Yep, Elijah sounds just like every other human being I know.
Seeing the assertion from James that Elijah was an ordinary human with no special powers blows my mind, much like the amazing illusionist I saw. I prefer to think that he was some special godly creature.
Because if what James said is true, then it means any of us – including me – should be able to perform at least some of what Elijah did. Seem laughable? In our own power it is, but James’ prologue to his statement about Elijah is, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
What brought about all the miracles and awesome display of power by Elijah? His righteousness. What made Elijah righteous? His utter dependence on God and his willingness to allow the Holy Spirit to work through him (not that he didn’t have doubts – at one point he thought he was the only righteous person left in Israel and expected to die at Jezebel’s hands).
God is waiting for us to get out of our own way so he can work mightily through us.
Since Pentecost, all true followers of Christ have his spirit, the Holy Spirit, living in us. He is waiting for us to get out of our own way so he can work mightily through us. Can we raise the dead, call down fire from heaven and part a river? Absolutely not! But the Holy Spirit could through us.
In all likelihood, we won’t be called on to do the more showy works that Elijah did because we’re living in a different time. More likely, the Spirit’s work in our lives will be to give us joy and peace in times of turmoil, to give us the words to speak at the right time and to lead others to following Christ. But he also might give us the power to end travesties like sex trafficking, abortion and lethargy in our churches.
And that, unlike the amazing illusionist, would not be a trick of the eyes. It would be demonstration of God’s power that is as real and available to us today as it was to an ordinary human like Elijah.
Ordinary human beings rock – when we allow the Holy Spirit to move through us!
In the classic movie The Princess Bride, kidnapping mastermind Vizzini frequently utters the word “Inconceivable,” even when he is presented with evidence that what is happening is, indeed, conceivable. Finally, Inigo Montoya says, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
I could echo Inigo’s words when it comes to the word stronghold as used by many Christians today. I frequently hear phrases like, “Fear of failure has always been my stronghold,” or “I have to get over the stronghold of my weight issue,” or “I have to break the devil’s strongholds on my life.”
The term is almost always used in the negative of someone or something having a strong hold on someone, synonymous with being bound in chains by it, or imprisoned by it. This has been a popular theme of some Christian speakers and authors. Addressing those areas of weakness in our life is important because they often keep us from living the full, abundant life Jesus promised.
However, if you use the word stronghold as described above, it does not mean what you think it means. In fact, it means the opposite.
If you are under attack, you want to go to a stronghold to stay safe.
A stronghold is a fortress, a refuge, a place of protection and safety. If you are under attack, you want to go to a stronghold to stay safe. It is a positive word.
Depending on which version of the Bible you’re using, stronghold appears between 47 and 66 times in the Bible – all but once in the Old Testament, where it always refers to a place of protection and safety. The lone reference in the New Testament is in 2 Cor. 10:4: “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” The Greek word translated as strongholds is ochyromaton, which means fortress.
While this could be interpreted to mean breaking free of the chains that are binding us, it is clear from the context that Paul is encouraging believers to wage an offensive war against the enemy. Satan doesn’t have a stronghold on us (substitute the word fortress or refuge and see how silly it sounds), but he does have a fortress of lies and accusations he hides in. The resurrection of Christ, though, has given us a powerful offensive weapon to destroy the enemy’s place of safety.
In Matthew 16, Peter gives his great confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Jesus replies that it is on the rock of this confession that he will build his church “and the gates of hell will not overcome it.”
Gates, of course, are part of a defense, part of protection. So what Jesus is implying here is that we as believers will be on the offensive against satan and his stronghold, and we will win. Jesus the Messiah will be our battering ram to raze satan’s fortress and leave him defenseless.
God can be and is our stronghold. The psalmists and prophets get it right when they repeatedly tell us this.
So it is wrong to say that your struggles with your weight are your stronghold. You could say that overeating is your stronghold, if that is what makes you feel safe in the face of attack. But your struggle cannot be a stronghold. Nor can the devil have a stronghold on you unless, again, he is where you find your sense of safety and protection.
However, God can be and is our stronghold. The psalmists and prophets get it right when they repeatedly tell us this. In Psalm 37, for example, David says, “The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble.” The prophet Joel declares, “But the Lord will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel.”
Satan does attack us at times, as do earthly bad guys, and when that happens we can retreat into the safety of God’s protection, a stronghold that can withstand even spiritual attacks. But we are also to use our salvation in Christ to go on the offensive against these attacks with the expectation of winning. As Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
When we take the offensive, satan’s stronghold will crumble in the face of the Word of God. To think anything else would be inconceivable.
Gary Kauffman is a writer, photographer and Bible teacher living in North Augusta, S.C.
Time can never mend
The careless whispers of a good friend
To the heart and mind – Careless Whisper
Back in 1984, the group Wham! (yes, with an exclamation point), featuring George Michael, had a huge hit with the song Careless Whisper. The song is basically about a man cheating on his wife or girlfriend, who apparently learned about it by overhearing a careless whisper to the new lover. It speaks about how much those careless words can damage a person’s heart and mind.
Of course, we’ve also long heard the old adage, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But at least according to one authority other than George Michael, careless words can have a long-lasting impact. And since that authority is Jesus, we would be wise to pay attention.
