Incomprehensible and unending love

Extracted from “The Child of Light and the Black Dog”: paragraphs that I wrote this morning–

Physical, mental, and emotional addictions often are bad responses to depression. Instead of seeking productive help, people allow depression to push them in patterns that are harmful, unhealthy, and only deepen the dark spiral into further depression rather than offering genuine relief from depression. Do bad spiritual responses to depression also exist? They do indeed, and they can be as dangerous and as harmful as physical and emotional bad responses to depression.

God’s love and forgiveness cannot be measured. There is no limit, no end, to the love of God and to his forgiveness. “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12). Astronomers studying the heavens have detected galaxies millions of light years away from us. God’s love is even bigger than that distance. Travelers can reach the north pole and the south pole, but those who travel east or west are never finished—no matter how long and far they travel, there will still be more east or west in front of them. So also, God has removed all our sins an infinite distance from our lives.

Jesus cannot love us too much. We cannot love Jesus too much. Jesus is pure and holy, and his perfect love can never be twisted or distorted. We are sinners, and sometimes our love for him is twisted and distorted. The Sadducees and Pharisees thought that they loved God, but their love for God was so twisted that they did not recognize the Son of God when they saw him with their own eyes and heard his voice with their own ears. They rejected Jesus and tried to destroy him. God’s people today can also lapse into twisted religion or distorted spirituality. We can be distracted from Jesus by the things we do in his name. Religion and spirituality can turn into idols, false gods that separate us from God and his love rather than bringing us closer to the God who loves us and who seeks our love and our faith.

We cannot love Jesus too much. But we can create an idol, call it Jesus, and love that idol too much. The Sadducees were devoted to the worship of God, the animal sacrifices commanded by the Law of Moses. They made compromises with the Romans and with themselves to ensure that the sacrifices would continue. Jesus of Nazareth seemed to threaten their Temple and their worship. Not only did he clear moneychangers and salesmen out of the Temple; he promised to be greater than the Temple. When our worship lives are bigger than Jesus to us, our religion and spirituality have become twisted. When we measure our connection to Jesus by the way our prayers and spiritual songs make us feel about Jesus, we have lost contact with the real Jesus. Our religion has become an idol, taking his place.

Likewise, the Pharisees were committed to learning God’s commands, obeying his rules, and teaching others to do the same. Yet when Jesus showed them how they were wrong about the Sabbath commandment and other interpretations they had added to God’s Law, they rejected Jesus and did not let him correct them. When our religious and spiritual lives center on the things we do for God, we are no longer honoring and worshiping Jesus. We honor and worship ourselves when we focus all our attention on the things we do for him. Our good works have become an idol, taking the place of Jesus in our lives.

Not everyone who says to Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” belongs to his kingdom. To some of those idol-worshipers Jesus will respond, “I never knew you.” When those who call themselves Christians distort his religion into idolatry, worshiping their contributions and ignoring what he has done, they harm themselves and also hurt their neighbors. Many people turn away from Christianity and reject the Church because they see the idolatry and hypocrisy in the Church but cannot see Christ’s love. When a sermon becomes incomprehensible and seems unending, that sermon is no longer a picture of God’s love. When our spiritual lives center around what we do for Jesus, we are no longer serving him. We have removed him, and we are serving ourselves.

Depression tempts us into distorted spirituality. We want our broken lives to be fixed. We want to contribute to the solution to our problems. Throwing ourselves entirely on God’s mercy, allowing him to do all the work needed for our rescue, is not natural for sinful and depressed human beings. Total self-denial, total reliance on the Lord, seems like surrender to the forces of darkness. We want to make ourselves children of light. We cannot make that happen; only God can pull us from the darkness and change us into children of light. J.

Life and the Black Dog of depression

In the 1979 movie All That Jazz, Joe Gideon (like the movie’s director and co-writer Bob Fosse) is a successful Broadway and Hollywood choreographer and director who lives life on the edge. He drives himself at work, he drinks and takes drugs, he sleeps around, and he pushes himself to the limit. He both figuratively and literally flirts with death (the literal Death portrayed by Jessica Lange). All That Jazz can be viewed as a brutally analysis of Fosse’s own life, but it also speaks about the choices many other people make in their lives.