In Matthew 12:33-35, Jesus talks about fruit trees – a good tree can only produce good fruit, a bad tree can only produce bad fruit. The trees, of course, are us. Jesus goes on to say that we will speak what is in our hearts – good words can’t come from an evil heart.
Then in verses 36 and 37 he says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (ESV)
The word translated as careless is the Greek word argon, which some versions translate as empty or idle, and can also mean lazy. So what does it mean to speak careless, empty, lazy words?
These words often hurt the person they’re spoken to – and, Jesus seems to be saying, you don’t get a free pass just because you didn’t mean them to be hurtful.
In the context, we can infer that they are not good words – they come from a heart that is not right with God. These words may be blurted out without thought of their effect on others or be reactionary, angry responses based on another’s words or actions. These words often hurt the person they’re spoken to – and, Jesus seems to be saying, you don’t get a free pass just because you didn’t mean them to be hurtful. That’s part of being careless and lazy – not taking the time to think about how your words will be perceived.
Paul had a lot to say about words as well. In Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 12, for example, he lists several areas of speech among unrighteous acts: Slander, deceit, quarreling, outbursts of anger, boasting and gossiping. He warns Timothy twice about not speaking with irreverent, empty words. And John, in 1 John, implies that love that is based on speech only rather than accompanied by action is empty.
On the other hand, Paul says our speech should be an example to other believers (1 Tim. 4:12) and should be full of grace, seasoned in salt (Col. 4:6), meaning it should be thought out with words that enhance others. We are to speak the truth in speech, Psalms and songs; we are to speak the gospel fearlessly and boldly; and we are to be quick to hear and slow to speak.
Our words will be used to either justify us or condemn us on the Day of Judgment.
With TV, radio, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we are so surrounded by words that we become inured to their affect. They’re here for a moment and then vanish. But Jesus clearly says everything we say will have an eternal impact. Our words will be used to either justify us or condemn us on the Day of Judgment.
That angry remark you made to your spouse, the little white lie you told your parents, the flirtatious words to that cute new employee at work all may seem like innocent words, just words, that don’t mean anything. Except that Jesus said they do matter – a lot.
But, fortunately, so do the words of encouragement you spoke to your neighbor, the kind words you told your child, the loving words you expressed to your spouse. We just need to make sure we think before we speak.
In the song, George Michael’s careless whisper had a negative impact – he was left with no one to dance with. Jesus said that your words will determine who you’ll have as a dance partner for eternity.
The other day I read an interesting article about a neat little trick our brains do to us called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Before your eyes glaze over, let me explain this amazing brain ability.
The brain can actually rewire its neurons to help you remember things better and faster. If you think the same thoughts over and over, the brain starts grouping those neurons together to make it easier for you to access those thoughts. It’s part of the learning process that makes it easier, for example, for you recall the facts and processes you need to do your job well.
Here’s the bad part – the brain does the same thing even if we keep thinking negative thoughts. So if you complain a lot or are a worry wart, your brain helpfully starts grouping those neurons together. “You want to worry?” your brain asks. “Here, let me make it easier for you.”
The concept of neuroplasticity has only been around in the scientific/psychology realm for less than 70 years, and is just recently starting to be accepted as a modern discovery of how to help people move from negativity to a more positive outlook.
Since He designed our brains, God he knew they would tend get stuck in a rut of thinking the same wrong thoughts over and over.
Except the concept isn’t modern at all – God revealed it in Scripture thousands of years ago.
Since He designed our brains, God he knew they would tend get stuck in a rut of thinking the same wrong thoughts over and over. But the great thing about neuroplasticity is that works both ways – yes, it can make negative thoughts easier to access, but when we train it with positive thoughts, it also makes positive thoughts easier to reach. So God outlined plenty of encouragement and ways for us to turn neuroplasticity into a rut of correct thoughts.
For example, in Deut. 6:4 we have the Shema, later quoted by Jesus, which tells us to love the Lord with all our heart, soul and strength. But it continues with a command that shows the importance of neuroplasticity in positive thoughts.
“These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be a symbol on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:6-9)
In other words, keep repeating God’s words over and over so that your brain reroutes the neurons to make them easy to recall.
This concept of using the brain’s innate ability is found throughout the Bible.
The more we think about God’s word and His character, the easier our brain will make it for us to keep thinking that way.
In Philippians 4, Paul instructs us to not worry about anything (don’t let negative thoughts dominate your mind so that they’re easy to recall). Instead, he tells us in Phil. 4:8, “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.”
In Romans 12:2, he instructs us to not be conformed to the world but instead “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Why? So that we may discern “what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.”
In the very first Psalm, we find this principle at work: “How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path of sinners or join a group of mockers. Instead, his delight is in the Lord’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night.” The Psalmists frequently encourage meditating on God’s word and His character: “I will reflect on all you have done and meditate on your actions.” (Ps. 77:12)
So the more we think about God’s word and His character, the easier our brain will make it for us to keep thinking that way. It will allow us to do His will, to not be anxious or worry and to live a life that is an example to others. Thinking about God will become a self-perpetuating habit.
Neuroplasticity may seem like a recent breakthrough in the study of the brain science, but Bible readers have known about it for thousands of years. God has known about this little brain trick all along because He created it.