What drives people like Joe Gideon to live life on the edge? Often the cause is emptiness within. Stressed by life with its ups and downs, they embrace the downs and overlook the ups. They choose death over life, not suddenly and violently, but gradually, deliberately, and knowingly. The Black Dog of anxiety and depression has more power over them than they have over themselves, and it drives them over the cliffs of despair.

A Christian understands why unbelievers feel this way and act this way. A Christian might wonder why a fellow Christian feels this way and acts this way. Jesus tells us not to be anxious (Matthew 6:25). Paul identifies the greatest gifts of the spirit as faith, hope, and love. If a Christian has no hope, one may suppose, that Christian also has no faith.

I know a man—I’ll call him Martin. Like me, Martin has struggled for years with anxiety and depression. Like most people, this spring has been difficult for Martin: fear of the virus, fear of damage to the economy, fear of violence in the streets, fear of what might happen to himself, to his family, to his job, and to his neighborhood. Martin has not turned to all the wrong answers that Joe Gideon tried. Martin has been faithful in his marriage. He has taken no illegal drugs and abused no prescription drugs. Martin does try his best at his job, but he is not driven to work to the point of exhaustion. But Martin does consume alcohol. He calls himself a “heavy drinker.” That mistake recently put Martin in a very uncomfortable position.

Martin was sitting in church next to his wife when the preacher began the sermon. One of the first things the preacher mentioned was the distress felt by family members when one of them drinks too much. Martin wondered whether his wife had been talking to the preacher about his drinking. (She hadn’t.) The preacher went on to speak of other things, including the grace of God and His power to overcome all evils, even those we bring upon himself. Toward the end of the sermon, the preacher began to list the many idols people put in the place of God, and he dwelt particularly on the sins of alcohol and drug abuse.

As the sermon wound to a close, Martin felt as if things were going dark. It was not like entering a tunnel; it was more like on television when the picture fades to black. He heard the Amen to the sermon; he heard the congregation begin to sing the next hymn. The next thing Martin remembers is lying in the aisle of the church with an usher pounding his chest, performing CPR.

Martin was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He spent the afternoon in the emergency room; then he was in another room for observation for another twenty-four hours. The hospital workers paid closest attention to the working of Martin’s heart. (And, it appears, Martin’s heart is good.) But Martin admitted more than once to the hospital workers that he is a heavy drinker. One of those workers told Martin that he had been admitted with an elevated alcohol content in his blood. In her opinion, he had suffered an alcohol-related seizure. (Other hospital workers said it was not a seizure; aside from blacking out, the symptoms of seizure were absent.)

Martin went home after promising to quit drinking. He was given a drug to reduce the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Along with follow-up visits with his family doctor and with a cardiologist, Martin also followed up with his pastor. They discussed the sin of alcohol dependence, and they discussed God’s grace and forgiveness.

Depression is not a sin. Depression is a symptom that something is wrong—whether physical or emotional or physical. No one cure fits all kinds of depression. A great many factors need to be analyzed: diet, sleep, exercise, stress, fear, guilt, and chemical balances in the body. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—bears a strong feeling that life is not worth living. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—feels unneeded, unwanted, and unloved. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—will take risks with his or her life. Some risks are sudden and violent: a gunshot, a self-strangling, a strong poisoning, a deliberate car crash. Other risks are slower and less certain: drug and alcohol abuse, reckless driving, overeating or undereating (anorexia), and more.

I cannot suggest much advice about how to help a nonbeliever in this situation, Perhaps persuade him or her that family and friends do care, and that he or she is contributing positive energy to them and to the world. Perhaps ask if they want to live to see their daughter’s wedding, meet their grandchildren, watch those grandchildren grow. Many things in life have meaning apart from God’s blessings; but God’s blessings are the greatest reason of all to keep on living.

The Christian is promised a better life in a better world. This promise is not motivation to end this life and start that new life as soon as possible. This promise is motivation to do our best in this lifetime as we prepare for the better life that is coming. “You will not kill”: this applies, not only to the lives of our neighbors, but also to our own lives. We are managers of the bodies God has made. He intends for us to take care of them. Christians who smoke, Christians who drink to excess, Christians who overeat or who starve themselves: these are not false Christians who have lost their faith. These are sinners who need a Savior and who already know their Savior. These our brothers and sisters who need and deserve our love and encouragement. These are part of the family of God, the body of Christ, whose struggles are more visible than the struggles faced by every Christian in this world.

Joe Gideon flirted with death. So did Martin. In a way, so does every sinner, even those sinners who are simultaneously saints. Viruses and terrorists are not the only dangers in this world; sometimes we are dangers to ourselves. But God says, to Martin and to all of us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). J.

Holy Week and Easter in the time of pandemic

Last April, Holy Week and Easter were marred by the fire in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and by terrorist attacks upon churches in Sri Lanka. This month, Holy Week and Easter seem overshadowed by the COVIN-19 pandemic. Good stewardship of our own health, and love for our neighbors prompting concern for their health, keeps most Christians from gathering for services during these very special days. Neither violence nor disease can mar or overshadow the meaning of these days. Christ has redeemed us from sin and death. Christ has rescued us from all evil. Christ has risen from the dead; he lives and reigns to all eternity.

Sin resembles a communicable disease. It spreads throughout the world, and none of us are immune from its infection. Sin separates us from one another. Sin builds barriers that keep us from loving each other as we should love. Sin isolates us. Sin even separates us from the God who created us. The wages of sin is death, and this death comes in a variety of forms, each of which is a separation. Separation from God is spiritual death. The soul’s separation from the body is physical death. Combined, they result in eternal death. Every sinful separation is a kind of death. Sin can separate members of families. Sin can sever friendships. Because of sin, each of us is divided internally; none of us is in touch with the holy person God meant us to be.

Jesus, the Son of God, came into this wilderness of sin and death. Like a shepherd, Jesus came to seek and to save what was lost. In the wilderness he battled the devil, overcoming Satan’s temptations. In all his days, Jesus led a sinless life, obeying all his Father’s commands, fulfilling perfect righteousness. Jesus then faced the ugliness of sin and death in their fullness. He was betrayed, denied, accused, convicted, mocked, tortured, and killed. He deserved none of these things. Because evil is unfair, good people suffer in this world. Because evil is unfair, the one perfect Person suffered and died. Because evil is unfair, God himself became unfair, granting us the rewards earned by his Son’s righteousness and placing the burden of our guilt upon Him.

Good stewardship of our health and love for our neighbors will keep us in our homes this Good Friday and this Easter. We still live in a sin-polluted world, a world infected by evil and the separations evil causes. But our isolation is not permanent. Many Christians enjoy the benefit of Internet services, which allow us to join our voices in worship even though we are physically apart. All Christians have access to the Word of God, which proclaims his love and mercy and assures us of our place in his kingdom. All of us are guaranteed the love of God, which we will know in its fullness in the new creation, but which we enjoy already today. We know that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. J.

Day of Prayer

Our governor has declared today, March 29, to be a special day of prayer for our state and for our nation, particularly in regard to the current virus pandemic. In response, I offer three timely prayers as written in The Lutheran Hymnal (published in 1941). I considered modernizing the pronouns and verbs, but chose to leave them as written.

Prayer for the sick: “Almighty, everlasting God, the eternal Salvation of them that believe, hear our prayers in behalf of Thy servants who are sick, for whom we implore the aid of Thy mercy, that, being restored to health, they may render thanks to Thee in Thy Church; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.”

A second prayer for the sick: “O Lord, look down from heaven, behold, visit, and relieve Thy servants for whom we offer our supplications; look upon them with the eyes of Thy mercy; give them comfort and sure confidence in Thee, defend them from the danger of the enemy, and keep them in perpetual peace and safety; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.”

This third prayer might spark some thought and conversation: In time of great sickness: “Almighty and most merciful God, our heavenly Father, we, Thine erring children, humbly confess unto Thee that we have justly deserved the chastening which for our sins Thou hast sent upon us; but we entreat Thee, of Thy boundless goodness to grant us true repentance, graciously to forgive our sins, to remove from us, or to lighten, our merited punishment, and so to strengthen us by Thy grace that as obedient children we may be subject to Thy will and bear our afflictions in patience; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.”

I posted these on Facebook an hour ago. It will be interesting to gauge the reactions. J.

Coronamageddon?

Is the worldwide pandemic called Coronavirus a sign of the impending end of the world? A complete answer would include both “yes” and “no”… or to be more accurate, “Yes, but not in the way most people understand it.”

Addressing a question about the sign of his coming and the close of the age, Jesus responded, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matthew 24:4-8).

To the list of wars, rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes, we could add many other events: terrorist attacks, powerful storms, raging fires, and the spread of diseases. All these tragedies indicate that the world faces judgment, and they remind us that a final reckoning is coming. But these events are not a countdown to the Last Day. Nowhere does Jesus say—or do the apostles and prophets say—that such events will be more common as the Last Day approaches. They remind us that the Day of the Lord will come—it is seven days closer than it was a week ago. But we cannot make any assumptions about how soon that Day will be. “No one knows the day or the hour” (Matthew 24:36), or even the year, decade, or century. False teachers have predicted the End on a certain date, and so far they have all been wrong.

Instead, we see creation “groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). It seems presumptuous for two men—unmarried men at that—to speak of birth pains and childbirth as if they knew what they were describing. But God created all that exists; he has been present during every pregnancy and every birth. God knows how the female body prepares to give birth to a baby, making internal adjustments that are sometimes called “false labor.” The time for the baby to be born has not yet arrived, but the mother’s body is preparing for that great event. In the same way, wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes and widespread diseases remind us that a Great Event is coming. Jesus will be seen in the clouds, all the dead will be raised, God’s faithful people will be welcomed into a new creation, and those who refused his grace will be sent away. Every violent and tragic event in history speaks to us of that final Day when the entire earth will be shaken and everything will be changed. Today sinners battle sinners, and all creation works against the sinners who occupy its dwellings. In a sense, we sinners are the infection and viruses are the antibodies trying to protect the world from our harmful presence. But Jesus is the great Physician who will heal creation and also who heals sinners, making us fit to live in the new world without pain and sorrow and death.

Every crisis is an opportunity. As we strive to protect our health and the health of our neighbors, we can be servants of love rather than isolated selfish sinners. We can bring groceries and other supplies to those who are quarantined for their own safety or to keep the rest of us safe. We can support those who are losing income to the shut-downs of society. (Every canceled concert, sports event, and gathering means loss of income, not merely to the performers and athletes, but to the many other people whose careers depend upon these happenings—most of whom do not have savings to carry them through this time of hardship.) We can pray to the Lord to strengthen the healers, support the suffering, comfort the sorrowing, and relieve the fears of ourselves and our neighbors. We can be shining examples of faith and love in a world that easily loses hope and gives way to fear and worry. God remains in control, and his promises never fail. Between today and the Day of the Lord, we have countless opportunities to do the work of his kingdom. Through all that happens, God’s plan will be accomplished. J.

Happy Leap Day

Soren Kierkegaard compared the faith of a Christian to a leap. In this, he was not saying that faith begins with a leap—that we enter Christianity by making a leap of faith. Rather, he was saying that all of faith is a leap. He spoke not only about leaping across a chasm to the other side, but also of the leaps performed by ballet dancers. For most of us, such a leap would be a clumsy jump; but for the trained dancer, the leap is graceful and appears effortless.

Kierkegaard’s point is that no one is persuaded to become a Christian through reason and logic. Logical arguments exist to prove the existence of God, but no one has ever been won to faith by a logical argument. These arguments reinforce the faith of believers, but unbelievers generally find ways to resist the power of the logical proofs. Some proofs should be resisted, such as Anselm’s ontological proof. (We first define God as the best of all possible beings: the wisest, the most powerful, the most beautiful, etc. We then state that it is better to exist than not to exist. That would certainly be true of a piece of chocolate cake. Since we already said that God is the best of all possible beings: hey, presto: we have proved the existence of God.) Other logical proofs, such as those regarding a First Cause and a First Mover, are more convincing. (I was just reading such a proof by John Locke last night. The first thought was produced by the first thinker. If the first thinker arose in time, then there was a time when no thought existed. Atheists are willing to accept that condition, but most people struggle to explain how the first thought could come into being within time.)

Kierkegaard was by no means the first to suggest that reason and logic can lead to faith. Martin Luther described reason and logic as the mother or grandmother of the devil. Human thinkers who rely upon reason and logic can never work their way to the truths of God. (Luther would have hated the approach of Rene Descartes.) Rather, we begin with God and his revelation, and we use reason and logic to interpret and understand and apply those truths that God has revealed. Whenever we trust our reason and logic over God’s Word, we put ourselves in the place of God. As a result, we reject the paradoxes which are not below reason and logic but are so far about them that they cannot comprehend the paradoxes of God’s truth.

There is a place, then, for reason and logic in the practice of apologetics. But they cannot be the foundation of apologetics. The foundation must remain the Bible. God’s Word creates faith and strengthens faith and sustains faith. Reason and logic have their place, but only when they serve God’s Word and do not seek to become its masters.

Modern Christianity, at least in North America, tends to diminish reason and logic, but not for the relationship involving God’s grace and his gift of faith. Rather, modern evangelism often resorts to emotional appeals to draw people into faith. Events are manufactured to inspire the flow of emotions that makes people responsive to an invitation. Then, at the peak moment of emotional fervor, the invitation is delivered. This sort of manipulation of the human mind and will is justified by its practitioners according to two false teachings: that faith is a conscious decision of the human mind or will; and that once a person acquires true faith, that faith can never be lost.

Both false teachings are easily corrected by God’s Word. “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s Law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7) “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Ephesians 2:1). “If salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13). “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12).

Every day each Christian leaps into the arms of a loving and merciful Father. Every day each Christian leaps by means of the cross of Christ into the kingdom of God. Every day the Holy Spirit carries each Christian from sin through repentance to redemption, from rebellion through grace to reconciliation with God. As we observe a leap day—not a once-in-a-lifetime day, but a regularly scheduled correction to the calendar—so we rejoice in the leap of faith that brings us to a right relationship with the God who loves us and who rescues us from all sin and evil. J.

A message from God (part two)

The Bible is the Word of God, the only trustworthy communication we have with the Creator of heaven and earth and the Redeemer of sinners. As God’s Word, the Bible can be used to test and judge other messages—not only dreams and visions, thoughts and feelings, but also preachers, teachers, and writers. If their message contradicts the Bible, their message is not from God. Because our understanding and interpretation of the Bible’s message can sometimes be diverse and unclear, I have written about how to reconcile different Christian interpretations of the Bible here.

But once we have acknowledged that the Bible is God’s Word, that it is the only test of other messages, how can we be sure that the truth of the Bible is true for us? Written long ago in foreign languages and foreign cultures, the Bible might not seem like a very personal message to Christians in the contemporary world. Therefore, some Christians seek and trust additional connections to God, additional ways that they can receive his Word and apply it to their lives.

Jesus knows everything. He knew this yearning for closeness could lead to problems. Therefore, Jesus promised that he could be found. “But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Where did Jesus promise to be found? Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Some Christians are frustrated with the Christian Church on earth. It is filled with sinners. It sometimes fails to protect members and visitors from sinners in offices of power. The Church sometimes neglects the most needy and pays too much attention to worldly wealth and power. Yet Jesus promised to be present where people gather in his name. A study on discipleship I took when I was in high school proclaimed, “There are no Lone Ranger Christians.” The Church is the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. Those things that happen in the Church give us a closer relationship to Jesus—closeness that we will not find by enjoying Creation, meditating quietly in our rooms, or waiting for dreams and visions and quiet voices.

We see sinners in the Church. Jesus sees saints, already forgiven through his work. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Because the Church is his Bride, Christ does not allow us to seek a relationship with him apart from the Church. If you love him, you must love his Bride and see her with his eyes. When we see the sins committed in the Church and remember that those are forgiven sins, we are reminded that our sins also are forgiven through the cleansing work of Jesus.

What happens when people gather in Jesus’ name? The forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and believed. The Word of God is read and explained. Prayers are raised to God on behalf of the Church, its members, and the world in which we live. Sacraments also happen in the Church. It is no mistake that Paul uses baptismal language when talking about Christ’s cleansing of the Church, “by the washing of water with the Word.”

To some Christians, Baptism is a thing they did for God, an act that shows that they love and trust Jesus. They see Baptism as obedience to a commandment. But Baptism is a gift from God. It makes a Christian new every day, able to obey the “new commandment” to “love one another.” Studying the commandments does not make us better; God’s grace and forgiveness makes us better. Only through God’s grace and forgiveness are we restored to our Maker’s plan, being transformed into the image of Christ. Baptism is one of God’s expressions of this grace.

The other expression of God’s grace is called the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of the Altar. Again, some Christians eat and drink at the Lord’s Table as obedience to a command. They are remembering Jesus and showing that they love him. But Paul calls this Sacrament participation in the body and blood of our Savior: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Corinthians 10:16). Jesus says of the bread, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you.” He says of the wine, “This is the cup of the New Testament, given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He urges Christians to “do this often, remembering me.”

A quiet whisper like the one Elijah heard, a message from the Lord that springs into the mind unbidden, might seem like the closest relationship a believer can have with the Lord. But receiving his body and his blood in the Sacrament is even more intimate than hearing a whisper or receiving a message. It seems that the Christians most determined to experience God through dreams and visions and inner thoughts and voices are those who are neglecting the intimacy of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The Bible urges us to cling to these Sacraments for confidence of our salvation and for connection to the Lord. I joke with Jesus about receiving messages from him through the radio, but Jesus earnestly reminds me to base my relationship with him upon the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. J.

A message from God (part one)

The Lord Jesus and I have a running joke. Since Jesus knows everything, he knows that I am only pretending, but I like to think that he sends me private and personal messages via the songs I hear on the radio. Whether it’s a recent song such as, “If it’s meant to be, it’ll be,” or a classic rock song like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” I treat the lyrics as encouragement to trust that a job change is coming soon. Even break-up songs can be heard as a promise that soon I will leave my current job for something better.

Jesus knows that I accept only the Bible as genuine messages from him. He said it himself: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Luke 24 shows Jesus using the Hebrew Bible (Moses, the prophets, and the writings) to explain his rescue mission, including his death and resurrection. Moses and the prophets spoke and wrote as inspired by the Holy Spirit. The apostles chosen by Jesus did the same. We can trust the Bible to be God’s Word, trustworthy and true, fully reliable in whatever it reports. No other message that claims to be from God—dreams, visions, or inner voices—comes with that guarantee.

Over the years I have known several Christians—in person or through the Internet—who believed that they received personal messages from God outside the written Word of the Bible. I do not want to single any of these Christians out for argument or debate. God can do whatever he wants. If he chooses to send a dream to one person and a thought to another person and a song on the radio to a third person, the Lord is quite capable of doing so. He doesn’t need my permission. But I want to share a cautionary tale about accepting every such message as heaven-sent, without “testing the spirits” (I John 4:1) by comparing the current message to the Bible.

Two men—I’ll call them Moe and Joe—had similar frustrations about religion and Christianity, although they lived in different parts of the world and at different times of history. Moe and Joe were both perplexed by the many religions in the world, including various differences in Christian teaching. Groups of Christians read the same Bible yet offered different interpretations of what is written. Moe and Joe both sought a direct and personal relationship with God. They wanted the Lord to confirm the truth to them so they could believe the truth and share it with others.

Had Moe spent more time studying the Bible, he would have been prepared for what happened to him. Moe would have know that “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (II Corinthians 11:14), and he would have remembered Paul’s warning that “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8) As Moe sought a personal relationship with God to reveal truth to him, Moe was met by an angel of light who claimed to be the archangel Gabriel. This angel gave Moe messages to recite, purportedly messages from God that had been preached by all the prophets but had been changed over time. These messages included moral teachings that greatly resemble those accepted by Jews and Christians. But they also included statements that Jesus is a prophet but nothing more than a prophet, that God has no Son, and that each person is responsible for his or her own salvation. Some people think that Muhammad (or Moe) made up the messages he received; others believe he did receive the recitations of the Quran directly from an angelic figure. I cannot judge Muhammad, but I can judge his message to be false because of what it says about Jesus.

Likewise Joe (Joseph Smith Jr.) in the state of New York received heavenly visitors who provided him access to “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” the Book of Mormon. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints believe that the Book of Mormon is from God; most Christians believe that it is not. The proof is found in comparing its message to the writings of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles. Once again, the messages do not agree. Some people think that Joe invented the messages of the Book of Mormon; others believe he did receive those writings from heavenly figures. I cannot judge Joseph Smith, but I can judge his message to be false because of what it says about Jesus.

With Moe and Joe in mind, I encourage every Christian to be slow to accept any dream or message or thought or feeling as a personal message from God. “Test the spirits.” Study the Bible to know God’s Word so you can distinguish truth from falsehood. Don’t be angry when another Christian uses God’s Word to correct a message that you think came from God, because that is one of the purposes of the Bible (II Timothy 3:16-17). And tomorrow I will write more about having a personal relationship with Jesus that goes beyond reading, hearing, learning, and sharing the written Word of the Bible. J.

Transfiguration, Mardi Gras, and Lent

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record an event in which Jesus glowed with light. He had gone to the top of a mountain to pray, bringing with him Peter, James, and John. While he was praying, his face began to shine like the sun, and his clothing turned brilliant white, whiter than any bleach could make them. Moses and Elijah joined the four men on the mountain, speaking with Jesus about the rescue mission he was soon to fulfill in Jerusalem. (Note—this is the first time that Moses was permitted to set foot in the Promised Land. This indicates that Jesus, in his rescue mission, was completing the work that Moses had started centuries earlier.) After Peter babbled something about setting up three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, the group was surrounded by a cloud—not a natural cloud of water droplets, but the supernatural cloud of God’s glory. From this cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased—Listen to him!” The disciples fell to the ground in terror, but Jesus touched them and told them not to be afraid. When they opened their eyes, it was just the four of them again, and Jesus was no longer glowing with light.

In recent times, the custom among traditional churches has been to hear and contemplate the descriptions of this event on the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. (The traditional Christian calendar begins around the start of December with roughly four weeks of Advent. Next come the twelve days of Christmas, followed by the season of Epiphany. During this season, Christians consider the evidence that Jesus is God’s Son and the world’s Savior. After Epiphany comes the penitential season of Lent, consisting of forty days plus six Sundays. Lent concludes with Holy Week, which ushers in the seven weeks of Easter. After those seven weeks, the Church celebrates the holiday of Pentecost, and then about half a year passes before Advent starts again.) The thought of Jesus glowing with light in the presence of three apostles and two Old Testament heroes seems a fitting conclusion to the thoughts of Epiphany while Christians prepare themselves for the somber observance of Lent.

In the days that fasting was more common in Lent, Christians used up the last of their luxuries—milk, eggs, and the like—on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday kicks off the season of Lent. How this sensible consumption of items that would spoil if they were not eaten turned into the modern Bacchanalia of Mardi Gras is not hard to guess, sinful human nature being what it is. My point is not to criticize the excesses of Mardi Gras; that would be too easy. But remembering the Transfiguration of the Lord on the last Sunday of Epiphany is itself, in a way, a Mardi Gras for traditional Christians. During Lent, Christians remember their sins and their need for a Savior; we repent. At the same time, we recall that Jesus is the Savior we need, and so we experience the joy of our salvation even in the gloom of Lent. This last Sunday of the season, remembering Christ’s Transfiguration, wraps up the glory of Epiphany for Christians.

At times Christians have overemphasized Lent and penitence and gloom and sorrow. Currently, the opposite trend seems to be stronger. Many Christians want all their spiritual experiences to be uplifting, exhilarating, and inspiring. They prefer not to talk about sin and repentance. They marginalize the cross, reducing its importance. They want to feel the glory today, to bask in the glow of Jesus, and to make every day a celebration. Like Peter, they want to extend the good times, to make permanent what God intends to be only a passing event in the life of a Christian.

God can provide beautiful times like the Transfiguration where and when he pleases. The useful times in the life of a Christian, though, are not the mountaintop experiences. The useful times are the dark nights of the soul, the times when God seems distant, the times when we believe not because faith is easy but because faith is needed. Those are the times when we grow. Those are the times when the Lord does his best work through us.

Someone has said that anxiety and depression are a normal reaction to the world as it is right now—that anyone who is not anxious and depressed simply is not paying attention. That position is overstated, but it contains a kernel of truth. We see the joy of salvation best when we understand from what evil we have been saved. The celebration of Easter is made greater by the observation of Lent. Or, as Richard Nixon said, “Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” J.

Church and state and God’s wrath

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-5).

Americans sometimes speak as if we invented the separation between church and state. That separation already exists in the Bible. Early Israel—under Moses, Joshua, and the judges, including Samuel—was a theocracy; God was ruler over Israel. But already in his farewell sermon (the book of Deuteronomy), Moses guided by the Holy Spirit anticipated the time when Israel would be ruled by a king. The ultimate king is, of course, Jesus, but the kings of Israel and Judah were pictures of Jesus, preparing the way for his coming as surely as priests and prophets prepared the way of the Lord.

Only Jesus is permitted to hold the two positions of priest and king. Saul and Uzziah were both punished by God when they attempted to do tasks assigned to the priests. Likewise in the New Testament, God’s work is done by church leaders and by human governments, but the work they do is carefully distinguished.

Church leaders proclaim the commands of God largely to diagnose sin, to call for repentance, and to offer forgiveness to sinners. Preachers must speak of the wrath of God, but they do not exercise the wrath of God. Human governments pass laws that regulate behavior to protect citizens from sinners. Governments enforce penalties for murder, robbery, false witness, and other sins, declaring them crimes against the state and punishing people convicted of such crimes.

When the church tries to punish sinners, it steps on the government’s feet. Aside from excluding obviously unrepentant sinners from the blessings of the church, Christian leaders can do little with churchly power to overturn evil in the world. We call upon Christians to do good works, to imitate Christ, but we do not convey God’s wrath when Christians fail. Instead, we continue to call for repentance and continue to promise forgiveness through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When the government tries to forgive sinners, it steps on the church’s feet. Governors and Presidents have power to pardon criminals, but a governmental pardon is not forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the cross of Christ through the work of the Church.

Christians have a dual citizenship. We are loyal to human government and take part in its actions. We also belong to the kingdom of God, and our first loyalty is to Jesus. When the government opposes God’s ways, we follow God’s ways, as Daniel did in Babylon and as Peter and John did in Jerusalem. But—even though Christians are called to reach out to their neighbors with the good news of forgiveness through Christ—it is right and not sinful for Christians to report a crime to the police. It is right and not sinful for Christians to testify truthfully in court about crimes they have witnessed. Christians may serve as police officers, jurors, judges, and even executioners. When these actions bring punishment to sinners, the wrath of God is being exercised. The final wrath of God will be expressed on the Day of the Lord, but his wrath works through human government today to limit sin and evil in the world and to protect all people from sin and evil.

Faith in Christ spares sinners from the wrath of God on the Day of the Lord. Faith in Christ does not spare sinners from the wrath of God exercised by human government. Prison officials do not witness to prisoners, but they permit Christians to enter the prisons and witness to prisoners. If a criminal comes to faith in prison, that criminal is a forgiven sinner spared God’s wrath on the Last Day, but that prisoner must continue to serve his or her sentence in the world under the authority of human government.

Human governments consist of sinful humans. They sometimes make mistakes and do what is wrong. In a democracy, Christians are free to vote for the leaders they expect to make the fewest mistakes. They are free to send messages to their leaders, advising them to do what those Christians, informed by the Bible, believe to be right for the government to do. Christians even have freedom to gather together and protest wrong decisions made by the government. Christians remain subject to human government, which represents the authority of God. We owe our leaders honor and respect, even when we feel that they are mistaken—even sinful—in what they say and do.

Church leaders describe the wrath of God to warn sinners of the coming Day of the Lord, the punishment that will be dealt to sinners. But we do so to call for repentance. Rather than constantly preaching fire and brimstone and the wrath of God, Christians should be known for pointing to the cross, showing how Christ consumed the wrath of God to spare us the punishment we deserve. Christian leaders should be known for proclaiming the love and mercy and grace of God, not only his wrath.

Church leaders often call believers to discipleship or to holiness. We remind people why we were made—to love God and to love our neighbors—and we encourage one another to do good works. But the commandments of God do not cause sinners to do good works. The commandments do not create discipleship or holiness. The commandments describe what Christians should do, but the forgiveness of God gives Christians power to do good things. The commandments describe the perfection of Jesus, but the forgiveness of God transforms us into the image of Christ, changing sinners into saints. Knowledge of the wrath of God does not, by itself, redeem sinners; knowledge of the wrath of God moves sinners to repentance, opening their minds and hearts to hear and believe the good news of redemption through Christ.

In this way the Bible distinguishes between the functions of God’s wrath under human governments and in the Christian Church. J.